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Asia, Nepal, Makalu West Pillar Attempt

Makalu West Pillar Attempt. We were Dwayne Congdon, Albert Sole, Sharon Wood (recipient of a Vera Watson-Alison Chadwick Onyszkiewicz grant) and Dr. Ken Bassett, Canadians, and Charles Sassara and I, Americans. We established Base Camp at 17,700 feet, where the 1971 French team had its Camp I, a rather bleak, exposed site, a little high for physical recovery. After acclimatizing, on March 28 we reconnoitered. By crossing the Chago Glacier in a sweeping contour we lost little altitude. We found a gully system leading through the lower rock cliff to scree above and Camp I at 19,550 feet. When not leading, all were ferrying loads. On April 2, Congdon and I moved into Camp I and the next day began fixing rope toward Camp II. The technical climbing began abruptly above camp with a 400-foot, 50° ice slope. This led to a sharp snow-and-ice ridge over two snow humps. Above the second at 21,000 feet, it gradually ascended to an over-hanging ice cliff at 21,500 feet. As this was where two New Zealanders were killed in 1983, we fixed 4500 feet of rope on the winding knife-edged ridge. From Camp II the buttress rose in a perfectly straight, steep line for 3000 feet to its junction with the massive white granite prow, the awesome feature which gave the route its name: West Pillar. During these weeks we experienced winter weather and wind, which shredded tents. Congdon and Wood set off from Camp II on April 14. For two days they climbed ice faces and loose, delicate rocky ground and approached an airy 200-foot rock traverse onto the south face. This deviation from the crest avoided several overhanging rock steps. The French had called it the Terrible Traverse. Sole took Congdon’s place on the 16th and with Wood reached the traverse. After a short rest at the foot of the mountain, on April 20 Sassara and Congdon left for Camp II, followed the next day by Sole, Wood and me. The first two led the Terrible Traverse in a snowstorm on the 22nd. Then Sole and Wood went ahead onto the 1000 feet of steep ice runnels and iced granite slabs above the traverse for three long days. On April 27 Sassara and I carefully maneuvered up the last section of snow-covered cracks and slabs and then threaded our way back and along the knife-edged rock-and-ice ridge to within 100 yards of Camp III. The daily routine of rappelling thousands of feet back to Camp II after an exhausting day was tricky and dangerous. On May 1, Sole and Congdon established Camp III at 24,200 feet. The carry from Camps II to III took a shattering eight to ten hours. On May 5, Sassara and I settled in at Camp III. The smooth, grayish- white pillar above us stretched into the sky for 1300 vertical feet. We spent the next three days fixing rope up 800 feet of steep rock slabs and walls to 25,000 feet. On May 10, Sole and Congdon took over the lead, while the rest descended to Base Camp for the first time in 18 days. The last 500 feet to Camp IV necessitated the steepest climbing yet. At the end of the second day, the pair gasped their way up a snow-covered ice gully to a small notch, the site of French Camp VI at 25,500 feet. They were keen to establish Camp IV there before returning to Base Camp, but unfortunately it was not to be. During the night Sole had a severe headache and a retinal hemorrhage which obscured the vision of his right eye. They descended immediately for diagnosis. With four left to establish Camp IV and make the summit bid, two would have to make a sacrificial carry to Camp IV to let the other two reach this camp with enough strength to climb the remaining 2300 feet and return without oxygen. On May 14, Sassara and Wood set off on the gruelling four-day climb to Camp IV. Congdon and I started behind them on May 17. That same evening our final camp was established. After eight hours of hauling gear up the steep and vertical fixed ropes on the pillar, followed by two more hours of oxygen-starved work chopping out a tiny platform, Sole and Wood crawled into the tent, descending the next morning. On May 20, Congdon and I arrived at Camp IV. At 1:30 A.M. we began up the 45° mixed ice-and-rock gullies by headlamp. The actual top of the West Pillar route lay 1600 vertical feet above us where it abutted the southeast ridge at 27,100 feet. From there the summit lay another 700 relatively easy feet up. By 8:30 A.M. we began the horizontal ice ridge that marked the last crest of the West Pillar. By noon, in a sky of broken clouds, we were at 27,100 feet. By 1:30 it was snowing but Congdon and I pressed on in the growing storm to the 50-meter triangular rock wall which bars the last 100 yards to the summit of Makalu. We crossed a low-angle avalanche-threatened snow bowl and went through a gap around the right of the rock wall. At three P.M. our visibility was down to 30 yards. At 3:30 with the new snow falling heavily and the summit less than 100 yards away, we began the descent. Darkness caught us where daybreak had. After a series of rappels and careful down-climbing on the front points of crampons, at midnight we reached Camp IV. In our exhausted state Congdon and I took 1½ days to descend to Base Camp. Still hoping for the summit, Wood and Sole left for Camp I on May 26 and ascended to Camp II on the 27th. The approaching monsoon was changing the weather patterns. On the morning of the 28th they mutually called off the attempt but continued unselfishly to Camp III to bring down valuable equipment. Five days later Congdon and I found the strength to make a final journey to Camp II to bring down the remaining gear.

Carlos Buhler