Mountains in Focus

East of Everest – Towards Makalu

THE FINAL OBJECTIVE was almost in sight. I took a momentary glance back down towards the rubble of the lower Barun Glacier and then pressed on towards the small col above. I struggled for every breath, cursing my clumsy body for not keeping pace with my mental impatience. Slowly the ground ahead levelled out and then, from behind a ridge, Makalu finally appeared.

This was the world’s fifth highest mountain and one of the truly great peaks of the Himalaya. It stood in proud isolation; its steep flanks of pink granite sweeping up from beautiful valleys and complex glacier systems. Comforted by the warmth of the bright morning sun, I sat to relax beside a glacial lake at the foot of Makalu’s great south face. There I reflected upon the long and challenging journey upon which I had embarked and which had brought me to this incredible place.

Wildest Country

In common with its neighbour Everest, Makalu is regarded as belonging to the Khumbu Himal, but unlike other mountains of that area its valleys drain entirely into the Arun river to the east rather than into the Dudh Kosi to the west.

It is the course of the Arun river which provides access to the mountain from lowland Nepal, and those who undertake this journey will encounter some of the wildest country on earth ranging from sub-tropical forest to high alpine scrub, within the shadows of numerous spectacular snowcapped peaks. The area has changed little since my first visit many years ago and it provides a welcome change from the more commercialised routes to Everest and Annapurna.

The Arun Valley
The Arun Valley

The most satisfying approach to the area must be from Hille; a bustling hill village which can be reached in a single day from Kathmandu by taking the daily flight to Biratnagar and then driving up through Dharan and Dhankhuta. My most vivid memories of the trail out of Hille include stimulating views of the main Himalayan crest over seventy miles away. Cold, distant and ethereal, their sparkling summits appeared detached from the great maze of intervening ridges.

The trail soon descends into the base of the Arun valley where it winds its way along the terraces of rice paddies and between a network of fields containing mustard, sugar cane and sunflower. In the windless confines of the river valley the sun’s rays reflect off the sandy shores and the temperature and humidity rise oppressively. The local people, mainly Rais, Chetris and Limbus, were always extremely cheerful and friendly as I took advantage of the shelter provided by their small timber verandas; their greeting was often accompanied with gifts of bananas, oranges and handfuls of toasted soya bean.

Afforested Ridge

After two days’ walking the main trail reaches Tumlingtar, a sprawling village beside the STOL airstrip which provides an alternative start to the trek using the direct flight from Kathmandu. As the schedule is unreliable I prefer and recommend the traditional overland approach. Beyond Tumlingtar the trail climbs a ridge and enters Khandbari, the last major village in the entire walk in and the only opportunity to top up those vital supplies.

The next few days are a delight; easy walking along a level forested ridge with comfortable temperatures and excellent campsites. It is a good time to take stock, to forget the worries of the modern world and to prepare for the hard but rewarding work which lies ahead. If encouragement is needed then the objective is often in sight; Makalu rises high above all other peaks on the northern horizon, unchallenged by Everest or its attendant peaks which are hidden from view by Chamlang’s long icy crest.

Himalayan trails rarely stay level for long and beyond Mude village this one plunges two thousand feet to a bridge across the mighty Arun river. At the time of my visit the structure comprised of just a single plank sparingly supported by rusty wire ties to two steel cables. The bridge’s fifty metre span was just long enough to make one feel very vulnerable as it bounced and swayed under every step, threatening to despatch its victim forever into the roaring icy waters below. The crux came at the very end where the plank had been replaced by a series of slippery bamboo poles and it required delicate footwork followed by a despairing lunge to reach the safety of the riverbank.

Shipton Pass

Leaving the Arun far below the trail begins its ascent towards the 4,100 metre Shipton La pass which provides access to the Barun valley. As the elevation increases the sub-tropical vegetation gives way to rhododendron forest and habitation becomes scarce and more primitive. The Sherpa village of Tashigaon is the very last on route and, as if in anticipation of the dangers ahead, it is blessed with one of the finest mani walls that I have ever seen on my travels to Nepal.

The Summit of the Shipton Pass
The Summit of the Shipton Pass

The ascent from Tashigaon to the pass takes two days; the faint path climbs through the forest before gaining a delightful ridge which separates the Iswa and Barun valleys. As I reached its crest Makalu and Chamlang again came into view, but on this occasion my attention was captured by a mountain of greater proportions on the eastern horizon. Rising up above all around it, was Kangchenjunga – The Five Great Treasures of the Mountain Snows. Once thought to be the world’s highest mountain, it is still sacred to the Nepalese who request mountaineers not to defile its summit. To this day it is known as the untrodden summit.

The Shipton La is not a single pass but a series of easy angled snowy ridges and basins containing three charming lakes. Upon one of these ridges a large cairn and prayer flags have been erected; the ridge is certainly not the highest but it does command the best views. Regrettably, little time can be spent enjoying them for the distance between the campsites on each side of the pass occupies a long day’s walk.

There is a steep descent on the northern side of the pass through a valley which is densely filled with rhododendron bushes. I have only once visited Nepal in the Spring when the flora is at its best, but it would be worth going again if only just to see the magnificent display in this valley. The bushes must also provide convenient cover for some of the rare animal species found in the Himalaya; the Sherpas’ talk of the Yeti inhabiting the region was not supported by any visible evidence, but I did come across tracks which probably belonged to snow leopard.

The Barun Valley

Eventually the trail turns westward and follows the course of the Barun Khola, the river draining the snout of the Barun Glacier beneath Makalu itself. The steep lower slopes of the Barun valley are built of unstable glacial till and sections of the tiny path are often washed away during the monsoon. At one point I found myself scampering across a steep sandy slope as rocks came rolling down from above. Fortunately the difficulties did not last for long.

Chamlang from the Lower Barun Glacier
Chamlang from the Lower Barun Glacier

The valley soon widens and is filled with pine forest; lichen covers the rocks and trees. Idyllically situated in a small clearing beside the river at Neh is the wooden hut which provides the only permanent shelter in the entire valley. It is a superb location for a campsite, possessing all the characteristics and qualities expected when trekking in Nepal. Aspects of the situation invade all the senses; the smell of pine and the sound of the tumbling river become as significant a part of the whole Himalayan experience as the sight of the great peaks themselves.

Beyond Neh the peaks of the Lower Barun Glacier finally come into view, although Makalu is hidden to the north and remains so until base camp is reached. In the absence of any habitation, most of them do not have a local name and are known purely by a survey number or characteristics of their appearance. Chamlang was one obvious exception along with Tutse (or Peak 6), an icy spire rising to 6,700m above cliffs rivalling those of Yosemite. The rock debris all around provides an insight into the enormous natural forces which have formed these great mountains; highly micacious rocks were embedded with garnets and other interesting minerals.

River of Rubble

Reaching the snout of the Lower Barun Glacier was a landmark in itself, and I ascended a small ridge above the lateral moraine to look across it. Beyond several miles of this chaotic river of rubble I could see the icefall where the glacier tumbled out of its snowy upper basin. A further twelve hundred metres higher but out of sight was the famous West Col, the key to the route into the remote Hongu valley and then subsequently via the Mingbo La or Amphu Lhaptsa to Thyangboche and the Everest region.

Two miles beyond, on a small strip of grass beside an alluvial plain, stand the remains of two small huts; this is Shershon, 4,750m, a good place to use as a base for further exploration of the region. The situation stands at the junction of the Barun and Lower Barun valleys; it is completely encircled by high peaks built of massive rock buttresses, hanging glaciers and tumbling icefalls.

Chamlang from Shershon
Chamlang from Shershon

It is a spectacularly beautiful setting but as I walked into camp that day the afternoon cloud had already rolled in and the site seemed just about the bleakest spot on earth. Then quite suddenly, in a gesture almost designed to lift flagging spirits, the clouds parted to reveal the summit of Makalu bathed in a delicate pink light. There was no time to snatch a photograph as the clouds closed in as quickly as they had parted; it was one of those magical moments which must remain as a personal and private memory of the trip.

Unobstructed View

I was very anxious as I settled into my sleeping bag that evening for only one day remained before I had to begin the return journey; if only the morning would be clear so as let me enjoy that close look at the giant. I tossed and turned for most of the night; the long and lonely periods of eerie silence were punctuated only by the sound of avalanches crashing down off Tutse. It was late into the night before I drifted into slumber.

I awoke abruptly to find that it was already daylight and I hurriedly scrambled out of the tent to pack my gear. The day had dawned clear, but high cloud on a westerly wind foretold a change in the weather. There was no time to waste. I unceremoniously gulped a mug of tea and a few mouthfulls of rice pudding so carefully prepared by our sherpas and set off on the final one hundred and fifty metres’ climb towards Base Camp, just three miles from Makalu’s summit itself.

Makalu from Base Camp
Makalu from Base Camp

For once my luck held, and when I reached Base Camp the cloud had dissolved into a clear blue sky. I had an unobstructed view of the entire mountain; Makalu stood tall, cold and uncompromising. I felt inadequate; how insignificant are the achievements of mankind in relation to the wonders of nature; such beauty and on such a scale.

When I finally turned my back on Makalu and headed for home, I could not help thinking how utterly unpredictable life can be. My decision to go to Makalu was a last minute one forced upon me following the refusal of the Nepalese authorities to grant a permit elsewhere. On reflection I must thank them for introducing me to a region which I would otherwise have neglected yet which provided a thoroughly fulfilling and rewarding experience.