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Asia, Tibet, Himalaya, Mahalangur Himal, Makalu II (7,678), New Route and First Ascent from Tibet

Makalu II (7,678m), new route and first ascent from Tibet. Jean Christophe Lafaille’s ambitious and committing plan was a solo expedition to make the first ascent of Makalu II (aka Kangchungtse) from Tibet, traverse the summit to the Makalu La at 7,400m and continue up the Normal Route to the top of Makalu, so completing his 12th 8,000m summit.

Base Camp was established on April 21 at 4,950m on the Kangshung Glacier. On the 23rd, with his Sirdar and three porters, he took 65kg of gear south up the lengthy Chomo Lonzo Glacier, a difficult journey leading to the foot of Makalu II. Below the north face he established an Advanced Base at 5,750m. This is a very remote part of the world and only one expedition had traveled this way before: the Japanese expedition that in 1993 climbed Chomo Lonzo (7,790m) via the col to the northeast of Makalu II. Lafaille was now left on his own to reconnoiter and acclimatize on the mountain.

The logical line was a prominent north-facing spur, leading directly to the northwest ridge at a point approximately 7,100m in altitude. Conditions on the initial section of the spur, a snow/ice ramp of 50°-55° leading to the crest, proved to be good. Above, Lafaille progressed up the ridge to what he christened the Yellow Tower, a 60m icy granite step that gave considerably difficulties. He described the technicalities here as the hardest he had done at such an altitude and overcoming the pitch required a full two hours of difficult and delicate mixed climbing.

Lafaille made several forays up the spur, leaving a number of sections fixed and operating on the upper part from a camp at 6,600m, before reaching the crest of the northwest ridge and stashing some gear. The upper section of the spur had been in good condition and had an average angle of 45°-50° with some steeper sections. He then descended all the way to Base Camp for a good rest before the final push, knowing that on the northwest ridge he would be on previously trodden ground. Yasakawa Shuji’s Seppyo Alpine Club expedition climbed difficult ridge from the Chago La in October 1976 to make the second ascent of the mountain. The route was repeated by three Koreans in September 1986.

On the 13th Lafaille set out alone for his final attempt and by the afternoon of the 14th had reached his pre-positioned camp on the crest of the northwest ridge at around 7,100m. Shortly above lay a vertical black wall, which he overcame at A1 and M5. This was followed by a vertical wall of snow detached from the rock to form a sort of tube, which the Frenchman likened to a caving pitch. Thereafter, the ridge was exposed, with a very steep mixed rock wall to his right dropping precipitously towards the Chago Glacier. Parts of the ridge still sported remnants of ancient fixed rope. Below 7,400m he left the crest and began to climb the left flank towards the summit. Another difficult wall barred progress. Hard mixed and dry-tooling on sound red granite at an estimated M5/M6 led to a small platform above 7,400m and a campsite for the night.

On the 16th, in continuing good weather, Lafaille climbed 120m of mixed terrain, another steep step at M5 and then an 80° icy ramp before reaching the summit at 2:00 p.m. He had found the technical difficulties on this upper section harder than the South Face of Annapurna, and on the last difficult pitches decided to abandon a rope, pegs, and cams, rather than descend to collect them. After a telephone call to his wife in Nepal, he descended south ca 100m towards the Makalu La and set up his tent for the night.

The next morning he made the short, straightforward descent to the Makalu La, where he found tents occupied by climbers from expeditions climbing Makalu’s Normal Route. Starting out next morning he realized he was tired and appeared to have a worrying chest infection. He returned to his tent and opted to descend the Normal Route to Makalu Base Camp, then attempt Makalu after a few days’ rest. However, on the 19th he set off down the Barun to the lower Base Camp and then used the route over the col northwest of Peak 3 to regain Tibet. Seven days after leaving his Base Camp on the Kangshung Glacier he was back. Despite not completing his 12th 8,000m peak, the Frenchman had pulled off one of the most audacious traverses of the year.

Lindsay Griffin, Mountain INFO, CLIMB magazine