The size of the mountain alone is certainly impressive, but the pyramid structure, double peak and four sharp ridges make the mountain even more striking, like the Matterhorn of the Himalayas.
Height: 8463 m
Location: Nepal / China (Tibet)
First Climbed: 1955 (Lionel Terray / Jean Couzy)
Climb Time: 2 Months
Best Season to Climb: April - May & late September - October
Introduction to Makalu
Situated to the southeast of Everest, Makalu is the fifth highest eight-thousander standing at 8,463 metres (27,765 feet) tall and is located in the Khumbu region. The two principal subsidiary peaks are Chomolonzo which rises just north of the main summit and is around 7,804 metres and Kanchungtse, also known as Makalu II (7678 metres).
Located in the centre of the eastern Himalayas approximately 14 miles from Mount Everest, the mountain is surrounded by a number of deep valleys but is particularly isolated. The surrounding valleys are filled with pristine forests and alpine meadows and, with such a broad range of climates at varying altitudes, the Makalu-Barun area includes some of the most abundant and richest flora and fauna in Nepal. Due to its inaccessibility the region is rarely visited and is relatively unknown but those who have visited the area leave with some unforgettable memories.
Jump to Makalu Route Guide
What’s in the Name?
The Makalu name originates from a Sanskrit word, Maha-Kala which refers to the words 'big black' and also relates to one of the most important gods in Hinduism, Shiva. In the local language the mountain's name is Kumba Karna which translates to The Giant.
As with many of the world's highest mountains, Makalu is a climb that shouldn't be underestimated and is certainly a challenge. Only five out of the first sixteen attempts to climb Makalu resulted in success and since the first ascent there have been 206 successful attempts to climb the mountain along with a number of fatalities. Before the first successful ascent in 1955, the mountain was long admired and studied by a number of different Everest climbers but as with many of the other mountains in the region, the ascent of Makalu was not attempted until after Everest was successfully climbed in 1953 by Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
History of Makalu
Makalu was first photographed and mapped from the Tibetan side in 1921 by an English reconnaissance expedition but it wasn’t until the 50s, during the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering that the first attempts were made to reach the summit. From the first attempt in 1954 through to a Japanese endeavour in 197-, followed by a Yugoslav expedition in 1975, the first successful attempt was made in 1955.
In the spring of 1954 an American team called the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu attempted to reach the summit. Led by a medical physicist William Siri, the ten strong team included several members of the Sierra club such as Willi Unsold and Allen Steck. After the group had explored the mountain they attempted to navigate the south east ridge but were eventually forced back at 7,100 metres due to persistent storms, high winds and the climbing conditions. As a monsoon was quickly approaching the team had a window to make one final attempt to reach the summit, but the mission had to be cut short and the team began the descent.
The First Ascent of Makalu
On May 15th 1955 the first successful attempt was made to reach the summit of Makalu. A French team including Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy reached the summit first followed by the rest of the team, Jean Franco, Sardar Gyaltsen Norbu and Guido Magnone the next day. This was a very unusual way to approach the climb because ordinarily a couple of climbers would reach the summit and the rest of the group would remain behind to provide logistical support as required with ropes and distributing resources to camps higher up the mountain. The French team reached the top by climbing the north face and then the north east ridge, moving through the saddle in the middle of Makalu and Kangchungtse which is the most popular route used to reach the summit today. The French team also made use of supplementary oxygen during the day and at night when they were above 7100 metres to facilitate the climb.
In 2006, renowned French climber Jean-Christophe Lafaille attempted a solo winter ascent of Makalu. In the early hours of the morning of the 27th of January Lafaille left his tent and he embarked on the final ascent to reach the summit, 1,000 metres above. Considered to be one of the best alpinists in the world The 40 year old attempted to make the first winter climb alone. After calling his wife in France, Lafaille embarked on the journey in temperatures of around minus thirty degrees and winds of 30 miles an hour. During the call to his wife Katia he told her that he would call her again once he reached the French Couloir in approximately three hours, but this was the last anyone ever heard from Lafaille and he was never found.
As the day progressed and night fell, Lafaille’s wife became increasingly concerned for his safety. The outlook was bleak because no expedition was currently in the region in winter and certainly no one accustomed to searching at such a high altitude. Lafaille had completely disappeared on the world’s fifth highest mountain without a single trace. It is thought that he may have been swept away in an avalanche or high winds but to this day he has never been located and it is not known whether he made it to the top.
Makalu Climbing Guide
As with almost any challenging 8,000 metre peak, Makalu requires long periods of steep climbing, ridges which are extremely exposed followed by a tough period of rock climbing at the pyramid of the summit. The climbing to the summit is divided into three broad sections. The first is easy glacier climbing to the lower slopes of the mountain, the second is navigating through steep snow covered slopes and ice climbing to the Makalu La and the final ascent to the French Couloir then navigating a rocky ridge shortly before reaching the summit.
There are a number of routes to the top of Makalu going over the west ridge, on the west face and by the south west. The usual route taken by many commercial expeditions will take adventurers past the south east peak before heading toward the south east ridge. With a moderate level of technicality, the climb is relatively straightforward requiring a certain degree of rope work as you progress up to the summit.
On route there are three main high camps used by climbers. The first is the high camp C1 located at 6,500 metres, the second is camp C2 at 6,500 metres marking the bottom of the south east peak ridge and the final camp is C3 at 7,300 metres situated at the start of the south east ridge. The conditions and terrain of the journey does vary somewhat from steep snow covered fields through to glacier crossings so it does demand a good understanding of techniques relating to high altitude mountaineering.
The first part of the main climb begins on the west face at 5,000 metres before climbing to a hanging ice fall found at 6,100 metres. As climbers progress in their ascent, they will move from the plateau up to rocky terrain which is 6,500 metres in height and then on to an ice rock wall which is 55 degrees steep. The final stage of the journey involves a 70 degree, rock pillar elevation leading on to the west ridge at 8,000 metres before reaching the summit of Makalu.
Ropes are fixed on route at various stages but primarily between 5,800 metres and 6,100 metres and then again at 6,500 metres to 7,500 metres.
Trekking around Makalu
Makalu is a mountain that is relatively rarely visited but for those who do make it a climbing destination it's an unforgettable experience. With a walk in of over 100km it provides a very real taste of Himalayan wilderness, such as cannot be found anywhere else in this greatest of great ranges.
There is a trekking route to Makalu base camp on the south of the mountain which afford amazing views of Everest, Lhotse and Kanchenjunga. It is one of the more challenging mountain walking routes and you are more likely to encounter local wildlife than you are fellow climbers and this is even more true if you opt for the Great Himalaya Trail from Kanchenjunga. The latter route will take in extensive cross country walking and mountain walking before crossing the upper Barun Valley and the Three Cols taking you up to almost 6,200 metres.
The trails in this remote Himalayan region are interesting and you can take in some truly stunning views not to mention seeing over 3000 species of flowering plants, 75 different mammal species and 440 species of birds. Impressive granite cliffs which are capped with glaciers on the upper sections of the Barun Valley are certainly a spectacular sight. In terms of weather, the region is well known for its heavy snow and rainfall so it is advised that any expeditions are carried out in the autumn, ideally between October and November.
It is important when climbing any mountain to acclimatise yourself to the surroundings specific to the mountain that you are going to attempt to climb. Another of the routes to the summit will acclimatise to the trip in the Everest Base Camp before they return to Pheriche. Climbers then take a helicopter ride to the Makalu Advanced Base Camp at 5,700 metres. As climbers have just moved up the mountain by 1,000 metres, they will need to rest for a few days to acclimatise to the new conditions. Stay at the lower camp which is at 6,100 metres for approximately two nights before you begin the journey up to the next camp at 6,600 metres. The route up to camp 2 is certainly tough, taking you up a steep head wall which is located in a very safe location just underneath the Makalu La. Once here, there are some truly stunning views of Everest and Lhotse.
Climbers would then typically then return back to the Advanced Base Camp and depending on the progress of the rope work, climbers will stay at the Advanced Base Camp for between four and five days to shower, complete any laundry and get plenty of food and rest before they go back up for a second opportunity to acclimatise to the conditions. Once leaving Advanced Base Camp, climbers will skip Camp 1 and progress through to Camp 2, a trail which takes around four or five hours. Following another night at Camp 2, climbers will rise early to take on the mammoth challenge of climbing to Makalu La located at 7,400 metres. The next section of the route is perhaps one of the most underestimate stages in the journey because it demands a high level of fitness to navigate some quite tricky and technical climbing over mixed terrain consisting of ice and rock. On average it takes between six and nine hours to navigate this phase in the expedition to navigate the two rock bands which are separated with a lengthy snow covered plateau.
Night time at this level is quite windy, but climbers don’t stay here for too long before leaving the Makalu La and returning to the Advanced Base Camp. The next stages of the journey will take climbers up to the summit but it is important that climbers choose the right ‘window’ to reach the summit selecting the most appropriate time to go when the winds are not as challenging. After checking the forecast and the OK is given to proceed, climbers will leave the Advanced Base Camp around three days before they are expected to reach the summit. Progressing straight to Camp 2 on the first day, this is then followed by a lengthy climb to the Makalu La. Following on from this, climbers have a very short day 2 where it takes between one and a half and two hours to reach Camp 4 located at 7,400 metres. Usually climbers arrive at Camp 4 at approximately 10am and the rest of the day is spent resting and reenergising before heading out at nightfall for the summit at around 11pm.
The climb to the summit of the Makalu is both long and challenging in terms of technicality. Climbers will cross a glacier, climb through seracs and traverse to the left before reaching the French Couloir at an approximate altitude of 8,250 metres. The climb inside the rocky couloirs will offer a little protection from the wind for a further 300 metresuntil the group reach the summit ridge.
The Descent from Makalu
Once you have reached the summit, the journey is only half complete. Climbers have to then navigate back to safety in their descent. The return from the summit is quite fast and is completed by abseiling down the French Couloir to reach Camp 4 in approximately one or two hours. From here, it is advised that climbers descend to Camp 2 in the same day in order to have a good rest. The descent to Camp 2 will take between three or four hours but it is definitely recommended. Some groups even make it all the way back to the Advanced Base Camp but this depends on the preferences of the group.
The final day is spent resting and packing up any remaining kit. If the weather allows, a helicopter will collect climbers and return them to Kathmandu.