Makalu 2002: International Expedition lead by Piotr Pustelnik

The Summit report Makalu 2002 International Team

Island Peak: I arrived Kathmandu on Mar 29 minus a 32 kg barrel with food, climbing equipment, medicine and miscellaneous items. My team flew to Lukla on Mar 30 and I stayed to insist with RNP over the recovery of my luggage where I had essential items. After Asian Trekking assured me that they would take care of the matter I flew on Mar 31 to the Khumbu following the footsteps of my companions whom I met in Thyengboche (3860m), 2 days later. Then we stayed at Dingboche (4300m) and next camped at Island Peak BC at 5200m on Apr 4. The purpose of our trek was acclimatising for Makalu by climbing Island Peak (6189m). Next day at 6h we started our climb, the report of which has been written by the late RD Caughron at On the summit we were: Piotr Pustelnik, Ryszard Pawlowski, RD Caughron, Martin Gablik, Jay Sieger, Gonzalo Velez, and the trekker George Natkanski. The climb is easy up to the 100 meter final slope that is 45-50º steep with not very consistent snow. We used the fixed rope of a German commercial team to go up and abseiled on the way down.

Makalu BC: We returned to Lukla and on Apr 10 boarded a large Russian helicopter that took us and our luggage to 4750m, one day walk before BC (my lost barrel flying with me!). Here we met Anna Czerwinska, Floriano Castelnuovo and Diego Fregona who had trekked from Tumlingtar and had been intercepted by the Maoists on the last village. It seems it was a friendly meet, the trekkers were asked to pay Rs 10,000. (circa Eur 150.) and got a receipt! BC was installed on Apr 11 at 5600m close to the seracs of the Chago glacier, the puja ceremony done on Apr 12 and a equipment depot with tents, gaz, ropes, stoves, etc was installed the next days at 6000m. In the first two weeks we enjoyed marvelous weather. After that we started having a mixed pattern of snow and fog some times, windy on other, some days very windy with lenticular clouds on the summits, and calm weather.

Camp 1: C1 was installed by mid April at 6500m needing some 150 meters of fixed rope on the way up. It is located close to the base of the Makalu La couloir over a plateau formed by the shelf of seracs. RD Caughron was my climbing companion. We climbed to C1 for the second time on Apr 23. Next morning we carried ropes and other equipment up the couloir that leads to Makalu La together with the Slovaks Martin and Vlado Strba. Ropes were also being fixed. We were not yet well acclimatised and with the amount of snow that there was we climbed half of it up to 6900m and left all equipment there hanging on a rope. This couloir would be entirely equipped with fixed rope. RD had been talking to me enthusiastically about reaching the Makalu La. We retreated to C1. Next morning he awoke earlier than usual and convinced me with insistence to carry bivouac equipment because he wanted to place a tent at C2 on Makalu La. That day Sherpas from the Spanish and Swiss teams climbed to carry equipment for C2. We followed with the two Slovaks and Anna. By 16h we reached the "rock island" and saw the Sherpas descending and commenting that it was still 1h-1h30 to the col and that it would be difficult to reach because there were no ropes in the last 200m. The Slovaks decided to descend because they had no bivy equipment and RD and I were left alone. The two Swiss had left C1 earlier than us and reached C2 at 7400m where they spent the night. The Sherpas deposited their loads at the end of the fixed rope. When RD and I reached the end of the last fixed rope he insisted that we should continue to the Makalu La. However I did not feel comfortable with the idea and told him: the snow was not safe on the 45º couloir and there were no more ropes, we did not know the terrain, the difficulties and the distance to C2, we were heavily loaded and tired and the evening was close leaving us not much daylight. I told him that under these circumstances I did not agree to stay and that I would return to C1. RD agreed with all my points but insisted that he would stay. Although I tried to convince him to descend he kept stubborn and I had no alternative other than leaving him the tent, gaz, stove and pot and slid down the ropes arriving to C1 well into the night. Next morning Floriano came to my tent by 8h and told me that RD was "dead". The Swiss had found him sitting on a rock in a coma state about 20 mtr above the place where I had left him. RD did not try to dig a platform to set up a tent, his sleeping bag had disappeared, his jacket was open and had bare hands. These facts left us with the suspicion that he may have suffered a heart attack or something similar because RD was a experienced climber. That morning was very windy and nobody planned to climb the couloir. Martin who decided to carry medicines for RD tried to go up but due to the strong winds, snow and some tiredness he gave up. We all abandoned C1 during the morning.

Camp 2: A period of bad weather followed and five days later (May 3) Piotr, Richard, Martin and Darek climbed to C1 and then to Makalu La where they set two tents at C2. Next day they descended and buried RD's body in the snow. A cross with an inscription was left on the site. We were all very upset with RD's death but decided to proceed our climb because "life must go on". We were not only upset but very puzzled for not knowing the reason why he died. I climbed next with Jay and we slept at C2 on May 5 completing our acclimatisation. Vlado, Peter and Anna went up the couloir the following morning but found it full of fresh snow and retreated. A period of bad weather followed and we rested at BC six days. On May 12 the weather become sunny and calm again and our first team went up the mountain: Piotr, Richard, Martin and Darek. Next day a few people went up: Jay, Vlado, Anna, Pasang (Anna's Sherpa), four Spanish and a few of their Sherpas and me. On May 14 a crowd went up the couloir because the rest of the Spanish and Swiss that remained at BC climbed direct to C2. Our front team rested that day in C2 which means that all western climbers and Sherpas that were attempting Makalu were all gathered that night at C2! (Floriano and Peter were not there due to poor health, in fact the Italian had already flown to Kathmandu). C2 is located roughly below Kangchungtse (Makalu II) some 200m N of Makalu La.

Camp 3: The climb to C3 is a 2h traverse about 200m high. C3 is located over rocks on the left bank of Sakyetang glacier that descends from Makalu. The Spanish set their camp about 200m higher than our 7600m one which we shared with the Swiss. We spent the afternoon chatting, photographing, cooking and persistently enjoying the sun, the view over the summit, Everest, the wonderful ridge over Chomo Lonzo and many others.

Summit: Next morning, May 16, at 3h the Swiss left C3 to the summit. Our team left between 3h30 and 4h30. I left my tent at about 4h and saw lights high up: the Spanish were much advanced and the Swiss followed shortly after them. After a few hours climbing we all enjoyed the awesome colours of dawn seeing distant summits over a sea of clouds, notably Cho Oyu and Kangchenjunga. There were a few fixed ropes to climb the shelf formed by the upper glacier. These were fixed the previous day by two of the Spanish team Sherpas. A few more hours up this glacier took us close to the couloir that leads to the NE summit ridge. There is a icy firn slope at about 40º, delicate to climb with my worn lightweight non-technical ski traverse crampons, before the couloir's rimaye which was easy to climb. The couloir is snowed only in its lower third. Then we diverted to the left (E) into the rock slope. This was the most uncomfortable and slow part of the ascent because it is mostly rock which we have to climb with crampons on. Two Spanish climbers were resting at the rimaye and did not continue upwards. Piotr was using oxygen and overtook me at the beginning of the rock section. Higher up we met the four Spanish and the two Swiss descending from the summit. We used some old ropes hanging in this lower part. Walking on the summit ridge was wonderful because it is horizontal (low effort) and extremely panoramic to both sides. The summit seemed far but I reached it quickly with a steady pace. To the left there was a tremendous drop down the SE slopes. The wind was strong making the experience less pleasant but conferring it a more radical and challenging feeling. I approached the characteristical rock that forms the summit passing some delicate short slopes that hang over the N wall. Shortly before the summit I met Piotr (he summited circa 13h30), on his way back, who was happy and we congratulated mutually. I recall replying: "Thanks, but congratulate me at BC…" For me the climb includes returning to BC and I was worried with the descent! Then he tells me: "Don't be too strict in climbing the summit", meaning the tip of the pointed summit cone. Meanwhile, Martin reached us. We said good bye to Piotr and climbed together to the summit (Jay says he saw us getting there at 14h40). We were the last to climb the summit in this season. No great pleasure on the summit due to the strong wind. We stayed a short while to take some photos and returned back down. I was the last person reaching C3 and it was dark (no idea what time, 19h-20h?). Next day everybody abandoned C3 except Jay and Darek Zaluski who wished to attempt the summit again. I learned that Richard (Ryszard) had caught laryngitis and had given up the summit attempt. Darek and Jay attempted the summit on May 18. Jay felt too tired and came back to C3. Darek had reached 8200m when the weather deteriorated and he decided it was best to retreat. Next day (May 20) both descended to C1 where Jay was very slow and had great difficulty in reaching the camp. Our doctor went to C1 and followed Jay's condition during the night. All reached BC the following day. Jay seemed moderately recovered but had a few frostbitten fingertips. A memorial plaque in honour of RD was fastened to a predominant boulder at BC. BC was abandoned on May 21 and we were flown to Kathmandu on May 23 from 4750m.

Short conclusion I am surprised that on my return to Lisbon I feel much better physically and stronger than when I left it. I must have recovered quickly. I think that profuse hydration after summiting is the key. After the summit I spent the morning at C1 just brewing and drinking. During the 3h that lasted the operation I must have had 3 urines the last being close to transparent which reassured me greatly. As for brain cells destruction I don't feel a great difference in memory. During summit day I felt always lucid. I think that you start having problems of any kind when you become extremely dehydrated. Save for RD's unfortunate passing away Makalu was a great experience and a very interesting challenge on a great and prestigious mountain.

Gonçalo Velez 21.06.02

Pictures Vlado STRBA


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