In the spring of 2015, I left once again for Nepal to climb another 8000 meter peak. This time, I had picked Makalu. Makalu is 8463 meters high which makes it the fifth highest mountain on the planet. It has never been climbed by a Belgian.
Team and preparation
To make this expedition a success, I had joined a very experienced team. One of the climbers, Victor Saunders, I’ve known for years. We got to know each other on Mont Blanc and since then, climbed Vinson, Cho Oyu, Everest, Carstensz Pyramid and Elbrus together. Victor is a living legend in mountaineering and reached the summit of an 8000-er 11 times. Isa is a Polish lady that I didn’t know yet. She climbed Everest a few years ago and had to turn back on Cho Oyu due to bad weather. And finally, Kinga is the leading lady of Polish mountaineering. I’ve ran into her a few years ago in K2 basecamp but I’ve never climbed with her. Kinga has climbed 8 8000-ers, all without supplementary oxygen. Together, this team of 4 climbers reached the summit of an 8000-er 25 times.
To prepare myself even better than on previous expeditions, I slept in an altitude tent the last weeks before my departure. An altitude tent mimics the lack of oxygen that a mountaineer experiences at high altitude so the body can start acclimatizing already. This would give me a head start.
Originally, it was the intent to hike directly to Makalu basecamp but the weather decided differently. It had snowed a lot at the end of the winter and some of the passes that needed to be crossed were still closed. As an alternative, I went hiking in Langtang national park to start my acclimatization program.
The trekking started with a jeep ride of about six hours to Shyaphrubesi. From this village, I started to walk a day later. The first two days, I climbed 1000 meter higher each day through a forest that seemed to come straight out of a fairy tale. I constantly had the feeling that a dwarf could pop up any time. After two days we arrived in the village called Langtang at 3500 meters. At that point, I had left the tree line a few hundred meters below me.
One of the nice parts about these trekkings is that you meet all sorts of people from different nationalities. That offers a good cultural mix for evening conversations around the stove.
The third day, I continued to Kyanjin Gumpa at 3800 meter. This could have been a short day, but to acclimatize more, I climbed up to 4300 meters in the afternoon. Climbing high and sleeping low will make you sleep better and hence it helps with acclimatization. And that obviously was the point.
Saturday and Sunday, I climbed two local peaks. From Kyanjin Gumpa, these mountains seemed no more than hills, but the climb on Sunday brought me almost up to 5000 meter and that is nearly 200 meters higher than Mont Blanc, the highest point in Western-Europe.
Allthough it had snowed quite heavily on Friday, Saturday started with a blue sky and sunshine. That also means that the sun reflects in the snow and as a consequence, it felt as if I was being fried during the climb. Sun cream factor 50 was no luxury. On Saturday, I reached the summit of Kyanjin Ri at 4700 meters after 6 hours of climbing via a little detour.
On Sunday, I had set my goal 300 meters higher. Saturday afternoon and evening it had snowed heavily so during this climb, I had to plow through waist deep snow on occasion. Hard labor but a good training for the challenges ahead on Makalu. The spectacular views on the summit were an appropriate reward for my efforts. During the climb, I was accompanied by a local dog. He too made it to the summit without problems.
I also noticed that I supported the altitude well. Normally, I start getting aware of altitude as of 4000 meter and physical exercise gets a little harder. But that was not the case this time. Undoubtedly, this was a result of the fact that I slept in an altitude tent for 6 weeks at home. I also noticed it in my oxygen saturation. That never dropped below 96 %.
On Monday, I started a two day descent back towards the starting point in Shyaphrubesi. There, I was obliged to jump on a 4×4 to Kathmandu because a strike in the transportation sector had been announced for Wednesday and Thursday. Being stuck in Shyaphrubesi for two days was the last thing I needed.
To Makalu basecamp
After a few days of resting and packing in Kathmandu after this first trekking in the Langtang region, I boarded the airplane to Tumlingtar on Saturday 11th April. Tumlingtar is a village with a small airport in the middle of the mountains. On the way, I could see Everest, Lhotse and Makalu appearing above the clouds.
After a simple lunch, I got in a four wheel drive that dropped me in Numm after a bumpy ride of 4 hours. There I was awaited by the cooks, Sherpa’s and all the equipment for the climb. The next morning, I started the actual trekking with an 800 meter descent. My next stop was Seduwa. Seduwa is no more than 2 km from Numm in a straight line and just like Numm, it lies at an altitude of 1500 meters. But to get from Numm to Seduwa, you need to cross a river via a bridge 800 meters lower. So I had to descend 800 meters and then climb 800 meters again.
The next morning, I continued my journey to Tashigon, the last real Sherpa village at an altitude of 2000 meters. The village is inhabited all year round unlike all the lodges higher up which are only open during the climbing /trekking season. The next day was a bit harder. From Tashigon I hiked 1500 meters higher to Kongma. The last part of the hike I had to complete through snow. Not all the winter snow has melted and once in a while more snow is added. Kongma was also the last place where I slept in a lodge. A tent is warmer, more comfortable and less noisy than a bed in a lodge.
To get to my next destination, I had to climb 4 passes. The highest, Shipton La, is 4200 meters high. Unfortunately it was clouded and it started snowing when I got there. After Shipton La, I descended 400 meters to the next lodge where we put up our tents. The next morning, I even descended further to Yak Karka at 3500 meters. This lodge lies at a beautiful location next to a little river. The fact that I had descended a little again, also meant that I slept very well.
From Yak Karka, I climbed 1000 meters again to Langmala Karka. In this lodge, there were so many mountaineers and there was so little room, that I had to eat on the floor in the bedroom of an old lady.
From here on, I needed one more day to get to Hillary Camp at 4900 meters. Hillary Camp is considered the “low” basecamp of Makalu. It’s located next to a river, which is handy. But it’s too far from Makalu itself to use it as a base camp for the expedition. Most expeditions stay here for a couple of days to acclimatize before they move on to the higher basecamp.
I used my days in Hillary Camp to climb a bit higher to let my body acclimatize. The first day, I climbed up to 5200 meters, the 2nd day even up to 5600 meters. 5600 meters is also the altitude of the higher basecamp and considering that that altitude didn’t cause me any problems, I was ready for the next step.
On Tuesday 21st April, I left Hillary Camp for a 6 hour journey to the higher basecamp. I walked almost the entire way on loose rock. That makes it difficult for me, but it’s a lot worse for the porters carrying 30 kgs. But these hardened men completed their task diligently.
The first day in basecamp was a transition day. All of my equipment had to be unpacked. I also allowed myself and my clothes a washing (separately obviously).
On Thursday, I climbed up to crampon point at 5900 meters. Crampon point is the place where mountaineers put on their crampons, mountaineering boots and harness. Most expeditions leave a tent or a barrel there to store that equipment. After a light snack at crampon point, I returned back to basecamp.
On Friday morning, I left basecamp again with a heavy pack towards camp 1 at 6400 meters. The route starts off over loose rock and continues on a gentle snow slope as of crampon point. At about 6200 meters, I met the first real challenge of the climb: an icy headwall with a slope of about 60 %. Undoubtedly, this was just a warm-up for what is to come higher on Makalu.
After this headwall, it takes another 1/2 hour to camp 1. There were no splendid views this time because the top part of the climb was in the clouds. In camp 1, I spent a reasonably good but restless night. Restless because this was the first time on this expedition that I slept at 6400 meters. But also restless because the wind was battering my tent all night long.
Although the original plan was to climb up to camp 2 the next morning before returning to basecamp, I decided to descend straight away due to the weather conditions. I set off at 10 am and the descent progressed well until just below crampon point.
Suddenly, I heard a huge avalanche. That avalanche was pretty far away so it wasn’t an immediate threat. But almost at the same moment, I heard another avalanche from a different direction. On top of that, it felt like the earth moved under my feet. I realized it was an earthquake that had set of these avalanches.
Because there were more big ice blocks in my neighborhood, I kept my eyes and ears open in case I needed to run away quickly. A bit later, the earthquake was over and I could continue the descent. When I arrived in Makalu basecamp, I found out that what had looked like a small earthquake, was much more serious in Kathmandu.
While international aid was getting up to speed, mountaineers in Makalu basecamp over the next couple of days were contemplating what to do next. In my team, we discussed this with the Sherpa’s. In the end, it’s their country, families and friends that have been hit by this disaster. Therefore our first concern was to make sure that all our Nepalese team members could call home to confirm that there were no casualties in their families.
After a few days, all Western mountaineers in Makalu basecamp sat down to discuss what to do next. It was a conscious decision to delay this discussion a few days to give everyone time to create a clear picture in their head. The conclusion of that meeting was that most climbers would stop the expedition. And that applied to me as well. A small group of climbers did continue for a few days more.
To me, there were two important reasons to discontinue this climb. First of all, there are safety considerations. Seismologists were forecasting about 35 additional earthquakes in the following weeks with an intensity of at least 5 on the Richter scale. Walking underneath blocks of ice that weigh more than 20 tons in those circumstances felt like playing Russian Roulette to me. And because safety always comes first, I couldn’t justify climbing in these conditions.
Secondly, there were ethical considerations. None of our Sherpa’s had lost any family in the disaster. But the women and children of some of them were living in the streets of Kathmandu. It seemed essential to me that these Sherpa’s could attend to the needs of their families ASAP. On top of that, it felt inappropriate to climb Makalu while rescue workers were digging up thousands of bodies a few kilometers down the road. When I get home after an expedition, I want to be able to look everyone in the eye and say that I feel I did the right, ethical thing. Hence, I wanted to stop climbing Makalu.
Instead I wanted to invest my time and resources in helping the Nepalese. Hence I got in touch with a number of ngo’s. The intent was for me to visit a number of remote villages to report on the damage, assess the needs and possibly track down some missing foreigners. It could be weeks before international aid could reach these villages and with the information we could provide, they could hopefully deliver help faster.
So, I hiked back to Numm and registered the damage of the earthquake on the way. Because Makalu was 300 km away from the epicenter, the damage in this region was not as disastrous as in the West. During the descent, there were however damaged buildings. Stone walls had often collapsed while wooden structures seemed to withstand the earthquake better. Only in Seduwa, there seemed to be a number of houses on one side of the village that had been destroyed. On the other side of the village, there was no damage at all. Fortunately, there were no casualties or seriously wounded in this region.
In many cases, the Nepalese had already started fixing the damage. At one point, I passed by a lodge where the stones of the collapsed walls were still in front of the building on the ground. In the meantime, the locals had built new walls in different material and the lodge was open for business again.
Once back in Kathmandu, I talked to a number of NGO’s to offer my services in areas that had suffered more from the earthquake. A few days later, I was sitting outside having a drink while planning my reconnaissance mission of the next couple of days when the earth started moving again. The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.4 on the Richter scale and lasted for about 2 minutes although the worst shaking was over after 30 seconds.
Everyone ran outside. I wasn’t inside fortunately but I was next to a large building. So I moved to a safer spot where I could run in several directions if necessary. When the shock was over, people stayed in the streets. There was no real panic but people were nervous.
After half an hour, I went back to my seat but a bit later it started again. The second earthquake wasn’t as bad and it didn’t last that long, but it did impact the confidence of people. Shops and restaurants closed and people went home.
I wanted to return to my hotel but that too was closed. In the meantime, stories about damage and victims started popping up. In my neighborhood, there was no damage or any victims but not everyone in Nepal was that lucky.
Two days later, I set off with Victor and 4 Nepalese to assess the damage and the needs in a number of villages in the Dhading Bhesi district. The first day we spent 8 hours in a bus and 4×4 before we could start walking. On the second day, we managed to reach Sertun.
The damage we saw on the way was enormous. The trekking trail was damaged but could still be used. One of the bridges was damaged but was still being used. There were a number of landslides on the trail but with a bit of scrambling you could get to the other side.
The houses however were in a much worse state. Most houses were either severely damaged or totally destroyed. People had been sleeping outside for 3 weeks, often in the rain. Here and there, tarps had been provided or someone had built a temporary shelter.
Most houses in the area had to be rebuilt completely and with the monsoon season on the way, there were some hard times ahead for these people. After 4 days, we returned to Kathmandu and reported our findings to the NGO before returning back to Belgium.
Being in the middle of a humanitarian disaster, has made a lasting impression on me. In a matter of a few minutes, thousands of people were killed or injured and an entire country came to a stop. On the other hand it also showed that many people that tried to help: Large organizations and NGO’s but also volunteers that collected a bit of money and did what they could to help. And off course the Nepalese themselves who started rebuilding their lives from the ruins.
When I returned to Belgium, I worked with a number of people that volunteered to set up initiatives to collect money for Nepal. Others donated generously. In total, we collected nearly 8000 euro that was mostly spend on buying blankets to help the Nepalese survive the winter. It will take years to rebuild the country but Nepal remains as beautiful as ever.