American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing


  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988


Glenn Porzak

SPORTING ONE OF the lowest success ratios (20%) of any of the world’s fourteen 8000-meter peaks, Makalu has been a true nemesis for the American Himalayan climber. At 27,825 feet, the fifth highest mountain in the world has been the objective of no less than ten American expeditions or expeditions with an American presence. Yet, prior to 1987, only one American, John Roskelley, had reached its summit.

It was against this backdrop that our team of nine Colorado climbers and four Sherpas set out in March of 1987 to challenge the Great Black One—so-called because of the mountain’s distinctive band of dark granite. Located on the border of Nepal and Tibet approximately 12 miles east of Mount Everest, Makalu would more than live up to its reputation as one of the more difficult 8000ers.

The nucleus of our team consisted of six members of the successful 1983 American expedition to 26,398-foot Shishapangma. They were John Cooley, Ed Ramey and Sandy Read, and summitters Mike Browning, Chris Pizzo and I. In addition, the group included Dave Herrick, Dr. Stefan Goldberg and Gary Neptune. Pizzo had reached the summit of Everest in 1981 and Neptune in 1983. Finally, we also had the good fortune to employ four topnotch high altitude porters: Lhakpa Dorje (the Sardar), Sherpa Lhakpa Nuru, who had previously climbed to 8100 meters on Makalu with Reinhold Messner, Sherpa Dawa Nuru, and Motilal, a Gurung from the Makalu region.

From Kathmandu, we began our journey to Base Camp by flying east 100 air miles to Tumlingtar, a small village situated on the Arun River at less than 1500 feet. After rounding up enough porters to carry our 130 loads, we were on our way.

Over the next three days we gradually ascended the lowland forests, traversed terraced fields of flooded rice paddies, and meandered along forested ridges covered with tropical vegetation. After camping by the picturesque village of Num, on the fourth day we descended more than 3000 vertical feet to cross the Arun River, only to immediately regain every inch of lost altitude by climbing to the village of Sedua on the opposite mountainside. The next day the terrain became more rugged as we fought our way through dense, almost jungle-type terrain infested with leeches, until we eventually reached the village of Tashigaon. Located at 7000 feet, the dozen or so log and stone houses of this settlement would be the last signs of any permanent habitation that we would see for the next two months.

After enduring a day-long strike and switching to porters who were better equipped to handle higher altitudes, the real adventure began. Less than an hour out of Tashigaon, the path steepened. Up we climbed through thick bamboo and then rhododendron forests, until on the afternoon of the seventh day we encountered deep snow at 10,000 feet. We were at the base of Shipton’s Pass, the logistical nightmare of virtually every expedition to the Makalu region. Rising to 13,400 feet, this rugged and storm-swept pass is snow-covered most of the year. While numerous expeditions have had to spend many days ferrying loads over it, the gods were to smile kindly upon us. Despite turbulent weather and snows over six feet deep, we got all of our loads across in just two days.

From the top of Shipton’s Pass, we descended 4500 vertical feet to the Barun River which is fed by Makalu’s northwestern and southern glaciers. For the next three days we journeyed through perhaps the most remote and spectacular mountain terrain I have ever seen. With the valley floor consisting of lush tundra and rushing streams, flanked by sheer rock walls and countless waterfalls plunging thousands of feet, it was like walking into a virgin Yosemite Valley. Yet there was one big difference. In this Shangri La, peaks rising to 24,000 feet formed the backdrop. It is simply the jewel of Nepal. The beauty intensified until on the eleventh day we skirted a rocky hillside, turned north onto a lateral moraine, and there it was. Towering more than two vertical miles into the atmosphere and rising in one massive sweep to a perfect summit pinnacle stood the Great Black One.

On April 1, we reached a clearing in the moraine beneath the south face of Makalu at 16,000 feet. It was the site of the Base Camp used by Sir Edmund Hillary during his unsuccessful attempts on Makalu in 1954 and again in 1961. Here most of the porters turned back, but a stalwart group remained over the next few days to help shuttle loads up to Advance Base at 17,500 feet. Located on a small plateau above the rocky moraine of the Barun Glacier, the views of Everest, Lhotse and countless other peaks were simply awesome. However, nothing was more impressive than Makalu’s west face which loomed directly overhead.

After settling into our permanent Base Camp and organizing the loads destined for the upper part of the mountain, on April 5 the weather was good and we were ready to begin the climb. The route up to Camp I was a classic grind. The first couple of hours involved a tedious ascent through miles of loose boulders on the glacial moraine. Above the boulderfield was what looked to be a solid band of ice, hundreds of feet high, which appeared to block all access to the mountain’s lower snow slopes. However, after crossing a frozen lake and scrambling up steep glacial debris, a corridor the size of a four-lane highway appeared on the right side of the icefall. It was like the parting of the Red Sea.

For nearly an hour the route ascended this alleyway flanked by huge cliffs of overhanging ice. At roughly 19,000 feet the corridor was history and a short steep headwall of glacier ice led to a snow bench nearly a mile long. After postholing across this wide expanse for what seemed an eternity, one last rock slope nearly 500 vertical feet in height had to be climbed before Makalu’s lower tier of glaciers was reached.

Camp I was in a flat but wind-exposed area on the Barun Glacier at 20,000 feet. After days of hauling loads up to Camp I, we began the first foray towards the mountain’s upper slopes. While heavily crevassed, the route to Camp II was straightforward and not too difficult. The sole exception was one prominent steep section midway, which we secured with a small amount of fixed rope. The plan was to try to locate the next camp beneath the towering couloir which provided the most direct access to the Makalu Col, the 24,300-foot saddle which was the gateway to the summit plateau.

As a result, we sited Camp II at approximately 21,700 feet in the last flat area before the slopes began to steepen dramatically towards the base of the massive snow gully. While lower than we would have liked, the camp was well protected from any avalanche danger by the surrounding séracs, and the views were spectacular. From this camp we were high enough to look north over a neighboring saddle into Tibet. Directly to the west, Lhotse and the southeastern flank of Everest appeared so close that you could study every detail of the summit slopes of these two giants.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty of the climb was establishing and stocking Camp III on the Makalu Col. That, in turn, required climbing and fixing the so-called Messner couloir, a snow-rock-and-ice gully which extended over 2000 vertical feet at an average angle of nearly 45°. The climb was unbelievably strenuous. Consisting of thirteen sections of fixed rope, each approximately 300 feet long, it took a minimum of 6½ hours to make the ascent. With the wind constantly funneling spindrift right into one’s face, this section was downright torturous. Mentally and physically it was a challenge that stretched everyone to his absolute limits. Moreover, as if to provide a gruesome reminder of what can happen if you press beyond your limits, there on the col, encased in ice, was the body of a climber from a past expedition. All things considered, without the assistance of the Sherpas, I seriously doubt that we could have fully stocked the higher camps. They were a major force in keeping the mountain within our limits.

After four solid weeks of hard work and countless carries by every member of the team, we were ready to mount our first serious effort on the summit. Camp III was now stocked and Chris Pizzo, Gary Neptune and I moved up with the four Sherpas to occupy that camp for the first time. If all went well the following day, three of the Sherpas would carry the food, tents and other supplies required to establish the final assault camp. At the same time, Chris, Gary, Lhakpa Nuru and I would move up to Camp IV and make a summit attempt the ensuing day.

However, no sooner had we occupied Camp III than a severe storm struck. On May 1, with visibility only a few yards and winds well over 50 mph, we made an attempt at establishing Camp IV. But in such conditions it was ridiculous to think that we could actually pitch the tents and ready ourselves for a summit try. Instead, we gratefully settled for the efforts of the three Sherpas who cached their loads at 25,700 feet, the future site of Camp IV, and then descended to Camp II. The first summit party returned to Camp III and dug in to try and wait out the storm.

The wait would be a long one. Two days into the storm there was no end in sight. With gale force winds and zero visibility, the last place that we wanted to be was at 24,300 feet on a saddle that was fully exposed to the elements. On Day 3 of the storm the first signs of trouble appeared. Gary’s face began to swell and his throat was so sore that he was barely able to talk. He had developed the powerful virus which had already incapacitated four other members of the team and relegated them to the lower part of the mountain. The pro that he is, Gary immediately knew that he had to get down to lower altitude before his illness became more serious. Thus, that same day he descended the fixed ropes with Lhakpa Nuru and went all the way to Base Camp in an effort to recover.

Meanwhile, Chris and I held on, hoping against hope that the weather would break. However, the longer we remained pinned down at Camp III, the less likely we would have the strength to make a serious summit try. Nonetheless, the thought of descending and then reclimbing the giant couloir on another day deluded us into thinking that we could hang on a bit longer. Finally after five days both Chris and I were totally whipped. While the clouds had lifted, the winds were still blowing well over 60 mph. We barely had the strength to crawl down the fixed lines and descend to the world of the living.

The next morning, May 4, we were a sorry lot. Gary Neptune, Sandy Read, and Ed Ramey were at Base Camp trying to recover from the dreaded virus. Having spent nearly two weeks at Camp II providing much-needed logistical support, John Cooley was on his way to Base Camp for a well-deserved rest. Stefan Goldberg and Mike Browning were at Camp I, and while better, they were still plagued by the awful virus. It seemed almost impossible to shake. Meanwhile, Chris Pizzo, Dave Herrick, the Sherpas and I were all at Camp II and thoroughly wasted. Dave had made ten carries between Camps I and II, and the Sherpas had been working hard at all levels and needed a rest as well. It was clear that now was not the time to go charging back up the mountain. The camps were in place and still stocked and the summit would wait. Everyone pulled back to Base for rest and relaxation.

Back at Base Camp we heard the Nepalese Government radio reporting that virtually all of the 28 expeditions had withdrawn without summiting. Yet, we resolved to give it one more try despite the fact that our numbers had been substantially reduced by the virus and normal attrition. On May 7, Chris Pizzo, Lhakpa Nuru and I began the long journey back up the mountain, with Mike Browning, Dawa Nuru and Lhakpa Dorje in support. Stefan Goldberg also moved up with us to Camp II to provide any medical assistance.

Retracing our steps back up to Camp I and then Camp II was awful. The weather remained cold, stormy and very windy. On May 9, the weather was so bad that we had to spend an extra day at Camp II, all the time dreading the thought of going back up all those fixed ropes. The next day dawned clear, though windy and cold. We had to make our move now as food and fuel were becoming dangerously scarce.

May 10 was the most difficult day of the expedition. Without Mike Browning’s mental and physical support I doubt that we would have made the climb back up to Camp III. Breaking trail every step of the way, Mike sacrificed himself to conserve the energy of those on the summit team. Halfway up the fixed ropes, the weather turned absolutely horrendous. Visibility was less than a hundred feet, and the cold and wind were torturous. It looked as if another major storm was setting in and we were moving back up with neither the food nor the physical ability to weather another prolonged stay at Camp III. But we were already committed. If we descended now, the expedition was over. Flooded with doubts, yet still somehow determined, we continued on.

At four P.M. we finally reached the col in a white-out and the wind approaching 100 mph. After a tearful goodbye and thanks to Mike, he quickly descended with Dawa Nuru. Chris Pizzo, Lhakpa Nuru and I remained to ride out one of the wildest storms imaginable. Throughout the evening the winds were simply unbelievable. Despite being fully anchored into the hard surface ice with 8-inch screws, the tents were being picked up and tossed around at will. It felt as if we were riding a bucking bronco.

That night a number of tents in Camp II, nearly 3000 feet below, were totally shredded and destroyed by the gale force winds. Yet somehow we managed to hold on. When dawn finally appeared, to my amazement the sky was clear. Despite a wind of 40 mph, by eight A.M. we were on our way. In less than three hours we made it to the site of Camp IV at 25,700 feet. With a renewed sense of strength and energy, we set about erecting the two tents which had been cached nearly two weeks before. As we worked on the tents, for the first time in weeks the wind began to die down. It was almost downright comfortable.

After pitching the tents and chopping enough ice to melt water, Lhakpa and I climbed a couple of hundred feet above Camp IV to get a good look at the route. It was impressive. While the distance was not great, we should have to ascend nearly 2000 vertical feet of mixed snow, rock and ice before gaining the final summit ridge. Then came the crux of the climb, the twin towers. The first, the false summit, was a 250-foot nearly vertical gendarme which provided access to the final summit pyramid. Separating the two was a 300-foot knife-edged ridge. It would be an interesting day. If only the weather would hold.

In the planning stages of the expedition there had been much discussion regarding the use of oxygen. In 1983, we had neither taken nor felt the need to use any oxygen on Shishapangma. Yet that mountain was nearly 1500 feet lower than Makalu and the oxygen saturation exponentially decreases above 27,000 feet. As a compromise, we took 12 bottles of oxygen—one bottle for virtually every member of the team, or more realistically one bottle for climbing and one for sleeping for six potential summit climbers. While a number of the team members harbored ambitions to climb Makalu without the aid of oxygen, in the end everyone that attempted the summit opted for its use. In fact, given the physical toll the mountain had taken, no one even gave it a second thought. Sherpas and members alike, each of us knew that it was the only realistic chance we had to climb the mountain. It’s amazing how quickly aesthetics go out the window when your back is to the wall.

On May 12, at three A.M., we awoke and began the laborious process of melting water and fixing something to eat. The cold was beyond belief. By 5:30 A.M., we were ready to go with not a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind. To the west Everest and Lhotse dominated the horizon. To the north there were the 25,000-foot peaks of Makalu II and Chomo Lonzo, with the contrasting brown foothills and plains of Tibet beyond. Eastward, the endless expanse of peaks culminated in Kangchenjunga. And to the south lay the route up Makalu. In one sweeping panorama, four of the world’s five highest mountains unfolded before our eyes.

For the first two hours we climbed and traversed alternating broken rock and water ice. While primarily third and fourth class, as we moved higher the exposure increased and a fall would have been serious. Nonetheless, we climbed unroped as it was unfeasible to belay given the distance which had to be covered. At 7:30 A.M. we intersected the broad icefield which runs directly up the center of the north face. A short but steep traverse brought us to its top where we took our first rest. We were at 26,700 feet and climbing far more rapidly than we had estimated during the previous day’s reconnaissance. Our confidence grew.

Pressing onward, we gained the base of the couloir which provides access to the mountain’s northwest summit ridge. Since a rock constriction forms a barrier midway up the couloir, at just over 27,000 feet we decided to climb the rock buttress on the left flank of the couloir. It was fourth-class rock powdered with snow and an occasional section of ice. The climbing was magnificent and if not so exhausting, it might have been downright enjoyable. After an eternity, we gained the final summit ridge at 27,500 feet. It was still only 9:30 A.M. But any triumphant notions were quickly erased when we took our first good look at the twin towers. They were awesome.

After a brief rest we lost no time in reaching the base of the first tower, where we roped up for the first time during the summit day. We initially tried to climb directly up the tower’s nearly vertical northern face, but the snow and ice were so rotten that we backed off. As the left or east side of the tower overhung 9000 feet down Makalu’s southeastern face, there was little doubt that the right side was the only feasible route. Gradually we arched our way up and around this western flank on climbing that was extremely steep and at these altitudes, very strenuous. I turned my oxygen regulator up to 3 liters per minute. While that helped my breathing, it did nothing to alter the fact that we were climbing 70° rotten ice without good belays.

After nearly an hour and a half we gained the false summit, only to come to the most pronounced knife-edged ridge imaginable. While generally uncorniced, the wind-scoured snow which plunged radically off each side was hollow to the core. After two rope-lengths of delicately traversing on this knife blade, it was a scant fifty feet up the second tower to a pinnacle of snow just big enough for one person to straddle. Formed by four spectacular ridges which all culminate at a single point, at 11:15 A.M. I unfurled the U.S. and Colorado flags atop the most perfect summit, of the most perfect mountain, on the most perfect of days.

For Lhakpa Nuru, it was his first 8000-meter peak. At age 24, I have no doubts that he will go on to reach the summit of many more Himalayan giants. He is one of the strongest and most engaging individuals you can imagine. For Chris Pizzo, it was the summit of his third 8000er, which equals the most by an American. And for me it was my second one; thus I became the fourth American to have climbed two or more. While intensely proud of this accomplishment, I was far more proud of the other members of the team whose efforts made possible the most incredible moment of my life.

Four days later, Gary Neptune, Dawa Nuru and Motilal repeated the ascent by climbing directly to the summit from Camp III, thereby capping off a true team effort. This made Gary the fifth American with two or more 8000ers.

By the 24th of May we had force-marched our way back to Tumlingtar and were listening to the government radio station reporting that we were one of the few expeditions to succeed in climbing a major Himalayan peak that season. It was time for celebration. Plans for the next adventure could wait for another day.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Nepalese Himalaya, east of Mount Everest.

Ascent: Makalu, 8481 meters, 27,825 feet, via the northwest ridge, on May 12, 1987 (Porzak, Pizzo, Lhakpa Nuru) and on May 16, 1987 (Neptune, Dawa Nuru, Motilal).

Personnel: Glenn Porzak (leader), Mike Browning, John Cooley, Dr. Stefan Goldberg, Dave Herrick, Gary Neptune, Chris Pizzo, Ed Ramey, Sandy Read, Lhakpa Dorje (Sardar), Lhakpa Nuru, Dawa Nuru and Motilal.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.