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Pyramid of Ice Pyramid of Ice
2022-11-17 12:49:00

The High Life Pt 2

The best way to tick off 8000m peaks? Do two in a row. After a successful attempt on Kanchenjunga, mountain guide Jon Gupta set his sights on an alpine style ascent of the mountain fortress of Makalu. 

Twelve months ago, I came tantalisingly close to summiting Makalu with my client, Becks.

At 8463m, it’s the fifth highest mountain in the world. We had arrived at Makalu after a successful Everest summit and hoped to do a quick ascent. However, due to several factors including weather, health, and logistics, we turned back at 7500m and descended to basecamp empty handed.

Unfinished projects slowly eat away at me and I knew I wanted to return and try again. I just had no idea when.

On average an 8000m expedition takes four to six weeks, but if fully acclimatised and moving well, the climb can be done in just a few days. By acclimatising on another 8000m peak (in my case Kanchenjunga), it is possible to immediately bounce to another one and climb it alpine style, moving fast and light.

After Kanchenjunga, the whole team returned to Kathmandu to enjoy the simple things in life: Pizza, beer, shower, and a bed. These things never taste or feel as good as they do after an 8000m expedition. A few days later, all but one had changed their return flights and had headed home, exhausted but content.

Adam had another week booked off before work and family commitments resumed and he was keen to do something else.

It took just a momentary pause for Adam to smile and say yes when I floated the idea of Makalu. I checked the weather forecast and potential summit windows and spoke to my local agent about some of the finer logistics. Everything seemed to be aligning nicely - we were on.

We arrived at Makalu Basecamp the following day and spent the afternoon sorting and packing. Over the next three days we climbed fast, first to Camp 2 at 6600m then onto Camp 3 at 7500m, before pushing through to the 8463m summit that night at 04:30 on the 20th May.

The conditions were perfect, and the mountain was deserted. From afar Makalu looks like an impenetrable pyramid of ice and dark rock, but the route weaves a logical line up through a mix of snow, ice, and rock. Never too steep, but always interesting. Emboldened by one another’s unwavering enthusiasm, we danced up the terrain enjoying every second.

Adam and I were able to move fast, trusting deeply in each other’s abilities. In danger of reaching the top too early we had stopped in a wind scoop just 30 minutes below the summit to pass some time. A private balcony looking out across a moonlit Himalayas towards Everest and Lhotse. We could see the tiny, twinkling headlamps of climbers making their own summit pushes on Everest too. It was truly magical, a view I’ll never forget. Shame Adam had his eyes shut to catch 40 winks!

The final summit ridge on Makalu was easily some of the finest sections of mountaineering I’ve had the joy of climbing above 8000m. An exposed yet perfect snow arête, winding its way up to the stars as if drawn by an artist. I couldn’t believe we had all this to ourselves, it was sensational. Adam and I both revelled in our luck, fully absorbed in these mind-blowing surroundings.

On May 15th, 1955 legendary French alpinists Lionel Terry and Jean Couzy summited Makalu for the first time in history. I’ve climbed some of their routes in the alps, so it was humbling to once again follow in their footsteps. Just eight days after standing on the summit of Kanchenjunga, I watched a perfect sunrise from the summit of Makalu. It was a dream I had wished to fulfil since reading Ed Visturs book many years before.

From the summit we descended back to Camp 3, picked up our kit and pushed all the way to Basecamp by lunch. As Adam and I walked the last five minutes into basecamp I smiled to myself realising that this was quite something, a point on my timeline of big mountain climbing that I should recognise and be proud of.

I have developed an insatiable love for the Himalayas, and Makalu meant a lot to me. It completes my ascents of the world’s top five highest mountains: Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu. Although records are less important, it also means I am now one of just three Brits to have summited all five, and the only British guide to have led ascents on each of them.  

So, I finish this Himalayan season where I began, home. The familiar feelings I have become so accustomed to. The warmth of the sun on my skin, the smell of salty water in the air, the melodious birdsong. I love this feeling. High altitude life swapped for sea level once again. Changes are imminent and there are new chapters to write. First it is time for a rest. I am tired but content from what has been the best few weeks, and years of my life.

Until next time 8000m world. Thank you for everything.

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Words & Images by | Jon Gupta

Words & images by | Athlete Name

Jon has climbed more big mountains that anyone we know. From his youth in the scouts to now becoming the first (and only) Brit to have guided the ‘Top 5’ highest mountains in the world, his passion for expeditions, extreme high altitude and introducing people to the world of climbing is unwavering.

Read more about Jon Gupta here