Challenge of Mighty Makalu - Ashish Mane

It was 9pm on 16th May 2014. We were at our Summit camp at 7650m gearing up to reach the top of Makalu (8481m), the 5thhighest Mountain in the world. The temperature was around minus 40 degrees and we were almost frozen. Me, Anand and two of our Sherpas, stepped out in the dark and started walking on the snow and ice slope. This slope is kinda scary and one slip might land you in China! I was in no mood for this free ride and walked ultra-cautiously on this terrain.


We kept traversing the slope for close to two hours to reach the base of the ice wall at around 11pm. We found the junction of the fixed ropes here. We took a short break. A fixed rope in hand on such scary terrain gives one immense confidence! We should have increased our speed a little bit, right? Wrong. The ice was hard and walking on it was nothing but tough. Calculations ran through my mind. “We will cross this ice wall and keep traversing the glacier. Then climb the steep ice slope to reach the base of the French Couloir by 4am. The Seven Summits Agency has fixed ropes till the base of the French Couloir. The Agency said that they have dumped a few coils of rope at the base of the couloir. We will take some rest till the sun rises and begin fixing rope thereafter”. But to our surprise, there was no fixed rope after the first ice fall. They had just dumped a very few rope coils, but no fixed rope. This meant we will have to fix the rope as we climb. It called for much higher energy and would also take longer than we expected. “This is going to be tougher than usual” I told myself.


Movement ahead of this spot was dangerously slow. One person fixing the rope and all others waiting for the job to be done. The cold was killing us. We kept moving our fingers and toes to protect them from going numb. But this survival strategy took a lot of energy out of our already dwindling reserves. A few hours into this regimen and having exhausted a few coils of rope, we realized that we had insufficient rope length and that fixing ropes was taking much longer than would be safe. So, instead of fixing rope, we roped up to one another and started walking upwards. The slope was a good 70 degrees. After the ice fall, one has to climb a long distance to reach the base of the French Couloir. This route is full of crevasses and one has to be on high alert all throughout.


We kept traversing upwards on the glacial slope keeping the French couloir to the left. We rested intermittently to catch some breath. The terrain was fatal. At 4am we started traversing left to the base of the French Couloir. It was dangerous because of the steepness of the slope and with huge crevasses in-between. We reached the base of couloir in an hour and started climbing immediately. We were fixing ropes wherever possible. The climb in the couloir was notorious among sherpas and climbers; and I should admit it was tougher than what we expected. It’s a rock-ice face inclined at 70-80 degrees like an open book with hard blue ice between rocks. After exhausting the fixed rope length that we had, we started fixing the thin 6mm rope coil. This was our emergency rope and we were in a state of emergency that justified its use. We had no other option. None of us had ever climbed on a 6mm before. This was crazy if not fatal!


The darkness of the night gives you a kind of comfort because you can’t see exactly what degree of slope you are climbing and the place where you will land (few thousand meters below!) if you fall. But now, as the night broke into dawn and lit all the horror that lay below us, we had to concentrate harder on our route. Here, a single mistake meant multiple deaths.


We managed to reach the top of the French Couloir by 9am. By this time, we had exhausted all the rope that we had. We were 140 meters short of the summit of Mt Makalu. We had applied all unusual ways to reach till here, at times weighing our experience heavier than all general standards of climbing a mountain. But, we never blatantly compromised on safety. Here we were, just 140 meters short of the top but, without rope. The climbing route above this point was suicidal. God had some logic behind putting the brain on top of the heart. Our hearts pumped to reach the top, but the brain signaled all the dangers of climbing free at this altitude. With heavy hearts and tears in our eyes, we called back our attempt to reach the summit. Makalu was over. We informed Mama (Umesh Zirpe, Leader of the expedition) calling through the satellite phone and turned back only praying to reach the summit camp safely. We reached the summit camp at 1pm on 17th May 2014. We were too exhausted to continue. We called it a day here. We wound up the summit camp in the morning and reached the Advance base camp in the evening. The expedition was over and we were going home.


This was my third 8000er after successfully climbing Mt. Everest (highest mountain in the world, 8848m) in 2012 and Mt. Lhotse (fourth highest mountain in the world, 8516m) in 2013. Both of them I climbed in my first attempt. This was my third consecutive attempt on an 8000er and an unsuccessful one today. I was immensely upset. “My career is finished!” I thought to myself. “How can I fail like this?” My mind was crying like a baby.


The next two days that I spent on the Advance Base Camp were the most revealing 48 hours of my life. I realized that nobody better than yourself can be your best friend in the worst situations that life throws at you.


I sat on my favourite rock at the Advance Base camp sipping my favourite black coffee thinking about our entire journey till here.


We flew from Pune to Delhi to Kathmandu on 18th March 2014. The team was led by Mr. Umesh Zirpe (Mama) and consisted of me, Anand Mali and our Base Camp Manager Ajit Tate (or Tate Kaka). We spent a few days in Kathmandu packing our stuff and getting the right permits. We flew from Kathmandu to Tumlingtar on 29th March 2014. We spent some amazing days on the trekking route from Tumlingtar – Khanbari – Num – Suduwa – Tashi Gaon – Khongma – Dobate – Fema – Vangle Kharka – Tadosa to reach the Makalu Base Camp (4210m) on 11th March 2014. Unlike the trek to Everest Base Camp or Annapurna Base Camp, the trek to Makalu Base Camp is not at all popular with climbers and trekkers. We never met a single trekker on our entire trail till Makalu Base Camp. It’s a tough walk by all means crossing steep slopes and high passes with worst snow conditions (few places with close to six feet under snow). But nonetheless, it gave us a huge boost in terms of acclimatization. We were all set to take on the challenge of reaching the top of Mt Makalu (8481m).


We rested for three days at the Base Camp. Through this time we did few acclimatization treks around the Base Camp and checked and re-checked our equipment for the climb. On 16th April 2014 we reached the Advance Base Camp (ABC) (4920m). The trek to ABC is very risky with most of the trail in rock fall areas. We had to move fast and cautiously at the same time. It took us a non-stop 7 hours walk to reach ABC. It’s a sparsely cozy place tucked in between ice walls on three sides. The ABC was practically our home for the next 60 days.


Makalu is a climber’s mountain and attracts the best and technically sound climbers from around the world. This is what I love about mountaineering: it’s a leveller of sorts. The rules of the mountain are the same irrespective of your experience, age, gender and social or financial status. Even the best of sports and competitions in the world have different rules for men and women. But mountains don’t differentiate based on your physical status. You are what you are: a small dot on the mighty snow slope or a tiny spot on a high ice wall. Mountains silence all your ego.


“Call for you” Dorchee, my Sherpa broke my thoughts. My mind suddenly came back to the present. “Call for you! We not going down. We go up again!” he exclaimed. “What?” I exclaimed back. It was 21st April 2014, we had finished our unsuccessful attempt on Makalu and were waiting to be airlifted back to Kathmandu. I took the walkie talkie in hand to hear our leader Umesh Zirpe (mama) say something unbelievably true. Till now I was thinking that this was a memorable expedition because it was unsuccessful. But things were taking a different turn. We decided to do what we had never done before and something that even experienced mountaineers rarely do. We decided to attempt Makalu all over again. Deep within me, I was already preparing for this. I had long discussions with Mama. We had taken herculean efforts to raise funds and prepare ourselves to reach here. It was now or never. The decision to attempt Makalu all over again was not emotionally driven. We studied all the weather reports. We consulted with our supporters across the world. A second attempt on an 8000er meant not only an extra pump of energy, it also called for an extra dose of funds. Things moved fast, our finances fell in place and the weather reports were favourable. Our extra stuff was flown onto ABC by helicopter. We were all set for a second attempt. “We are not done yet.” I told the mighty Makalu. “It’s time to meet you again.”


Our day began very early on 22nd May 2014. All good movement on a mountain happens in the early hours because there is a higher probability of getting favourable climbing conditions. The ice is hard and there are lesser chances of falling rocks. The route from the ABC is on moraine to the base of the glacier where we had fixed the tent for just keeping our technical equipment like snow shoes etc. From that point there is a tiring glacier walk till the base of the 150ft steep ice wall. After crossing it we reached Camp 1 (6434m) around 10am. We rested for a while and set out for Camp 2 (6650m). The distance from camp 1 to camp 2 was less with normal snow slopes jumping over small width crevasses. We reached Camp 2 around 5pm and rested overnight.


Our day began at 4am on 23rd May 2014. There is a normal snow walk till the base of the big and famous snow-ice-rock mixture steep wall called Makalu La. La means pass. It is a 1000m high wall which takes all your experience and energy to climb. We crossed the Makalu La in about 5 hours to reach Camp 3 (7500m) around 11.30am. I came faster than last time. Our plan was to rest for some time and begin our summit attempt from Camp 3 itself instead of Camp 4 because we were having very limited stock of oxygen bottles, food and mainly butane-gas cans to boil water from ice and to cook food. But the weather gods were in no mood and we had to give it another day. Anand was too tired to continue. He was walking slower than usual. Also, we could not have afforded extra oxygen if he fell sick. He decided to go back with his Sherpa from Camp 3.


It was 24th May 2014 and the weather was still in bad shape. It now had started worrying me because we (me and my Sherpa) had very limited supply of supplementary oxygen for this attempt. “This is not fair. You are testing us on all fronts.” I started to chat with Makalu again. “You threw everything at us. Close to impossible terrain, insufficient rope, and now this bad weather. I think I will now connect with the one above both of us.” Honest prayers are always answered. God has given me exactly what I deserve, no less no more. I was praying too hard to go unanswered that day. We received the weather report forecasted by Mr J. V. Singh of the Indian Meteorological Department, New Delhi. The weather was bad but was predicted to turn better post 9pmthat day. Mama kept boosting my morale over the satellite phone. I trusted my intuitions and stepped out in bad weather for my second summit attempt at 6 pm that day. There is a big ice/snow slope which becomes steep at the last section where we had fixed ropes last time.


I reached Camp 4 around 8 pm. As forecasted, the weather started getting better. I rested for a while. I was moving much faster on this second attempt partially because I was now familiar with the terrain and more importantly because I had very limited oxygen. I reduced my rest periods and tried to maintain a decent pace. The snow slope outside of camp 4 had turned dangerous in the recent bout of bad weather. We managed to cross it and reach the ice fall. It was a moonless night. I turned back to see a few head torches on the distant camp 4. It was very tough to find the route in the dark. Strong winds and snow fall buried our fixed rope and foot marks through the last summit attempt. We had fixed rope on very select sections till the base of the French couloir. The darkness was frightening. All the ridge lines merged with the sky and there was thus no guidance to reach the base of the French couloir. We could see only till the extent of the spotlight of the head torch. To add to the challenge, new crevasses had opened up. This made us walk extra cautiously. We somehow managed to find the base of the French couloir. We climbed to the top of the French couloir around 12.45am. The summit was around 140 meters from this point. It was too dark. The terrain ahead of this point was unknown. The route above the French couloir is precarious. We crossed a brittle rocky ridge with snow at its top. It was 2 feet narrow in some sections with thousands of feet fall on both sides and that’s why scary to walk. We reached what they call the ‘False Summit’ of Makalu. We decided to wait for the first light of the day before we started further. It was an emotional moment because we had turned back from here on our last summit attempt. “Not too bad Mr Ashish” I thought to myself. I cried. I really don’t know why. But I felt much better after that. I was there too early than planned because we climbed very fast in fear of the limited oxygen that we had. 


It was difficult to rest in that cold weather as I have to keep moving my fingers and toes continuously to protect them from getting frost bitten. I was anxious about the summit and my journey to the safety of the ABC. My oxygen was running low too. I urged the Sherpa to continue. Climbing a false summit is like a dress rehearsal before the final event! We could see the main summit from this point. There is nothing as encouraging as the sight of the summit on any mountain! “You have almost reached dude!” I spoke to myself again. I was excited but too tired for any jerky movements.


The route from here is a razor sharp ridge with a very narrow ledge on which you barely can rest your feet. It’s impossible to fix a rope here. If you try fitting an ice piton, it will enter this side of the ridge to be out on the other side! I looked up to the sky, took a deep breath, held the ridge with both hands and pinched my crampons firmly on the ice. My heart beats increased. I tried to control my legs from shivering. I traversed the 30ft iced ridged holding the top with both hands and moving my feet side by side. Then there is a small little steep ridge till top. We have to sit on it for rest like we are sitting on a horse saddle. I kept climbing till suddenly there was nothing more to climb… my heart skipped a beat… I had reached the summit of Mt Makalu! I couldn’t believe it! I made it to the top! My mind went numb. It was a vacuum. I gathered myself. I looked at my watch. It was 4 am. I looked around. There was a thin streak of orange in the distance. I could see the ridge lines of Everest and Lhotse. I anchored a rope on the summit which would make our way back on the ridge safe. We took a few quick photos and videos. Two American Climbers arrived on the summit around 4.30am. We shook hands. It was time to move down as there is no more space.


Carefully holding the rope I crossed the brittle ridge. Our descent was cautious but fast. Our energy reserves were depleting faster than our supplementary oxygen and we needed to lose altitude as fast as possible. But nowhere in our descent were we careless. We reached camp 3 at 8.30am. We wound it up. Took some rest and ate some instant food and continued our descent to reach back directly to ABC because the weather started getting worse and we were not having enough food to take a day halt. At 3pm we reached ABC safely, it was fast. I looked at the sky before I collapsed in my tent at ABC. So intense was my concentration while descending that I didn’t realize how tired I was. When I lay half in my tent and half outside, staring at the roof of my tent, I realized that I was done with my task on this mountain. After a few sips of warm water, I realized that I had high fever and that every inch of my body was hurting very badly. The only action I could do was to breathe.


The satellite phone kept ringing and I think I managed to speak a few words with Mama and the support team in Pune. I don’t remember what I spoke. I don’t remember eating anything either. All I did was sleep. Sleep like there was no tomorrow.


Bad weather was still our companion. We spend three days at the ABC waiting to be airlifted back to Kathmandu. There was six feet of snow on our camp. I recovered a little bit in these three days. We reached Kathmandu on 7th April and Pune on 10thApril 2014.


“How did you feel on the summit?” a reporter asked me at the Pune Airport. “Good” I said. I came back home, back to the warmth of family, friends, relatives and well-wishers.


Today, when I sit to write this article, I really ponder what I felt on the summit? I was too tired to “feel” the summit. At that moment, you just feel good that half of your job is done and the remaining half would be done when you reach down safely. You gather your torn muscles and tired soul to just return back safely. “So, why do you climb mountains?” is another classic question that every non-mountaineer asks me. I just smile back. This is a question that even the world’s best mountaineers can’t answer. Mountaineering is a passion that very few in this world are blessed with; and fewer of them have the courage to follow. Every mountain chooses its climbers. I was lucky enough to be chosen by the mighty Makalu.


 — Ashish Mane