RAF Active Team
THE BRITISH SERVICES MAKALU EXPEDITION 2004
- 2 HARD DAYS ON THE HILL
To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties they would not disclose to those who make no effort. That is the reward mountains give to effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who wrestle with them that men love mountains and go back to them again and again.
Sir Francis Younghusband
Sitting on my rucsac in the snow I forced down another cup of lukewarm banana Complan in the hope that it would help to keep me going during the climb. Despite it being a clear and bright day icy blasts of spindrift were being whipped up by the squally winds, covering everything in a thin layer of snow. A layer of cloud blanketed the lower valleys but the high summits of nearby Chamlang and Peak 6 were clear. I was the last of the team members left at Interim Camp, the others having set off ahead at 10-minute intervals, but it was now time for me to leave. Shouldering my pack full of rope I clipped into the fixed rope and began to move slowly up towards the ridge.
As I climbed out of the relative shelter of the camp and on to the exposed ridge the full force of the wind immediately hit me. Crouching low to maintain some degree of balance I clipped my jumar on to the next section of rope and started upwards. It was my first day at this new altitude but thankfully the wind had stripped the ridge of most of the loose snow and I could make slow but steady progress. Above me, spread out along the ridge, I could see the other team members their red pertex windsuits standing out clearly against the blue sky and white of the snow. To the west the grey moraine of the upper Barun glacier led the eye to the dark black wall of Lhotse and just beyond to Everest, a large plume of snow blowing from its summit. Far to the east the massive bulk of Kangchenjunga was clearly visible, dwarfing all other peaks in the area and bringing back memories of my attempt to climb it 4 years earlier.
As leader of the British Services Makalu Expedition I was enjoying a few days at the front. Our tri-service team of 14 was attempting an ascent of the South East Ridge of Makalu (8463m), the world’s 5th highest mountain. First climbed in 1970 by the Japanese the route had since received only 2 further ascents with no British team having climbed the ridge in its entirety. Unlike the Japanese ascent we were hoping to make our ascent without supplemental bottled oxygen and with minimal Sherpa support, factors that would undoubtedly add to the difficulty of the climb. The expedition had been 3 years in the planning and an 11-day trek through the remote foothills of the Makalu-Barun region had put us at the foot of our objective. Now, some 5 weeks into the expedition we were at a crucial phase keen to establish Camp 2 at a col beyond the subsidiary summit of Peak 3 (6800m).
“Makalu is without doubt one of the hardest propositions of all.”
The ridge was steep, severely corniced and very exposed. The lead climbers of the previous day had fixed a line of 7mm rope for about 200m above Interim Camp, anchoring the rope at intervals with snow stakes and ice screws. As I continued to be buffeted by the wind I was grateful for the security offered by this handrail. For the next 2 hours I slowly gained height, settling into a rhythm at a pace that did not have me gasping for breath but quick enough to maintain a degree of warmth. Crampons bit reassuringly into the hard packed snow and my jumar acted as a one way friction device on the ropes. Office life and the hours spent planning the expedition seemed a lifetime away thanks to the exhilaration of being on the knife-edge ridge with stunning views of endless snow covered peaks. Ahead of me the team members began to bunch up as the 2 lead climbers reached the end of the existing fixed ropes and began establishing the route beyond. There were 5 of us were acting in a support role, each laden with additional rope, snow stakes and ice screws, thus enabling the lead pair to push out the route as far as possible without having to return to camp for more equipment. As they fixed the line and called for more rope we jumared up to high point with our supplies, only able to descend when we had offloaded the contents of our rucsacs.
As the pace of ascent slowed so the effects of the wind and biting cold became more noticeable. Thankfully the Olympus Mons boots, specifically designed for extreme altitude, were doing their job and keeping my feet warm. In contrast my fingers and nose were feeling the icy chill forcing me to curl my fingers tightly inside my gloves in an effort to warm them. Swinging my arms from side to side did regenerate a degree of warmth but it became an exercise that I needed to repeat every 10 minutes, albeit with care due to my precarious position. To upgrade the face protection a balaclava was added beneath the existing woolly hat and snow goggles replaced the glacier glasses – looking good on the hill was not top of the priority list.
Having climbed over a small shoulder of snow the lead pair were now out of sight and it seemed like an eternity before they shouted to follow them up. In the meantime I waited with my back to the wind, trying to maintain every vestige of warmth. To aid communication the lead climbers were each carrying small Motorola walkie-talkies but the rest of us had to try and shout above the noise of the wind or resort to a range of wild gestures. We were now at 6400m, still 400m short of the summit of Peak 3, but as the wind began to strengthen further and the thick mist rolled in across the ridge it became obvious that we could make little further headway. As the lead climbers secured the rope at the top of the pitch I dug a pit in which to stash the ropes and hardware that I had brought up, securing it to the mountain ready for use the following day. Clipping a karabiner into the rope for security I began the descent to our tents, enjoying the feeling of warmth returning to my body as I began to move more quickly.
One by one we dropped off the ridge and down to the relative shelter of our tents, gaining immediate respite from the wind. Climbing helmets, harnesses and ice axes were dumped in the snow and the stove was fired up to begin the laborious process of melting snow for hot drinks. We rummaged through the ration packs for quick and easy energy fixes such as jelly babies and bars of chocolate, putting off the delights of biscuits brown and pate until later. Over several mugs of tea we reviewed the days progress, trying to assess the distance to the summit of Peak 3 and the difficulties that lay ahead. Importantly, we were all feeling fit and happy to have another push the following day, this time with Ben and I taking our turn at the front.
On opening the tent in the morning I was relieved to see clear skies once again but it was immediately evident that the wind was as strong as the previous day. After a few hot drinks Ben set off up the ropes and I followed. It was even colder than the previous day, probably at least minus 20 with the wind-chill. Within 30 minutes I was forced to stop and rethink my glove strategy for the day, adding a pair of windproof overmitts to the windstopper gloves that I was already wearing. Ben was moving quite quickly and it was important that I did not lag behind or he would face a cold wait at the top of the existing fixed ropes. As we battled upwards plumes of snow were being blown off the length of the ridge, a spectacular sight as the icy pellets were caught in the sunlight. Rucsac straps flapped noisily as the wind tried to lift us from the ridge and we were constantly forced to brace ourselves against the worst blasts.
At the top of the existing ropes we recovered rope and equipment from the previous days gear dump and I belayed Ben as he set off up the virgin slope. Benefiting from the icy conditions he ran out the first 50m in quick time, crampons and axes biting easily into the hard packed snow. I followed as soon as the rope went tight, tying off the fixed rope at the various anchor points. Two hundred metres below we could see the first of the support climbers’ jumaring up the ropes, bringing additional equipment for us to use later. We soon established a routine and as I reached the top of the ropes Ben would be ready to set off again, thereby minimising any period of inactivity in the maelstrom of wind and ice. We repeated this process for the next few hours finding the climbing interesting but never too hard that it slowed us down. As we crossed a 100m of very steep and narrow ground the cloud began to boil up, sweeping across the ridge and increasing the sense of isolation. Breaks in the cloud now became brief but the intermittent views back down the ridge made the sense of exposure even more dramatic, Base Camp almost indistinguishable nearly 2000m below.
By midday we were out of rope and our way was barred by a yawning crevasse. We waited for Ian and Dick to resupply us before progressing further, forced to traverse well to the left to avoid dropping into the crevasses icy depths. Beyond this obstacle we reached the broad upper part of the ridge leading to the summit of Peak 3. With visibility now reduced to 20m Ben was soon out of sight, our walkie-talkies our only form of communication. Ian and Dick had already begun their descent to Interim Camp but our 3 Sherpas remained in support, laden with enough equipment to see us to the top. Despite the deteriorating weather they were uncomplaining and, as expected, were coping easily with the rarefied air.
Leaning on my ice axe for support and clipped to the snow stake that was buried in the snow I paid out the rope for what seemed like an eternity. My altimeter indicated that we could not be far from the summit of Peak 3 but the poor visibility prevented me from seeing how difficult the ground was above. At last the rope went tight and I was able start climbing. On these upper slopes the snow was deeper and less consolidated, often needing the boots to be kicked in harder to secure purchase. I could feel fatigue creeping up on me and my stomach was reminding me that I had not eaten for several hours. My legs felt heavy and the constant battling against the wind was taking its toll. However, at last through the mist I glimpsed the distinctive red of Ben’s windsuit. He was sat in the snow taking in the rope and all around the ground began to fall away. Realising that we had reached the summit of Peak 3 (probably only the second ever ascent) we drove a snow stake into the ground and tied off the rope. We were pleased with our achievement but cold and extremely tired. We therefore wasted no time before beginning our descent, clipping the rope and losing height as quickly as possible. Without the rope for guidance it would have been easy to lose the way in the thick mist that was full of wind blown snow and traversing the severely corniced ridge was a constant danger.
Two hours later we reached the bottom of the ropes and descended the final few feet to a misty but welcoming Interim Camp. A mug of hot tea was immediately thrust into my hand by the team members who had come up to replace us at the front, the first hot drink since breakfast. It had been a satisfying but very hard 2 days, made more so by the extreme wind and cold. However, with the route now fixed to the summit of Peak 3 (6800m) we hoped that we had overcome the main difficulties en route to the col, thereby allowing us to get to grips with the upper part of the mountain. An hour later I once again clipped the fixed ropes and began the 1300m descent to Base Camp for a rest, Interim Camp soon out of sight in the mist.
Full details of the expedition can be seen on the expedition website www.makalu2004.com
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