Makalu is ominous, impressive and perfect as a mountain. The vision from below is also upheld once you climb higher.
Icy passages, pale yellow cliffs and rocky passages lead into the heights of the summit ridge, with little respite in the steep slopes or challenges looming above.
While Everest is shielded behind Nuptse and Lhotse, Makalu is a pure unencumbered tower of yellow and pink and ochre granite set into a pyramid piercing the sky. It is certainly one of the best places to spend time in the heights of the Himalaya.
Its ridges are steep and soar up between dark walls that blaze with ice in the sunshine and fade into deep shadows as the sun sets. And being on a Himalayan scale, and the 5th highest mountain in the world, the ramparts tower, and then tower almost beyond belief, higher and higher into the clouds.
Kristin polished off first Shishapangma and then Cho Oyu, in the process setting a record for the fastest time for anyone up to the true summits of all the world’s 8,000 metre peaks.
She returned to Kathmandu and then helicoptered to Makalu Base Camp (these climbs may also be setting a record for the largest carbon footprint in the Himalaya soon as well), before moving quickly from Base and up to Camp 2 on Makalu.
From Camp 2 to 3 on Makalu there is spectacular climbing. Nearly vertical yellow granite leads for many 100’s of metres upwards. Looking across the folds and ripples I was reminded of the upper reaches of El Cap – the exposure, the winds and the sense of being far above the earth.
At the top of this cliff, you are only half way to Camp 3, and this day is the one that often foretells how high you will climb. It is like a double day, like going Camp 2 nonstop to Camp 4 on Everest at the South Col, as you need to climb the cliff, ascend an interminable snow slope, then weave through a series of increasingly steep terraces up to the Makalu La at over 7000 metres, where you just happen to pop into Tibet as well.
Camp 3 and 4 are traditionally close together – either way the summit is a very long way up a crevasse strewn slope, across into the French Couloir and out onto an exposed ridge. Not to give in to easily, the summit involves ascending a final steep pyramid, crossing a final ridge and ascending to a pinpoint summit, the culmination of Makalu’s three towering ridges.
As Kristin described it, and facing some personal challenges, not in any way an easy day:
“We climbed for many hours in the dark, there was no wind but it was super cold on the mountain. Because of my body condition I put on oxygen from C3 at about 7500m.
After 13+ hours, the team reached the summit. Lama and the rest of the fixing team did an amazing job for all of us. The only reason we were able to summit this time was because of great teamwork.“
Kristin had flown out from Kathmandu, did the climb and was back in Kathmandu 4 days later. A fine climb indeed one might say. But she missed an amazing walk in, and Base Camp on Makalu is really the Advance Base Camp, so the walk up the rock strewn slopes below under the stunning West Face was all taken out of the mix.
Climbers can go fast, they can go slow, they can savor the experience of the Himalaya, the great thing about climbing is its lack of rules.
However, as much as speed is good in the high mountains and can be commendable, there is certainly something in experiencing a mountain from bottom to top, to learning its moods, to feeling a part of it and savoring the many moments of fine climbing this peak in particular holds.
So below is the traditional ascent version, a single big peak in a season, with the walk in an experience in itself. I guided it for Jagged Globe on one of the first commercial expeditions to the mountain, with a team of six, and five Sherpas.
The Approach to Makalu
Bunter and I had been on Everest 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 really should go climb that.
And so we did. Along with Ron and Adele, who had been on Everest before too, but in 2010 had been on Makalu. And then 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. He’d been the first to raise his hand for this expedition so we blamed him. No one had really run an expedition like this before to Makalu, it is a long ways into the mountain, and then a long ways up. It tended to attract the bold, adventurous sort with a lure for something more remote and challenging than a trek up the Khumbu would offer or something that would appear in a travel catalogue.
Ron brought the statistics to Base Camp – while the Himalayas are filled with peaks high on objective danger – those avalanches, collapsing icefalls and storms that plague the high peaks, the most common reason for getting in real trouble and dying on Makalu seemed to be falling off. We didn’t thank Ron for the statistics; we just passed them around and didn’t say anything.
The statistics meant the climbing would probably be interesting and steep enough to create some excitement. And ultimately, if you are going to Makalu, that is what you really look forward to; some real climbing on that glowing pale-orange granite that forms the upper ramparts.
We flew out of Katmandu and landed at Tumilingtar, elevation 518 meters. With 8,000 metres to go it was going to be a long climb. Over the next two weeks we braved packs of barking dogs, then rain, then snow, and more snow. It got so bad the porters were issued boots. Some of us even considered wearing gaiters. Our early season approach turned the already adventurous trek to Makalu Base Camp into something of a winter wonderland.
The day of the La’s stands out. La’s are passes, but they were all 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 across the Shipton La, following in Eric’s footsteps.
We traversed loose snow slopes perched over cliffs and grasped tree branches to lower us down through the dense forests. From the La’s we went down and down, into the mists, to 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, walked along the roaring rushing, white-frothed river and the granite we’d admired up high showed itself down low. Pure gray washes of water cascaded across polished dark speckled white sheets of rock 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, and just in that most unpleasant moment of physical pain someone would comment ‘look at that rock.’ And we would, because each 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 gray and a snowstorm going sideways we reached Advanced Base Camp, our home for a month. At 5,700 meters, 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. Luckily Ron and Adele knew the way, having been there just the year before. At the glacier we armored up with 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 8 mm rope leading enticingly upward.
We acclimatized at Camp 1 and then shut it down, so Base to Camp 2 was 900 meters of vertical; best to have an extra coffee before you started climbing. From Camp 1 to Camp 2 was an ascent up the castle walls, slope disappearing underfoot into the mists below, crevasses above of unknown depth, crossing the moat onto the mountains upper slopes.
Camp 2 was friendly, with towering solid seracs above us to protect from the mountains upper avalanche slopes. And relatively flat. Those of you who know, know, that any ice bed melts out when you go down and that relatively flat turns to lumpy, then bumpy and finally you have to shovel snow underneath to get it anywhere near bed like. The best hope is you are so tired it doesn’t really matter.
So we did the up and sleep at Camp 2 and higher and back to sleep and more of that until we could hop around appearing acclimatized back down at Base Camp.
I’d helped fix ropes up out of Camp 2, the climbing just too good to miss, then soloed on for several hours alone up to the Makalu La. Stepping off the final cliff band onto the expanse of Tibet and being alone was entering a different world. No one had been high yet that season.
There were no ropes, no tracks, no sign of life anywhere across the La on the snow. Above towered the final ramparts of Makalu. It was a fine mountain to be alone on.
However it seemed 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 good 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 metres to the summit. We looked at composites that had wind, snow, pressure, trends and skull and cross bones in the clouds.
Then we emailed the experts and went when they said it wasn’t such a good idea. I’d looked at the sky and felt good. Yes, 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, with morning breezes and Sherpa chants in our ears. 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. Acclimatizing and sleeping high had all been preparation for this. Serious, dangerous, but mentally just ‘prep’. 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.
Up to Camp 2 was hard, it was long, it was 900 vertical meters after all, and more importantly, you were then tired out and had to sleep higher than it is good to sleep. Then get up earlier than is fun, I think 4:30 A.M. I don’t like to remember, it still hurts me. But this was Makalu; it was 4 days of going up every day, of no slips, no slides, no being lazy. I’d said at Base Camp, “the mountain won’t adapt to us, we must adapt to it.” So we did, pain be gone.
Out of Camp 2 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 curved through the snow and climbed up into the orange granite cliffs. Lunch came and went. The time it would of taken me to go from Camp 2 to Camp 3 up the Lhotse Face on Everest came and went.
Makalu just doesn’t have well placed camps. Base to 2; long, hard, hits you the next day. Then Camp 2 to Camp 3; steep snow, ice, rock cliffs, finally a snow slope, early lunch, then up the snow ridge, then into a bigger cliff band. Climbing up through 7,000 meters and into steep terraces. Right, then thinking hmm, Camp 3 should be there, left, hmmm, should be there, right, almost there, with the cliff extending up into the sky and an hour later you get to the Makalu La (pass) and step into Tibet.
At least it is another country, Tibet, without any Passport control. Then, oh yes, not quite there, another 20 minutes over to Camp 3, in the afternoon blizzard, a mist, a wind that kicks you along and into the flapping tent. Sleep, but too high, just exhaustion, some soup. The Sherpas were with us, we like that, we feel at home with them. “The higher we go the better we feel,” I enthuse. And for some reason we do.
Higher, better, faster, floating up with the clouds.
We are walking towards Camp 4 the next day. “This is the most amazing thing I have seen,” says James. He mirrors 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 were 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. This was a good place to be.
Camp 4 was a rocky promontory piled high with boulders. Each rock was beautiful, carved by wind; orange, pink, white, black. We pitched the tent together with our Sherpas as it 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. The summit, it had to up there somewhere. Jim and James curled up in the tent next door, Adele and I snuggled into our own rapidly shrinking tent as the sides picked up the blowing snow and caved in upon us from both sides.
It was 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 and finally some oxygen. We were so layered up that moving seemed improbable.
9:30 p.m., let’s go climbing.
The moon was a day off full and cast shadows over the snow, climbers dancing through the moonbeams. Headlamps were redundant, the moon being brighter. We were so swaddled up that we needed the oxygen just to move.
There were no fixed 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 kept us awake, then we broke out onto another interminable snow slope cut by 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 the moon 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 quick fixed rope in, and the sunrise started, so indistinct at first to be a lie. We were well around on the north-west side of the mountain so there would be light, but true sun would be a long time coming. The cold seemed to be ignoring our down suits and came straight through onto our skin and from there straight through inside of us. It burnt our skin with cold.
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 Everest seemed to rise to life out of the frosty earth, the sun pushing it into the morning and it joined this higher world we were living in.
We were in the midst of the best dawn on the planet.
The rope led up into the French Couloir, which I’d imagined as a distinct steep couloir, something straight out of the Alps. It was steep enough to be fun, but it soon turned into rocks 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.
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 put 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.
We broke out of the ridge and moved into a shallow couloir that led back right and up to a snowy ridge taking us along the crest of the world. 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 working its magic to climb a bit higher.
Ahead the summit pyramid reared. I’d seen pictures of it but they didn’t show the 4,000 meter drop back down to the valleys 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, 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 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 masks.
It was 11 A.M., 14 hours after leaving Camp IV; we were on top of Makalu, glad to have taken every step, climbed day-after-day, and certainly not missing a thing.