(Incomplete) Birthday Present: Mountain exploration in the heart of Khumbu valley

Tomeu Rubi & Cati Lladó are now well-known to many of our Barrabes readers. Dedicated to mountain exploration, they are excellent representatives of this trend who believe the world is a huge place for those willing to follow their own path and get off the beaten track.

Probing to avoid an invisible crevasse.
“Exploring this virgin region gives us a great sense of freedom; walking up a glacier surrounded by a huge range of mountains that have yet to be climbed, means we can take our pick, not just of the mountain but also the route, without any restrictions other than the level difficulty we want to take on.” these were their words when we first published an article about them, in 2011, after achieving several quality ascents in the beautiful and unknown mountains of Kyrgyzstan, an area, which had previously only been visited by 4 expeditions.

They then went on to do the same in the virtually unexplored Caucasus region and earlier this year, they decided to visit Nepal, to trek to an area where very few ascents have been recorded. They chose Peak 4, a virgin peak at 6,720m in the Makalu area. (Note: Tomeu has since been informed that this peak has a history, but the Nepali Government records show no information of the ascent because the mountaineers chose not to as they had no permits).

They didn't reach the summit...but came extremely close, which is not unusual for this kind of unpredictable mountaineering. But the disappointment of not reaching the summit was far outweighed by their passion and the adventure in itself.

“We really enjoy planning our own adventure and making our own decisions. Going to new places, with all the uncertainties this entails. Avoiding the normal equipped routes and staying off the beaten track. We try to make it on our own. If we see footprints, we're unhappy... in a way, this is what mountaineering is all about, isn't it? The aim is the journey in itself; the climb, exploring...the peak is an important part too, but less so. For us, the style, the place, the mountains, choosing our path...all this is essential. We get much more out of this than reaching the summit. The journey... the destination is a very important thing for us. We really enjoy going to the ex-soviet countries and to Africa...getting there, the approach, the country... the mountains are like the cherry on top.
Travelling this way, seeing those mountains that have so little written about them means you can't have a closed plan. We've had all kinds of experiences. When you get there and actually see for yourselves what you had planned to do, you may get the feeling that you need to change not only the route; but the whole mountain!”

A bivy at approx. 6000m with Tutse 6758m (right) & Peak 5632m (left)
PEAK 4 (6720m, Chamlang/Makalu, Nepal)

It was unplanned, but it was perfect. The day we were going to reach the summit would be Cati's birthday. That would have been some present, wouldn't it? But unfortunately, it wasn't to be. The summit was so near, but just too far. Near, because it was just 150m away, but far because a huge crevasse blocked our way and it was too much of a risk for what we had in mind. But let's tell the story from the beginning!

April 2014: good news

At the end of April last year, we reached Namche Bazaar (Nepal) in low spirits, as we'd been unable to have even one try at our peak, mainly due to the bad weather. But after looking through our mail, joy and enthusiasm were instantly restored because we had been chosen as one of the six projects financed by the “Millet Expedition Project 2014” . Our project would take us to Nepal, the following spring to attempt a virgin peak: Peak 4 (6720m) in the Makalu area.

Spring 2015: Back to Nepal

This year, at the start of spring, we returned to the noisy streets of Kathmandu, with all the rickshaws, colours and smiling faces. We spent a couple of days briefing and shopping for provisions, as it looked as if the tea houses we'd be staying at offered little more than Dal bhat. Then we'd fly on to Turmlingtar, where a jeep would take us on the 5h journey to Num village and from there we'd begin the trek to the Makalu base camp.

Peak 4 is located to the west of Makalu BC
The trek would take 6 days and during this time we couldn't help but recall the words of Lionel Terray, when he referred to this area as he described the expedition that would accomplish the first ascent of Makalu: “in spite of the heat, the humidity and being attacked by thousands of leeches, there was something about our approach route, through a region that was so much wilder than our trek to Annapurna, that I found enchanting. With some variations, I returned to find everything I had ever loved about Nepal: the poetry of such abundant vegetation; the philosophy of its smiling inhabitants; it's absolute charm and, in short, everything that had bewitched me when I first visited this country and will stay with me until the day I die.”

In the afternoon of April 6th we reached Base Camp, at 4700m. We said goodbye to three of the porters who had accompanied us this far. Mandip, the trekking guide would stay with us, as apparently for legal reasons he had to remain at base camp during the whole expedition. The weather continued in the same way: each new day would bring clear skies and it would gradually cloud over and turn into rain in the late evening.

The east face of Peak 4 gave few options that weren't exposed to a large line of seracs crossing the broad wall. We saw a possible route on the left, which we'd keep in mind. It was very beautiful and we could observe it each day from base camp.

The upper part of the Peak 4 route

The lower part of Peak 4 route
Luck wasn't on our side...

On April 8th, we climbed to the the foot of the south-east ridge of Peak 4. We thought it would be a good chance to attempt the summit and we wanted to get as near to the ridge as possible as the lower section was rocky and looked pretty precarious. When we reached the foot of the first vertical wall we saw that from there on we'd need to use our climbing gear. Then the weather turned and the clouds blocked out our view of the upper section, but we thought it looked feasible, providing we climbed lightly, with not too much of a load. We climbed up to 5200m and this helped us acclimatize although we still needed to improve our adaptation to altitude if we wanted the chance to reach 6720m on this mountain. We wanted to climb this peak alpine style, with no fixed ropes, no porters...we wanted to do it the same way as when we climb in the Pyrenees or Alps. It wasn't the most effective way and the chances of success would be lower, as we knew from experience, but that's the way we wanted it.

Camp 1
On April 9th, we set off towards the Swiss camp at 5200m, where we spent the night. The following day we climbed up to 5700m. Acclimatizing aside, our intention was to study a possible northern route. The truth was, that from here it looked pretty good and it seemed as if climbing a secondary peak at 6585m (according to the map) would be easy. But we had to bear in mind that we needed to get past a long ridge before reaching the main summit and that didn't look so easy.

Cati, with the kind of background that would appear in most of our photos
At this point, we decided to stop for the night and planned to climb further to continue acclimatizing the next morning, but things don't always turn out how you want them to. We were digging a platform for the tent as not many people had passed this way and everything required hard-work, when Tomeu, while trying to move a stone that was even more stubborn than himself, felt a sharp pain in his back. That was when climbing on no longer became an option and even getting back to base camp would be hard enough. The first-aid kit that we always carried but rarely used would be useful now. We still had many days of the expedition ahead and there was no point in being negative, but if things didn't improve, we knew we might not be able to attempt the summit. Tomeu even had doubts about being able to make the return trek.

Cati & Tomeu on their way back to BC after a reconnaissance trip with Makalu in the background
A white recovery

We spent the following days at base camp. Heavy snowfall covered everything in a white blanket and we filled the hours playing cards with the porters who were working for the other Makalu expeditions. Tomeu's back seemed to improve well enough, after several massages, stretching exercises and light walks. Makalu climbing groups began to arrive, stopping off for a few days to acclimatize on their way to the Advance Base Camp, and this also meant they brought us weather reports. We had no kind of communication infrastructure so we couldn't get a forecast, but both the Belgians and the Slovaks informed us that the weather should be good on Sunday 19th. As we didn't know how long it would last, we decided to set off on 18th to approach Camp I. We couldn't afford to lose many more days, because we had to start back on the return trek on 24th at the latest. It would have been nice to have been able to acclimatize more with another climb, but Tomeu's back and the weather conditions of the past week made that impossible. So it was decided - we'd make use of that spell of good weather to attempt the summit.

Cati on one of the more aerial sections
Good weather at last…

The 18th brought a clear sky, but as usual, it began to cloud over at about ten. and by the time we set off after lunch it was completely covered and was snowing fairly hard. But we decided to trust the forecast and go ahead with our plan. Mandip, who was eager to help, couldn't understand why we didn't want him to carry our gear up to Camp I. We tried to explain what alpine style was but he still didn't seem to get it.

Tomeu climbing one of the multiple vertical sections of the route
The recent snow and the load we were carrying made progression more difficult than on our exploration trip. Even so, we reached what would be our camp I in about 3 hours and set up the tent, at about 5100m. It had been snowing during the whole climb although it stopped when we arrived and the skies cleared a little. Maybe we'd be lucky and the next day would be clear! A portion of Trek'n Eat and a bit of cheese. We had prepared our special olive oil biscuits from Mallorca, but left them behind at base camp. Too bad!

A stop for a drink and to study the route, with Honku Chuli 6833m in the background
Pi-pip, pi-pip, pi-pip… 3:30. so far the sky was clear. Tea and biscuits and off we went! We had decided to go as light as possible, as we wanted to move fast. With this in mind, we left the tent and some freeze-dried food at Camp I. We also only took one of our half ropes, so on the sections where we couldn't climb together, we'd have to limit the pitch length to 30m. We also each only had one ice-axe. If the conditions of the wall permitted, we thought we'd be able to reach the summit the same day. (some hope!)

The good weather stayed with us as we tried to reach the summit. Cati with Peak 7 (6,758m) "Tutse" in the background.
After the easier section, we roped together just after sunrise. From here on we ascended some sections together and when it became more vertical, we climbed in 30m pitches. The hours passed and we realised that we wouldn't be able to reach the summit that day. The snow of the past week still hadn't transformed, which made progression complicated. Ten hours after leaving camp I, we reached 6000m and found a good spot for setting up a bivouac. We hoped the cold night would make progression easier the next day when we set off at dawn. From here on, the route would be on snow. A cup of tea, a couple of energy bars and we hit the sack.

Some stages allowed us to move together.
(Incomplete) Birthday Present

The night was cold and never-ending..., at last the alarm went off. The sky was still clear. It took us over an hour to get ourselves ready and leave the bivouac, where we also left our rock climbing gear as we planned to descend by the same route. It took us a long time to get warm. The condition of the snow was just as bad and we couldn't pick up pace. In spite of the change-overs, we only managed to climb 100m each hour. On many stages we sank up to our knees.

Some six hours later, we reached a crevasse that forced us to go around. But while doing this, Tomeu sank into another hidden crevasse that was perpendicular to the previous one. Luckily it wasn't very wide and was no more than a shock. But the crevasses didn't finish there! Some 150m higher, we came across a much wider crevasse. We thought about trying to go around it, but we decided it was too risky. This was a real disappointment as there had been no indications that we'd encounter such an obstacle.

There was nothing for it but to start off on the long descent. We weren't sure if we'd be able to reach Camp I before nightfall, but we'd give it a try and would have to improvise another bivouac if need be. We wanted to descend as far as possible, as we didn't feel like spending a night like the previous one. During the descent, we combined rappels with down climbing. The clouds began to appear at different altitudes and we went in and out of them as we descend until we finally saw our tent at camp I. It seemed as if we'd make it after all...just before nightfall. “Birthday Present” should have been the name of the route, to mark Cati's birthday. But without having reached the top, we had to add “Incomplete”.

Turning back on such a splendid day and just 150m from the summit was quite a bitter end.
The other side of the coin
In spite of not reaching the summit, we are satisfied with our expedition. The forecast wasn't great but it allowed us to move and give the summit a good try. We'd certainly have liked to have had more time for another attempt, but there was no choice in the matter! However, the other side of the coin awaited us at the end of the trip. Although it didn't personally affect us (we didn't even notice it), the earthquake on 25th April was a tragedy for Nepal. We encourage everyone to visit this magnificent country one day, and in that way help its recovery (and if you can, collaborate with one of the NGOs working there).

Thank you to all those who have helped make this project possible: Millet Expedition Project, Federación Balear de Montañismo y Escalada, Ayuntamiento de Porreres, ACIE Bomberos de Palma & Bestard Mountain Boots.

The summit...so near, yet so far!

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