Makalu, the fifth tallest peak in the world, is a mountain that even Sir Edmund Hillary, on reaching the top of the world on the first ascent of Everest, looked over at and started dreaming about climbing.
With its stunning symmetry, its towering ridges of pink and orange granite and its perfect pyramid of a summit, both from a distance and also in reality when you reach the top, it is a fairytale peak. That it also has some of the best rock and perhaps one of the best natural routes to the top of any of the 8,000 meter peaks doesn’t hurt.
The climbing on Makalu contains a number of sections far steeper and more sustained than Everest, from the cliffs above Camp II, to the final summit day climbing up into the notorious French Couloir and onto the long rocky summit ridge leading to the final summit pyramid.
With much smaller teams and less support than on Everest, climbers have traditionally found themselves climbing alone or alongside their Sherpas and completing long sections on summit day without ropes. It is a chance to do real climbing where you actually will need to know how to use your ice axe, even on the regular route.
In 2011, I was finally able to have a chance to climb Makalu, after completing expeditions to Everest and Cho Oyu in the year previous. It certainly proved to be a good warm-up.
Bunter and I had been on Everest together the year before. There we were standing on the tallest peak in the world and a bit like Ed Hillary, who would visit Makalu twice, we looked out and saw Makalu and thought – that is really the most beautiful peak – we should go climb that.
And so we went to Makalu. Along with Ron and Adele, who had been on Everest before too, as well as Makalu. They decided they wanted to come back and try again. Mark joined us from South Africa, also a victim of looking across from the top of Everest at Makalu, and then Jim signed on from the UK. And James came in from Australia.
Ron brought the statistics along – while the Himalayas are filled with peaks high on objective danger – avalanches, collapsing icefalls and storms that plague the high peaks, the most common reason for getting in real trouble on Makalu seemed to be falling off.
Ultimately, if you are going to Makalu, that is what you really look forward to; some real climbing, some steep climbing, on that glowing pale-orange granite that forms the upper ramparts.
We flew out of Kathmandu and landed at Tumlingtar, at 500 meters elevation – it was going to be a long walk and even more uphill just to get to Base Camp. Over the next two weeks we braved packs of barking dogs, then rain, then snow, and more snow.
The day of the La’s stands out. La’s are passes, but they were all seemingly on a ridge. Having been this way before Ron and Adele said it was a day of Tra – La, La, La, La. Four of them. All in deep snow, weaving up through rocky cliffs, along ridges, through the clouds, across frozen lakes and over the Shipton La, following in Eric’s footsteps. Just reaching Makalu Base Camp was a climb in itself.
From the La’s we went down and down, into the mists, for a camp at a place that didn’t appear on the map that we had already learned to distrust.
Then we turned left into a remote valley framed by towering black cliffs and waterfalls, walking along the roaring rushing white-frothed river and the granite we’d admired up high showed itself down low. Pure grey washes of water cascading across polished gray speckled white sheets that were art in themselves.
For the next six weeks we would climb and sweat and crampon upward as we moved higher on the mountain and the granite would always be there. Just in that most unpleasant moment of physical pain someone would comment ‘look at that rock.’ And we would, because each cliff was beautiful and unique and varied from pure coal black intensity to a white so pure it sparkled. Yes, Makalu was a rare Himalayan peak of strong and powerful rocks.
Under a sky of pale grey and a snowstorm going sideways we reached Base Camp. At 5,700 meters, a good 350 meters higher than Everest Base Camp, it was a place scarce on air, slow on morning sunshine, and shiveringly cold. We had our three-layer dining tent, an enthusiastic heater and a large stock of DVD’s we put to good use.
There was nothing resembling a trail up to the glacier, just jumbled rocks, cliffs, and an ice choked gully for the first hour and a half. At the glacier we armored up in crampons, axes and harnesses. The crevasses behaved themselves and another hour and a half away, we hit the ropes, the Little Lhotse of Makalu, named after the Lhotse Face most of us knew all too well on Everest. Icy-blue, steep, occasionally avalanching, anchors hidden and our lone blue 8mm rope led enticingly upward.
We acclimatized at Camp I and then shut it down, so Base to CII was 900 meters of vertical; best to have an extra coffee before you started climbing. From CI to CII was an ascent up the castle walls, slope disappearing into the mists below, crevasse above of unknown depth, crossing the moat onto the mountains upper slopes.
Camp II was friendly, with towering; solid seracs above to protect from the mountains upper avalanche slopes. So we did the up and sleep at Camp II, and higher and back to sleep and more of that until we could hop around appearing acclimatized back down at Base Camp. But every time we went up we lost weight and it never came back. Lamb shanks, Nepali free range organic chickens, pizzas, tinned mangos, birthday cake. All was good, all was tasty and we still looked like carcasses after a month.
We eyed weather graphs of red, green and blue showing currents across Asia. We looked at wind charts for every 500 meters elevation from 6,000 meters to the top, indicating conditions above which no man should dare tread. Then we emailed the experts and went when they said it wasn’t a good idea.
I’d looked at the sky and felt good. The weather reports helped, but they came from a long ways away. There is something to be said for having 15 Himalayan seasons of experience. And following the Lucky Lama’s predictions.
And So For the Top
We rounded the Stupa at Base Camp, burning juniper cleared our lungs, prayer flags framed the peak, morning breezes and Sherpa chants filled our ears, fresh coffee still on our breathe. Our muscles were as oxygenated and efficient as if we had been setting off for a marathon at sea level, our pulse oximeter did tell us so. Now there was nothing between us and the top, only fears, known and unknown, talked and un-talked about (always the scary ones). But we were going high, or as high as we could.
Bunter was in Base, he was manning the Camp, he was being encouraging and he was monitoring the weather. The rest of us were off.
Climbing to Camp II was hard, it was long, it was 900 vertical meters after all, and more importantly, we were then tired out and had to sleep higher than it is healthy to sleep. And we were saving the oxygen, way too low for that.
We arrived at Camp II, with the sun dipping into Nepal. Mark was coughing, his ribs were in pain, he had climbed all day, but turned for the descent. Staying high and feeling bad is no place to be. Our Sirdar Passang turned and wandered down into the shadowed afternoon with him. High altitude is not where you hesitate. You go up, and if you feel bad, you go down, immediately. It is not easy, it is not fun. But it is necessary.
Out of Camp II we had on down suits; Makalu is a cold mountain, very cold. If the down in our suits could have, it would have flown right out of them.
We were headed up into the cliffs and I stopped to talk to Ron. The coughs and respiratory challenges we’d all faced had never left him “I’m going down.” With Ron’s experience, he knew what to do, but it was still so hard, so very hard, to see someone so fit and strong have to turn around with only a short-term ailment.
Makalu doesn’t have well placed camps, Base Camp to Camp II, is long, hard, hits you the next day. Then you climb up through 7,000 meters and into steep granite terraces. It is comparable to going from Camp II to IV on Everest, just a lot steeper.
At least we were now in another country, Tibet. Then, oh yes, not quite there, another 30 minutes over to Camp III, in a blizzard, a mist, a wind that kicks you along and into the flapping tents. Sleep, but too high, just exhaustion, some soup.
We walked towards Camp IV the next day. “This is the most amazing thing I have seen,” said James. He mirrored our feelings, escaping the lower mountain, climbing into the cloud and snow the previous day, waking to a dawn of orange, then blue, where the mountain and life below had faded.
We are in Tibet; climbing through Shangri-La. Everest was over our shoulder, looking back it rose and hovered just behind us. Lhotse then curved around into Everest, all black rock and cloud and snow falling off the highest mountain in the whole wide world. When we were little we all wanted to grow up and be mountain climbers and climb the highest mountains in the world. It was a good place to be.
Camp IV, a rocky promontory piled high with boulders, each rock beautiful, carved by wind; orange, pink, white, black. We all pitched the tents together as they billowed and flapped and tried to run away from us, tying it to those oh so helpful big rocks.
Above, the route loomed, looked frightening, huge, intimidating. Snow, then seracs, crossing over into more snow rose steeply up. Then an indistinct couloir led off left and up to a ridge that just went on and on steeply into the clouds.
A long afternoon, trying to eat, trying to sleep, trying to lie still, giving up on all that. Long underwear, socks, fleeces, down, masks, balaclavas. Then harnesses, hoods, crampons, oxygen. We were so layered up that moving seemed improbable. 9:30 p.m. Lets go climbing.
The moon was a day off full and cast shadows over the snow, we were dancing climbers, climbing through moonbeams.
There were no ropes; just snow, a slope and air fogging our vision until we entered the seracs and a thin line showed us the way through. We were crevasse hopping in the dark, an ice cliff or two to scale to kept us awake, then we broke out onto another interminable snow slope cut by hidden crevasses and we roped up in groups of three.
We’d chopped the rope up into bits, so it was short and surprisingly useful when James stuck a leg in a crevasse. The Sherpas laughed and we carried on. We’d grown fond of the rope, it was aquamarine, looping over the white snow it glowed in the dark when our headlamps touched it. Aquamarine is a friendly colour.
Finally we turned left, an indistinct bit of steep snow led up into even steeper rocks. We paused to get a fixed rope in, and the sunrise started, so indistinct at first as to be a lie. We were well around on the Northwest side of the mountain so there was a glowing pink morning light, but sun would be a long time coming. The cold ignored our down suits and came straight through onto our skin and from there straight through inside of us.
The far horizon of Tibet went from black to a thin line of light, a shimmer. Then Everest began to catch the light, soaking in the sunrise, bit-by-bit, ever so slow. Soon it seemed to steam slightly to life, the sun pushing it into the morning and it joined this higher world we were living in.
The rope led up into the French Couloir, which I’d always imagined as a distinct steep couloir. It was steep enough to be fun, but it soon turned into mixed climbing over rocks and we wove through and then finally out onto the ridge above. Old fixed ropes led in spider fashion over the cliffs, but were frayed to the point of shoestrings and discontinuous. We sheathed our jumars and simply climbed. Solid rock, snow, ice underneath, how nice to be really climbing as we passed through 8,000 meters.
High on the ridge the mood changed, the wind rose, snow, or was it just parts of clouds assaulted us, roaring in out of Tibet. Jim paused, “maybe I should go down?” Up high it is all about listening to yourself and interpreting it correctly. The top was perhaps just visible, but I thought it could be four hours. “Not for me,” Jim said and set off down the mountain with Lhakpa.
James, Adele and I climbed on. Somewhere around here Adele had turned around a year ago. Now she felt fine. When you have been up high a lot you have to know how people feel, from their movements, from where they place their feet and their hands, and how they balance. And Adele was fine. And James who hadn’t been anywhere near this high before was fine, moving confidently.
Clouds blew over us, the wind roared, but gently and we climbed out above the clouds and into the sun. There were no ropes here either, just crampons, ice axes and plenty of breathing. Intuition worked its magic to climb a bit higher.
Ahead the summit pyramid reared. I’d seen pictures of it but they didn’t show the 3,000 meter drop back down to the glaciers in them, just the steep and winding route up and around the pinnacle. We were part of the climb up, but below was what created the effect, the earth falling away and disappearing into cloud and mist so far below it was no longer a part of us.
We changed out oxygen bottles, the last bottle. Keep moving, keep climbing, keep going up until we could go no further. The route led across soft snow with ice underneath, then out to the cliff edge, crampon points hitting rock under snow and then placed again ever so gently.
Then we turned left and the pyramid was just a point on a ridge and the real summit was up, up and away, knife edged across a slope of unstable snow with our front points sticking in and our heels hanging out in the wind.
There was that final little steep bit every peak deserves, that last bit of steep scrambling, then we stepped up on high, a perfect pointed crown with pure white granite rising up below us and pure white ice in a perfect cone forming the top. The wind roared in a constant blast and held us all up there.
Adele and James came up; the Sherpas gathered round, Dawa, Lhakpa, Nema and Furnuru. Prayer flags fluttered and smiles expanded beyond the sides of our oxygen masks.
It was 11 A.m., 14 hours after leaving Camp IV; we were on top of Makalu.
From our Makalu Expedition Report – on our 2011 ascent of Makalu with Jagged Globe: