Makalu: The Towering Beauty of the Himalayas
Makalu Mountain is the fifth-highest peak on Earth and one of the most spectacular summits in the Himalayas. Makalu’s perfect four-sided precipitous pyramid, straddling the Nepal-Tibet border, is an alluring challenge that has tempted generations of elite mountaineers.
In this blog, we explore the towering beauty of Mount Makalu, including its first ascent to securing permits, choosing routes, and attempting to stand atop this iconic peak amidst the highest mountains in the world.
Mt Makalu Quick Facts
Let’s start with some quick facts on the mountain:
Height: 8,485 meters / 27,838 feet
First Ascent: May 15, 1955, by Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy
Location: Nepal/Tibet border in Mahalangur Himalayas
Deaths: 35 (as of 2022)
Summit Success Rate: 34%
Makalu Peak stands isolated, guarding the headwaters of the Arun River, surrounded by giants like Everest, Lhotse, and Kangchenjunga. Its perfect four-sided pyramid topped with a knife-edge summit ridge makes it instantly recognizable. But don’t let its beauty distract you from its deadly reputation.
Key Features of Makalu
- Distinctive Pyramid Summit
The Makalu summit is characterized by its pyramid shape, a distinctive feature that sets it apart from other peaks. The sharp angles of the Makalu summit create a captivating silhouette against the backdrop of the Himalayan sky.
- Challenging Ascent
Makalu presents a formidable challenge to climbers, earning its reputation as one of the most technically demanding climbs in the world. The ascent involves navigating steep rock walls, ice slopes, and unpredictable weather conditions, testing the skills and resilience of even the most experienced mountaineers.
- Diverse Climbing Routes
Makalu offers various climbing routes, each with its own challenges and rewards. The most popular route is the standard Southeast Ridge, known for its technical difficulty and breathtaking views. Other paths - the West Pillar and the Northeast Ridge, provide alternative options for seasoned climbers.
- Stunning Panoramas
The summit of Makalu offers panoramic views of some of the world's highest peaks, including Everest, Lhotse, and Kanchenjunga. The expansive vistas from Makalu's peak are a visual feast, rewarding climbers with an unparalleled experience of the Himalayan landscape.
- Untouched Wilderness
Makalu's remote location and challenging terrain contribute to the preservation of its pristine wilderness. The surrounding Makalu Barun National Park, a biodiversity hotspot, is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, making the region a haven for nature lovers and conservation enthusiasts.
History of Ascents
For centuries, Makalu remained an unknown peak shrouded in clouds and mystery. It was only identified as the world’s fifth highest in the 1850s. After an expedition in 1954, a French team made the first ascent in 1955, two years after the first ascent of Everest (the highest mountain in the world).
The technical difficulty and isolation of Makalu and political restrictions meant few attempts in the early years. By 1970, there were only six successful summits. A legendary American team in 1970 finally conquered the southwest Makalu face.
In the modern era, easier access and routes have enabled more expeditions. But the summit success rate still hovers around 34%, making Makalu among the hardest 8000ers to climb. Storms, avalanches, and technical rock sections regularly turn back teams each season.
Makalu Expedition Permits & Costs
Gaining permission for a Makalu expedition involves securing climbing permits and visas, and arranging logistics.
Here are the major requirements for climbing Makalu:
- Makalu-Barun National Park Entry Permit
- Nepal Government royalty fees
- Makalu permit (Peak climbing permit) per person, issued by Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA)
- Liaison officer expenses (Mandatory for teams)
- Visa costs for Nepal
- Flights to/from Kathmandu
- Insurance, food, supplies, oxygen, etc.
We suggest you contact an experienced operator to make the complex logistical and permitting process smoother. You should prepare for the permits 4-6 months in advance of your climb.
Best time for Makalu Climb
The best time to climb Makalu is either spring or autumn. Spring is the most favorable due to the right temperature and the clear skies. In spring, April, March, and May months are popular. You can also climb Makalu during autumn in September, October, and November.
The first step for a Makalu climb is securing a permit. It is an essential step for mountaineers undertaking this challenging expedition. The permit, issued by the Nepalese government, ensures that climbers adhere to regulations designed to preserve the environment and promote responsible mountaineering.
The climbing journey typically begins with an acclimatization process, allowing climbers to adapt to the high-altitude conditions. The trek to Makalu Base Camp, situated at approximately 4,800 meters, serves for acclimatization and preparation for the ascent.
Routes on Mount Makalu
While there are many challenging routes on all faces, the major established lines are:
- Southeast Ridge: This is the original and most common route, first climbed in 1955. It follows the long Southeast ridge, joining the main summit ridge. However, this route is highly prone to rockfall and avalanches, yet this route is not as technical as the northeast ridge.
- Northeast Ridge: A direct route first climbed in 1971 involving steep snow, ice, and mixed terrain. It joins the southeast ridge higher up. This path is steeper and harsher to climb than the southeast ridge.
- West Pillar – This is a technical route first climbed in 1971 that meets the southern ridge just below the summit. The route is exposed, and the strong winds are frequent.
- West Face – Among other routes, this is the most challenging route as it passes through avalanche-prone areas with huge serac barriers. This route was first summited in 1997.
All routes require expertise in rock, snow, and ice climbing. Southeast Ridge is the most commonly taken route.
Southeast ridge of Mt. Makalu
Southeast ridge is the most frequented route to Makalu Peak. Here are the climbing details through this route.
- Makalu Base Camp (5600M/18,372ft): Reaching Makalu Base Camp is the first step for a Makalu Expedition. This base camp serves as the preparation and an acclimatization point for the Makalu expedition.
- Makalu Camp 1 (6400m/21,000ft): Once prepared at the Base Camp, you will head to Camp 1. The path passes through rock slabs and moraine before reaching a glacier. It will take around three to four hours to reach the first Camp. The first Camp consists of two sections - lower and upper.
- Makalu Camp 2 (6800m/22,310ft): The path from Makalu Camp 1 and Makalu Camp 2 is intermediate in terms of climbing complexity. You will have to cross several steep ice areas. Though you do not need a ladder to complete this section, you must take support from ropes. The average time to reach Camp 1 to Camp 2 is around three hours.
- Makalu Camp 3 (7450m/24,445ft): This is the longest section between the camps. You will have to cross a few crevasses and follow the ropes placed by Sherpas. It will take around four hours to reach Camp 3 from Camp 2.
- Makalu Camp 4 (7900m/25,918ft): The distance between Camp 3 to Camp 4 is short, but due to altitude and the rough terrain, the climb gets progressively harder as you get closer to the death zone. Due to low oxygen levels, you must push yourself. It will take around 3 hours to reach Camp 4 from Camp 3 as you conquer the route that averages around 50 percent.
- Reaching Makalu Summit (8485m/27,838ft): After setting up a series of camps along the mountain for acclimatization, the summit push begins from Makalu Camp 4 before midnight to reach the summit at daylight. You must brave 50-60-degree snow slopes using fixed ropes to negotiate steep rock bands and ice cliffs while fighting exhaustion, oxygen deprivation, and bitter cold (-40 C).
This 12-18 hour push requires every ounce of strength and stamina. Teamwork is crucial to getting through complex sections. The summit rewards those who endure but comes at a heavy price.
The Challenge Mount Makalu presents
Makalu is extremely dangerous, and underestimating the mountain can be fatal. You must be ready to face the following challenges.
- Altitude sickness, edema, exhaustion
- Sudden blizzards and whiteouts
- Massive avalanches and ice/rock falls
- Deep hidden crevasses
- Cornices and exposed knife-edge ridges
- Technical climbing errors and accidents
You must stay within your limits, plan carefully, trust Sherpa's judgment, and turn back in time to survive this peak. Makalu continues to claim lives each year.
Is Makalu Right for You?
Before embarking on a Makalu expedition, you must honestly assess the skills and experience required. Ask the following questions.
- Have you climbed other major 7000-8000m peaks before?
- Are you adept at technical rock, ice, and snow climbing?
- Can you handle extreme cold and high winds?
- Are you committed to proper acclimatization despite delays?
- Will you listen to local guides when they advise you to turn around?
Makalu is not to be underestimated. Come prepared for the challenge of a lifetime with humility, caution, and respect for the mountain. The rewards of standing atop this iconic Himalayan pyramid are immense but earned only through determination, suffering, and accepting real risk. Few peaks transform climbers like Makalu.
Conquering Mount Makalu, the towering beauty of the Himalayas, is a testament to the indomitable spirit of exploration and adventure. Its pyramid summit, challenging ascent, and breathtaking panoramas offer a unique and rewarding experience for those who dare to tread its slopes.
As climbers undertake the expedition, they are not merely conquering a peak, but immersing themselves in the untamed wilderness of Makalu, forging a connection with nature in its most sublime form.
Makalu's allure lies not only in its imposing elevation but in the profound journey it offers—the journey to a summit that has witnessed the dreams and aspirations of mountaineers from around the world.
Whether gazing upon its pyramid peak from afar or standing on its summit, Mount Makalu invites adventurers to partake in an extraordinary chapter of Himalayan exploration, where the towering beauty of the mountains becomes a canvas for the indomitable human spirit.