Lhotse and Makalu Summits – 2019 – the heights open up

With the first summits of the season on 8,463 meter (27,766 feet) Makalu this morning, the high winds and snow seem to have abated as five Sherpas ascended the worlds fifth tallest peak.

Set just 24 km. (15 miles) from Everest, the weather patterns are very close to the same on Makalu as Everest.

Makalu, Summit, robert mads anderson
The summit of Makalu, a pinpoint atop the pyramid, one person at a time. Photo: Adele Pennington

The summiteers were Sherpa’s sent out in front to fix ropes, so undoubtably a strong and  experienced group, part of the overall 53 people registered with the Department of Tourism this year as Makalu climbers.

The ascent of Makalu was closely followed by news from Lhotse, with at least 12 climbers reaching the summit. They reached the 8,516 meter summit at 9:47 a.m.

The teams included Sherpas as well as members from China, Greece and Pakistan.

Everest, Lhotse, Tangboche Monastery
Everest, left, and Lhotse, right, from Tangboche Monastery.

Many climbing Makalu have often done Everest previously, or are attempting all the 8,000 meter peaks, so often have a higher level of experience than an Everest climber.

This experience will be put to good use, as most who climb Makalu find it more challenging than Everest.

Makalu, Everest, Cho Oyu
Makalu, left, Everest, center with plume, Cho Oyu, right. From the Pang La, Tibet

 Certainly the view of Makalu from Everest is one that even Sir Ed on his first ascent started immediately looking at ways he could ascend the peak, a rocky pyramid that glows in the sunrise as you ascend Everest – and was inspired to comment:

“While standing on top of Everest, I looked across the valley, towards the other great peak, Makalu, and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed… it showed me that, even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything for me, by any means. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges.” Sir Edmund Hillary

Everest, Makalu, Robert Mads Anderson, #everyrolextellsastory
Everest from Makalu, and Makalu from Everest.

 Makalu’s mix of steep black rocky ridges, framing the pink granite and tumbling glaciers, create an iconic peak embodying all you look for in a mountain.

The climbing on Makalu contains a number of sections far steeper and more sustained than Everest, from the cliffs above Camp 2, to the final summit day out and up unto the notorious French couloir and onto the long rocky summit ridge leading to the final summit pyramid.

With much smaller teams and support than on Everest, climbers have traditionally found themselves climbing alongside their Sherpas and completing long sections on summit day without ropes. It is a chance to do real climbing where you actually will need to know how to use an ice axe, even on the regular route.

With Makalu now ascended this year, it bodes well for those on Everest. Yes, there is that extra 500 meters of vertical still sticking up into this years troublesome Everest jet stream, but the signs are there that Everest will be opening up soon.

everest, summit ridge, david hamilton
Everest, South Col on left and ridge to top directly above. Northeast ridge on right, Kangshung Face in cloud. Seen from the French Couloir, Makalu. 

 

Makalu Expedition Report – from our 2011 ascent of Makalu with Jagged Globe:

The Approach

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 also 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 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 fall off of. 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 500 meters elevation – it was going to be a long walk just to get there. 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.

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 over the Shipton La, following in Eric’s footsteps. If I knew what a short rope was for, we probably could of used it.

As the UK’s most frequent female summiteer of 8,000-meter peaks, Adele reassured me that she actually knew what short ropes were for. It just seems like something that would have been nice as we traversed loose snow slopes perched over cliffs and grasped tree branches to lower us down through the forests. From the La’s we went down and down, into the mists, for 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, walking along the roaring rushing white-frothed river and the granite we’d admired up high showed itself down low. Pure gray washes of water cascading across polished gray speckled white sheets 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 cliff 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 Base Camp. At 5,700 meters, a good 350 meters higher than Everest Base Camp, 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.

The Climb

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. At the glacier we armored up in 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 8mm rope leading enticingly upward.

We acclimatized at Camp I and then shut it down, so Base to CII was 900 meters of vertical; best to have an extra coffee before you started climbing. From CI to CII was an ascent up the castle walls, slope disappearing into the mists below, crevasse above of unknown depth, crossing the moat onto the mountains upper slopes.

CII was friendly, towering; solid seracs above 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 II, and higher and back to sleep and more of that until we could hop around appearing acclimatized back down at Base Camp. But 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 6000 to the top. We looked at graphs in gray with red lines above indicating conditions above which no man should dare tread.

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 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 clearing our lungs, prayer flags framing the peak, morning breezes and Sherpa chants in our ears, fresh coffee on our breathe. 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.

Bunter was in Base, he was manning the Camp, he was being encouraging and he was monitoring the weather. The rest of us were off.

Up to CII 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. And we were saving the oxygen, way too low for that. 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.

We arrived at CII with the sun dipping into Nepal. Mark was coughing, his ribs were in pain, he had climbed all day, but turned for the descent. Staying high and feeling bad is no place to be. Our Sirdar Passang turned and wandered down into the shadowed afternoon with him. High altitude is not where you hesitate. You go up, if you feel bad, you go down, immediately. It is not easy, it is not fun. But it is necessary.

Out of Camp II 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 were headed up into the cliffs and I stopped to talk to Ron. The coughs and respiratory challenges we’d all faced had never left him “I’m going down.” With Ron’s experience, he knew what to do, but it was still so hard, so very hard, to see someone so fit and strong have to turn around with only a short-term ailment.

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 CII to CIII on Everest came and went. Makalu just doesn’t have well placed camps, Base to II, long, hard, hits you the next day.

Then CII to Camp III, steep snow, ice, rock cliffs, finally a snow slope, early lunch, then up the snow ridge, then into bigger cliff band. Climbing up through 7,000 meters and into steep terraces. Right, hmm Camp 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 and step into Tibet. It would be comparable to doing Camp II to IV on Everest, just quite a bit steeper.

At least we were in another country, Tibet, without any Passport control. Then, oh yes, not quite there, another 20 minutes over to Camp III, in a blizzard, a mist, a wind that kicks you along and into the flapping tents. Sleep, but too high, just exhaustion, some soup. The Sherpas are with us, we like that, we feel at home with them. “The higher I go the better I feel,” I tell my team. And for some reason I do. Higher, better, faster, floating up with the clouds.

We are walking towards Camp IV 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 are in Tibet; climbing through Shangri-La. Everest was over our shoulder, looking back it rose and hovered just behind us. Lhotse then curving 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. It was a good place to be.

Camp IV, a rocky promontory piled high with boulders, each rock beautiful, carved by wind; orange, pink, white, black. We all pitched the tents together as they 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 rising steeply up. Then an indistinct couloir leading 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.

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, Oz. We were so layered up that moving seemed improbable. 9:30pm, lets go climbing.

The Summit

The moon was a day off full and cast shadows over the snow, dancing climbers climbing through moonbeams. We were so swaddled up that we needed the Oz just to move.

There were no ropes; just snow, a slope and air fogging our vision until we entered the seracs and a thin line showed us the way through. Crevasse hopping in the dark, an ice cliff or two to scale to keep us awake, then breaking 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. Maybe a short rope is useful after all. We’d grown fond of the rope, it was aquamarine, looping over the white snow it glowed in the dark when our headlamps 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 fixed rope in, and the sunrise started, so indistinct at first to be a lie. We were well around on the Northwest side of the mountain so there would be light, but 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.

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 it seemed to steam slightly to life, the sun pushing it into the morning and it joined this higher world we were living in.

The rope led up into the French Couloir, which I’d always imagined as a distinct steep couloir. 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. Jim paused, ‘maybe I should go down?’ Up high it is all about listening to yourself and interpreting it correctly. The top was perhaps just visible, but I thought it could be four hours. ‘Not for me,’ and Jim set off down with Lhakpa.

James, Adele and I climbed on. 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. And unlike Adele and I, he didn’t know how hard altitude really gets, so he just kept climbing, thinking at some point it might be fun.

We broke out of the ridge and moved into a shallow couloir that led back right and up to a snowy ridge walking 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 Oz, 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 Oz masks.

It was 11 A.M., 14 hours after leaving Camp IV; we were on top of Makalu.

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