Scaling the "Turquoise Goddess" With Pro Climber Emily Harrington
Earlier this month, Emily Harrington successfully summited Cho Oyu. Her team gave themselves just two weeks door-to-door to summit and ski the "Turquoise Goddess" – and broadcast the entire expedition to the world via social media.
All photos courtesy of The North Face
Earlier this month Emily Harrington, Adrian Ballinger, and Pasang Rinji Sherpa (aka The Lightning Ascent team) successfully summited Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, at 8,188 metres above sea level. They gave themselves just two weeks door-to-door to summit and ski the "Turquoise Goddess" (the Tibetan name for the mountain), and broadcast the entire expedition to the world via social media.
Emily is a professional rock climber and has been a part of the climbing community since she was a teenager. Since then she has scaled high-altitude peaks in Nepal, China, Myanmar, Crimea, and Morocco. "I've been high-altitude climbing and going on expeditions for a few years now, and I've been a skier most of my life, so I wouldn't say that this climb required any 'new' skills for me, but rather a culmination of many skills I've learned throughout my climbing life.
"One thing that was new was the timeline, in that we were trying to climb the mountain in less than two weeks from home. We needed to really be able to understand how our bodies work at altitude in order to both make it happen and avoid getting sick. We also needed to make sure all of the logistics and weather forecasts were as organised and accurate as could be. We have an incredible crew at Alpenglow Expeditions who helped us every step of the way to make sure we could hit the ground running and start climbing right away when we arrived in Tibet."
Adrian and Emily met on Everest in 2012 and subsequently began dating. "We have different skills and strengths and so we can learn a lot from one another. It creates a really fun and engaging partnership no matter what the goal is. Adrian's the most organised and logistically talented person I've ever met. That, combined with his huge amount of experience in the Himalaya, has made the trip super smooth. I have so much confidence in his ability to figure things out and make it work because he couldn't have it any other way."
The Rapid Ascent team – which consists of Brooks Entwistle, Panuru Sherpa and Palden Sherpa, and led by Zeb Blais – reached the summit before Emily and Adrian's team. They left Camp 3 (which sits at a height of 7,400 metres) in the dark and made good progress to the top.
One of the unique aspects of this climb is that it has been shared via social media, on platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook Live, Instagram, and Twitter. Adrian first used social media in this way during an Everest expedition last spring. Using the handle "EverestNoFilter", he noticed a very positive response from the public.
"Adrian and I are both professional athletes, and so a social media presence is important to both of us," Emily told VICE Sports. "Snapchat has been a really cool way to offer a more intimate look at what goes into a trip like this, as many people do not quite realise the extent of effort and organisation required."
Of course, the use of social media on the world's sixth-highest mountain comes with challenges, some of which are peculiarly familiar. "Connectivity is challenging. A lot of time is spent hitting the refresh button trying to make things load."
The ascent is also particularly taxing on the mind and body, and for the last 50 or so years climbers have had to work for multiple weeks or even months, doing many rotations up and down the mountain so that their bodies acclimatise correctly to the environment. In particular, it is crucial to build red blood cells, as they allow the climber to continue higher without getting sick.
"Now we have all of this technology that can help shorten the time: better weather forecasting, improved training theory, and even ways to pre-acclimatise at home before even arriving at the mountain. Our strategy involved training at home, pre-acclimatising in these altitude-simulator tents called Hypoxic tents, having all of our logistics and organisation in place on the mountain before we arrived – camps set, permits in place, transport, etc. – and waiting for a good weather forecast before we even left home."
Nevertheless, these types of expeditions can be difficult to recover from. "It is actually pretty terrible for your health and you return home weak and 'skinny-fat.' Altitude eats all of your muscle and leaves the fat for warmth and protection. Being a rock climber who loves to push myself on more physically challenging terrain most of the year, long Himalayan expeditions have essentially crippled my climbing strength for up to six months before. I'm hoping the two weeks won't do as much damage and I can return home and keep climbing with some remnant of the strength I had before."
While Emily clearly has a competitive spirit, as all her early successes on the USA Climbing Team and on the national and world competition circuit testify, these challenges also provide her with the chance to reflect on the state of the mountains, something that is close to her heart.
"Much like everywhere, the recession and down-wasting of the glaciers is what people seem to be talking about. Having seen photos of Himalayan glaciers 50 years ago, it's pretty obvious that it's much drier here than in the past."
She also told me that it is difficult to know if the new transport links, which have made it possible for the team to work within their two-week window, are having a positive influence on the local communities or not.
"Another interesting observation I made was the massive development within the Tibetan plateau. There's a paved road all the way to Everest Basecamp, and almost to Cho Oyu basecamp. There's even a high-speed oxygenated train from Lhasa to Shigatse, part-way to Everest Basecamp."
In light of these comments, our view into this world through Emily's various social media accounts feels privileged. And perhaps, for the mountain, it is best that it stays that way.