Adapted from the French narratives by the courtesy of the Editor of 'Alpinisme and La Montagne'. Translated by Alfred Gregory and adapted by the Editor.
Like happy people, happy mountains do not make a good story. A famous journalist was looking at some photographs of our expedition to Makalu, searching for some piquant detail that would attract the masses, in lieu of drama. His insistence forced me on to my last defences:-—
' But at least there were—incidents ?'
'I'm afraid not; no crevasses into which we fell, no avalanche that swept over the camp. At 8,000 metres it was like the summit of Mont Blanc. Nine of us reached the top; three successful attempts in three days; it was hardly a conquest. We didn't even get cold feet.'
' So then nothing happened ?'
I had to agree; nothing happened. What I was not asked was, ' Why nothing happened ?'—Now some months have passed. Though it is still too early to appreciate the details of our magnificent adventure, though our experiences were too brief, too rapid and too localized for generalization, Makalu loses its isolation, bit by bit. The salient factors of our success and the reasons which led to it, their place among the efforts of men to attain the highest peaks, are links in the chain made by climbers throughout the centuries. Fifty years of Himalayan expeditions and mountaineering led to Makalu.
In 1934, shortly before the first French expedition to the Himalaya permission had been given for an attempt on Makalu but this was later cancelled. For the next twenty years climbers followed other roads and the mountain remained 'the giant who sleeps for six months.'
By courtesy of the French Alpine Club
Makalu, 27,790 ft., west face; Makalu II, 25,120 ft,. on left.
North face of Makalu showing route with Camp VI in centre.
It was at the end of 1953 that the French Ambassador in Delhi received, for the Federation Francaise de la Montagne, permission from the Nepalese Durbar to send an expedition to Makalu in the autumn of 1954, followed by a second in the spring of 1955. The first was to be a reconnaissance to study the approach and to test new material and equipment on which we had been working for some time. Maurice Herzog would have been the man to lead both parties, but, for reasons which are all to his honour, he refused Lucien Devies, President of the F.F.M. and of our Himalayan Committee, was unable to accept the invitation to lead and again had to abandon the long cherished dream of his climbing life. They were the twin souls of the organization and when I was asked to take charge I accepted the more willingly because I knew they would always be at my side. And also because I could count on Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray, veterans of Annapurna, and on the celebrated Guido Magnone. Preparations were hurried on, consultations were made and experiments took place, both in Paris and at the Col du Midi. Jean Couzy, our oxygen specialist, was busy with a new model of bottle, lighter and with a variable flow rate. Lionel Terray dealt with food, a sphere in connection with which he inspired great confidence because of his big appetite. Dr. Jean Rivolier, of the French Polar expedition, was chosen as our doctor and began to plan for acclimatization and the use of oxygen. The team was completed by two of my personal friends, whose worth and great experience I knew—Pierre Larox and Jean Bouvier. While all this furious activity was going on at the Club Alpin Francais Makalu was twice visited, by the American party under Dr. Siri, and by Hillary's team in the course of their explorations in the Barun region. We learnt this when we got together at the foot of the Arun valley in August 1954. Our first contact was very hard, for the region was hostile, hot, wet and unhealthy, every stream a torrent, and forests infested with leeches. It took three weeks to reach the foot of our mountain. We put out of mind the south-east ridge, with its series of very steep steps which we likened to Grepon's pile one on another. And it seemed obvious why the Americans had been repulsed so quickly. The north-west sector appeared to be more favourable for it had been noted that there would be no serious obstacle to getting on to a glacier plateau at some 21,500 feet at the end of the north-west cirque and at the foot of the Makalu Col. Between the plateau and the Col the slopes are steep and avalanche prone. To minimize risk a longer route was necessary, but at about 23,500 feet a suspended balcony seemed just capable of supporting a camp. If the Col could be reached at, say, 24,600 feet the north-west ridge would be a possible ladder for Makalu itself, despite an enormous step of nearly 1,000 feet. We left base camp on 1st October, placed three camps to just below the plateau and and a fourth on it. From there we forced the route as high as we could and on 15th October we were able to set up Camp V on Makalu Col. Having attained this first objective we felt we had wings and some were already contemplating an assault on Makalu itself. But at that date and at that height the cold is intense, usually minus 30 ° centigrade and the wind often blew at 100 miles per hour. All attempts to get higher than Camp V were repulsed but two days of relative calm enabled us to make the first ascents both of Makalu II and of Chomo Lonzo, 7,797 m. Two important observations were made of the north face of Makalu. This showed a gigantic glacier giving a route relatively certain up to 8,100 metres beyond which, although the slope steepened considerably, we were convinced that technical difficulties would not stop us.
We had sprung the trap of Makalu, namely this Col, wide and debonair in appearance, but swept by the bitterest winds and liable to become a death trap should a spell of bad weather be pro- II longed. So success would depend on holding the Col strongly and I ensuring a route thereto safe and practicable in all conditions. It would be necessary to live above it as little as possible in order to maintain strength for the lightning assaults.
On our return to France at the end of November we reported to our friends and the Himalayan Committee began organizing at once for the assault in the spring of 1955. We planned to make our attempt on the summit from the 15th May so that we should have three weeks in front of us in case Makalu showed itself particularly unfavourable. We ourselves were to leave France at the beginning of March while the equipment and food were to arrive in Calcutta in the cargo ship Lenzkerke on the first day of that month. Our gear had proved excellent but certain new untried items surprised us. Two-piece nylon and wool underclothes had a queer electric- like effect on the skin and the super light weight high altitude trousers, perfectioned by Guido Magnone, which could only be fitted with special buttons by only one man in all France, never reached base camp. The oxygen had been ordered by cable from Nepal, as soon as we got down from the autumn reconnaissance and arrived safely, though somewhat late, because the Lenzkerke had decided to go to Rangoon first and then back to Calcutta, instead of vice versa. Certain changes in personnel had been made. A young surgeon from Lyon, Andre Lapras, had taken the place of Rivolier who could not get away. The scientific section was reinforced by Michel Latreille of Grenoble and the climbers were augmented by Andre Viallatte of the technical branch of the Air Force, and by Serge Coupe, a young guide from Champpery.
Although departure by air from Orly is attended with numerous complications those experienced on arrival in Calcutta, with 9 tons of material, personal equipment and baggage, were a nightmare when you penetrate the immense offices of the Bengal Administration, which is the most serious in the world, you realize that all is lost and your sole wish is to return to Paris immediately. At the last moment you find the right door to open and the miracle, the first of a series of miracles, without which no summit in the world would have been approached, has happened. Our special guardian angel was the French Vice-Consul Monsieur Batbedat who had the key to all doors and could pierce all mysteries. On 18th March we flew from Dum Dum to the Nepal frontier town of Biratnagar. A new innovation here was the recently established customs service of Nepal. Here the official demanded categorically to see all the contents of our 267 cases and sacks. These had been carefully sealed in Paris and had hitherto been preserved from inspection by prodigies of eloquence and persuasion. Formal refusal on our part, together with fantastic argument accompanied by tact induced the official to give way and two hours later the whole expedition was loaded into the oldest imaginable lorries.
Chombo Lonzo 25,640 ft, from below Camp VI on Makalu
Sirdar Gyalijen Norbhu traversing the face of the Makalu Col.
Lhotse and Everest from Camp IV on Makalu.
Fifty kilometres further on the four lorries, smoking like steam engines, deposited the expedition at Dharan. Our Sherpas who had arrived a few days earlier were introduced by our Sirdar, Gyaljen Norbhu. Most of them were veterans of Everest, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat, K2 and even Kangchenjunga. The Sherpas do not engage themselves on an expedition. They attach themselves to you and once they are with you, you can take them to the end of the world; you will only get one reply: 'Yes, Sahib.' The Sherpas do not like carrying a load on the approach marches, as they are the aristocrats of the porters. And the management of a train of coolies is a source of worry. We had arranged for 80 porters from Darjeeling and 115 from Sola Khombu. The inevitable arguments about respective loads were settled by Gyaljen and Kinjock, the porter Sirdar from Sola Khombu, and the caravan left Dharan on 2oth March. The Arun is a river as big as the Rhone and its valley forms most of the approach march to Makalu. To base camp it was about 90 miles as the crow flies but over 190 by the track through the forest and the maize fields. Now and then through the morning mist we could see on the horizon the white chain of Makalu and Chamlang. Meanwhile we were experiencing certain anxieties about our transport and our cargo of oxygen; I had left at Dharan Serge Coupe, with enough Sola Khombu porters, to bring 011 the oxygen by forced marches. The last marches at higher elevation were hard on the local porters who had only improvised shelter and some left us. But eventually we reached our base camp, in the desolate region of the high Barun, at the foot of Makalu, on 4th April.
Two days later Couzy and Coupe arrived with the oxygen and we spent several days installing ourselves as comfortably as we could and organizing a shuttle service for fuel, etc., and, most essential, our postal teams who would do the round journey of some 420 mi leaf between us and the nearest Indian post office, in 20 days.
Our plan was to reserve three weeks for acclimatization and for tha] final preparations and we fixed the date 5th May for the carry Camp III. Refraining from expending our energies prematurely on the tempting higher peaks around us we trained and acclimatized to higher altitudes steadily and surely. The Sherpas under Gyaljen did great work carrying to Camp I. Two of the team made si 'third' ascent of Pethangtse, the geological party split into two groups, one making for Namche Bazar via Sedoa and the Iswa Khola, the other crossing the high Hongu Cols. They rejoined us in Calcutta.
The siege of Makalu now began in earnest. Couzy and Terray pushed on to Camp III where deep shelters were dug in the ice for tents, in order to ensure some degree of comfort in this storm-swept spot. This camp was completed by 7th May and nearly 3 tons of food and equipment had been carried there. Higher up the slopes steepen and the cliffs of the Makalu Col, covered last autumn with good hard snow, were now found to be mainly steep ice-covered rock. Our technique was to operate in successive teams, each with two sahibs with the requisite number of Sherpas, forcing the upper zones in waves. We had adapted the principle of never sleeping above about 23,000 feet, and after each attack descending as low as possible (even at times to Camp I), to recuperate. We kept in first class health and the mountain was yielding step by step. On 8tli May Guido Magnoue and I installed Camp IV, but were checked at about 24,000 feet by difficult rock. However, the succeeding party passed this obstacle and Makalu Col was reached on 9th May. During the next two days we placed 800 metres of fixed rope and stocked this camp.
All was now ready for the final assault. It was to Couzy and Terray that the honour fell of making the first strike towards the summit J after making a Camp VI at about 26,000 feet. Guido and I would follow 24 hours later to support, and if needed to instal a Camp VII. Should these two light attempts fail the remaining four sahibs were to try another assault a few days later. Our oxygen, our supplies, our equipment and the high fettle of the Sherpas would allow us to make four successive attempts. The sahibs were allowed oxygen day and night when above 23,500 feet, the Sherpas above 24,600 feet. As it turned out things went simply. We were blessed with perfect atmospheric conditions without a single high altitude cloud for hundreds of kilometres around. Even on the summit ridge the wind dropped.
On the 14th Guido and I arrived at Camp V on the Col and scanned the higher terrain. We spotted three black dots on the rocks, descending very slowly. These were the three gallant Sherpas who had made the carry to Camp VI. They were completely done in and begged to be allowed to stay at the Col. I hardened my heart and refused, knowing that a night at Camp V would make their condition even worse. Not one of them had a smile left in him. We gave them oxygen, injections, hot drinks and food, put the rope on them and sent them down, not without anxiety, to Camp IV. Above, Lionel and Jean had succeeded in putting up their bivouac in the seracs, Couzy sent down this message, 'Arrived here at 1500 hours, 23,400 feet, good spot, under an ice-wall. We are in good form steep above, but looks as if it will go. All goes well. Good luck. A demain.' That evening was the first on which the weather report predicted, without qualification, good weather all over the chain. What luck, and what a rendezvous!!
The 15th was the day of Makalu. While Guido and I, with five Sherpas, were traversing the great ice slopes leading up to the seracs we saw above two minute black specks traversing the high couloir up to the rib. It was 10 o'clock and Lionel and Jean would be at over 27,000 feet. At twelve o'clock we heard shouts, several times repeated, and they were shouts of victory. The Sherpas shouted for joy with us, repeating the three syllables of Makalu and lifting us up and embracing us; which at that height and with the narrow space of Camp VI seemed almost excessive. I told Gyaljen that we intended attempting the summit again next day and asked if he would like to join us. He accepted with joy. We told the Sherpas that our success on Makalu was mainly due to them, and that we were proud to have been associated with them. They simply smiled and shook our hands. These men of the Himalaya are extraordinary. Without them this Camp VI would not exist. And they had come here without other ambitions. When you look at a Sherpa at such heights he just continues with a smile at you. We heard steps in the snow. Our friends had returned niid we rushed on to the terrace of the camp.' Ainsi?'—'C'est ca’. One economizes words at 7,800 metres. We gave bowl after bowl of hot tea to Lionel and Jean. They went on drinking, completely dehydrated. 'Difficult?' 'No, as in the Alps. The route of the morning.' 'And the rib?' 'Steep, but no serious obstacle.' 'And the final ridge?' 'A delicate step to reach the summit, but the snow was good. The summit is like a pencil point.'
We ended the day in contentment on our perch situated between two enormous cliffs of ice, suspended in the seracs of the north face—half the Himalaya was below us, Makalu II and Chomo Lonzo were at our feet, Kangchenjunga so far away that one could easily mistake it for a monstrous cloud. Only Everest rose above the horizon. It was gold in the sunset. The shadows grew longer. A light breeze played with the snow, lifting it up in little spirals. Everything was calm; our great day was over. The temperature fell brutally. In our double tent of nylon and silk it was minus 32° centigrade. But our equipment was perfect. We took stock of our oxygen and found we could use i litre a minute, without interruption. There was total calm, not a breath of wind. In our dreams our crampons bit into the summit snow, on that summit ridge overhung with cornices, of which we had thought for months.
The summit of Makalu is a perfect pyramid of snow, so sharp that one could cover it with one hand, one finger towards Everest, one towards Tibet and a third towards Nepal. The lines of the three ridges are so steep that we had difficulty in keeping ourselves roped together, around our three ice-axes driven in up to the head. We stayed more than an hour on the top, digesting each minute as a bit of life that we should never find again. Then I put back in my rucksack a souvenir; the French colours that had made with us the ascent of Makalu. And I gave to Gyaljen the Nepalese flag with its signs of the sun and the moon. Next day the third group of climbers, J. Bouvier, P. Ieroux, S. Coupe, and A. Vialatte, made the ascent on two ropes. A few days later the first monsoon clouds drove across the sky and we fired into the night our Very light signals of distress, now useless.
The Sherpas, in the thick smoke of their tent, were singing.
From the summit looking down across the south-east arête to Peak3.