While every man and his dog were busy climbing Everest last year, including a 13 year old American boy, a few short miles away a handful of international teams were battling for their lives on Makalu, the world’s 5th highest mountain.
The two mountains are so close to one another that but for the deafening jet stream winds that batter their summits at regular intervals, it almost seems possible to stand on top of one and remark upon what lovely weather we’re having to somebody standing on the other. Yet if proof were still needed that very big mountains have the ability to generate their own weather systems, these two Himalayan giants gave it last year.
The 2010 Everest season produced two relatively safe summit windows during which the majority of last year’s 513 summiteers reached the top. But during the same period Makalu strained its climbers to their limits waiting for a summit window that never really happened. This didn’t stop some people trying, but those who did ran very great risk, and some didn’t survive.
So what happened to produce such very different weather conditions such a short distance apart? I had a chance to find out from some people very close to the action while I was on Cho Oyu last year. My expedition leader was Robert Anderson, who led a very successful expedition team to Everest for the mountaineering company Jagged Globe, including my mate Bunter. Seven members of this team summited (though sadly not Bunter). Robert’s theory was that the main summit window appeared when jet stream winds parted either side of Everest’s summit, providing an area of calm on the mountain itself. The winds rejoined the other side and continued onward to Makalu, which felt their full force.
Assistant guide on Cho Oyu was Matt Parkes, who was on Makalu at the same time Robert was on Everest, attempting a new route on the Southeast Ridge with a team who realised the weather wasn’t going to improve and bailed off the mountain without making a full summit attempt. Also on Cho Oyu with all of us was Ron Rutland, who also happened to be on Makalu at the same time as Matt. Ron’s team stayed a little longer than Matt’s and had a go for the summit in conditions that were marginal (Ron realised this and didn’t make the attempt with them). One member died on descent, another returned with severe frostbite and another, Adele Pennington, one of Britain’s top female high altitude mountaineers suffered damage to a lung which required removal of a rib in order to operate on it.
Despite the perils, mountaineers always return for more, and the same motley crew is assembling in Kathmandu as we speak. Robert is leading another expedition to Makalu this spring. He tried to persuade me to join him, but I passed very close to it on my way to Baruntse last year. It’s an awe-inspiring mountain, but not for me. It looks shockingly hard.
But Robert didn’t have any difficulty finding a team to join him. Last week Bunter emailed me to say he’s one of them. He doesn’t think it very likely that he’ll reach the summit, but is looking forward to the experience. It’s a sensible attitude. And who else is with them? Only Ron and Adele. Gluttons for punishment – all of them! But I wish them well and hope they return in one piece. Preferably with a full set of ribs.
[UPDATE, 30 May, 2011]
Robert Anderson and Adele Pennington both reached the summit of Makalu on 17 May. Neither Bunter nor Ron were with them, having both abandoned their attempts a little earlier.