Himalayan Journal vol.44
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
  4. ZHANGZI - AUTUMN, 1987
  5. BRITISH XIXABANGMA Expedition, 1987
    (LT COL M. W. H. DAY)
  6. MENLUNGTSE, 1987
    (S. K. BERRY)
  8. RATHONG, 1987
  10. MAKALU
  11. CHO OYU, 1987
    (W. J. POWELL)
  16. A RETURN TO LINGTI, 1987
    (J. K. PAUL and S. N. DHAR)
    (A. V. SAUNDERS)
    (N. D. JAYAL)



SPORTING ONE OF THE lowest success ratios (20%) of any of the world's fourteen eight thousand meter peaks, Makalu has been a true nemesis for the American Himalayan climber. At 27,805 ft, the fifth highest mountain in the world has been the objective of no less than ten American expeditions or expeditions with an American presence. Yet, prior to 1987, only one American, John Roskelley, had reached its summit.

It was against this backdrop that our team of nine Colorado climbers and four Sherpas set out in March of 1987 to challenge the 'Great Black One' - so-called because of the mountain's distinctive band of dark granite. Located near the border of Nepal and Tibet approximately 12 miles east of Everest, Makalu would more than live up to its reputation as one of the more difficult eight thousanders.

The nucleus of our team consisted of 6 members of the successful 1983 American expedition to 26,400 ft Shishapangma. They were John Cooley, Ed Ramey and Sandy Read, and summiters Mike Browning, Chris Pizzo and me. Chris Pizzo had also previously reached the summit of Everest in 1981. In addition, the group included Dave Herrick, Dr {Stefan Goldberg and Gary Neptune. Gary had likewise previously reached the summit of Everest in 1983. Finally, we also had the good fortune to employ four top-notch high altitude porters - Lhakpa Dorje (the Sirdar), Sherpa Lhakpa Nuru, who had previously climbed to 8100 m on Makalu with Reinhold Messner, Sherpa Dawa Nuru, and Motilal, a Gurung from the Makalu region.

From Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, we began our journey to the base camp of Makalu by flying east 100 air miles to Tum-lingtar, a small village situated on the Arun river at an elevation of less than 1500 ft. After rounding up enough porters to carry our 130 loads, we were on our way.

Over the course of the next three days we would gradually ascend the lowland forests, traverse terraced fields of flooded rice paddies, and meander along forested ridges covered with tropical vegetation. After camping by the picturesque village of Num, on the fourth day we descended over 3000 ft to cross the Arun river, only to immediately regain every inch of lost altitude by climbing to the village of Sedua on the opposite mountainside. The next day the terrain became more rugged as we fought our way through dense, almost jungle type terrain infested with leeches, until we eventually reached the village of Tashigaon. Located at 7000 ft, the dozen or so log and stone houses of this settlement would be the last signs of any permanent habitation that we would see for the next two months.

After enduring a daylong strike and switching to porters who were better equipped to handle the higher altitudes into which we would soon be travelling, the real adventure began. Less than an hour out of Tashigaon, the path began to steepen. Up we climbed through thick bamboo and then rhododendron forests, until on the afternoon of the seventh day we encountered deep snow at 10,000 ft. We were at the base of Shipton's Pass, the logistical nightmare to virtually every expedition which has ventured into the Makalu region. Rising to a height of 13,400 ft, this rugged and storm-swept pass is snow-covered most of the year. While numerous expeditions have had to spend many days ferrying loads over this pass, the gods were to smile kindly upon us. Despite some turbulent weather and snows over six feet deep, we were able to get all of our loads across Shipton's Pass in just two days.

From the top of Shipton's Pass, we descended over 4500 ft to the Barun river which is fed by Makalu's northwestern and southern glaciers. For the next three days we would journey through perhaps the most remote and spectacular mountain terrain I have ever seen. With the valley floor consisting of lush tundra and rushing streams, flanked by sheer rock walls and countless waterfalls plunging thousands of feet, it was like walking into a virgin Yosemite valley. Yet there was one big difference - in this Shangrila peaks rising to twenty-four thousand feet formed the backdrop. Neither words nor pictures can give justice to this area. It is simply the jewel of Nepal, and the beauty intensified until on the eleventh day we skirted a rocky hillside, turned north onto a lateral moraine, and there it was. Towering over two vertical miles into the atmosphere, and rising in one massive sweep that culminated in a perfect summit pinnacle, there stood the 'Great Black One'.

On 1 April, we reached a clearing in the moraine beneath the south face of Makalu at 16,000 ft. It was the site of the base camp used by Sir Edmund Hillary during his unsuccessful attempts on Makalu in 1954 and again in 1961, Here most of the porters turned back, but a stalwart group remained with us over the next few days to help shuttle our loads up to advance base at 17,500 ft. Located on a small plateau above the rocky moraine of the Barun glacier, the views of Everest, Lhotse and countless other peaks were simply awesome. However, nothing was more impressive than Makalu's west face which loomed directly overhead.

After settling into our permanent base camp and organizing the loads destined for the upper part of the mountain, on 5 April the weather was good and we were ready to begin the climb. The route up to CI was a classic grind. The first couple of hours involved a tedious ascent through miles of loose boulders on the glacial moraine. Above the boulderneld was what looked to be a solid band of ice, hundreds of feet high, which appeared to block all access to the mountain's lower snow-slopes. However, after crossing a frozen lake and scrambling up steep glacial debris, a corridor the size of a four lane highway appeared on the right side of the icefall. It was like the parting of the Ked Sea.

For nearly an, hour the route ascended this alleyway flanked by huge cliffs of overhanging ice. At roughly 19,000 ft the corridor was history and a short steep headwall of glacier ice led to a snow bench nearly a mile long. After potholing across this wide expanse for what seemed an eternity, one last rock slope nearly 500 ft in height had to be climbed before Makalu's lower tier of glaciers was reached.

CI was located in a flat but wind-exposed area on the Barun glacier at 20,000 ft. After days of hauling loads up to CI, we began the first foray towards the mountain's upper slopes. While heavily crevassed, the route to C2 was straightforward and none too difficult. The sole exception was one prominent steep section midway, which we secured with a small amount of fixed rope. The plan was to try and locate the next camp beneath the towering couloir which provided the most direct access to the Makalu Col, the 24,300 ft saddle which was the gateway to the summit plateau.

As a result, we sited C2 at approximately 21,700 ft in the last flat area before the slopes began to dramatically steepen towards the base of the massive snow-gully. While lower than we would have liked, the camp was well protected from any avalanche danger by the surrounding seracs, and the views were spectacular. From this camp we were high enough to look north over a neighbouring saddle into Tibet. Directly to the west, Lhotse and the southeastern flank of Everest appeared so close that you could study every detail oi the summit slopes of these two giants.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty of the climb was establishing and stocking C3 on the Makalu Col. That, in turn, required climbing arid fixing the so-called Messner couloir, a snow, rock and ice-gully which extended over 2000 ft at an average angle of nearly 45°. The climb was unbelievably strenuous. Consisting of thirteen sections of fixed rope, each approximately 300 ft long, it took a minimum of six and a half hours to make the ascent. With the wind constantly funneling spindrift right into one's face, this section -was downright torturous. Mentally and physically it was a challenge that stretched everyone to their absolute limits. Moreover, as if to provide a gruesome reminder of what can happen if you press beyond your limits, there on the col, encased in ice, was the body of a climber from a past expedition gone awry. All things considered, without the assistance of the $herpas, I seriously doubt that we would have possessed the carrying power required to fully stock the higher camps. They were a major force in keeping the mountain within pur limits.

After four solid weeks of hard work and countless carries by every member of the team, we were ready to mount our first serious effort on the summit. C3 was now stocked and Chris Pizzo, Gary Neptune and I moved up with the four (Sherpas to occupy that camp for the first time. If all went well the following day, three of the Sherpas would carry the food, tents and other supplies required to establish the final assault camp. At the same time, Chris, Gary, Lhakpa Nuru and I would move up to C4 and make a summit attempt the ensuing day.

However, no sooner had we occupied C3 than a severe storm moved into the region. On 1 May, with visibility only a few yards and winds well over 50 mph, we made an attempt at establishing C4. But in such conditions it was ridiculous to think that we could actually pitch the tents and ready ourselves for a summit try the following day. Instead, we gratefully settled for the efforts of the three Sherpas who cached their loads at approximately 25,700 ft, the future site of C4, and then descended to C2. Meanwhile those of us in the first summit party returned to C3 and dug in to try and wait out the storm.

The wait would be a long one. Two days into the storm there was no end in sight. With gale force winds and visibility down to zero, about the last place that we wanted to be was at 24,300 ft on a saddle that was fully exposed to the elements. On Day 3 of the storm the first signs of trouble began to appear. Gary's face began to swell up and his throat was so sore that he was barely able to talk. He had developed the powerful virus which had already incapacitated four other members of the team, and relegated them to the lower part of the mountain. The pro that he is, Gary immediately knew that he had to get down to lower altitude before his illness became more serious. Thus, that same day he descended down the fixed ropes with Lhakpa Nuru and went all the way to base camp in an effort to try and recover.

Meanwhile, Chris and I continued to hold on, hoping against hope that the weather would break. However, we knew that the longer we remained pinned down at C3, the less likely we would have the strength to make a serious try at the summit. Nonetheless, the thought of having to descend and then reclimb the giant couloir on another day deluded us into thinking that we could hang on a bit longer. But finally after five days both Chris and I were totally whipped. While the clouds had lifted, the winds were still blowing well over 60 mph. It made no difference, however, for we barely had the strength to crawl down the fixed lines and descend to the world of the living.

The next morning (4 May) we were a sorry lot indeed. Gary, Sandy, and Ed were at base camp trying to recover from the dreaded virus. John had just spent nearly two weeks at C2 providing much-needed logistical support, and was on his way to base camp for a well-deserved rest. Stefan and Mike were at CI, and while better, they were still plagued by the awful virus. For those afflicted, it seemed almost impossible to shake off. Meanwhile, Chris, Dave, me and the Sherpas were all at C2 and thoroughly wasted. Dave had made ten carries between CI and C2, and the Sherpas had been working hard at all levels of the mountain and needed a rest as well. It was clear that now was not the time to go charging back up the mountain. The camps were in place and still stocked and the summit would wait. Thus, the decision was made to pull everyone back to base for some rest and relaxation.

Back at base camp we listened to the Nepalese Government radio broadcast reporting that virtually all of the 28 expeditions attempting various peaks had withdrawn from their objectives without summiting. While the thought of heading back home certainly crossed everyone's mind, we resolved to give it one more try. However, the virus and normal attrition one expects on any big mountain had reduced our numbers. Thus it was that on 7 May Chris, Lhakpa Nuru and I began the long journey back up the mountain, with Mike, Dawa Nuru and Lhakpa Dorje providing the much-needed logistical support. Stefan also moved up with us to C2 to provide any medical assistance which might be required.

The days of retracing our steps back up to CI and then C2 were awful. The weather remained cold, stormy and very windy. On 9 May, the weather was so bad that we were forced to spend an extra day at C2. I don't think anyone minded though, because there wasn't a soul amongst us who wasn't totally dreading the thought of going back up all those fixed ropes. The next day dawned clear, but it was still very windy and cold. However, we knew that we had to make our move now as food and fuel were becoming dangerously scarce.

10 May was the most difficult day of the expedition. Without Mike's mental and physical support I doubt that we would have made the climb back up to C3. Breaking trail every step of the way, Mike sacrificed himself to conserve the energy of those on the summit team. Halfway up the fixed ropes, the weather turned absolutely horrendous. Visibility was less than a hundred feet, and the cold and wind were torturous. Here we were moving back up just when it looked like another major storm was setting in. We had neither the food nor the physical ability to weather another prolonged stay at C3. On the other hand, we were already committed. We were now less than a thousand feet from the col, and we had used up too much of our dwindling energy to get this far. If we descended now, the expedition was over. Flooded with doubts, yet still somehow determined, we continued on.

At 4.00 p.m. we finally reached the col. It was nearly a total whiteout and the wind was approaching 100 mph. After a tearful goodbye and thanks to Mike, he quickly descended with Dawa. Chris, Lhakpa and I remained to ride out one of the wildest storms imaginable. Throughout the evening the winds were simply unbelievable. Despite being fully anchored into the hard surface ice with 8 inch screws, the tents were being picked up and tossed around at will. It felt like we were riding a bucking bronco.

That night a number of tents in C2, nearly 3000 ft below, were totally shredded and destroyed by the gale force winds. Yet some-how we managed to hold on. When dawn finally appeared, to my amazement the sky was clear. Despite a continuing wind of 40 mph, by 8.00 a.m. we were on our way. In less than 3 hours we made it to the site of C4 at 25,700 ft. With a renewed sense of strength and energy, we set about erecting the two tents which had been cached nearly two weeks before. As we worked on the tents, for the first time in weeks the wind began to die down. It was almost downright comfortable.

After completing the task of pitching the tents and chopping enough ice to melt water, Lhakpa and I climbed a couple of hundred feet above C4 to get a good look at the route. It was impressive. While the distance was not great, we had to ascend nearly 2000 ft of mixed snow, rock and ice before we would gain the final summit ridge. Then came the crux of the climb - the twin towers. The first, the false summit, was a 250 ft near-vertical gendarme which provided access to the final summit pyramid. Separating the two was a 300 ft knife-edged ridge. It would be an interesting day. If only the weather would hold.

In the planning stages of the expedition there had been much discussion regarding the use of oxygen. In 1983, we had neither taken nor felt the need to use any oxygen on Shishapangma. Yet that mountain was nearly 1500 ft lower than Makalu and the oxygen saturation exponentially decreases above 27,000 ft. As a compromise, we took J2 bottles of oxgen - one bottle for virtually every member of the team, or more realistically one bottle for climbing and one for sleeping for six potential summit climbers. While a number of the team members harboured ambitions to climb Makalu without the aid of oxygen, in the end everyone that attempted the summit opted for its use. In fact, given the physical toll the mountain had taken, no one even gave it a second thought. Sherpas-and members alike, each of us knew that it was the only realistic chance we had to climb the mountain. It's amazing how quickly aesthetics go right out the window when your back is to the wall.

On 12 May, at 3.00 a.m., we awoke and began the laborious process of melting water and fixing something to eat. The cold was simply beyond belief. By 5.30 a.m., we were ready to go. There, was not a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind. Moreover, the views in every direction were simply magnificent. To the west Everest and Lhotse dominated the horizon. Looking north there were the 25,000 ft peaks of Kangchungtse (Makalu II) and Chomo-lonzo, with the contrasting brown foothills and plains of Tibet beyond. Eastward there was an endless expanse of peaks culminating in Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest peak. And of course to the south lay the route up Makalu. In one sweeping panorama, four of the world's five highest mountains unfolded before our eyes.

For the first two hours we climbed and traversed alternating sections of broken rock and water ice. While primarily third and fourth class conditions, as we moved higher the exposure increased and a fall would have been serious. Nonetheless, we climbed this section unroped as it was unfeasible to belay given the distance which had to be covered. At approximately 7.30 a.m. we intersected the broad icefield which runs directly up the center of the north face. A short but steep traverse brought us to the top of the icefield where we took our first rest. We were at nearly 26,700 ft and climbing far more rapidly than we had estimated during the previous day's reconnaissance. Our confidence grew.

Pressing onward we gained the base of the couloir which provides access to the mountain's northwest summit ridge. Since a rock constriction forms a barrier midway up the couloir, at just over 27,000 ft we opted to climb the rock buttress which forms the left flank of the couloir.. It was fourth class rock powdered with snow and an occasional section of ice. The climbing was magnificent and if not so exhausting, it might have been downright enjoyable. After what seemed an eternity, we gained the final summit ridge. The altitude was 27,500 ft and it was still only 9.30 a.m. But any triumphant notions were quickly erased when we took our first good look at the twin towers. They were awesome.

After a brief rest we lost no time in reaching the base of the first tower. It was here that we roped up for the first time during the summit day. We initially tried to climb directly up the tower's near-vertical northern face, but the snow and ice were so rotten that we had to back off. As the left or east side of the tower was overhung with some 9000 ft of exposure down Makalu's southeastern face, there was little doubt that the right side was the only feasible route. Gradually arcing our way up and around this western flank of the tower, the climbing was extremely steep and at these altitudes, very strenuous. I turned my oxygen regulator up to 3 liters per minute. While that helped my breathing, it did nothing to alter the fact that we were climbing 70° rotten ice and there was no good place to belay.

After nearly an hour and a half we gained the top of the false summit, only to come to the most pronounced knife-edged ridge imaginable. While generally uncorniced, the wind-scoured snow which plunged radically off each side was hollow to the core. After two rope lengths of delicately traversing this knife blade, it was then a scant fifty feet up the second tower to a pinnacle of snow just big enough for one person to straddle. Formed by four spectacular ridges which all culminate at a sin

Makalu west face. 											(Glenn Porzak)

Makalu west face. (Glenn Porzak)

gle point, at 11.15 a.m. I unfurled the U.S. and Colorado flags atop the most perfect summit, of the most perfect mountain, on the most perfect of days.

For Lhakpa Nuru, it was his first 8000 m peak. At age 24, I have no doubts that he will go on to reach the summit of many more Himalayan giants. He is simply one of the strongest and most engaging individuals you could imagine. For Chris, it was the summit of his third eight thousander, which equals the most by an American. And for me it was my second 8000 m peak, thus becoming only the fourth American to achieve this milestone. While intensely proud of this accomplishment, I was far more proud of the other members of the team whose efforts made possible the most incredible moment of my life.

Four days later, Gary Neptune, Dawa Nuru and Motilal repeated the ascent, capping off a true team effort. By 24 May we had force marched our way back to Tumlingtar and were listening to the government radio station reporting that we were one of the few expeditions to succeed in climbing a major Himalayan peak that season. It was time for celebration. Plans for the next adventure could wait another day.

Ascent: Makalu, 8484 m, (27,805 ft), via the northwest ridge on 12 May, 1987 (Porzak, Lhakpa Nuru, Pizzo) and on 16 May, 1987 {Neptune, Dawa Nuru, Motilal).

Members: Glenn Porzak (leader), Mike Browning, John Cooley, Stefan Goldberg, Dave Herrick, Gary Neptune, Chris Pizzo, Ed Ramey, Sandy Read, Lhakpa Dorje (Sirdar), Lhakpa Nuru, Dawa Nuru and Motilal.