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Tough Conditions on Makalu
September 2008 :: Nepal :: Himalaya

Vince Anderson encountered brutal conditions during his 2008 expedition to Makalu, but was still able to accomplish some impressive feats.  Read on for the full story.  This trip was partially funded by a Lyman Spitzer Award, an annual grant given by the AAC.

Our expedition to Makalu occurred from September 12th through November 15th, 2008. The expedition was plagued with difficulties from start to finish. We made one attempt to climb the West Face which ended no further than the bergshrund below the start of the climbing at 6,300 meters. Steve was ill at the time. Steve also made a solo attempt to climb the West face and reached a higher bergschrund at 6,600 meters.  A new route on the West face of Kangchungtse (aka Makalu 2), 7,600 meters was completed by myself and Marko during our acclimatization. 

After some logistical hassles with our planned approach to base camp via helicopter, we ended up doing the week long trek in from the village of Tumlingtar at 400 meters. There seemed to be a lot of confusion among locals, porters and other climbers as to where exactly base camp is located. For the normal route, most climbers seem to prefer a camp in the moraine below the Northwest ridge at around 5,700 meters. This is half a day’s walk from what is referred to as “base camp” by most trekking groups below the South face and at 4,800 meters. This is something not to be overlooked when arranging porters to bring in your expedition loads.  The seasonal monsoon lasted longer than normal and was quite strong until we arrived in base camp on October 4th. The approach hike was wet, warm and we encountered countless leeches which kept things from being dull. 

Upon reaching our base camp, we were shocked to find it incredibly littered with the refuse of numerous previous expeditions. It was the filthiest base camp any of us had ever encountered in our mountain travels. It was a sad site to see and certainly decreased the aesthetics of the otherwise beautiful high mountain surroundings.  Steve and Marko arrived with some cold like illness, which for Steve never went away the entire expedition. Eventually, I too succumbed to the mystery virus, which contributed to the difficulties with this expedition. 

The monsoon let up as we arrived in base camp and the winds began. At first, the winds were helpful as it cleared all the monsoon generated snow fall from the steep faces. Conditions up high on the mountain quickly became good for travel on the snow surface, but, obviously, the high winds made life at the higher altitudes challenging.  We acclimatized on the normal, Makalu La, route reaching a high point at Makalu La, 7,400 meters.  

With continuing winds and Steve not feeling all that well, Marko and I decided to attempt a route on the West Face of Kangchungtse which sits on the opposite side of Makalu La from Makalu for further acclimatization. We ascended to camp 2 at near 6,700 meters on the normal route. From there, we went directly to the base of the West Face and ascended a line more or less directly up the center of it. The climbing consisted of mostly steep, glacial ice and some moderate mixed terrain higher up on the face. The difficulties were up to M4 or 5. It took us about 16 hours to complete the 900 meter route and return to base camp via Makalu La. The summit was in the wind most of the day as was that of Makalu. It seemed to be the norm for the duration of our stay in that area. Makalu La was very windy and the tents set up there by a Spanish expedition had been completely destroyed. There was also an abundance of discarded equipment and other climbing refuse left there. Again, this was a saddening site. 

Upon descending to base camp, Marko and I both became ill with cold like symptoms similar to Steve’s. After three days there at 5,700 meters and no improvement in either the winds or our health, we decided to descend to a lower camp for a few days’ worth of convalescence.  This helped both our physical and mental health so we re-ascended to base camp to hope for a break in the winds and a chance at attempting the true object of our desires, the West Face of Makalu. 

It was now October 26th and getting pretty late in the season. The winds had not yet abated and the temperatures were continuing to get colder. It was starting to feel pretty wintery around the place. We had to start our trek out to civilization no later than November 7th, which seemed about as late as one would want to be up there anyway. We waited for a break in the winds and consulted our weather forecaster in the US, Jim Woodmencey, of Mountainweather.com. A slight respite was predicted for the first week of November and we decided to give it our best shot. 

On October 30th, we left base camp with greatly overloaded packs for an attempt. The weather forecast was for improving, but not perfect conditions. As a result, we took a lot of extra stuff for the expected cold, which in turn necessitated a “slower” approach and, hence, even more stuff to last up there longer. We ended up with what I would describe as “failure” packs, but nonetheless, gave it a shot.  We had been at very high altitude for over a month and although we were well acclimatized, the length of stay at that height and our illnesses had left us somewhat physically and mentally deteriorated. We had very little fire in the belly.  We ascended the ice field below the very impressive West Face in awe. There were numerous extremely large craters in the snow and ice from rock fall, likely caused by the wind. We decided on making a bivouac in the bergschrund on the left side of the lower ice field at around 6,300 meters. As we approached the ‘schrund, we became aware of the frequent rock fall down the face and hurriedly got tucked in under its lip.  We flattened a spot in there and made the most of our night getting poured on by wind driven ice pellet and gravel spindrift. The wind that night roared up high and sounded like a big fire. Our tent was somewhat sheltered, but was getting moved a little by occasional gusts. Morning came and none had the motivation to get the show going. We slept in and debated our options: descending, ascending or waiting. Sometime during breakfast, a beer bottle sized piece of ice was blown into the bergshrund and penetrated our tent, narrowly missing Marko’s head and landing in his bowl of oatmeal. It was all the additional information we needed to abort this attempt. 

We returned to base camp forlorn but, somewhat relieved. For Marko and me, it was over. We both lacked the energy for another attempt. Our bodies were getting weaker by the day and our motivation was not as high as would be necessary for such a serious outing. Steve, having not done anything resembling climbing thus far on the expedition, was still hungry for something. A few days later, with light pack, he went back up solo on a reconnaissance mission with the option to “go for it” if it seemed at all feasible. He took a slightly different approach and ascended to a slightly higher bergshrund to bivouac in. After a less than pleasant night in the wind, he returned again. During that time, Marko and I also did some further reconnaissance of our own for a future attempt. Marko hiked up a small peak/ridge to the East to get good photos of the entire face, while I hiked down valley and checked out other possible sites for a base camp. 

We departed base camp as planned on November 7th and arrived in Kathmandu on November 15th.  We spent 34 days in or near base camp and saw two (maybe three) days that looked at all windless up high. The high base camp, though convenient for the normal route, was a difficult place to stay for so long. Our collective illnesses took a toll on our fitness and health. As well, numerous difficulties with the logistics and with our on mountain staff created additional stress for us that we had not encountered on previous expeditions. We did climb one nice new route on a 7,600 meter peak. Also, we gained a lot of information for a future attempt on the face which all of us are eager to try in a few years. The face looks beautiful and difficult, but certainly not impossible. We saw several possibilities for ascent through the immense rock headwall that caps the peak. The biggest problem will be finding good conditions for climbing. During the autumn, the obvious challenge is getting a weather window after the monsoon ends, but before the onset of the winter winds and colder temperatures. The pre-monsoon season presents its own set of challenges with potentially higher avalanche danger due to snow fall on the face. Either season would likely still involve the hazard of rock fall onto the lower ice fields from the rock head wall. 

To be continued.