I know many of you have been waiting for the details of Mountain Climbing versus Mountain Summiting, and I am finally going to go through all the gritty details of the summit push. I have been waiting for everyone to arrive back in Kathmandu and to give everyone the chance to put together their own version of events.
The reality is that our summit push started May 20th. I left ABC at 5800m early on the 20th to give myself the best chance at getting some rest at Camp 2 at 6800m. I left ABC at about 6:15 am and started the arduous climb up to camp 2 via the depot camp, the ice fall, and the serac field to reach Camp 2 at about 11:30 am. It was actually one of the best parts of the climb for me because I was feeling strong, healthy, and arrived with enough time to level out our tent at camp 2. One of the interesting things that happens to tents on a snow field is that the middle of the tent melts out due to the solar reflection and heat that collects inside the tent. I call it the bathtub effect, and you get this sloping wall inside the tent not unlike laying in a bathtub. Not real comfortable to sleep in and you either have to move the tent or chip away the ice wall along the sides and then build up the center. This is what I spent the afternoon doing, so that by the time my tent mate Robbie arrived we had a nice level tent again. Which was a great thing because we ended up spending two nights at Camp 2 due to extremely high winds on the morning of the 21st. The forecast had called for moderate winds of 20-30km/h during the night of the 20th and through the morning of the 21st. Reality was that we had winds close to 80 km/h with gusts that were stronger. In order for us to make a successful bid for the summit we would have to leave Camp 2 no later then 9:30 am to head for Camp 4. If everything would have been perfect we would leave no later then 6:30 am to head for Camp 4. It is about a 5 hour climb to the Makalu La and then another two hours past that to Camp 4. We needed to have enough time to get to Camp 4, set up tents, make dinner, brew water, and rest before leaving for the summit. We were up and ready to go at 6 am, but the winds kept howling and a few times I thought the tent would blow down due to the gusts coming off the Makalu La. The winds did eventually die down as they were supposed to but it did not happen until close to 1pm. Therefore we had to delay our summit bid until the 23rd. The winds picked up again on the evening of the 22nd but luckily they were in the 20-30km/h range on the morning of the 22nd when we left Camp 2 and started up towards Camp 4.
The journey up to Camp 4 winds through the upper German Camp 2 and proceeds up the lower rock band, the snow field, and the upper rock band in the Makalu La. It takes about 5 hours to make your way through the nearly vertical rock bands that are layered with blue ice and sugar snow. Once you successfully navigate that area. You have a two hour hike across a snowfield to reach Camp 4 at about 7500m. This is where our journey to the summit began.
On the morning of the 22nd I left at early and arrived at Camp 4 by about 1:30pm. I arrived and helped set up the tents at Camp 4, started boiling water for hydration and food by 3pm. Robbie arrived at about 4 pm and jumped into the tent. Things were going well for our summit push. The winds had died down, their was some afternoon convection clouds happening but nothing that was serious. Chhiring and Furtemba had left to fix a few sections of rope through the serac field that lead to the base of the French couloirs. Brad had made a climbing decision about heading to the summit the day before from Camp 3. Unfortunately his bid for the summit was not successful.(He will tell his tale in a few days). Eric was still coming up to Camp 4. Robbie and I were in the tent resting and getting all our gear ready to head to the summit. For me this included going through my Valandre down suit and making sure everything was in the right pockets. Batteries for foot warmers on inside pocket right side, water bottle on inside pocket left side, Camera, Dermatone Sun Block, Spare Batteries for head lamp, Spare Head Lamp in zipper pocket, food stashed in thigh pocket, Camelback full, Radio, spare radio battery. Then I crawled into my down suit, Crawled into my Bloody Mary sleeping bag, and started to nap for our departure for the summit. Eric M arrived into camp 4 just before it got dark and he started his process of getting ready. Our original plan was to leave for the summit at 12:00am but because so many people had arrived so late in the day we made the decision to push that back until 2 am.
By the time everyone was out of their tents and ready to go it was almost 2:30 am. We headed off towards the summit walking in a single file line through the lower glacier field to avoid crevasses. It always an interesting experience to walk in a line of people through the dark with headlamps glowing ahead and behind you. In the dark you cannot really see anything except a dull outline of what is ahead of you, and you simply hear the breathing of the person behind you. If they happen to be on oxygen then you are pretty sure that Darth Vader is following you in the dark on the way up the mountain. In total their was 11 of us who left for the summit that night. Finjo had returned to Kathmandu because of an illness, Brad had already made his summit attempt, and Mica(a member of the French Team) had felt that he was not rested or hydrated enough to make a bid for the summit that night. So as the 11 of us trudged through the dark we were expecting about a 10 hour push to reach the summit by noon. The reality of a 16 hour push was not something we had considered when we started out, but as the night turned to day it became clearer that was we were looking at.
The glacier and serac fields had fresh snow on top that made some of the traverses a little tricky in navigating. We pushed up through the Serac Fields and reached the bottom of the French couloirs at about 1 pm. The weather was still clear but we had become a stretched out line of climbers. Robbie K had decided that it was not his day due to lack of sleep and food and turned around. So at about 1 pm we started pushing up through the French Couloirs, which is strikingly similar to the Makalu La but starting at 8100m and slightly more vertical. We had Chhiring who was fixing rope in the lead, followed by the Phillipe, Alexia, and Yeti on oxygen, then Andu and Sandrine, and I was batting clean up on the way up. When we were about half way up at about 3:30 pm The weather started to change on us. We started getting some wind gusts, and we saw the sky starting to speckle up with mares tails and when I was looking across at the ridges spind drift was blowing. Yet we continued to push on thinking all the time that we were almost there. We got to the summit ridge at almost 5pm, at which time we were still about an 1 hour from the summit. The sky was white, the wind was up, and spin drift was blowing everywhere. Sun had disappeared and the temperature was definitely cold. We decided to go for it.
The Summit of Makalu is really only about 3 ft wide and it is proceeded on either side by a little tiny ridge that drops off on both sides for thousands of feet. It is covered by ice and corniced snow and you have to traverse past a false ridge to reach it. It is very tricky to reach. So after making our way up to the false summit, and moving across the ridge. I finally reached the summit at 5:59 pm!!! Alexia and Sandrine summited before me, and I was followed by Phillipe. Yeti had made the decision to turn around prior to reaching the summit ridge based on weather conditions which was probably one of the smarter decisions of the day.
As we started making our way down the mountain the weather progressed into real nasty storm. Now we were descending the ropes that we has put up and to add insult to injury, they were difficult to find under the snow that had just fallen. We finally reached the bottom of the couloirs after about 2 hours of descending into a worsening storm. We were all aware of the crevasses that we had passed over to reach the couloirs but none of us were sure of our ability to spot them in a white out in the dark. So we roped up and started our descent. It took me until almost 10:45 pm to reach our Camp 4. And along the way there were a few issues, but in the end we all safely reached our Camp 4 by midnight. Everyone was safe.
In the morning, I headed down to ABC. Being completely wiped out a journey that had previously took me 6 hours ended up taking almost 12.
Then on the morning of the 25th a large part of our group was heading down for a helicopter ride from Yangle Kharka which is about 29km trek from our ABC. They headed out at 11:00am. After they left Robbie, Yeti, and I were planning on leaving on the 26th or 27th from ABC. But at this point they became like caged animals and wanted to leave right away. So they headed out after lunch at about 1pm for Yangle Kharka, and I followed at 2:30 pm. By this point I was wiped out and decided the helicopter was the best way out for me. Robbie and Yeti then went on a death march from Yangle Kharka to Tumilingtar and did the simply amazing feat of completing the trek in two days!!!!
Now we have celebrated Robbie’s 40th Birthday in Kathmandu and plan on doing up a party for Eric tomorrow!!!!
Pictures will follow, I am still waiting for my stuff to arrive from Base Camp!
Chris Klinke, Kathmandu