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Another 50th anniversary in 2005: The Great Black
image story

Feb 9, 2005 11: 29 EST
Kangchenjunga is not the only great mountain celebrating the 50 anniversary of its first ascent. Makalu (8485m), the impressive peak East of Everest, was also climbed for the first time in 1955.

Moreover, the mountain will celebrate its Golden Jubilee days before Kangchenjunga’s first ascent (May 25). The first explorers stood on Makalu’s sharp summit on May 15, 1955. They were Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray, two climbing celebrities from the 20th century, members of a French team led by Jean Franco.

The ‘second prize’ effect

Makalu is as beautiful as it is challenging. Its four ridges shape a perfect pyramid. In the years when teams from all over the world competed to be the first to climb the highest mountains on Earth, Makalu was a tempting target. There was just one problem. Nearby was an ever higher peak: Everest, and everybody’s wish was to be the first to conquer the top of the world.

Hillary and Shipton

The British first mapped Makalu in 1921, but their real aim was the Big E. Hillary and Shipton photographed Makalu, but only after exploring Everest in 1951. Hillary and others approached the peak a year later, after the failure of their Cho Oyu expedition. It seemed that Makalu was always nothing but a second choice.

The first attempts

But when Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest in 1953 and the highest peak was finally reached, ‘second best’ suddenly looked a great choice.

Hillary went for it in 1954 but the ‘conqueror of Everest’ was defeated by this ‘second choice peak’. Seriously ill, he had to be evacuated from the mountain and the expedition was aborted.

The French success

Then came the French: a large, strong team was rejected at their first attempt in 1954, but they came back months later for a second try. This time they succeeded through the NE ridge.

After Couzy and Terray reached the summit on May 15, other team members would top in consecutive days: Franco (the expedition leader), Magnone and the team’s Sirdar Norbhu Sherpa on May 16; and Bouvier, Coupé, Leroux and Vialatte on May, 17.

Four first ascents, four new routes

The first repetition would have to wait until 1970, when Japanese Y. Ozaki and H. Tanaka reached the summit through the SE ridge. One year after, a French team led by Robert Paragot would complete the third ascent thought the elegant (and difficult) West Pillar. The summit was attained by two team members: Y. Segnieur and B.Mellet. A Yugoslavian team opened the South face in 1975

The loners

In 1980, American John Roskelley’s other team members aborted their expedition because they had no high altitude porters. But Roskelley refused to leave. Left alone, he completed the first repetition of the west pillar, solo.

During the 80’s, there were some other solo climbs on Makalu. In 1982, Polish climber Czok soloed the west face-NW ridge. In 1989, Pierre Beghing soloed the South face.

The spell of the West face

As the years went by, climbers from all over the world considered the scary West face of Makalu to be one of the most difficult unachieved challenges of the Himalaya, much like the Jannu North face. And also like Jannu, it was the Russians who would fight until the face was climbed. In 1997, a team from Yekaterinburg would climb the face up to 7600 meters, where they joined the West Pillar. It was an amazing climb, but the Russians paid a toll: One of the climbers died before during the summit bid and a second one would fall to death on the descent.

Not for beginners

The challenge of Makalu has not subsided in time. The mountain remains one of the most difficult in the world. Guided expeditions avoid it, and so do climbers looking for a first 8000 meters high experience. Even those climbers using supplementary O2 have to fight their fear to find their way through highly steep sections, difficult couloirs and knife-sharp ridges exposed to the wind.

Makalu is much more a target for experienced climbers who want to feel the real adventure of an isolated peak and technically difficult passages at high altitude. Each year there are just a few expeditions on Makalu, and many of them fail. There are still many possible routes to be opened on its faces, but there are also many dangers.

2 deaths last year

Last spring, there were some summits on the ‘classic’ route. Yannick Graziani, Patrick Wagnon, and Christian Trommsdorff attempted to open the East face, on the Tibetan side of Makalu. However, they had to reconsider due to the excess of snow and went for the NE ridge, through which Yannick would finally summit.

A British military team would try the SE ridge, but they abandoned due to bad weather. French climber Jean Christophe Lafaille attempted to solo a new route, finally reaching the summit of the subsidiary Makalu II.

However, American Jay Sieger and Ukrainian Vladislav Terzyul both died on the mountain. The risks are high when facing the ‘Great Black’.

8485 meters high, Makalu is the fifth highest mountain on Earth. Its name means ‘The Great Black’. It is a four-faced pyramid, with a secondary peak - Chomo Lonzo or Makalu II (25,650 ft/7818 m) - separated from the main summit by a narrow saddle, known as Makalu La.

It was first climbed by a French team led by Jean Franco on May 15, 1955.

This spring, a strong Spanish expedition will be attempting the west pillar. French Jean Christophe Lafaille could return to the mountain as well.

Image of Makalu courtesy of Carlos Pauner.

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