THE AMERICAN-CANADIAN MAKALU WEST PILLAR EXPEDITION
IN THE FINAL days of February, our expedition team came to Bellingham. We still had a great deal of packing and shopping to do to complete our final stock of equipment and food for the next three and a half months in Nepal.
Five of our six team members were from the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The last four months had seen the formation bi a very competent and unified climbing team. Their physical and mental preparation for an attempt on the West Pillar had been a product of years of climbing together under often the most trying conditions. The resulting group cohesiveness is an often overlooked facet of an expedition's strength. On Makalu we would be faced with difficult climbing, very high altitude strenuous load carrying divided only among the five climbers, and a full 3 months of sustained effort. Undoubtedly this cohesiveness would play a more important role than the individual strengths of each member.
From Kathmandu a large dilapidated bus was hired to drive us and our own supplies approximately 300 miles to the village of Hille where our approach walk would begin. In Nepali style, the bus required no fewer than five men to drive, and mainly repair, our 'last legs' bus on the journey. We were constantly amazed at the mishaps this five strong bus crew could handle. They created workable parts out of junk as the 12 hour bus ride turned slowly into a 24 hour endurance test. They never lost faith, even in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, with engine parts and tools spread all over the road.
After our epic bus ride, the 16 day 100 mile approach march was a delight. With our 99 porters we passed through nearly all the ecological zones of Nepal. The hot arid sands of the lower Arun river at the 3000 ft level eventually led to the rocky, desolate terrain at our 17,700 ft base camp. Surely the approach trek to a mountain in Nepal must be one of the great treasures of mountaineering in the Himalaya. It was a time to relax and think without distractions and to prepare mentally and physically for the climb ahead. The superb work of our staff freed us to amble along at a slow pace. Sharing our thoughts with one another, we felt the bonds between us tightening.
All the photographs and accounts did not prepare us for the view near the end of the approach. Suddenly 13,000 ft of Makalu's south wall rises before you in one sheer sweep of granite. The massive face is bordered on the right by the southeast ridge and on the left by the spectacular West Pillar. Seen from this angle, the razor sharp summit is the perfect meeting point of these two ridges. We stared breathless, trying to comprehend the scene's immensity. I recall thinking that if I were a God I would choose this mountain as my cathedral.
We established base camp (17,700 ft) where the 1971 French team had put their Camp 1. This saved us very valuable time and energy because we had all our gear and a well stocked home at the foot of the west ridge. However, it put us in a rather bleak campsite, which was very exposed to the mountain weather. In addition, the high altitude slowed physical recovery from exhaustion and sickness.
Acclimatizing at base camp, we spent several days organizing our gear and setting up a livable kitchen-dining shelter from stones and tarps, On 28 March we reconnoitered the mountain's lower rocky slopes. By crossing the Chago glacier in a sweeping contour we avoided losing much altitude on our journey to Camp 1. Without much trouble we found a gulley system leading through the lower rock-cliff to the moderate scree slopes above. Within four hours we arrived at the French camp site we would use for Camp 1 (19,550 ft). There were many signs of the large French expedition; a dozen levelled tent platforms, bailing wire, stoves, gas cannisters and garbage debris. We left our light loads there and returned to base camp by evening.
The next four days, we spent stocking Camp 1 with the supplies necessary to support two climbers fixing rope above. One approach porter who seemed particularly strong and keen was asked to remain with us in base camp after the others left. His willingness to carry loads over this easy terrain to Camp 1 was a great asset to us. This man became 'one of the team' almost immediately. He was forever cheerful, courteous and friendly, often shoeless, and could carry twice what any of us could carry to 19,550 ft.
On 2 April, Dwayne and I moved into Camp 1 and set out the following day to begin fixing rope towards Camp 2. The technical climbing began abruptly above our campsite with a 400 ft 50 degree ice-slope. This led to a sharp ridge of snow and ice over the first of two large humps. After dipping, the ridge rose continuously for a kilometer over the second hump at 21,000 ft. Rounding out, it gradually ascended to an overhanging ice-cliff at 21,500 ft.
We took turns acclimatizing to these higher elevations and setting out the seven and eight millimeter rope to aid our travel across this very exposed section. Here, a New Zealander was killed in an avalanche in October, 1983. In that tragic attempt on the West Pillar, a second member had died in an unexplained fall between Camps 2 and 3. Keeping our chances of an accident to the absolute minimum, we fixed 4500 ft of rope on this winding knife edge ridge; all but about 500 ft of easy4 ground between: Camps 1 and 2. By the expedition's end each of us had made twelve journeys to Camp 2, which meant crossing this section 24 times.
By 9 April we had anchored all the ropes leading to our second camp and had transported a good stock of food, fuel, and climbing equipment there. Originally, the journey with loads along this ice-arete took us a gasping six hours one way. As we acclimatized and grew fitter, our times diminished by 40% lifting our spirits and giving us confidence for what lay above.
From Camp 2 the ridge took on a much more serious tone. It rose in a perfectly straight, steep line 3000 vertical feet to its junction with the massive white granite prow above, the awesome feature which gave the route its name, the West Pillar. On 13 April Sharon and Dwayne moved into Camp 2. Originally tents were placed slightly lower down on the ridge but we soon learned that the wind blasting over the ridge crest made existence there almost unbearable. We moved the camp up to within 20 ft of the overhanging ice-cliff and tucked our tents in as close as possible to an adjoining rock wall. Even in this sheltered spot we needed 50 ft of spare 7 millimeter line to anchor the geodesic tents from flattening against us during the night's howling winds.
Throughout these first few weeks of climbing our base camp was experiencing high winds and winter weather as well. The temperature there rose above freezing for about seven hours each day, the time between sunrise to our east over Makalu and sunset to the west over Baruntse. Our Sherpa tent was destroyed after a week of enduring the violent winds. The tarps over our kitchen-dining shelter were ripped to shreds necessitating an emergency journey by Ang Lhakpa to Kathmandu for new supplies. In, the meantime every standing tent in base camp was held down with giant boulders and extra guy lines to keep them from blowing away. It was a tribute to our cook, Tenzing, that appetizing three course meals, so important in order to keep our weight up, continued to be presented to us throughout these difficult days.
Such were the conditions when Dwayne and Sharon set off from Camp 2 on 14 April. For two days they climbed ice-faces and loose, delicate, rocky ground. Forcing their way up in bitter cold winds they approached an airy and complex 200 ft rock traverse onto the south face. This deviance from the ridge crest avoided several large overhanging rock steps and thus allowed further progress upwards. The French had named this 200 ft section the Terrible Traverse due to the extreme nature of the climbing and steep wall it crossed. Albi traded places with Dwayne on the 16th and, together with Sharon, reached the point where this traverse began. During this time the three other members not in front were ferrying loads between Camps 1 and 2 with an occasional rest day in base camp to enjoy the lower altitude and a square meal.
The Terrible Traverse was led in a snow-storm by Dwayne and Charlie on 22 April. Their determination lifted our spirits even more. Albi and Sharon then went ahead onto the 1000 ft of steep ice-runnels and iced over granite slabs that characterized the very challenging climbing above the Terrible Traverse. Averaging about 450 ft per day, they managed to continue climbing through atrocious weather conditions for three long days. On the 27th Charlie and I took over the lead. We carefully manoeuvred up the last section of snow covered cracks and slabs and then threaded our way back to and along the knife edge ice and rock ridge to within 300 ft of Camp 3. The weather continued to be very unsettled, with snow falling every afternoon for four or five hours. The daily routine of rappelling thousands of feet back to Camp 2 after an exhausting day was a tricky and dangerous ordeal requiring steady concentration. 30 April was lost to unusually high winds' but finally, on 1 May, Albi and Dwayne succeeded in establishing Camp 3 at 24,200 ft.
On such a long and involved ridge each camp became a goal in and of itself. Reaching Camp 3 was no exception. The team was full of optimism as the evening radio communication informed everyone that the way was now open as far as the second to last camp. This section had been slow, delicate work and had demanded quite a bit more from us than we had anticipated.
The carry from Camps 2 to 3 proved to take a shattering eight to ten hours round trip. We immediately became determined to make as few journeys along this section as possible. Sharon, who, along with Dwayne, had organized our high altitude food rations, cut the Camp 3 food provisions to an absolute minimum in order that the essential equipment could be more quickly ferried up for the climbing above.
On 5 May Charlie, Sharon and I brought personal gear ta Camp 3 and dug out a platform underneath an ideal wind sculptured shield of ice. With more food still needed, Sharon then descended to Camp 2 while Charlie and I settled in at 24,200 ft readying ourselves for the next day's work. We were painfully aware at this altitude what damage the lack of oxygen does to the body. Even lying warm in a sleeping bag there is a steady, mounting deterioration and eventual exhaustion of one's body and mental faculties. We would have to spend as little time in Camp 3 and above as possible.
The smooth, grayish white pillar of rock above us stretched into the sky for 1300 vertical feet. Here, our upward progress would rely on the skills of gymnastic rock climbing. We had brought up thicker, stronger, 9 millimeter rope for ascending this cliff and, although substantially heavier, all of us agreed that the security it lent was well worth the added weight.
Charlie and I spent the next three days placing fixed rope up 906 ft of steep rock slabs and walls to 25,000 ft. Though the climbing was on smooth, solid granite we wore crampons throughout this terrain, as much of it was clogged with spindrift and snow. Despite the growing fatigue that clouded our minds we were exhilarated by the airiness of the pillar, and the overwhelming vastness of the rock wall and space around us. The bone chilling winds and afternoon snowfall took their toll, however. By the third day we had frostnipped our fingers and toes, leaving them ultra sensitive to the cold.
Meanwhile, Albi, Dwaynel and Sharon redoubled their efforts to bring up more supplies to Camp 3. On 10 May after a day's rest in Camp 2, Albi and Dwayne took over the lead. Charlie, Sharon and I went down to base camp to recuperate our strength. It had been 18 days since any of us had come off the mountain. The original strategy had been that Albi and Dwayne would establish the fourth camp before their final rest in base camp prior to a summit push. There was an outside chance that if they felt strong and conditions were right, they might even make a summit bid on 14 May once they had establishedCamp4.
11 and 12 May were restless days for those of us waiting in base camp and extremely taxing for the two high above on their pillar. The last 500 ft of rock to Camp 4 necessitated the steepest climbing yet. Albi and Dwayne passed the site of the fifth French camp, marked by a frozen, shredded tent in the snow of a small alcove in: "the cliff. Above this they climbed an overhanging crack and vertical wall to reach more steep slabs and chimneys higher up. With unrelenting determination, at the end of their second day they rounded the last rock corner and gasped their way up a snow covered ice-gulley to a small notch. Again with a shredded tent visible, they were aware that they had arrived at the highest French Camp 6 at 25,500 ft. They knew also that it would be the site of our final camp. They fixed the rope to a piton 16ft by the Ihrehch and began rappelling down late in the afternoon. The rest of the team at base camp had been watching them all day with binoculars but had lost sight of them due to the heavy, afternoon cloud build-up. That evening, at 7.00 p.m., it was an optimistic two some that radioed down from Camp 3 with the long awaited news about reaching Camp 4. They were settled in for the night at Camp 3 after driving themselves near to the limit during the past two days. Nevertheless they were still keen about carrying on the following morning and establishing a livable camp at 25,500 ft before returning to base for a full period of recovery. Unfortunately it was not to work out this way.
We learned in the morning radio call that during the night Albi had suffered a severe headache. More seriously, a sudden retinal hemorrhage was obscuring the vision in his right eye. Though Ken assured us that it was not cause for alarm it meant that they would have to descend immediately for a complete diagnosis of Albi's condition. The four of us in base camp "opted to wait on 13 May for Dwayne and Albi to come down in order that we could discuss the logistics of the summit push together as a group.
After assessing Albi's condition Ken made the difficult but honest recommendation that he not return to extreme altitude for a minimum of three weeks in order to avoid the possibility of further bleeding in the retina. With four of us left for the regaining work of establishing Camp 4 and making a summit bid W§ Wire painfully aware of the position we were in. Two of us would have to support the other two by making a sacrificial carry with very heavy loads to 25,500 ft and dig out of the ice a platform for the last camp. The other two would then run the best odds of reaching this high camp with enough strength to climb the remaining 2300 ft to the summit and return without oxygen. The sacrificial team might, having then been down for a rest, have the strength to attempt the summit themselves. But there wai no guarantee that enough physical or emotional endurance would remain.
The decision of who would fill which role was not an easy one to make. It became all the more subtle by the fact that no one was climbing much faster or slower than anyone else. I firmly believe that it was vivid proof of the solidity of our team which caused Sharon and Charlie to volunteer for the thankless job of setting up Camp 4. This was their first Himalayan expedition and their altitude experience about 20,000 ft was limited to this mountain. Dwayne and I, on the other hand, together had an accumulated participation on a dozen Asian mountains and each of us had been to 26,000 ft without oxygen on separate climbs of our close neighbour, Everest.
On 14 May Charlie and Sharon set off on the gruelling four day climb to Camp 4. Allowing Dwayne as full a recovery as each of us had had, he and I started up behind them on 17 May. This same evening our final camp was established. After eight solid hours hauling gear up the steep and vertical fixed ropes on the pillar followed by 2 more hours of oxygen starved work chopping out 1 tiny ledge Sharon and Charlie crawled into their tent for the night, They were exhausted and would wait until morning to descend.
The night of the 18th both teams slept in Camp 2, dividing two double sleeping bags into four and huddling closely together for warmth. In the afternoon of the 20th Dwayne and I arrived at Camp 4, set up the folded tent and began rehydrating for our summit attempt that evening. We dozed fitfully in our sleeping bags for two hours and at 10.30 p.m. again began tediously melting ice for drinks. At these high altitudes it seems impossible to drink enough fluids to replace what is lost through exertion and heavy breathing in the extremely dry air. Adequate hydration of the body at high altitude is as crucial a condition as any on the mountain.
At 1.30 a.m. on a moonless night, we began climbing up the 45 degree mixed ice and rock-gullies by headlamp. The actual top of the West Pillar route lay 1600 vertical feet above us where it abutted against the southeast ridge at 27,100 ft. From there the summit lay a further 700 ft up relatively easy ground.
Just at daybreak, about 4.30 a.m., we stopped in the wind trough of a rock, outcrop and had a small amount to eat and drink. Several hundred feet above us on the ridge lay a 400 ft, broken, rocky step with no clearly defined route by which to ascend it-With great care we zig-zagged up the delicate and exposed ledges of rock and snow as the sun rose. It's warmth was hidden from us to the east but its rays cast magnificent hues of pink on Everest, Lhotse, Baruntse and the rest of the great Himalayan range spread out beneath us. The day dawned fine and the winds were kind to us. We knew that if the weather held, our chances of reaching the top were very strong.
By 8.30 a.m. we began the horizontal ice-ridge that marked the last crest of the West Pillar. We climbed this section more rapidly thah we had expected. By noon, in a sky of broken clouds, we were standing at 27,100 ft on the southeast ridge. Only the summits of the five giant mountains of Asia were above us. It had taken us fifty-seven days to climb the West Pillar.
I took a few photographs before we started off for the summit 700 ft higher to the north. Very soon after this we were no longer visible to our companions in base camp as the mountain became mantled in cloud. Within in hour, as if in mockery of our efforts to reach the highest point, a heavy grey overcast covered the sky and by 1.30 p.m. it was snowing. Dwayne and I pressed on, knowing that only a few hours separated us from the summit cornices. we could see before the snow had begun to fall. In the growing storm we came to the 50 m triangular rock wall, an outcrop which bars the way up the last 100 yards to the highest point of Makalu.
Dwayne crossed a low angle, avalanche threatened snow-bowl and led through a gap around to the right of this barrier. With singleness of purpose, we strained our way up the deep, unconsolidated 45 degree snow over rock on the east side of the ridge. At 3.00 p.m. our visibility was down to about 30 m and though the winds were low, a layer of new snow was settling on the mountain. Almost in a daze by the lack of oxygen, our minds were conscious enough to realize that with the fresh snow and the lack of visibility our descent would be very complicated. We realized too, that if we were not able to down climb the 400 ft of broken rock ledges before nightfall that we would be forced to bivouac. On Everest I had seen what a night in the open meant for a man above 26,000 ft without oxygen; our chances of survival would be-fifty per cent.
At 3.30 p.m. with the new snow falling heavily and the summit about a hundred yards away, we began our descent. Moving with ill possible speed we half climbed-half slid down the unconsolidated powder snow, rounded the 50 m rock wall and traversed the snow bowl back to the ridge crest. With a drowsiness that must have come from a lack of both oxygen and sleep we drove ourselves on in a slow motion trance towards the top of the broken fit. By sunset a dense fog hung heavily in both the sky and our minds but we were finally then descending the delicate rock terraces. Darkness caught us where day break had, near the top of the rock and ice-gullies that led down the ridge. With the darkness and cold my body and mind shifted into a familiar ultra-low gear that, though extremely slow and mechanical, is methodical and sure. After a series of rappels and careful down climbing on the front points of our crampons, it was midnight when we reached our at Camp 4 and dropped into a fitful sleep.
In the late afternoon of 1 June we were all gathered safely back in base camp. After sixty-eight days the climbing was finally over.
Members: Sharon Wood, Albert Sole, Ken Bassett, M.D. and Dwayne Congdon-Canada.
Carlos Buhler and Charles Sassara-U.S.A.