Makalu: New Route, Kangchungtse
Some good news to start the week. On Saturday morning at 4:45 a.m. I received the following email and picture from Vince Anderson via satphone (hence the low resolution of the photo):
On Thurs., Oct. 16, Steve, Marko and I hiked up to C2 (ca. 6,700 m.) on the std. route of Makalu with the intention of staying a few nights for further acclimatization and possibly to climb Kanchungtse (Makalu 2 - 7,600 m.). Steve's cough had not abated so he decided to just rest at C2 while Marko and I climbed. We wanted to try a route on the unclimbed west face (a previous attempt had ended on the ridge, just shy of the summit).
We woke early the following morning to clear skies, light winds and very cold temps. We left Steve and camp at 7:00 a.m. and approached the base of the face in just under two hours. My feet were so cold that I had to stop in the bergschrund, take off my boots and re-warm them in my hands.
We started up the broken ice and rock face just as the sun poked out at us. We started out simul-climbing on moderate terrain until we ran out of ice screws. After a few of these, the terrain steepened and the climbing became more interesting with the occasional mixed step. Now, we climbed it one slow pitch at a time. We stayed in the sun most of the day which helped take some of the sting out of the biting wind. Sometimes, it would sound like a freight train as it blasted over the ridges above.
The climbing kept getting harder as we got higher. Above 7,000 m. the altitude began taking its toll as well, forcing us to progress at a snail's pace. After about a dozen pitches came some reprieve: snow. We were able to climb easily, if slowly, up for 100 m. towards the top in the amber light of late afternoon. We knew we would be benighted but not where. It seemed like we had it in the bag if only the snow would just end. It did, but not onto easier ground as we had hoped for. Above us, lay steep rocky steps and dark, menacing clouds. Marko led through one step only to be confronted with another one. It was beginning to feel as if it would never end. In the final light of the day, I turned around to catch a glimpse of a truly beautiful sunset behind Everest and Lhotse, just twelve miles distant.
Darkness descended and with it, cold. We were still going up. Long out of water and unable to eat any more food without it, we were exhausted from the long day out in the cold, the hard climbing and the high altitude. We were now at 7,600 m. (ca. 25,000 ft.) and in the dark. The cold crept in. I paid out the last of the rope, disassembled the anchor and started climbing again. After a seemingly endless progression of four breaths for every single step, the rope led me up over the highest point then down a short ways to a small flat where Marko was belaying. We said nothing, exchanged bear hugs and, without any photos or celebration, started down.
Unbeknownst to us, others, including Steve, had been tracking our progress from below not without some consternation due to the late hour of our summit, the high winds and gathering clouds. For some reason (dehydration?), my eyesight in my left eye was completely blurry. I was having great difficulty seeing. Marko led down. All I had to do was follow his footprints in the snow. In an hour and a half, we had made it down to Makalu La, the large pass separating Makalu from Kangchungtse. There, we intersected the std. route on Makalu and followed it down to our camp. We arrived at 11:00 p.m. to Steve eagerly awaiting us with hot drinks and soup.
The weather that had been threatening did come in that night with high winds and light snow. It ended up being a good test of our lightweight tent as we woke covered in a light dusting of snow inside the tent! It made for a long, sleepless night. The following morning, Saturday, we all packed up and descended to base camp.