David Hume on the Summit of Mt Makalu - May 8th, 1995
Part One - The First Australians to Summit Mt Makalu
In my last blog - Facing the Truth of Impermanence, I shared an excerpt from a book I published in 2017, as a tribute to my friend Mark Auricht. The truth of impermanence is a double-edged sword: the edge of loss and all of the pain and fear that human beings experience because of it, and the edge of freedom, peace and truth that we experience when we let go.
Mountaineers come face to face with the truth of impermanence as they take calculated risks in the process of pursuing their dreams. Mark contemplated this truth prior to climbing Makalu in 1995 and came face to face with it during the climb to the summit and during his arduous and heartbreaking descent to safety. Makalu is the fifth highest mountain in the world at 8463m, just 385m lower than the summit of Everest.
When Mark returned from Makalu in June 1995 I remember meeting him in the Adelaide Botanical Gardens to hear about his experience. I hadn’t seen him for over three months and was excited to hear the story but also mindful that he had come face to face with a ‘dragon’ and needed an empathic ear to help unravel the knots he carried within his heart and mind. His story was inspiring, confronting, and as it turns out, a prophetic glimpse of what was to come for him on Mt Everest six years later.
A year before the Everest climb I invited Mark to share the Makalu story with a group of leaders that I had been working with. The following summary of the Makalu story is based on a transcript of Mark’s words that were recorded during this presentation.
Mark’s Makalu Story―Told by Mark Auricht
The plan was for us to climb Makalu without supplementary oxygen and without the assistance of climbing Sherpas on the mountain. This was a minimalist and more purist approach but also more challenging compared to the other two teams (the French and Spanish Basque teams) who were on the mountain at the same time as us and had more significant Base Camp support.
Prior to the trip I experienced a lot of doubt... I knew I was capable of getting to the top but wasn’t sure how things would pan out? A whole lot of factors have to come together to allow you the rare opportunity to stand on the summit of an 8000 metre peak. For a start there is a very narrow window of opportunity to climb at this altitude. There is a jet stream of wind that blows across Asia at about 8000 metres and above. The big planes flying across Asia get up into the jet stream which helps them to fly across the continent more efficiently. This jet stream blows at about 80-100knots and makes climbing very difficult and dangerous above 8000 metres.
At this time of year however, in late April to early May, you’ll see plumes of snow being blown off the top of the mountain as the warm air of the monsoon arrives, forcing the jet stream off the mountain top and creating a window of opportunity where summiting is more possible. Then once the monsoon is in full swing the opportunity is lost. The exact timing and duration of this window is unpredictable but usually provides 2-3 weeks of optimal opportunities to reach the summit successfully. Many weeks of preparation and establishing camps at stages up the mountain to provide a launching point, need to be completed successfully to position climbers high up on the mountain, ready to go for the summit as soon as the jet stream is gone.
So everything is geared around getting your body acclimatised properly and having the mountain kitted up with gear ready for summit day. We needed to be healthy, fit and ready when the favourable weather window opened to allow us our little piece of time on the top. We had seven climbers in our Australian Makalu Expedition to start with but eventually only two of us were in a position to try for the summit. You never know who is going to get sick, who will pull out or if indeed you or a member of your team will come back alive from an 8000m peak. We all knew the risks and were prepared to face them.
Most expeditions will establish six staging points on Mt Makalu
The Death Zone
There are very few civilisations that live above 5500 metres due to the long term impact of low oxygen levels on the body. The body compensates by producing more red blood cells but is also breaking down over time at this altitude, so there is a trade off. Above Camp 3 at about 7500 metres is termed ‘The Death Zone’. If you die up here this is where you stay. The reason for that is that choppers can’t fly or land in this environment as the air is so thin so it’s very, very hard to stage a rescue and it’s pretty much an unspoken agreement that if you die above 7500 metres that’s where you stay. I was provided with a confronting reminder of this as we came over the rise onto the long ridge of snow above Camp 3. Looking across to my right there was a man sitting in the snow, his hips and legs were buried in the snow but his torso was exposed, wearing a red jacket. He was a Polish climber who had actually been sitting there for three years like a statue. As it turns out, he was later to become my saviour.
The Closing Window
As the window of opportunity came closer, all the climbing teams started to funnel towards the summit at pretty much the same time. The Basques arrived at Camp 4 not long after us, the French were already there, and were all looking to summit at around the same time. When the Basques arrived at Camp 4 they made an unexpected discovery. All of the gear they had dropped at Camp 4 prior to going back to Base Camp for some rest while they waited for the right time to summit had been blown off the mountain. While they were down at Base Camp the jet stream must have dipped and scoured the mountainside and it was all gone; their tents, sleeping bags, food, stoves; everything they needed for their summit push was gone!
They approached us for help and despite their poor command of the English language, their intention was very clear... and that was... ‘We’re getting in your tent!’ It was difficult to say ‘No’ to them because we’d been quite co-operative on the mountain, we’d shared fixed ropes and they’d been quite friendly at Base Camp.
At this altitude and this close to the opening and closing of the window, everybody starts to get incredibly summit focussed. There’s only so long you can stay high and there’s only so many goes you get at it so at this point everybody basically wants to get up there. There is a tension between the need to give up on the summit and turn back if the odds are not in your favour and the will within that wants to push on despite the odds. We all understood this.
So now there are six people in the same tent... not only six... but we’ve only got one stove. The most important thing you need to do the moment you get your tent up is to bundle inside and get the stove going to melt ice. That’s the only way you can get water. You have enormous water loss from breathing and sweating so you need to drink 5 litres or more each day to keep your fluids up. So we got the stove going but it was just hopelessly inadequate to provide enough water for all six of us.
We had two conditions for the Basques sleeping in our tent... we said “You run the stove and we’ll have the sleeping bags!” By about 11pm we’d filled a litre of water for the next day, and we’d all had a reasonable drink but neither of those was enough. We hadn’t rehydrated properly from the previous day and a litre certainly wasn’t enough for our push to the summit. We put a bowl of noodles on and we passed that around which brought us to about 11.45pm. Our plan was to get up at midnight and start getting ready to go to the summit around 12.30am. It was a shocking night... the big moment... the day before the huge event... and it was just diabolical!
In the tent that night I experienced the strangest feeling... the only way I can describe it was selfishness mixed with reliance. It took about 95% of my energy to look after my own needs... I couldn’t put any focus on anyone else... I was just making sure that I was OK and doing what I needed to do. It just felt very desperate... I knew that everyone else in the tent was doing the same thing and yet we were also relying on each other so there’s this strange insular experience.
Reaching for the Summit
At midnight we started to get organised. Now bear in mind I’m wearing a down suit like a sleeping bag turned into a pair of overalls... I’m sleeping with my harness on, my full suit and my inner boots. All I had to do in that half hour was pull my two pairs of boots on, my gaiters and then strap on my crampons. Sitting here I would probably do that in five minutes but at Camp 4 above 7500 metres, where the oxygen level available is a third of what it is at sea level, it’s a half hour job. Just struggling to push a boot on and lace it was exhausting... so you’d lie back gasping for breath, trying to recharge your energy and then dig around to find the next boot... pull that on... lace that up... lie back and breathe some more... dig around... find a gaiter... that would go on and on. In between every small thing we did, we needed to rest.
We finally got out of the tent at 12.40am and started plodding to the top. For the first time we were climbing without packs, so we had a rope between the two of us, our head torches, an ice axe, a litre of water and a little bit of food (Mars bar, muesli bar and nuts) and that was basically our kit for the climb to the summit. The air temperature here is around minus 35°C... so frosty, sweat freezing on my face... but I was buzzing with excitement.
I remember at Camp 3 looking up and actually seeing our way to the top and I thought... “This is possible, I know this is possible.” This morning as we plodded our way toward the summit from Camp 4 was an incredibly exciting moment... I was just buzzing... my skin was crawling with excitement. It was the first time during the entire trip that I thought “I’m actually going to get there, I’m going to do it today!”
Although our bodies were under a lot of stress, I felt quite okay and strangely elated. This of course was probably due to the fact that our bodies were also producing a large amount of endorphins which is like a natural morphine.
On Makalu there is a false summit and a true summit. As we were walking along that long summit ridge leading to the false summit we met the Basques who’d climbed past us and were now coming back from the summit. We shook their hands and congratulated them before continuing to climb.
A Critical Decision
We got to the false summit right on 4.00pm which was our deadline for turning around. We said we’d climb and hopefully get to the summit around 2.30 or 3.00pm. At 4 o’clock no matter where we were we’d turn around and head back down. So it’s now 4 o’clock and we’re on this false summit. The true summit was about 200 metres away and only maybe 20 metres higher than where we were. So now David and I had to make a critical decision. We decided we would press on... the weather was fine, we were 200 metres from our goal and we felt okay. Feeling okay is actually not a criteria for making that kind of decision, but the truth is that we had the bit between our teeth and we were going to keep going.
So we were plugging fresh snow all the way to the summit. In fact, quite strangely, we noticed that there were no other footprints between the false summit and the true summit. This confused me and made me question whether the Basques had gone all the way to the true summit or not?
The last 50 metres along this ridge was like a knife edge... my ice tools were punching right through the top of it and I could see through the holes in the snow and down into Tibet. This was the most extraordinary, exposed climbing I’ve ever done. I’m not normally an overly courageous climber. I know that when I get onto a mountain it takes me a little while to feel confident and start to feel safer but this day I was just charging with so much courage.
We reached the summit of Mt Makalu at 6.00pm on the 8th of May 1995, eighteen hours after leaving our high camp. The sun on the horizon was casting a perfect shadow of the pyramid shaped summit upon which we were perched, onto the snow capped mountains to the east of us. The summit of Makalu at 8463 metres, is about as wide as a horse’s back, leaving just enough room for us to straddle it, facing each other with one leg in Nepal and the other in Tibet. On the Tibet side there is a 1500 metre drop to the snow, ice and rocks below.
So here we are, a couple of proud Aussies sitting at about eight and a half thousand metres above sea level where jet planes fly. I felt an incredible sense of privilege at getting this half hour on top of the world. All the factors had come together for us and we were finally there.
I remember feeling a great variety of emotions. One just of relief at having finally got there, after all the preparation we’d done at home and in the mountains, all the lugging of gear up the mountain and dealing with the hardship of actually just functioning at this altitude. There is an enormous amount of relief knowing that going down will be significantly easier.
The next feeling I remember was an enormous sense of appreciation for my physical body for getting me to this incredible spot. I’d punished it unmercifully beyond anything I’d done before and it had done everything I’d asked of it. And then the next more overwhelming emotion was anxiety, just an incredible amount of anxiety. We were way too late to be sitting on this mountain at this time. We still had to get back to Camp 4 and there was only about an hour of daylight left so I knew it was going to get dark and I knew that descending, despite being physically easier, was the most dangerous thing we had yet to do. The unfortunate thing about summiting any mountain is that you know that the moment you get there your head’s thinking about heading back down.
Time started to go incredibly quickly now... the hands on the clock just took off... we were on the summit for about half an hour and in that time took a photograph of each other, panned the video around and that was a half hour gone. We were already starting to move a bit more slowly due to the altitude and fatigue as well. The last thing I remember doing was standing up with my arms outstretched above me (as per my company logo9) and then I quickly sat back down and we made our way off the summit......
The story of Mark and David's descent from the summit will continue in my next blog
Beyond the triumph and tragedy in the Himalayan mountains, this book is also about the journey that takes place within all of us, when we explore the limits of our self-imposed boundaries. May it serve as an inspiration and a compass for future leaders, adventurous souls and explorers of human potential.
Click below to read the whole book
The Spirit of Adventure Calls: A Compass for Life, Learning & Leadership
In North American Indian culture, the word 'Medicine' is often used to define the unique gifts of each person. It is considered a tragedy when people don't take the time to explore those gifts or don't have the confidence to express them. It is for this reason that I take the risk to express my truth in writing. Some years ago I lost my voice for a time and in the journey back to speaking again, I discovered that 'voicing' one's 'Truth' is a healing and health-enhancing gift that I once took for granted. Writing, art, taking journeys in nature and guiding life-transforming adventures, are my 'medicine'. This blog is an expression of this 'medicine'. I trust that the words I write, might inspire you to think about your 'truth' and your 'gifts' and I hope that you enjoy some of the 'adventures' I share.