Makalu 2002: International Expedition led by Piotr Pustelnik

Update 4/17/2002: Makalu 2002 Second Progress Report from American RD Caughron: Armed Maoists demand money from the Makalu teams!

Hi there, we’ve all arrived safe and sound at our permanent basecamp just below the NW ridge of Makalu. It’s a spectacular sight in all directions. Here’s a capsule summary of our situation: all twelve of our team arrived on April 11th after spending a day in the lower basecamp at 4800 m. We flew to this basecamp by Russian helicopter on April 10th after a rest day in Lukla which was our destination from Namche Bazaar. I filed my first report from Namche after our team successfully summited Island Peak (6128 m) on our acclimatization climb. Not all of our members went with us to Island Peak however, and that’s where an interesting story developed of Anna Czerwinska and her trekking team; Grażyna Kuchowicz, Ewa Goliszewska, Andrzej Kurowski; plus our Italian members Floriano Castelnuovo and Diego Fregonia; and also both other international teams whom I will later describe who did the Makalu basecamp approach by trekking Barun Valley. In a nutshell all of these people encountered Maoists who appear to be thriving in the area around Num, Sedua and Tashi Gaon, and each group had to pay 10,000 rupeas per person to keep their cameras. More about this later. The good news is that we are all here safe, in good spirits, and we have met both the Spanish expedition led by Carlos Pauner and the Swiss expedition led by Norbert Joos, and many of their members. We’ve just had the Pujah ceremony, some of Anna’s trekkers are heading back today, and our main trekking group are all leaving tomorrow, some by helicopter and some by trekking back down the Barun to Kathmandu. In the next few days all team members will carry loads up to establish Camp I (in fact today Piotr, Jay, Vlado, Peter and Dariusz and one of our trekkers, Sławek carried loads up to a cache at 600 m, just 300 m below Camp I. The rest of us will repeat this experience tomorrow), and shortly thereafter Camp II on Makalu La. Snow conditions are very light, weather pattern is good. We have very strong team members (on all three expeditions) and we are optimistic about our chances for the top, within  the next month, weather permitting. After that we return to lower basecamp and then via helicopter to Kathmandu. 

Now let me add some details to the above recent events, summarize our morale, current condition, future schedule and add a few personal glimpses. 

Personal Details and Recent Events

  1. Maoists. The encounters I mentioned were a bit of a surprise. We all asked during the Ministry of Tourism briefing if the Barun Valley was safe for trekking. The answer was “no problem”. Well, certainly no tourists have been killed by Maoists and all those involved agree that confrontations appeared non-violent – in the case of our 3 expedition members, a group of 5 Maoists, 4 wearing special jackets and carrying grenades along with an armed Maoist carrying an automatic rifle came to the expedition in Tashi Gaon after breakfast on April 5th. At first they wanted 5,000 R plus cameras (binoculars and altimeters), then after some discussion settled for 10,000 R per member. It was clear that 5 Maoists were not alone. In the surrounding forests many hundreds of their comrades could be seen. After our expedition paid and were given a receipt for money received, the Maoists went to the Swiss expedition and repeated the exercise. The Spanish expedition were approached the night before (April 4th) in Sedua at dinner time. Same demand. Same result.

One of our trekkers said the Maoists were very young and well armed. They insist they don’t want any outside disturbance in their goal to control certain areas in Nepal, hence their intimidation of tourists passing through. Since their intentions appear non-violent to outsiders, an optimist would conclude this incident simply add an element of adventure to trekking in regions controlled by Maoists. Others will say we are crazy to be here at all and should have known better. The conclusion of all three of our expeditions is we are very safe now. However, for future seasons, we are not so optimistic:

Fact:  The Maoists killed two government park officials in their offices two days before meeting with our expeditions, and rumors here in basecamp are that another person has been killed in the same area Sedua, since.

          The Maoists are very young, nervous and heavily armed – who knows what discipline or organization they have. Armed confrontations are not friendly incidents. 

         The additional fees, which came as a surprise, add to the existing Nepalese peak fees, and taken together will significantly diminish interest by climbers and trekkers where the Maoists are active. From our experience they are very active and in control in the Num, Sedua and Tashi Gaon region. Who knows where else?

On a brighter side:

  1. The weather has been extremely good. Snow every other day and 2-3 pm, but only lasting for a few hours. So climbing  conditions are excellent. From Island Peak we could see the entire route and it appears the upper part of the mountain has very little snow built up. 
  1. It’s always great to meet fellow climbers in the mountains. Almost always we share friends in common. For example, the leader of the Swiss team Norbert Joos has climbed in Yosemite with my friend Jim Bradwell. Small world. Norbert’s team consists of: Jakob Preichen, Renata Odoni and Alfred Beetschen. They will be with us on the normal route. The Spanish team consists of Carlos Pauner (Spanish / Leader) along with 3 Basques: Edurne Pajabar, Joseba Gutierrez and Ricardo Valencia; and 2 Italians: Silvio Mondinelli and Mano Morelli. Pictures are worth a thousand words when meeting people like this. Their energetic smiles are infectious. Everyone is in good spirits. The Spanish team has a basecamp 300 m below ours and will attempt a much more difficult route on the west face/west rib.
  1. The Pujah is a Buddhist ceremony which solemnly recognizes higher influences and asks for good luck and safety for all concerned. Today, in brilliant morning sunshine we all shared a beautiful, colorful, incemefilled, flag draped, good luck charmed, ceremonial feast. We had offerings of rice, prayer, scarves, chocolate, a butcher knife, all sorts of personal emblems, coca cola and I added a bottle of Guiness. It was a really feel-good experience. Hugs and handshakes, all amused, Martin played the guitar and many Sherpas tried their hand too. All the heart. Good speed. To the Top!

 Finally some personal glimpses:

 Many of our members have been to Makalu La and beyond. For example:

-          Floriano has been to 7600 m in 1993. He got cold and retreated, then hit his partner soloed to the top. He has great pictures of the route to the top.

-          Jenspolo gets the prize for most personal barrels in basecamp 

-          Both Swiss and Italian members are very stylish in their expedition outfits. They win the fashion contest.

-          Makalu – the pictures don’t show the wind which seems to gust all night long. Nothing like an evening of tent flapping and listening to Frank Sinatra in my headphones. Other favorites: Chopin, Rachmaninof and Mozart. Music travels well. Note this is not an expedition survey, just my own taste. Richard in fact has some great Jeanne Panek tapes, which we all enjoy.

-          Anna Czerwinska has a lot of spirit. I can’t imagine how she dealt with the Maoist incident. “Big adventure” maybe.

-          Peter and Vlado from Slovakia have more treats to share than anyone else. Sliced bacon, tea, and Slovaki drink (sprite, don’t believe it). Great. 

-          Our trekkers were great and we will miss them all.

-          Warm hats are necessary, but all hats itch.

-          You can never drink enough fluid. Have a drink for us, whenever you can.

Conclusion for now:

-          Our route works great. 

-          More reports will be available every week or so.

-          We are safe, in good shape, warm and in good spirits.

-          We know many of our friends are thinking of us and this feeling is mutual. Warm thoughts your may!

-          Makalu is a beautiful mountain, a great climb and we are all into it, together. Summit expected between 5/10-15.

-          Inshallah.

Best wishes from basecamp.

RD Caughron, Makalu, 2002. 

NOTE: has CONFIRMED this story, before going to press. Others updates on this will be added soon... Also note that there is a second Spanish expedition led by the famous climber Juan Oiarzabal. Our climbers in base camp have not spoke about this expedition, and we assume they are not yet at base camp. We are not following receiving reports from the Juan Oiarzabal expedition...


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