Makalu Expedition (8,463 m)
Himalaya, Nepal

Sunset from the camp 2 of Makalu (© P. Gatta)
Sunset from the camp 2 of Makalu (© P. Gatta)



Makalu (8,463 m)

Makalu is a mountain of the Himalaya range, in the Makalu Barun region, 19 km Southeast of Mount Everest, on the border between Nepal and China. With an elevation of 8,463 m, Makalu is the fifth highest mountain in the World and one of the 14 mountains on Earth that are more than 8,000 meters (26,247 ft) high.

Makalu seen from Hillary base camp (© P. Gatta)
Makalu seen from Hillary base camp (© P. Gatta)

Makalu was first climbed by a French team on May 15, 1955. Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy were the first to reach the top on the 15th, while Franco, Magnone, Bouvier, Coupe, Leroux, Vialatte and Sardar Gyaltsen Norbu summitted the following two days.

There are several others notable French ascents; Yannick Seigneur and Bernard Mellet climbed the West Pillar in 1971. In 1988 Marc Batard climbed West Buttress in 24h. One year later, Pierre Beghin soloed the Yugoslav route in the South Face. Then sadly, in January 2006, Jean-Christophe Lafaille disappeared while trying to do the first winter ascent.

As of 2009, 323 climbers reached the top of Makalu among which 20 were French.

Sources: 8000ers.com and Himalayan Database from Elizabeth Hawley archives (himalayandatabase.com).

The silhouettes of Lhotse and Everest seen from the Makalu La (© P. Gatta)
The silhouettes of Lhotse and Everest seen from the Makalu La (© P. Gatta)



The 2014 Makalu Expedition

In April 2014, Philippe and Pasang Gombu teamed up again to climb Makalu. They left Katmandu and trekked to Makalu base camp. It took them 37 days to reach the top before coming back to Katmandu. The entire expedition lasted 56 days.

Gombu and Philippe coming back from high camps (© P. Gatta)
Gombu and Philippe coming back from high camps (© P. Gatta)

Philippe and Gombu climbed the French route opened in 1955. This route starts at 5,700 m on the West of Makalu. Then it climbs Makalu La (pass at 7,400 m) before going South to the French Couloir at the bottom of the North face and finishes on the Northeast ridge.

The base camp (BC), also called Hillary base camp, is located at 4,850 on the Barun glacier. In fact, this BC is used only during the trekking. During the expedition, the climbers stay at the advanced base camp (ABC) at 5,700 m.

From the ABC, the route follows a moraine up to crampons point at 5,950 m. Then it goes on the gentle slopes of the glacier to the bottom of a first headwall at 6,250 m where it is possible to set a low camp 1. Climb the headwall to a plateau at 6,370 m where it is also possible to set the camp 1. Pass a small serac to the location of the high camp 1 at 6,450 m.

From the camp 1, climb a short steep slope, cross under a serac and climb another slope to a plateau at 6,650 m. There is a good spot for a camp 2 there, wide enough for a large number of tents.

From the camp 2, climb the gentle snow slopes above, traversing South to the base of the two rock bands coming from Makalu La. The base of the first rock band is at 7,000 m. Climb the steep rocks (rock and mixed terrain) for 150 m up to the middle snow slope (around 200 m at 40°) between the two rock bands. Climb the second rock band, less steep than the first one but higher. Exit on the right of the actual Makalu La, continue on the snow slope until a large plateau. The camp 3 can be set on the plateau at around 7,470 m. The plateau is very large and flat but very exposed to Westerly winds.

From the camp 3, continue on the plateau toward the Southwest. Climb a small wall (mixed terrain). Continue to the rocks at 7,570 m to set the camp 4. The distance between C3 and C4 is about 1km and +100 m, so some climbers skip the C4 and start their summit bid from C3.

From the camp 4, climb almost straight on the glacier up to 7,770 m. Cross the seracs to reach the other side of the glacier. From there, climb on the glacier almost straight again up to 8,200 m, then traverse to reach the bottom of the French Couloir. Climb the left side of the French Couloir. It is mainly a rock and mixed climb with four short (2m) but harder sections. The end of the Couloir is less steep and becomes more snowy. Reach the snow ridge at 8,400 m and follow it. This ridge is relatively large and easy until the base of the false summit. Climb the false summit on the right, it is short but steep and exposed. Traverse from the false to the true summit, avoiding the cornice. Again the climb is short but exposed. Reach the tiny summit at 8,463 m.

Climbers on the way to Makalu camp 4, Everest in the clouds behind (© P. Gatta)
Climbers on the way to Makalu camp 4, Everest in the clouds behind (© P. Gatta)



Trekking to Makalu Advanced Base Camp

The trekking to the base camp of Makalu crosses the Makalu Barun National Park. This region is more remote and wilder than the famous regions of Khumbu, Annapurnas or Manaslu. In many ways, it is very similar to the Kangchenjunga region.

April 4: Katmandu - Num (1,510 m)

We flew from Katmandu to Tumlingtar and then took a Jeep to the village of Num at 1,510 m (3h30) where we slept in a rudimentary lodge.

Kids in a small village between Num and Seduwa (© P. Gatta)
Kids in a small village between Num and Seduwa (© P. Gatta)

April 5: Num - Seduwa (1,550 m)

We started our trekking at Num. From there, we went down to the river at 800 m and then walked all the way up to Seduwa in the heat and humidity.

Stage: 5.5 km, +820m/-775m, 2h45.

Village of Makalu Barun region (© P. Gatta)
Village of the Makalu Barun region (© P. Gatta)

April 6: Seduwa - Tashigaon (2,110 m)

The second day of trekking to Tashigaon was also cloudy, very hot and humid. Tashigaon is the last village of the valley and is probably the nicest one as well. There were several lodges but all were far from being as comfortable as the ones in the Khumbu or Manaslu regions.

Stage: 8.5 km, +690m/-150m, 2h35.

Lodge owner in Tashigaon (© P. Gatta)
Lodge owner in Tashigaon (© P. Gatta)

April 7: Tashigaon - Khongma (3,560 m)

Once again the scenery of this stage was very similar from what we saw in the Kangchenjunga with the same type of trees, moss and Rhododendrons. The trail above Tashigaon was steep and we quickly reached the snow as we gained altitude. We spent most of the time on a ridge but unfortunately surrounded by clouds.
There was only one rudimentary lodge in Khongma.

Stage: 6 km, +1435m/-70m, 3h40.

April 8: Khongma - Dobate (3,850 m)

We were looking forward to this stage which crosses three passes over 4,000 m, normally offering great views of Makalu and surrounding mountains. Unfortunately it was once again very cloudy and we crossed the Ghungru La (4,055 m), the Shipton La (4,220 m) and Keke La (4,152 m) all in the snow. Then we descended after the last pass and reached the only lodge of Dobate which was not even on the map. Dobate was again a very basic lodge.

Stage: 8 km, +840m/-615m, 3h45.

Dobate lodge (© P. Gatta)
Dobate lodge (© P. Gatta)

April 9: Dobate - Yangle Kharka (3,640 m)

We started the day under a clear sky and could see the high mountains for the first time since the beginning of the trek. Below Dobate the trail continue to descend in a steep forest of Rhododendrons. The trail goes down to 3,250 m and then goes back up along the nice Barun Nadi (river) up to Yangle Kharka. Yangle Kharka is really a nice place (a Kharka is a grazing pastures for Yaks). There are a few lodges along the river and surrounded by mountains.

Stage: 9.5 km, +400m/-630m, 3h20.

Yangle Kharka (© P. Gatta)
Yangle Kharka (© P. Gatta)

April 10: Yangle Kharka - Tumaka (4,015 m)

We made a short day to Tumaka, the last open lodge before the base camp. In fact it was more four basic walls and a roof than a lodge but the place is very nice and surrounded by nice cliffs and icefalls. Like all the lodges of the valley, Tumaka did not not have any stove, so to warm up and cook they burned tons of wood and we already could see the deforestation around...

Stage: 5.5 km, +345m/-10m, 1h30.

April 11: Tumaka - Hillary base camp (4,850 m)

We leave the last trees just above Tumaka and progressively enter into a mineral world. The peaks around us were higher, all above 6,000 meters of altitude. Most of them were steep, technical and their faces were often higher than 2,000 m high. We reached the Barun glacier at 4,600 m but the trail remained very good up to the Hillary base camp. The camp is located on flat area and offers a great view over the South face of Makalu.

Stage: 11 km, +915m/-140m, 4h.

Hillary base camp (© P. Gatta)
Hillary base camp (© P. Gatta)

April 12 and 13: acclimatization around Hillary base camp (4,850 m)

We spent two days to rest and walk around the Hillary base camp. In fact this place is too far away from Makalu to be used as real base camp. Climbers usually spend a few days there to acclimatize before going to the advanced base camp (ABC) where they stay until the end of the expedition.

Hike: 4 km, +300m/-300m, 1h40.

April 14: Hillary base camp - Advanced Base Camp (5,720 m)

We left the Hillary base camp early in the morning. The trail was very good up to 5,000 m, then it went in the middle of the Barun moraine. Fortunately we could enjoy the view of the South faces of Lhotse and Everest in front of us. Half way through ABC the trail goes to the right, very close to the bottom of rock faces coming from the West pillar. We finally reached the advanced base camp (ABC) at 5,720 m, our home for the following weeks.

Stage: 9 km, +1000m/-155m, 5h.

Makalu Advanced Base Camp (© P. Gatta)
Makalu Advanced Base Camp (© P. Gatta)

The 37 days of ascent

April 15: rest day at Advanced Base Camp (5,720 m)

At 5,720 m, this camp is very high, probably one of the highest of all 14 8000m peaks. Going from BC to ABC and climbing 1,000 m in one day is not ideal. We spent the day resting and organizing our tent for the next 35+ days.

April 16: ABC - Crampons point (5,950 m) - ABC

We made our first small acclimatization hike above ABC. We followed the moraine up to the beginning of the glacier that is called Crampons point (5,950 m) where we put up a tent to leave boots, crampons, harness that we used from that point on. Then we went back down to the ABC.

Hike: +300m/-300m, 2h. Oxygen saturation: 83%.

The impressive face of Makalu (© P. Gatta)
The impressive face of Makalu (© P. Gatta)

April 17: rest day at ABC (5,720 m)

Rest day at ABC.

April 18: ABC - Camp 1 (6,420 m)

Feeling good, we left the ABC for our first rotation with a double objective: carrying gear to the higher camps and continuing our acclimatization by going higher up. The route is pretty easy and straight forward. We started a bit late and when we reached the headwall at 6,250 m it was extremely hot, even wearing just a fleece. About an hour and half later, we reached the location of the camp 1 at 6,420 m. The clouds came in, along with a cold wind as we put up our tent.

Climb: +740m/-25m, 3h45.

April 19: C1 - C2 (6,650 m) - C1

As the C2 was just 230m higher, we thought that was not worth moving the tent down and our gear to gain just 230m. As we still wanted to see the route above, we went up to C2 and came back to the C1 the same day.

Climb: +230m/-230m, 1h05.

Camp 1, Baruntse in the background (© P. Gatta)
Camp 2, Baruntse in the background (© P. Gatta)

April 20: C1 - ABC

We woke up by -15°C in the tent. After a quick breakfast we went back down to the ABC.
When we arrived at the ABC, we heard about the terrible accident that took the life of 16 Sherpas in the Everest icefall.

Climb: +150m/-760m, 1h15. O2 sat: 73%.

April 21-23: rest days at ABC

Rest days at ABC.

Night shot of the ABC with the Makalu behind (© P. Gatta)
Night shot of the ABC with the Makalu behind (© P. Gatta)

April 24: ABC - C1 (6,420 m)

We left for a second rotation, this time carrying more gear, kit, food and tent. We left much earlier to avoid frying in the bowl below the headwall.

Climb: +740m/-25m, 3h40.

April 25: C1 - C2 (6,650 m)

With a better acclimatization, the night at C1 was more comfortable. This time we took all the gear and went up to C2. Camp 2 was more pleasant than the C1, it was less exposed to the wind, wider and flatter. The view was also better, especially over the Lhotse and Everest, just 15km away.

Climb: +270m/-45m, 1h05.

Camp 2 seen from 7,000 m (© P. Gatta)
Camp 2 seen from 7,000 m (© P. Gatta)

April 26: C2 - ABC

We were hoping to go to C3 but the weather deteriorated and we decided to go back down to ABC.

Climb: +20m/-960m, 1h30.

April 27-28: rest days at ABC

New rest period at ABC.

April 29: ABC - C2 (6,650 m)

The weather was rather unstable but there were a few days of good weather forecasted, so we decided to go back up. For our third rotation we hoped to reach camp 3 at 7,400 m and continue to the summit. With a better acclimatization, we skipped C1 and went straight to C2 that we reached in just 3h50.

Climb: +950m/-45m, 3h50.

Climbers on the way to C3 (© P. Gatta)
Climbers on the way to C3 (© P. Gatta)

April 30: C2 - 7,000 m - C2

The weather forecast changed and the weather became too bad for a summit bid. I decided to walk up to 7,000 m to acclimatize while Gombu went to 7,400 m. We both went back to C2 for the night.

Climb: +310m/-310m, 1h15.

May 1: C2 - ABC

We went back down to ABC.

Climb: +20m/-960m, 1h20. O2 sat: 77%.

Helicopter carrying climbers and food to ABC (© P. Gatta)
Helicopter carrying climbers and food to ABC (© P. Gatta)

May 2: rest day at ABC

Despite long hours of effort from 22 climbers and Sherpas to rescue Yannick, he finally passed away during the descent. For all us this day has been of extreme pain and sadness.

May 3-5: rest days at ABC

I was constantly thinking about Yannick. The weather was bad, cold and it keept snowing. We had no meat for a week and the food was garbage. Like many other climbers, I was sick and started taking antibiotic. I missed my family too. Overall, the moral was close to zero and the summit never felt so far away.

Snow on the Makalu (© P. Gatta)
Snow on the Makalu (© P. Gatta)

May 6: ABC - 5,900 m - ABC

I did not felt better but I made a short hike above ABC to exercise. I lost a lot of arm and leg muscles.

May 7-9: rest days at ABC

The waiting game continued. Twice a day we looked at the weather forecast hoping that the Jetstream would move away. I finished my 7th book and was spending 20 hours a day in the 2 square meters of my tent.

The climbers above C2 give the scale of this impressive face of Makalu(© P. Gatta)
The climbers above C2 give the scale of this impressive face of Makalu (© P. Gatta)

May 10: ABC - Crampons point (5,950 m) - ABC

The weather forecast improved a bit, predicting a wind drop in the following days. So I decided to exercise again and made another round trip to Crampons point.

Hike: +300m/-300m, 1h20. Oxygen saturation: 86%.

May 11-12: rest days at ABC

I felt better and could stop taking antibiotic. A good weather window was confirmed for the 16th. We decided to go up the following day, climbing straight to C2, spend 2 days there, then move to C3 and C4. After much hesitation we decided to make a C4 because there are 3km and +1,000m from C3 to the summit which is quite a lot.

Night shot from Makalu ABC (© P. Gatta)
Night shot from Makalu ABC (© P. Gatta)

May 13: ABC - C2 (6,650 m)

The weather window got confirmed for the 16th but it was still quite unstable and windy. As there was no better window forecasted for the coming two weeks, we left for the summit anyway that we hoped to reach 3 days later. We climbed to C2 for the 4th time. All our gear was already in C2 and C3 but we brought more food in case we have to change the plan and have to wait more.

May 14: rest at C2

As planned, we spent this day in C2, resting before the tough climb to C3.

Climb: +950m/-45m, 3h50.

Between C2 and C3 at 6,800 m (© P. Gatta)
Between C2 and C3 at 6,800 m (© P. Gatta)

May 15: C2 - C3 (7,470 m)

We left the C2 early, knowing that the day would be long. It was windy and very cold. The route was steep, especially the first rock band. This climb is very demanding whether we use the fixed ropes or not. The weather got worse as we were climbing the second rock band and we reached the C3 in the blizzard. We put the tent up, ate quickly and went in the sleeping bag. In the meantime, the weather forecast got worse and forced us to postpone the summit push by one day.

Climb: +950m/-0m, 7h20.

Broken tent at C3, Kangchenjunga behind (© P. Gatta)
Broken tent at C3, Kangchenjunga behind (© P. Gatta)

May 16: stuck in C3

We had 70km/h of wind all night and 5 tents were blown away. We wore our down suit inside the sleeping bag and our gear was in the packs in case our tent would have been destroyed. Weather forecast predicted less wind the following days so we spent that day in C3.

Wind blowing on the Makalu summit seen from C3 (© P. Gatta)
Wind blowing on the Makalu summit seen from C3 (© P. Gatta)

May 17: C3 - C4 (7,570 m)

The wind dropped and we could move up to C4. The climb was even shorter than what we expected, just 1h10. The C4 was in a nice place and better sheltered than the C3.

Climb: +230m/-130m, 1h10.

On the way to C4 with Everest in the background (© P. Gatta)
On the way to C4 with Everest in the background (© P. Gatta)

May 17 evening - 18: C4 - Makalu summit (8,463 m) - C3

We spent the afternoon resting and planning the climb with the rest of the team. There was no fixed rope on the upper part of the mountain, just a small 6mm rope in the French Couloir and nothing above. We took 60m of rope.

Panorama from C3 with Lhotse, Everest and Makalu II (© P. Gatta)
Panorama from C3 with Lhotse, Everest and Makalu II (© P. Gatta)

We left the C4 at 9pm. We crossed the glacier with the rest of the team and took the lead above. We reached the summit ridge above the French Couloir just at sunrise.

Sunrise on Lhotse, South Col and Everest from 8,400 m (© P. Gatta)
Sunrise on Lhotse, South Col and Everest from 8,400 m (© P. Gatta)

Above the French Couloir the route was easier until the false summit. We climbed the false summit and the final ridge to the true summit in solo, using old fixed ropes now and then.

Summit on Makalu at 8,463 m with Lhotse and Everest behind (© P. Gatta)
Summit on Makalu at 8,463 m with Lhotse and Everest behind (© P. Gatta)

We reached the summit of Makalu just before 6am, after 9 hours of climb. We enjoyed the view for 15 minutes and started the descent.

Between the true and false summits of Makalu (© P. Gatta)
Between the true and false summits of Makalu (© P. Gatta)

We met the rest of the team on the ridge above the French Couloir. They all reached the top a bit later.

Camp 3 and 4 seen from the summit of Makalu (© P. Gatta)
Camp 3 and 4 seen from the summit of Makalu (© P. Gatta)

Three hours later, we were back at C4, we packed everything and continued our descent to C3. Someone ate the food that we left in the tent so we ate some snacks, a couple of bars and slept.

Climb: +1130m/-1230m, 12h10.

Makalu II, Chomo Lonzo and Camp 3 (© P. Gatta)
Makalu II, Chomo Lonzo and Camp 3 (© P. Gatta)

May 19: C3 - ABC

We left the camp 3 early in the morning with all our gear, tent, clothes and rubbish.

Abseiling down from Makalu La (© P. Gatta)
Abseiling down from Makalu La (© P. Gatta)

We made a quick stop in camp 2 to gather the food we left there and continued our descent to ABC. It was amazing to see how the mountain had changed since we started our ascent a week before. Most of the snow had melted below 6,200 m.

Climb: +25m/-1775m, 3h15.

Beetwen C3 and C2 (© P. Gatta)
Beetwen C3 and C2 (© P. Gatta)

May 20: Packing at ABC

Last day at ABC, we spent the day packing.

May 21: ABC - Hillary BC

We trekked from ABC to the Hillary BC. The snow had melted, all the slopes above the Barun glacier were dry, causing many rock falls.

Stage: 9 km, +155m/-1000m, 3h.

Night shot of the Makalu from the Hillary BC (© P. Gatta)
Night shot of the Makalu from the Hillary BC (© P. Gatta)

May 22: return to Katmandu

In the morning, two helicopters came to pick up all climbers and gear. After multiple rotations and stops, we reached Katmandu in the afternoon.

Woman in Tashigaon (© P. Gatta)
Woman in Tashigaon (© P. Gatta)


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