‘No large change' was invariably received over short-wave from All-India Radio giving the daily weather reports for the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu, 27,790 feet. The fact that it was snowing, that the winds were blowing at 50 miles an hour throughout the assault month of May at the advanced base camp on the Southern Col, Camp III, at 21,500 feet, lent added force to the radio messages. Indeed the accuracy of the reports was amazing. The pre-monsoon lull, the spell of two weeks' good weather that was anxiously awaited, did not occur in 1954. Thus, the general trend of the weather, not unlike that of the 1936 Mount Everest Expedition, prevented a possible ascent on the first attempt.
Plans for Makalu were begun late in 1951 by the California Himalayan Committee, and over the ensuing two years the difficulties of forming such an expedition in America were overcome. The group was unique in that all of the members were well acquainted and had climbed with each other throughout the world. Two men had had previous experience in the Himalayas. As a team the ten men on the committee planned and worked together to make their dream a reality.
Being organized as a combined scientific and mountaineering expedition, the group received invaluable help from the Sierra Club of California, the American Alpine Club, the Himalayan Club, and from various scientific organizations for whom a definite research project was planned. This region had only been briefly visited once before by Shipton, Hillary, and Evans in 1952.
The group of ten men, who are listed at the conclusion of the article, was under the able leadership of William Siri, a medical physicist with the University of California. We were tremendously fortunate in having as sirdar, Ang Tharkey, on whose shoulders also fell the responsibility of transport officer. A better man could not be found as this able Sherpa took over his duties with zeal. As cook, Thondup demonstrated why he has gained his high reputation. He would reach camp first, set up the cook tent, and turn out a tasty, balanced meal topped by superb crepe Suzettes. The work of Ang Tharkey and Thondu as a nucleus for a Sherpa team such as ours would make any expedition a success. Fourteen Sherpas made up the contingent, all of whom performed well.
The porter crew numbered 250 to carry our seven tons of food and equipment. From Namche Bazar to Jogbani Sherpa Tashi had brought 150 men and women, some of whom rejoined the party on the return journey. Many of these Namche Bazar men, such as Ongdi, Jeda, and Chotare, were outstanding and will make excellent Sherpas for future expeditions.
Our problems in Calcutta were massive and trying but were eased by the invaluable assistance of Douglas Hecht of the American Consulate, Roy Eyres of Abbott Laboratories, and the Himalayan Club. Earlier, Mrs, Henderson of the Himalayan Club had assisted in all the arrangements for Sherpas and porters. Our scheduled stay of seven days dragged on for eleven, and final customs clearance hinged on a flight to New Delhi by Nello Pace to confer with U.S. Ambassador Allen. Customs officials finally relented and sealed our baggage, thus clearing us through to Nepal. During this stay in Calcutta the details of fuel from Burmah-Shell, medical oxygen from Indian Oxygen, and food and equipment supplements were arranged, together with the conversion of money. At this time we were not certain if paper money would be acceptable by the porters. Indian currency amounting to two porter loads was obtained, the bulk of the weight being in coin. We later learned that paper money was acceptable.
Through the kindness of H. Singhania of the Biratnagar Jute Mills we were given the use of the guest cottage during our stay in Jogbani. With the last loads reorganized and repacked, we departed on 14th March with three trucks to cross the Terai to Dharan, 30 miles away. It was on this day that we viewed Makalu for the first time at a distance of some 120 miles. We were not to see it again until we reached the upper Barun valley at the foot of the peak.
The trip was warm and dusty, but five hours' ride found us at the foothills of the Himalayas at Dharan where Bill Long, Larry Swan, and Bill Unsoeld, who had preceded us as an advance party, were waiting with Ang Tharkey, the Sherpas, and porters. There Ang Tharkey took over and loads were distributed and made ready for departure the next morning. It was not without misgivings that we watched our loads shouldered by the porters (each to shift for himself instead of forming a main camp) and carried off into the darkness of the village after we had so carefully guarded our equipment halfway around the world. Our concern was dispelled the next day as the loads reappeared from all corners of Dharan, and we set out for the first of many ridges. After a hot, dusty march over the first 3,000- foot ridge the Tamur river could be seen by late afternoon, and we camped on a small tributary where we bathed and awaited the last stragglers, some of whom arrived after dark.
With water scarce in these foothills, each of us guarded his canteen up the steep switchbacks leading to the principal village of the province, Dhankuta. Hot cinnamon tea at a trailside stand was a welcome treat—at least for the first sip. In Dhankuta, with its cobblestone streets and neatly whitewashed houses, we witnessed the celebration of' Holi' commemorating the coming of spring. The occasion is marked by coloured powder and water freely thrown on all participants, and we did not escape the shower. We camped on the hill beside the village in a forest of long-leaf pine, and the next morning paid our respects to the Bara Hakim, the Governor of the province. He was a very pleasant gentleman, spoke English well, and reviewed our prospective route. Beyond Dhankuta we continued to climb the ridge over terraced hillsides to an elevation of approximately 5,000 feet where we anticipated a view of the distant snow peaks, but a dense haze from burning brush obscured the scene. Our disappointment was relieved by the purchase of fresh oranges allegedly grown along the Arun river ahead. After camping on a terrace high on the ridge we dropped down to the Arun river, followed along its east bank, once again beset by the lowland heat, and took advantage of the slowed pace of the porters by swimming at frequent intervals. The tributaries of the Arun were easily forded at this season, and at the junction of the Sabhaya Khola we began again to ascend a ridge leading to Khandbari. Throughout this area the country appeared fertile and we looked forward to fresh produce on our return. Needless to say, we were surprised to hear Indian music over a short-wave radio coming from one of the dwellings we passed. Khandbari was a supply centre for our porters, and with their four rupees a day, rice and tsampa were added to their loads.
Three days were involved in travelling along the rain forest ridge crest before we again dropped down to the Arun at the Num Bridge crossing. During the last day we passed vantage points from whence we could look across the Arun far below to the Iswa and Kasuwa Kholas reaching far to the southern flanks of Chamlang. Our first rain washed us thoroughly during the night above Num and the sky cleared by the morning of 23rd March.
The bamboo suspension bridge at Num was crossed without difficulty or peril, though the previous night we had seen a mysterious light which Gombu and several other Sherpas interpreted as a spirit anticipating death. Our route then led to the village of Yetung from which we branched west up into the rhododendron forests and followed summer shepherds' trails until reaching an elevation of 11,000 feet. A stretch of primeval forest led us to the first snow. Naturally, those porters without footwear, numbering seventy, did not relish the going from there on. They had agreed, however, to go on to the next camp where the men were paid, where loads would be redistributed and cached, to be relayed later. Though barefooted and hiking on snow, the Namche Bazar porters seemed to be bothered very little and actually enjoyed glissading on the slopes above camp. At this point our one pair of skis were given a trial run by Meyer to the great enjoyment of the Sherpas.
We now appreciated the wisdom of having our porter crew consisting mainly of Namche Bazar men and the amazing women and few children as the remainder of the route to the upper Barun lay over snow. It was not possible to follow the ridge on to Shipton's Pass because of deep snow. Instead, several days' reconnaissance revealed that we could get down to the Barun Gorge and that we could negotiate it. We were aided in this by the masses of avalanche snow that packed the gorge enabling us to pass safely over the torrent beneath. Where open water showed we took to the sidewalls of the gorge made passable by an intricate system of catwalks and bridges to get by the precipitous spots, and here Thondup, our cook, proved himself as a construction engineer. It was in this stretch that we lost the only load of the expedition, consisting of the non-essential ' butterball' candies. In retrospect, it is remarkable that more loads were not lost nor any injuries sustained, but fixed ropes and a personal escort service over the difficult pitches made the difference. As we ascended the gorge we passed below the route over which Shipton had proceeded in 1952. Farther on, the Barun valley broadened as we came among the snow peaks.
At the bend of the Barun below the Plateau glacier we camped across the valley from Peak VI, for which we bequeath the Tibetan translation Tutse. It presented an unclimbable face terraced with a formidable hanging glacier, but the south ridge offered a very steep snow climb. North and adjacent to Tutse soared the magnificent east peak of Chamlang. Between these two peaks a passable saddle led to the westerly valleys. At this point the Barun swung due north and as we turned the corner, Makalu appeared in its entirety for the first time since we sighted it from Jogbani.
On 5th April Base Camp was established on a grassy terrace on the lateral moraine at 15,500 feet, just a mile and a half from the southern precipice of Makalu. Some 12,000 feet directly above lay the summit of our peak. We had been out twenty-two days thus far including a three-day delay in reconnoitring the lower Barun. The health of the party remained good and all had conditioned well.
Up to this point we had considered only the route on the northwest ridge, that seen from Mount Everest. Before us now lay anothe possibility, the south-east ridge. From this ridge a massive glacier and ice-fall dropped down to the Barun in full view of Base Camp. At the head of the glacier, which we named the Topsendi Glacier, a snow col at 21,000 feet existed from whence the prospective route followed the ridge-line to the summit. It was generally concluded that a way could be found through the ice-fall and glacier, but from the col, the first 2,000 feet and several gendarmes along the ridge itself poised as problems. A horizontal portion of the ridge, the shoulder or arm of the Armchair, at 26,000 feet could not be clearly evaluated from Base Camp, though it did not appear difficult, and the summit block itself appeared climbable.
Accordingly, two reconnaissance parties were organized, one to swing up the Barun and view the north-west ridge and the second to view the south-east ridge from a vantage point farther to the east. The weather which had offered daily precipitation since our last »rossing of the Arun, now cleared partially though strong winds were rvident on the ridges above.
Most of our Namche Bazar porters, following the last relay, had by now been released, and they travelled up the Barun, crossed a series of three high passes, and dropped down to Namche. The going was rough and many sustained snow blindness and minor frostbite en route, though nore seriously. Their fortitude in crossing these high passes with no special equipment is an astonishing characteristic of these hardy people.
On 11th April the reconnaissance parties departed. Siri, Houston, Long, and Steck with four Sherpas headed up the Barun. Dunmire, Lippmann, Meyer, and Unsoeld with Tashi,Kippa,and Pemba Norbu crossed the ridge on the east side of the Barun and made a glacier camp at 17,000 feet. A short trek by this party up the glacier the next day brought them to a pass and snow dome from which an extensive panorama of the south-east and east ridges of Makalu and the Tibetan highlands could be had. In cloud, Meyer, Unsoeld, and Tashi descended the far side of the pass on to the glacier, the apron of the Armchair, in hopes of viewing the upper reaches of Makalu. A second day was necessary for the desired view of the south-east ridge. With a 5 a.m. start, Dunmire and Unsoeld climbed the snow dome while Iyipp-mann, Meyer, and Pemba Norbu went directly to the pass and Obtained a clear view before the clouds moved in. The south-east face of Makalu looked forbidding with steep gullies and fluted snow slopes. This is the portion forming the base of the Armchair as seen from the Singalela Ridge above Darjeeling. The east ridge looked formidably steep on this side. We could now look directly at the sonth-east ridge along its axis from the Southern Col to the Black Gendarme. On the east there was a sheer drop off. The first 1,000 feet of the ridge-line was impossibly steep, but the south face of the ridge, though steep, was broken enough to offer the possibility of a route, though definitely a problem on which to carry loads, j If once the south face above the col could be negotiated, the ridge-line then broadened with snow and was climb able to the Black Gendarme just below the shoulder. The gendarme itself appeared passable on the north. This information acquired, the party returned to Base Camp, fully aware of the difficulties of this route.
By 16th April the Barun reconnaissance party had returned. They had reached 20,000 feet on the Makalu glacier on the fourth day, from which point they were able to evaluate the climbing difficulties on the north-west ridge. These consisted of a 1,500-foot ice slope at forty degrees topped by 800 feet of steep angle rock before a party could reach the saddle at nearly 25,000 feet between Makalu I and II. Above the saddle there lay a 1,000-foot smooth rock step blocking access to the summit. This undoubtedly would have to be by-passed on the north face. This route was considered impractical for the following reasons: (1) exposure to possible avalanches on the ice slope, (2) exposure to the prevailing high north-west winds, (3) shortage of Sherpa carrying power from the already established Base Camp, and (4) the formidable rock step.
The results obtained from the two reconnaissances, devoid of encouragement as they were, we felt to be inconclusive. Of the two ridges, the south-east seemed to offer the best chance of going high on the mountain, with its major difficulty at the more reasonable altitude of 22,000 feet instead of the rock step on the north-west ridge at close to 27,000 feet. The south-east ridge, too, was easily accessible from Base Camp, and lay on the sheltered side of the mountain. It was therefore agreed to launch an immediate strong reconnaissance on this route.
The movement of men, supplies, and equipment began on 18th April, led by Steck and Unsoeld who established Camp I at 16,500 feet beside an emerald tarn beneath the tongue of the ice-fall. A more delightful camp-site could not have been anticipated, with the water temperature at 43 degrees Fahrenheit and well protectee from the wind. Even a lone duck, presumably a teal, was observed for a few days on the lake.
The ice-fall was explored successfully by Steck and Unsoeld, then Houston and Iyippmann. By 22nd April a route for laden men through the crevasses was found, and Camp II was established at 18,000 feet. On the following day Siri and Steck won through on i I tour de force to the Southern Col at 21,000 feet after a seven-hour I effort and returned to Camp II. A party consisting of Long, Meyer, Steck, and Unsoeld with four Sherpas carried loads to the col on 26th April to establish Camp III, where Meyer and Unsoeld were left in occupation. This camp was placed fifty yards from the summit of the col but was still not appreciably protected from the wind. The following day these two men climbed easily to within a short distance of what was to be the site for Camp IV at 22,000 feet. On successive days they were followed in turn by Long and Steck, then Dunmire and Houston. The latter two teams failed to push higher owing to increased wind velocities, clouds and snow, which, together with the intense cold, made futile any attempt to go higher this early in the season. In order to spare needless exhaustion and possible frostbite, the party returned to Base on 1st May.
California Himalayan Expedition, 1954. South face of Makalu from Barun Valley Base Camp. (Wm.Siri)
Photo Wm. Siri
California Himalayan Expdition, 1954. Camp III onn siuth east ridghe of Maklu looking southwest. ()
Photo Wm. Siri
California Himalayan Expedition ,1954. Barun Valley. Chamlang on left.
It was during this interval that we became acquainted with the New Zealand Expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary. We thoroughly enjoyed their company in the Barun. We were saddened by the crevasse accident experienced by Brian Wilkins and Jim McFarlane, and rendered what assistance we could—material for a stretcher, medical supplies, and a Sherpa to supplement their carrying power. We also assisted later during Hillary's illness.
The second assault began on 5th May, with Houston, Unsoeld, and four Sherpas going from Base to Camp II, then on to III on the second day; however, widening of the upper crevasse necessitated a change in the route and forced a bivouac short of Camp III. The second party, Dunmire, Long, and four Sherpas departed from Base a day behind the first group. Starting at 6 a.m. on 8th May, Dunmire and Long launched the first attempt from Camp III to reach the ridge crest but returned to camp twelve hours later, having reached only the midpoint of the slope. On the following day Houston and Unsoeld, starting at 5 a.m., were destined to push the high point no higher after a similar twelve-hour day. During this time, Meyer, Siri, and Steck worked with the Sherpas between Camps I and III carrying loads for the 'build up', as we counted on Camp III to be the advanced base camp for the assault.
The winds at the col continued between 50 and 75 m.p.h., and for protection, though our Gerry double-walled tents stood up well, Long supervised the digging of a large snow cave. This was large enough to accommodate twelve men and served for equipment storage and for cooking. Above all, it provided a place to eat and rest totally free of the wind.
On 12th May Long and Unsoeld with Ang Phutar and Pemba Norbu placed a cache of equipment by cutting an ice-shelf at what was to be Camp IV, 22,000 feet. It was by now evident that the creast of the ridge could not be reached without an intervening camp.
The face above Camp III involved steep snow and rock pitches until meeting the ridge crest at 23,500 feet. The high winds, poor visibility, and continued daily snowstorms had blocked our progress so far, and with continued deterioration of the weather the entire team once again secured Camp III and returned to Base. All-India Radio was broadcasting the presence of the monsoon in the South Andaman Sea and predicting'no large change' from the daily snow and wind in our area.
On 19th May, after a brief but welcome sojourn at Base, Steck, Unsoeld, Mingma Steri, and Wangdi again departed for the ice-fall. Long, Meyer, Gombu, Ang Temba, Pemba Norbu, and Kippa left Base on the 20th reaching Camp II in five hours; they went on to III the following day, the last clear one, and a view of Kangchenjunga was had above the clouds. On the 22nd this second party attempted to reach the site for Camp IV, but bad weather and continually sliding, waist-deep, snow forced their return to Camp III. That same day, Dunmire and Houston reached Camp III, and Unsoeld was obliged to ascend to Camp II because of illness.
On 23rd May Long and Meyer again attempted to establish Camp IV. By noon that day, two-thirds of the way to the camp, it was snowing heavily, and the snow was continually sliding. Three of the five Sherpas refused to go on and were sent back to Camp III. With difficulty, Camp IV was reached late in the afternoon, but under existing conditions, no site for a tent could be prepared. Any platform on the fifty degree slope would be covered immediately by sliding snow. The only solution was to dig a cave in the hard underlying snow. After several hours' work the cave was completed, but head room was limited. A deflecting barrier was made with snow blocks to ward off the sliding snow from the slopes above. This, however, was only partially successful, and three times during the night small avalanches completely closed the entrance and covered the two men sleeping nearest. Repeated efforts at digging out in the sub-zero weather at night were exhausting, and by morning, with no change in the weather, the party was not fit to go higher. Having at least prepared and equipped Camp IV, the party returned to Camp III.
At this point we were climbing against time with bad weather persisting. Several additional attempts to get beyond Camp IV were made by Long and Steck, and by Dunmire and Unsoeld. The fir; pair accompanied by two Sherpas attempted a rock rib leadi: somewhat to the left from Camp IV, up to the ridge, but were stoppe after a day of high-angle rock climbing and were forced to rappe down, a new experience for Sherpas Gombu and Mingma Steri.
With time remaining for only one more attempt prior to the monsoon, Long, Unsoeld, Gombu, Mingma Steri, and Kippa departed from Camp IV on 1st June and were soon lost from view in the clouds. Anxious hours followed. On 2nd June a small figure was spotted on the crest of the ridge. They had won through to the ridge, in the face of 18 inches of fresh snow, and succeeded in setting up Camp V at 23,500 feet the night before. During a clearing in the clouds they obtained a view up the ridge and reported no difficulties, in fact, easy straightforward snow slopes as far as the Black Gendarme. Beyond this they could not see.
To the disappointment of all, it was time to descend. The weather report predicted the imminent arrival of the monsoon. The route between Camps III and V, which had been prepared with rappel pickets, ice and rock pitons, fixed ropes, and a section of rope ladder, was altogether too dangerous to risk with any additional snow. Our time had run out; any further effort was extremely unsafe. The descent from Camp V in deep snow was difficult and hazardous, but was made safe by the pitons strategically placed by Long and Unsoeld. All camps were evacuated of valuable equipment in the ensuing two days. Houston and Lippmann came up to Camp I with a fresh group of Sherpas to shoulder the loads for the remaining haul to Base.
At Base Camp, Pace, our physiologist, was particularly happy to continue his studies on the climbers. However, he had not been idle, having pursued the climbers to Camp II, and also hunted ram Chikor widely with Ang Tharkey in the lower Barun to supplement meals. Swan, the biologist, meanwhile, had completed his collection of plants which had taken him to 20,000 feet in the upper Barun at the foot of Pethangtse, accompanied by Lippmann.
On 6th June Houston and Steck with Tashi, Pemba Norbu, and a small contingent of porters departed as an advance return party. They were followed by Swan and his botanizing party, who wished to collect in the Num Bridge area. On 8th June the main group was ready to start the march out. Some fifty Nepali porters had joined us from the villages along the Arun; in addition twelve Sherpas had come back over the passes from Namche Bazar. We retraced our steps down the Barun to the point where we climbed up toward hipton's Pass. Shepherds were already grazing their flocks in the lower Barun pastures. In the glacial basin below the pass we turned east and crossed a higher pass at 14,000 feet which brought us to the ridge bordering the Barun on this south-west side. We followed the ridge crest along shepherd's trails until we picked up the inward route at about 11,000 feet. Leeches were encountered at about 12,000 feet and it rained continuously until we hit the Arun. From the point of meeting our inward route we followed the same trails, reaching Dharan in fourteen days from Base Camp.
The monsoon rains had swelled the rivers considerably, and the crossing of the Sabhaya Khola required a Tyrolean traverse method of getting the loads across as well as the porters. The Bara Hakim was very gracious on our return to Dhankuta, and gifts were exchanged.
On 21st June we arrived in Dharan, fourteen weeks from the day of our departure. We had completed a reconnaissance of Makalu and found a feasible route on its south-east ridge. We had carried out scientific investigations in the physiology of acclimatization and stress, accumulated data for a map of the lower and middle Barun, made an extensive collection of flora and fauna, gained experience with specialized types of mountaineering equipment, became more acquainted with mountaineers from other areas of the world, and gained an appreciation of the culture, people, and geography of Nepal. We were all grateful for the opportunity to participate in such an expedition and for the many helping hands extended to us.
Members of the Expedition:
William Siri, Leader
Nello Pace, Deputy Leader
L. Bruce Meyer, M.D.
Ang Tharkey, Sirdar