1980. Makalu West Pillar
On May 15, at 3:45 p.m., a small bold team from Spokane, Washington completed the first American ascent of Makalu and the first lightweight ascent of its difficult west pillar. This was a seminal moment in Himalayan climbing history: it symbolized the budding acceptance of the lightweight Himalayan style, it showed that American teams were attempting the most difficult objectives in the Himalaya, and it stood proud in John Roskelley’s incredible two-decade-long Himalayan climbing career.
Paying homage to someone as legendary as John Roskelley is no easy task. I can only share my own feelings of what it was like to follow in his hard-to-fill footsteps to the summit of Makalu. In 1995, when three friends and I reached the summit in alpine style via the southeast ridge, I swam through deep, sugary, avalanche-prone snow and nearly fell to my death from a windblown ledge at 8370m, just below an upper plateau leading to the tiny summit pyramid. When I read Roskelley’s 1981 AAJ account of his own battle with the same “hip-deep, bottomless powder,” I was swept by a feeling of déjà vu, and I shuddered at his painful description of how “ [I] front-pointed my way toward the ridge, with nothing sure for my heavily gloved hands.” Roskelley paints an evocative picture of Himalayan climbing at its most horrible.
It was brave and audacious of the four from Spokane to choose the 1971 French West Pillar for their attempt on the mountain. Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski, Kim Momb, and James
States might have opted to make their speedy attempt on the classic French first- ascent route of 1955, but instead ventured onto a much more worthy and terrifying objective, originally climbed by an 11- member team in nine weeks using bottled oxygen. Roskelley, in the blunt style that became his trademark, states in the AAJ that “we had chosen to raise ourselves up to the standard of the mountain, not to pull the mountain down to our level with large teams of climbers and Sherpas.” The climb was highly significant for its time because of the small size of the party and the “self-sufficiency” of their style. This four-person team employed no Sherpas above the base camp, nor did they use supplemental oxygen.
In order to ascend and descend the route several times for acclimatization, as well as to stock higher camps, Roskelley’s team fixed 1,200 feet of rope to Camp 4 at 25,000 feet. This rope was used in climbing the 1,000-foot crux, and to protect a traverse out onto the south face, aptly named by the first ascensionists the “Terrible Traverse.” In describing the crux, Roskelley paints an eerie picture of tracing tattered nine-year-old fixed lines, clinging precariously to frayed aluminum caving ladders, and climbing past spent gear in his team’s negotiation of this section of exposed thin face climbing.
On summit day, States tired and Kopczynski accompanied him down, while Roskelley continued on solo through difficult rock, mantling his way toward the summit. Momb was in base camp because his knees had already blown thanks to his converted ski boots. After capturing a few Kodak moments on top at 3:45 p.m., Roskelley began a grueling descent back down the ridge. Fighting off waves of sleep that threatened to smother him every 10 or 15 minutes, he finally staggered into Camp 4 at 10:30 p.m, after 21 hours on the go. Another 8,000-meter summit had been climbed by Americans, and this one in a lightweight style at the forefront of its era.
Makalu’s West Rib was a jewel in John Roskelley’s nearly unmatched crown of achievements (all without bottled oxygen) that included Dhaulagiri, Nanda Devi, Trango Tower, Gaurishankar, K2, Uli Biaho, Cholatse, and Tawache (despite several attempts at Everest without oxygen, that summit eluded him). A cutting-edge Himalayan mountaineer of rare qualities and exceptional power, Roskelley helped to pioneer the modern Himalayan ethos.