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The End of a Dream, An Alpine-Style Ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Makalu

The End of A Dream

An alpine-style ascent of the southeast ridge of Makalu

by Daniel Mazur

October 9th at 3 p.m., Alex Nikifarov and I stand at 8300 meters, just below the summit of Makalu. We shudder and stare up through snow-covered slabs and patches of small granite blocks into a rearing tumble of overhanging rock towers and ice-fractured chimneys. Outlined by blue sky, Jon Pratt and Andy Collins, tied together with 25 meters of static cord, inch their way along a tilted 35° slab. A few minutes later they back off this jumbled zone and the four of us huddle in conference, light gusts of air carrying the conversation toward Kangchenjunga on the eastern horizon.

“Guess we try the face,” Jon pants, fatigue and regret in his voice.

One hour later we have waded up a 40° granite slab face buried under two meters of new snow. The summit, guarded by cornice ramparts along a sweeping ridge 75 meters above and to our right, is playing hard to get. We are on a false summit and riding the emotional roller coaster of anticipation and disappointment that accompanies mountaineers as they strive for the real top of any mountain. Now I am in the lead, and pause to glance down. My friends move below in slow motion. I am tired and exhilarated, and slowly turn to face the obstacle above.

My chest is pressed against a two-meter high snow wall that disguises a black granite boulder. I can see the rock through deep holes I punched with my fists while futilely looking for a handhold. Drawing ten breaths, I paw and kick the snow, trying to get a grip, but the unconsolidated snow collapses like sugar.

My teammates follow me to this point, and we reunite to drink water and eat. While we catch our breath, the conversation turns to admitting failure and descending to basecamp. Perhaps this Great Black Mountain is not going to let us climb it as easily as we had thought. My hopes are draining away. I reflect back on the massive team effort it took to get us here, and on those who came before us.

The southeast ridge was successfully climbed three times, in 1970, 1976, and 1982, by Japanese, Czechs, and Koreans. These teams were heavily supported, with high-altitude Sherpas, fixed ropes, and bottled oxygen.

There have been three alpine-style attempts, two led by Doug Scott in 1980 and 1984, and one American team led by Ron Matous in 1983. The Americans turned back at 7700 meters, and Doug Scott’s group in 1980 turned back at 7700 meters and in 1984 at 8350 meters.

On September 3, 1995, after a rainy eight-day trek from Kathmandu, we straggled into the 4800-meter basecamp. The 1995 post-monsoon season was especially bad, allowing very few expeditions to summit. High winds and deep snow contributed to the sad loss of French climbers Benoix Chamoux and Pierre Royer on Kangchenjunga, and the tragic avalanche which swept into the Gokyo region of Everest, killing trekkers and villagers.

Our goal was to tackle the ridge in pure alpine style, making the climb with neither fixed ropes, supplemental oxygen, climbing Sherpas, nor established camps. In addition to Alex, Jon, Andy, and me, we were joined by Rob Allen, Chris Shaw, and Allen Treadwell.

By September 18, we had climbed to the “south col,” on the wind-blown southeast ridge at 6500 meters. Along the way we stopped to sleep in a layer cake of seracs at 5400 meters, and beneath an ice face at 6000 meters. Climbing below the col consisted mainly of navigating fog banks and tortured crevasse mazes.

Throughout the entire expedition, conditions at the col were less than favorable. An accumulation of monsoon snow blanketed the ridge, rebuffing efforts to gain a plateau notched into the ridge at 7200 meters, as each knee- deep “post-hole” footstep was instantly repacked with fresh spindrift blown in by the perpetually blasting breeze.

After sitting in basecamp for several weeks — our nerves just about shattered by the daily snows, wind, fog, and rain pouring in — the weather began to improve. October 4 was a sunny morning, and the decision was made by the four of us to head for the summit.

We left basecamp at 8 p.m., and arrived at the south col the next morning at 10 a.m. On October 6, after a day of rest waiting for the howling wind to give up its grip on this mountain saddle, we set out for the top in sunshine and strong wind. We were drawn up by the realization that for the first time in weeks the summit was actually visible.

In tiny rucksacks, we carried the bare essentials for our alpine-style attempt: a single wall Gore-tex tent, hanging butane/propane stove, wind- proof/insulating clothing, thin sleeping bag, mattress, a small amount of food, water bottle, 25-meter rope, headlamp, a few chocks, and ice tools. We also carried a radio.

From the col we traversed the snowslopes just below the ridge, then climbed straight up through several easy rockbands and set the tent on a flat spot on the ridge at 7200 meters. The wind could have blown us from this airy perch, but it abated. A raging purple and orange sunset put us to sleep in the Gore-tex tents, with the hanging stoves gently hissing overhead.

The next morning sparkled clear and we continued up the ridge, which broke into snow/ice gullies laced with rock arêtes. The climbing became more fun and difficult. We moved carefully without rope, scrambling up granite blocks and snow chutes in warm sunshine and light breezes. I worked my way up a 50° snow/ice/rock slab. My swinging axe bounced off an unexpected protrusion, striking my head. Bang! Suddenly, blinding light flashed in my eyes, and I realized in terror that my sunglasses had been knocked from my face. Luckily, Jon had an extra pair, and I taped the borrowed sunglasses over my prescription spectacles.

At 7700 meters, we finally arrived at the 100-meter couloir that we would downclimb into the eastern cwm. We had been dreading this moment, for it meant descending into a vast, invisible, and uncertain fate. To our surprise, it all went smoothly. In a few minutes we were inside an enormous hanging valley that opened onto a picture-window view of Kangchenjunga to the east. The farther we descended, the deeper the snow, so we stayed high and skirted the southern wall. That evening, at 7700 meters, we camped in a spot protected from the now-constant frigid wind by a serac, a 20-meter frozen wave of ice curling off the valley wall.

October 8 dawned clear, calm, and cold. We rested in the sun and dried our minimal clothing, filled water bottles, and drank extra hot cocoa and soup. At noon we set off toward the valley head, skirting around to the north, climbing an ice fall directly beneath the summit. The wind picked up to a howl, and it was with great lethargy that we dug a flat ledge into the wind- packed 20° slope at 8100 meters, building an Alaskan-style snow wall around our camp. That night, as we tried to rest and brew as much soup as possible, I lay awake, knowing that this was where Pete Athens, Renny Jackson, Chas Maquarrie, and Scott Thorburn had been driven back by deep snow in 1983.1 wondered what the new day would reveal.

The sun rose onto a clear sky, and we moved from high camp at 6:15 a.m., heading up the west face to the summit above. An initial bergschrund challenged us, but Jon, who is light on his feet, found a place to dive across, landing on the uphill side, both axes sunk into firm snow. He belayed the three of us over and we climbed onto the face, a long cascade of 45° downsloping granite slabs “dusted” by the two meters of unconsolidated sugar snow that had plagued us throughout the expedition. Andy led with aplomb, placing one foot in front of the other for several hours. I hung back, coasting on the others’ trail-breaking efforts. I shouted to Alex, about 50 meters below, that he should dump his rope here, because the going ahead would get more difficult, and he was starting to drop behind (I was worried that the extra weight of the rope would tire him out to the point where he might become a rescue victim). The snow got deeper and the climbing steeper as we forced a way to the rock towers that loomed like broken fingers on the ridge above us.

Finally, we reached the snow wall at 8300 meters. I munched some energy bar and felt better. Following the trail pounded by Andy and Jon, the two major trail breakers up to this point, I had managed to reserve a small amount of pluck. I shouldered my rucksack. Swinging my axe around the snow-covered boulder, I found a slightly adequate placement. I swung my right leg out onto the 50° pile of sugar snow and put weight onto it, then inched my way around the vertical obstacle. I was now standing, unroped, on a rather steep snow face. I waited for the sickening crack and boom of an avalanche that would smash me across granite slabs back into the bottom of the cwm. All I heard was the wind lightly slapping the straps of my rucksack against my climbing suit. I swam upward, pedaling arms and legs, fighting to rise to the top of a heap of feathers.

I stopped to suck air. My head was swimming, but I realized we had gained the final ridge.

“We are going to climb this damn thing!” I shouted to my three friends, and continued along the ridge. A few minutes later, I collapsed on a wind- hardened 10° slope. A tear came to my eye when I saw Mount Everest and Lhotse to the west, so close I could almost reach out and touch them. To the north stood the real summit of Makalu, a 25-meter bump of granite, ice, and snow about 500 lateral meters away.

Andy came up and put a congratulating hand on my back. As we looked at the true summit, I felt hesitation, disbelief, joy, and sorrow. Could this goal, which our team had been stumbling toward, arguing about, and considering abandoning for so long, be just a few minutes’ walk away? We were afraid to touch the summit, scared to break the spell we had been under for the last two months. It was the end of a dream.

“Go on, Dan. Go to the top. You first. You deserve it,” Andy panted in short thin bursts. I thought of all that Andy and I had been through, especially the three-day no-sleeping-bag bivouac in 1993 on K2 at 8150 meters, after which Andy, a hospital surgeon, had been forced to leave basecamp in a helicopter to save his frostbitten fingers and career, while Jon and I reached the summit.

“No, Andy,” I gasped, “This one is yours.” He hesitated.

“Go on, go now!” I managed to shout. Off he went.

The last little bit took over an hour. I moved at a snail’s pace, exhausted from the snow-swimming episode. Finally, after a struggle up a 35°, 10 meter high snow and rock gully, I stood beside Jon and Andy, noticing the view in all directions. I saw Alex moving slowly down below, just cresting the ridge. A knee-high lump of snow signified the summit. I put my foot onto it. It was 5:30 p.m., October 9. The wind was blowing steady. I froze and shivered, feeling empty and humbled.

We looked into each other’s faces, and beyond, toward views of Nepal and Tibet spread around us. We contemplated the setting sun over Everest, and the shadow cast by Makalu reaching to Kangchenjunga. I fumbled for my camera, and took as many photos as my waning energy allowed. I thought of my friends and family, and said hello to them. I instinctively pulled out my radio, smiling a tiny bit when I said “This is Summit calling Base Camp.” Rob, an old reliable friend from the K2 days, came on the air, and we exchanged greetings. There was a loud cheering across the airwaves from far below, and all of us laughed.

It was time to go. I stumbled down, no longer able to defy the strong pull of gravity. We passed Alex just below the top, still crawling, now on hands and knees, to the summit. I hugged him, and said, “We will wait …”

Eight days and 100 hours of sleep later, Jon and I struggled back up the mountain to retrieve a tent and the rubbish we had been unable to carry down during the initial descent. Our excellent porters cleared up and carried out every bit of garbage we found in basecamp, including 300 kilos of old rusty tins left by previous expeditions. The southeast ridge had let us find a path to the top of Makalu. Our team had been blessed with success and no injuries. We chose to leave no trace of our passing, and removed that of others so that those who follow may find the southeast ridge of Makalu as clear, pure, and pristine as we had.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Nepalese Himalaya.

ASCENT: Makalu (8481 meters) via the southeast ridge, October 4-9, 1995 (Daniel Mazur, Jonathon Pratt, Alex Nikifarov, Andy Collins).

PERSONNEL: Daniel Mazur, Jonathon Pratt, Alex Nikifarov, Andy Collins, Rob Allen, Chris Shaw, Allen Treadwell.