Leaving Behind Rainbow Valley: Dongguan’s First Everest Survivor

A grueling journey not for the fainthearted, reaching the peak of Mount Everest certainly proves testing for those who attempt it. Dongguan’s first survivor reveals all.

The rainbow valley lay below Zhou. A stark reminder of mortality. The never-retrieved dead. Their blazingly colored climbing clothing far from cheery. One breath too few can lead to death here. He has already passed 35 bodies resting in the snow. Even breathing itself can prove to overexert and exhaust. How had Zhou mustered up the courage and strength to get to the top of the world? Only a few years ago, he had been plodding up Lotus Hill in Chang’an. What a change it had been.

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My friend, Amy Zhang posted on her WeChat moments, “On the last day of 2017, I did something very meaningful: I took my family, children and a British writer friend to visit the first person from Dongguan to reach the top of Everest.” Earlier that week, she had arranged for me to meet her former schoolfriend, Jun Zhou. At first, we enjoyed seafood in a restaurant in Humen, before travelling to enjoy an afternoon of conversation.

Amy’s WeChat moments referred to a meeting with my translator, Maria, Amy and her family, and Jun Zhou, alongside his eternally young-looking wife, the renowned saxophonist Shan Yi [China’s “Goddess of Sax”] joined by the impassioned dialogue regarding the expedition.

The summit push is much more technical and involves historic lines and drops so severe, survival is highly unlikely. Rescue is less likely.

The world’s highest peak has long been a fascination with climbers and hikers. Whether just to see the peak from a reasonably comfortable height, or tackle the peak itself, it certainly draws the masses. The People’s Republic of China was not yet a teenager in 1960. China’s first expedition to the summit of Everest, saw climbers Wang Fu Zhou from Henan, Qu Yinhua and the People’s Liberation Army’s Gonpo Dorje from Tibet reach the summit. They would go down in the books as the first climbers to have reached the top and returned, via the north face. Phanthog, the first female climber of the same route hailed from Tibet. Her quote, “Chinese women have a strong will; difficulties can’t stop us. We climbed the highest peak in the world; we really hold up half the sky,” is truly inspirational. Not a bad set of words for someone who lost three toes to frostbite during that same expedition.

Where It All Began
Since that day, more Chinese climbers have reached upwards. One such climber is Jun Zhou. 44-year old Jun Zhou, CEO of Shige Group in Houjie, swapped his large machinery manufacturing for a spot of climbing. Rather than tackle Shui Lian Shan or Silver Bottle Mountain, his ambition was a tad further west. The CEO with a list of mountains under his climbing belt had his eyes set on Mount Everest. Jun Zhou told Dongguan Sunshine Net, “At that time, looking at the target in front of me, I was excited, unable to use any words to describe.”

It was back in 2013, Zhou met mountaineering enthusiasts whilst on a driving tour. Without preparation he tackled Yu Zhu Feng mountain, Qinghai, 6000 m above sea level. “It was completely unimaginable, and I even coughed up blood that first time.” On returning to Dongguan,Zhou worked hard on his secret mountain climbing training. The Lotus Hill, by his new factory in Chang’an became his footwork garden gym. Filling a backpack with 40 pounds of water bottles, through gritted teeth, he pushed on, day after day. “The thought of my goals pushed me on. Also, if you want to climb mountains, you can find some of the surrounding hills in Dongguan to ascend. This is a physical exercise, close to nature.” Preparations involved sporting shoes, dry foods and plenty of water to drink. “During mountaineering you will sweat. You must drink enough water. You are prone to collapse and heat stroke at low levels. On a higher mountain, that problem magnifies. In the summer, it can also be much worse.”

Fast forward six months and Zhou really was impressing his new mountaineering friends. The following years resembled that of a fairy-tale football team. In three years he had scaled peaks from 5,000 to 7,500 meters—all with certification and modesty. Aside from his office wall with a tasteful display of achievements, he seldom brags about his relatively new hobby.

By April 2017, the State Sports General Administration issued Zhou a qualification certificate to attempt Mount Everest. He swiftly flew to Lhasa to be alongside 22 mountaineering experts. Intense training and coaching lasted a month. Professionals and health experts determined each climber’s suitability in a tough boot camp, aimed to prepare potential climbers for success.

A test of faith and belief in not just himself, but those around him. His team needed him as much as he needed them.

As noted by Monty Python’s Michael Palin, Rongbuk Monastery is claimed to be the highest monastery in the world. At 4,980 meters [16,340 ft] it faces out onto a plain, with dynamic views of the base and summit of Mount Everest beyond. The Chinese Academy of Sciences marks the rock height as 8,844.4 m but with snow on top there is an official height of 8848 m [29,029 ft]. The world’s scientific communities now argue that plate tectonics following the devastating Nepal earthquakes of 2015, may have increased the altitude marginally. Either way it is a bloody big mountain. It was here that the real passage of faith began.

Setting up at 5,180 m [16,990 ft], on the Rongbuk Glacier, Zhou and his crew trekked from the grave plain up the glacier. The medial moraine made way for the Camp II at Changtse 6,100 m [20,000 ft]. After this, the so called Advanced Base Camp followed, 6,500 m [21,300 ft], sat under the North Col. The glacier was then tackled using fixed line ropes and attachments. Over the North Col, at 7,010 m [23,000 ft] to Camp V, at 7,775 m [25,500 ft), Zhou and his team were first exposed to extreme altitude conditions. A tricky traverse of the North Face, diagonally, to the Yellow Band to the final attempt launch pad of Camp VI, at 8,230 m [27,000 ft).

A Tragic Fate
Only two days before Zhou and his team’s summit attempt, an American physician and climber, Roland Yearwood, Vladimír Strba of Slovakia, and Australian Francesco Marchetti [in Tibet] succumbed to fatal cases of altitude sickness. A further death occurred that same day, as Indian climber Ravi Kumar, fell into a 200 m deep crevasse at the balcony. All four deaths came from different climbing parties, all around the Balcony [8,400 m/ 27,600 ft] or Camp 4 [7,950 m/26,085 ft]. Did this unsettle Zhou? “We were aware of it and given the option to abandon our attempts. Around 200 bodies are on the mountain. Many who have attempted it, did not return. They died chasing their dreams.” With potentially fatal high-altitude pulmonary edema [HAPE] and high-altitude cerebral edema [HACE] pushed aside, Zhou’s push up the northern ridge carried on. A test of faith and belief in not just himself, but those around him. His team needed him as much as he needed them.

The summit push is much more technical and involves historic lines and drops so severe, survival is highly unlikely. Rescue is less likely. The First Step is just 33 m [110 ft], and the Second Step 49 m [160 ft] but room for error is zero. The Chinese Ladder has sat on that Second Step semi-permanently since 1975. The climbing aid and landmark is a misleading reminder of domestic apparatus, far removed from tall bookcases and roof gutters.

The Third Step is less daunting, yet far from easy. Zhou’s ascent up the icy exposed snow slope, cantering at 50 degrees, was most labored, before touching the tip of the pyramid. The top of the world. Zhou can be seen on video gracing the desk-sized mountain top. His desperately tired eyes gleam, a man at peace and full of love for the mountain. Zhou looks up and then bows down in prayer. Few will reach this lofty height. Those who do are almost unique. His joyous summit prayer was soon followed by breathless words and overwhelmed eyes. As the sun arose, Zhou stared on at the world beneath his high footing.

I’d never recommend this. It could be their death, if someone tries it. First of all, you must learn more about what you want to conquer.

Eventually the larger group divided into two teams. Reaching the Everest Base Camp at 5,200 m, they completed their training. However, the real challenge lay ahead.

Resilience Was Essential
From the first camp at 5,200 m [17,060 ft] they pushed on to 6,500 m [21,325 ft]. A cautious procession with snow-capped peaks and traversing with howling winds on their shoulders. Each step straining the sinews of their muscles and souls. As they tried to sleep, many went without any shut-eye. Inevitably, altitude sickness and fear entered the camp. Sleeping above 6,000 m [19,685 ft] required meditation and sleeping tablets. Everyone anxiously waited for the morning sunlight. They also had the weather at the front of their minds. Poor weather would mean no attempt to climb further. They waited for two days in this camp. After three days you must turn back. They retreated to the camp at 5,200 m. This repeated itself until a fourth lucky cycle.

Eventually, they reached a cliff-based camp at 7,000 m [22,966 ft] above sea level. Everyone was fixed to the ground. Mount Everest is a mountain for the extraordinary, and when Zhou told me he climbed it, “Because it is there;” this very much stayed in my mind.

I ask Zhou if he recommends anyone to attempt the peak of Everest, and he tells me, with a look of seriousness, “I’d never recommend this. It could be their death, if someone tries it. First of all, you must learn more about what you want to conquer. Do early preparation work. You must understand the route. Plan rests. Plan places to eat. Let experienced acquaintances lead the way. You cannot be blind in the chaotic challenge of a mountain. The climates and characteristics of each mountain are different. You must strive to gain reliable weather forecasts before climbing. Your equipment and clothing must be light and keep out of the cold. You must carry first-aid, medicines, such as hemostatic bandages—just in case there are falls, bruises, sprains etc. The necessary goods are essential. You cannot carry any more than this.”

The Footage
I am surprised by how many photographs and videos Zhou has. He gazes on as we watch footage from his summit success. Prayer papers are scattered into the stratosphere [it is that high!] and blow towards neighboring Nepal. The peak marks an international boundary between China and her neighbor.

Resourceful as he is modest, Jun Zhou had plenty of recordings of his feat, although photography and videos at the peak reveal why he lost his phone. The zipper on his bumblebee-like climbing gear is zipped wide open. Perhaps a Yeti is up there taking selfies as you read?

Fearlessness in the years and months leading up to the big summit climb will have forever ingrained in his spirit.

Most deaths are reported on descent. The summit climb was just the beginning. Returning alive, after exerting huge amounts of energy and determination throughout, is the key achievement. One small mistake may have meant tumbling over a cliff face or half a step too far could result in loosening the notoriously brittle mountain face. Dongguan’s Jun Zhou returned. Not through luck, but great training, accurate planning and sheer determination.

Amongst the dozen or so photos on Zhou’s wall is Cho Oyu. This mountain is 8,201 m [26,906 ft] tall. It is one of 14 independent mountains over 8,000 meters [26,247 ft] in height. Like Everest, it is relatively popular drawing attempts in the thousands. The other contenders barely get a quarter of that footfall. It stands 20 km west of Everest. I ask him, what is next?

Zhou’s story may not be the most heroic of all, but his level of inspiration and drive are second to none. Through perseverance and bravery, he realized one of his dreams. Fearlessness in the years and months leading up to the big summit climb will have forever ingrained in his spirit.

IS EVEREST’S PEAK EXTREME?
Everest’s peak’s atmosphere is just 3.9psi shy of the Armstrong Limit. Water will boil at 36.6 °C [98.6 °F)—that of your body temperature. Sea level has an air pressure of 14.6psi. Everest’s peak is around 4.8psi. There is solar radiation at dangerously high levels. The jet stream wind can exceed 320 km/h [200 mph]. Climbers can be blown away during far lower windspeeds. Winds reduce the already 1/3 lower oxygen (based on sea level) by around 14 percent. The effects of high altitude on humans are considerable. The body needs oxygen and medically very high altitude is noted as 3,500–5,500 meters [11,500–18,000 ft]. Anything above that, is classed as extreme altitude. Blizzards and avalanches happen often.

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