It has only been about 2 weeks since I’ve been back home but the thoughts of the mountain seem so distant suddenly. There had been minimal connection to the outside world while at base camp and I would like to thank my wife for updating this blog from the bits and pieces of information about the climb I told her from our very infrequent sat phone communication.
Makalu is a HUGE mountain! Its area is around 170 km2 (including its subsidiary peak Chomo Lonzo). This is about the same area as the Everest Lhotse complex. (Both areas measured using google earth using the polygon tool with perimeter measured at the valleys of each mountain complex). The whole of the Makalu Barun conservation area is around 1500km2 while Singapore’s total area is around 720km2 (just for comparison). Just seeing Makalu from the heli into BC was one of the most spectacular sights ever. It is a massive, almost perfect 4 sided pyramid located 20km east of Everest with 3 of its 4 ridges located in Nepal while 1 spans eastwards towards Tibet. We tried to climb the normal route which is the south west ridge. It was also one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever climbed and the most peaceful one as well as we were the only team on Makalu this season.
Even though we had to turn back just 100m from the summit, it was one of the most proudest climbing moments for me as we achieved the near impossible by climbing in the season of less success probability (post monsoon as compared to spring) and with a team of only 14 people (6 foreign climbers and 7 sherpas and 1 trying to be the 1st Nepali female to climb the mountain). Getting so close to the summit would never have been possible without the extremely strong and brave Sherpa team, namely Jamling, Nima, Kami, Dhakipa, Pempa (speed), Duk Chung and Nurbu. They worked hard as a team and set fixed ropes nearly all the way to the start of the French couloir. My utmost respect and awe for their determination, perseverance, motivation and strength. Also a shout out to the kitchen staff namely this porter we fondly named ‘rescue’ who would walk daily from the South East ridge’s Makalu BC to our BC to get food supplies from a lodge (Yak Hotel) located there. This walk took me a 4h descent and a 7 h ascent on loose, exposed moraine and scree during 1 of my rest days in between my acclimatisation rotations. One experience on this route and everyone in the team never wanted to walk on the trail ever again. However, ‘Rescue’ would take this walk almost every without complaining.
Below is short account of the whole time I was in BC with some detailed facts about the climb including pictures and maps. I realise that there is a severe lack of information available online about Makalu and I hope that this account will help to augment the info already available.
We flew into Makalu BC (5700m) on the 14th of Sept. It was an amazing heli ride flying past Ama Dablam, Island Peak and just over the saddle between Num Ri on the left and Baruntse on the right. This ride inspired me to take my family to the Khumbu one day to share with them the beauty of the mountains that I had spent almost 10 years of my life appreciating. The massive Makalu was standing right in front of us and staring as we approached BC. It was scary and awe inspiring at the same time.
After the Pooja day, my first day of acclimatisation had me touching C1 (6150m) and coming back to BC on the same day. The 4 French (Meidi, David, Pascal and Fransua) arrived on the 18th of Sept by Heli. My next 4 day rotation plan was to sleep at C1, then sleep at C2, then climb as high above C2 the next day and return back to C2 again and then come back to BC the next day. However this plan had to end early as it was very bad weather from the word go. It started snowing when we reached C1 at about 2pm and it continued snowing heavily all the way for the next 2 days. We made it to C2 (6400m) in the poor visibility and snow conditions. However we could not proceed as planned as we had to descend back to BC the next day as it had snowed in and avalanche risk was high. We made it back to BC in knee deep snow and poor visibility. This 2nd rotation was initially meant to be our final rotation as the summit weather window was approaching and would not allow for another cycle. I was quite uncomfortable now with this arrangement as I felt that I wouldn’t be acclimatised enough for the summit push. The French who were attempting without O2 would do another rotation halfway to C3 in the coming days as they were on a different schedule.
We were following the weather forecast very closely as it would decide when we’d leave for the summit push. 30th Sept and 1st Oct looked like good days. During the rest days, some of the Sherpas took turns to lay fixed lines from C2 to C3. After fixing for 2 days, the progressed to about 200m just shy of C3. The Sherpas could not fix any further as they needed to come to BC to rest to attempt the summit bid together with the rest of the team. So the terrain after C3 was mostly unknown. From the team, only Kami had summited Makalu and Norbu had reached C3 during past expeditions. It was the first time on the mountain for the rest, so we heavily depended on Kami to lead.
We also took a day’s rest at the Yak hotel at South east ridge BC (4700m) during one of the rest days. That trek proved to be one of the most challenging treks I’ve done to date and it was far from a relaxing rest day. After that exhausting experience, I was so grateful that we didn’t have to trek out of BC once the expedition was over. We finally started the summit push from BC on the 27th of Sept. There would be 2 teams. The first team would comprise of myself, the Chinese lady (Jiandan), 2 French (Meidi and David) and the first team of Sherpas (Jamling, Nima, Kami, Dhakipa, Duk Chung). Kami, Dhakipa and Duk Chung had left a day earlier to finish fixing the lines to C3. The plan was them to join the main team when they reached C2. The 2nd team would comprise of the other 2 french (Pascal and Fransua), Pemba, Kanchi Maya and Nurbu who would follow 2 days behind.
We left BC to C2 on the 27th of Sept. It was my first time climbing straight from BC to C2 and skipping C1. I was feeling super anxious about this push and there were already a lot of instances of self doubt that flashed across my mind thus far. It was as if I was going for the summit push of an 8000m peak for the first time. Perhaps it was due to the bad experience I just had on K2 and the pre-knowledge of a low probability of success during this expedition which filled my head with such negative thoughts. I had doubts about my physique and abilities although I clearly felt much stronger than ever before; I doubted the safety and possibility of summiting with such a small team with no knowledge of terrain and no fixed ropes after C3; I doubted the weather forecast if it would hold true unlike that in K2 and the biggest thing that made me doubt everything was the voice inside my head that kept telling me that I couldn’t do it as it would be too difficult. It was already becoming a challenge to gear up my mind to get myself started in the first place.
Route from BC (5700m) to C1 (6150m)
The trail from BC to C1 starts off with loose moraine that requires scrambling on all 4s at times. It also requires some simple near vertical rock climbing and crossing flowing stream before getting a chance to walk next to the huge glacier that originates from the southern ridge of Makalu . Getting onto this glacier is relatively easy with crampons and fixed lines but is really quite a challenge without a pair. The initially towering glacier will eventually even out with the level of the moraine as one walks further towards the south west ridge. Trying to simply hop onto the glacier from the moraine would mean that the climber would have to struggle through extremely loose moraine all the way in and this takes up much time. Once on the glacier, it’s a relatively straight forward walk on a sustained gentle slope all the way to C1 which is nested in the centre surrounded by the high head walls of the ridgeline. The weather at C1 is similar to that of the western cwm on Everest. All 3 walls of the ridgeline reflect the sun rays onto the centre of the glacier exactly where C1 is located just like a microwave oven.
I felt strong as we left BC and was leading the whole team just before crampon point. Only the French had stashed their crampons away in a duffle bag at crampon point. Thus they were fast to mount the glacier and were quickly on their way to C1 thereafter. I and Jamling on the other hand, had left our crampons in C1 and it just seemed too difficult and dangerous climbing onto the glacier with no harness or crampons. So we decided to take the slow walk up the irritating loose moraine till we found a suitable spot to safely climb onto the glacier. This slowed us down and made us both very tired. The snow from the previous storm about a week ago which had melted away by now had formed an icy crust. At times, we would step through the crust and go knee deep into the slush of ice, water and snow beneath and this took away a lot of our energy. It was a tiring hot slog to C1 which took 4h. Each time the sun was up, I wished the clouds would come and each time a passing cloud obscured the sun, it felt awfully cold. This fluctuating temperatures didn’t help much in regaining our lost energy. We had lunch and rested and started heading towards C2.
Route from C1 (6150m) to C2 (6400m)
Almost immediately after C1, one has to head towards a vertical snow/ice ridge. This is the first set of essential fixed lines that one would encounter. After about 200m of vertical jummaring, the slope flattens out, exposing the huge fields of snow all around. As the trail turns right (southwards), it bypasses huge crevasses before heading up north again over a gentle snow slope till it reaches C2 which rests at the foot of Makalu II (7678m).
The French had reached C1 an hour before us and had started heading towards C2 an hour before we even left C1 leaving me and Jamling the last in the team to ascend. It was refreshing being the only ones on the mountain. It was a long time since I experienced absolute solitude on the mountains which left a deafening silence. It was just me with the mountains, my thoughts and god. I was once again reliving the unforgettable moments like this that first made me start climbing. It was an irony, however, that I finally was managing to experience these rare moments once again only during my last 8000m peak. I knew I would miss the mountains much.
The section with fixed lines was straight forward and we managed to clear it relatively fast due to the lack of traffic. Then it was a slow slog on the snow slopes till we finally reached C2 in about 3.5h which was faster than what we clocked during the previous rotation. As we climbed higher in the clear weather, just before reaching C2, we could make out the peaks of Everest and Lhotse towards the west. Very rarely does anyone get to experience the view of an 8000m peak that he has climbed before from another 8000m peak that he’s currently climbing and I was fortunate to witness Everest from an angle that few have seen. We reached C2 about 9h after leaving BC. I had overcome the first day of my mental barrier which had me fearing the long climb from BC to C2; something that I was not able to do on K2 (to climb from BC to C1, skipping ABC). The rest of the Sherpas (Kami, Dhakiapa and Duk Chung) who had left a day earlier than us had just finished fixing all the lines to C3 and had returned to C2 for the night. We were happy that the lines to C3 had finally been fixed.
Route from C2 (6400m) to C3 (7500m)
The route from C2 to C3 is considered the toughest part of the climb. After about 250m of gradual slope from C2, the trail reaches the base of the wall leading to Makalu La on the South West ridge. This is also where the 2nd mandatory set of fixed lines start (6650m). It’s a difficult, technical, almost 900 vertical meter mixed climb up rock, ice and snow on this eastern wall all the way till the trail flattens out at Makalu La which is where C3 is sited. C3 is located on a saddle between the summit of Makalu (8463m) on the south and Malaku II (7678m) on the north. Technically, Makalu la is the pass and the border between Nepal and Tibet and reaching C3 would mean that one is officially in Tibet. The rest of the remaining climb from C3 to the summit would be in Tibet. Wonder if the Chinese government knows this?
We left later than the rest of the team and once again were at the rear which I didn’t mind at all. The fixed lines started again at the bottom of the eastern wall which led to Makalu La. It was a really difficult climb. Kami kept saying that the summit is guaranteed if we reach C3 and that motivated me to keep going knowing that I was experiencing the toughest part of the journey. Jamling had asked Duk Chung to standby an O2 bottle for me in case I was too slow on this segment as it was a long steep climb. Fortunately, I was able to keep up with the rest of the team ahead and didn’t need to use O2. Most parts of this segment were steeper than the slopes of K2 but were easier to climb as there weren’t that many rocks on the route and the weather was perfect. There wasn’t any flat ground to take breaks either. Jamling was right behind me and said my pace was strong. We made sure we didn’t slowly lag away from the team in front. As we approached the pass, I was really slow. Each step would get me extremely winded and progress was at a snail’s pace. Finally the slope flattened out at Makalu la and even though C3 was just about 100m away from the cliff edge, it took me another 15 mins to get there. The climb from C2 to C3 took me a staggering 9h and I was totally exhausted when I reached C3. From C3, the views of Everest and Lhotse were crystal clear. We could see Chomo Lonzo (7804m) to the north and the whole Tibetan plateau. This was the highest I had been without supplemental O2 – my personal record. A proud moment for me.
Before me and Jamling arrived in C3, the rest of the Sherpas had recced abit of the trail out of the camp and reported heavy snow all the way to C4. We were told that it may be impossible to pass to C4 and that that would try breaking trail the next day. So the next day turned out to be a rest day for the 4 foreign climbers while all the Sherpas tried breaking trail to C4 and fixing lines above that. The initially planned summit day was pushed back by a day. This meant that we would be short of food on summit day and if the weather changed, it would be disastrous. I was happy that there was O2 available and slept with it. That night, Duk Chung complained of a headache and after he had some paracetamol, he developed an allergic reaction which had him itching away the whole night. He woke up sick the next morning. By mid-day, he had lost his motivation to continue and planned to go down the next day. A big blow to our team’s morale as the small team of 5 sherpas had become even smaller.
Route from C3 (7500m) to C4 (7650m)
Some climbers choose to skip C4 as the elevation gain is minimal and try to attempt the summit bid from C3 itself. Many expeditions have turned back from C3 due to deep snow conditions and risk of avalanche. From C3, it’s a largely flat but extensively snowed in trail that has climbers going eastwards further into Tibet until they reach the icy steeper slopes just below the summit. The placement of C4 has to be with care. If pitched too close to the ice slopes, there is a risk of avalanche from high above. From C4, Kanchenjunga can be seen clearly towards the east.
After our unplanned rest day in C3 on the 29th Sept, we set off for C4 on the 30th knowing that the route has painstakingly been broken by the 4 brave Sherpas without O2 the day before. It was perfect weather as we walked from C3 to C4. Both I and Jamling used O2 while the rest of the team went ahead without. It was an easy walk (thanks to the work of the Sherpas) which got us to C4 in about 2.5h. After setting up C4, Nima, Kami and Dhakipa went ahead to recce and fix lines above C4. We had ran out of solid hot food by now and were mainly sustaining ourselves on liquids, sugary drinks and energy bars. The 3 brave Sherpas returned after about 6 hrs at about 6pm with good news. They said that the terrain above C4 was very good and that they had fixed lines all the way to just below the French couloir. They were in high spirits as they believed that there was a very high chance of summit success. We were extremely encouraged by this news and went to bed knowing that D-day would be in a few hours.
Route from C4 (7650m) to Summit (8463m)
The route begins with about 200 m of gradual slope which continues to become steeper and leads onto a large sheet of blue ice. After some technical climbing on the blue ice, the trail opens up at about 8000m to a huge sloping field of snow. This is where there is a high risk of avalanche danger in the event of heavy snow. Just above on the left, there are 2 large and wide seracs which one has to overcome by climbing on the snow slope just adjacent to them. Once above the seracs, the trail veers left towards the bottom of the French couloir (8350m). This is the last technical part of the climb before hitting the summit ridge. Turning right, the trail follows in the south west direction to the false summit and after passing that, the true pyramid summit.
We set off from C4 on 1st Oct at about 0030h. O2 made such a huge difference and it got me and Jamling way ahead from the rest who were climbing without O2. Jamling led, I followed and the others followed behind. The French were much slower and more tired as they had spent 2 nights at 7500m without O2. We ended up waiting for the rest of the team to catch up for most of the time as there was no point moving fast. The 3 shepras below had to fix lines above from where they had stopped the previous day. The terrain was indeed good. It was a gradual slope with only the occasional knee deep snow. Even when we hit the segment with blue ice, the snow had covered most parts of it making it easy for us to use crampons on it. I had no idea how the 3 of them had managed to fix so far the previous day and still had the strength to push for the summit with a few hours of rest. I and Jamling finally made it to the point where the fixed lines stopped. It was the only relatively flat segment since we left C4. We reached there at about 0530h and waited in the cold till the rest arrived. The sunrise was beautiful and we could see Kangenjunga clearly in the east and the whole of Tibet blanketed with a thick layer of clouds. By the time everyone arrived, rested and settled down, it was 6.30am and was completely bright. Only then did we see that the area above was avalanche prone as there were huge chunks of ice which had broken off and had littered the snow slopes towards our right. We also saw that we were far below the French couloir. Nima was focused on carrying on and took the risk. I urged Jamling to carry on as well. So Kami and Dhakipa took the ropes and started breaking trail. There was not a single chance we could have made it so far without these solid guys.
The French became exceedingly slow and decided to turn back as they knew they would not make it due to the deep snow ahead. Dhakipa turned back with them. So it was just 5 of us left and the trail seemed impossible to break. The snow was really deep and all of us just kept sinking in when the top layer of crusted snow gave way each time we took a step. Nima was leading at this time and was dragging the last coil of Korean rope we had – ready to fix it along the way if we really had to. After the slope leading to the path above the 2 large seracs, Kami decided to turn back even though Jamling had requested him to stay and help. I didn’t know how this commitment to climbing worked. Could anyone just turn back anytime they wanted to?
So it was just down to the 4 of us now – Jamling, myself, Nima and Jiandan. Jamling was getting tired so he helped with trail breaking only from time to time. The French couloir was just metres away but every step was so difficult as we kept sinking into waist deep snow with each step. Jiandan was very fast for someone without O2 but still was much slower than the 2 of us. Even though it was already close to 1400h, I knew I was safe and could spend the whole day in the ‘death zone’ as we had enough O2 and could make our way down to C4 in the dark if need be. I wasn’t too sure about the Nima (who seemed to be stronger than us even though he wasn’t on any O2) and Jiandan.
Finally as the slope got too steep and we were just too slow, Nima started fixing our final length of rope to just below the French couloir and while the 3 of us were jummaring up, he went to recce above the couloir by himself. As we reached the start of the couloir, he came back down and said that there was no way we were going to make it. Nima is an extremely strong Sherpa with so much determination that he almost single handedly led us from 8000m to 8350m in the toughest of terrain when everyone else had turned around. When someone like him said it was not possible, I believed it was truly not possible. The snow was too deep above the summit ridge and we had no more ropes. The summit ridge usually doesn’t require much fixed lines but due to the current conditions it was too dangerous to move above the French couloir without fixed lines. The heavy snow storm a week ago probably had left the summit in this bad condition.
It was already 1530h and we were only 100m from the summit but yet, we had no choice. It was a difficult decision. I and Jamling were extremely disappointed that this was not going to work even after the hardest of fights put up by the team. Everyone chipped in, everyone worked so hard and the weather was perfect but it was not meant to be. With a heavy heart and tears in our eyes, I and Jamling turned decided to turn back. It was truly sad.
We made it down to C4 in 2.5h where we saw Pemba and Maya with the other 2 French from the 2nd team. There was a lot of discussion but in the end, everyone decided to come down the mountain the next day. The winds were predicted to pick up the next day, there was not enough manpower, no more ropes and the terrain would be worse with the winds having covered up whatever trail that we broke up there. That was the end of the season on Makalu for everyone.
Looking back, I am extremely disappointed that I didn’t manage to summit the mountain even though we were so close. However, it was one of the proudest climbing moments for me as we achieved the near impossible by climbing in the season of less success probability and with such a small team (attrition down to 4 climbers close to the summit). Makalu was one of the biggest and most beautiful mountains that I’ve ever climbed and I thank god for giving me the opportunity for allowing me to have gone so far. For me, the mountains are and will always be the most awe inspiring and beautiful wonder of nature. I will be sad that this would be my last 8000m peak for many years to come (as promised to my family) but the memories of me having climbed 4 8000m peaks would always stay fresh within me for all time.
I am still raising money for my 2 beneficiaries, the Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA) and the Home Nursing Foundation (HNF). The money for HNF will go towards its pioneer care givers program and funds raised for SNSA will go towards stroke education among the public as well as rehabilitation and reintegration of stroke patients back into the society to be working adults once again. My fund raising efforts will go on till the end of the year. Please do click on either of the logos to donate any amount. No amount is too small as every cent will be used for improving the quality of life for the caregivers of patients as well as stroke survivors.
When you’re in the great Himalayas, you experience something beyond your self. You realise that the mountains are indeed immovable. Ego must give way to the truth that we’ll never be above nature, we’ll never be in complete control of faith and we’ll never withstand the grip of time. We are as fragile as the frost on the slopes on which we trod upon. Overcoming the mountains within is more difficult than overcoming the mountains ahead. There is nothing that you conquer when you climb other than that within yourself.