On his last climb, the world's greatest alpinist dared to revolutionize mountaineering. Then something went wrong.
Around five in the morning on January 27, 40-year-old Jean-Christophe Lafaille set out from his tent at 24,900 feet on Makalu, the world's fifth highest mountain, and headed for the summit nearly 3,000 feet above. The wind raking across the slope where Lafaille had pitched his highest camp blew at a steady 25 to 30 miles an hour. The temperature inside the tent was 22 below zero F; outside, it was even colder.
Earlier Lafaille had used his satellite phone to call his wife, Katia, in Vallorcine, a small French village just up-valley from Chamonix. His wrist alarm had failed to go off, he told Katia, and he had slept later than he wanted. He was irritated by his delayed start but still confident that he'd get to the top within a prudent turnaround deadline. He would take the sat phone with him.
During the previous six weeks, Lafaille had never failed to talk to his wife at least three times a day. Now, as he signed off, Lafaille said he'd try to phone once more from the foot of a steep gully known as the French Couloir. He thought it would take him three hours to reach that feature, maybe nine or ten to get to the summit. According to Katia, as he set out, Lafaille felt strong, motivated, and happy.
What Lafaille was trying to do that January day was unprecedented in mountaineering history. By 2006, of the nine 8,000-meter peaks in the eastern Himalaya (there are five others in Pakistan), only Makalu, at 27,765 feet, had never been climbed in winter. On a peak notorious for its lack of a straightforward summit route, a mid-January ascent would have been a cardinal achievement even for a massive team, supported by Sherpas, using fixed ropes and stocked camps. But Lafaille, whom many considered the finest all-around mountaineer in the world, was attempting a solo climb, without bottled oxygen or Sherpa support above base camp. If something were to go wrong on the mountain at this time of year, rescue would be impossible.
Thus far, Lafaille had fared well against the self-imposed hardships of his challenge. But on the eve of his summit attempt, more sinister forces conspired to undermine a climber who had been known for his level-headed decision-making at altitude. There was an impasse with his support staff so leaden that he had surged up the slopes partly to escape them. There was the pressure of his fame itself, reinforced over the years by his wife's ambitions for him and, more recently, by the nasty public denigration of a former comrade. And there was the weather: maddening winds that had besieged the climber for more than six weeks.
Katia waited for the next call. Three hours passed, then five, then nine. There was nothing but silence. By 2 p.m. in France, the sun was setting in Nepal. And by then, Katia's brimming hope had turned to frantic despair.
From the time Lafaille's helicopter from Kathmandu had landed at base camp (elevation 15,700 feet), on December 12, his expedition had appeared star-crossed. Joining the Frenchman were three nonclimbing Sherpas: his cook, who'd served Lafaille in the same role on two previous expeditions, and a pair of "kitchen boys"--in effect, camp assistants.
During the first two weeks, the four men hauled all their gear and food 1,700 feet up the mountain to establish an advance base camp at 17,400 feet, but above that refuge, Lafaille was on his own. Through the rest of December and into January he made four trips up Makalu, picking his way through crevasse fields and dodging unstable seracs, as he hauled supplies and acquired the acclimatization he'd need to go for the top. On December 27 he set Camp I at 22,600 feet; the next day he reached the Makalu La, a landmark saddle at 24,300 feet. His second and last camp, Lafaille knew, would need to be even higher.
Day after day, as Lafaille moved gear up high, a tempest raged at some 55 miles an hour, with hurricane-force bursts of more than 110. Twice he was lifted into the air and carried three or four feet before he touched down again. To keep from being blown off high ridges, he had to lie flat on horizontal ground and self-arrest with his tools in hard ice. On January 11 he tried to pitch a camp on the Makalu La, but a sudden gust ripped his tent from his grasp and forced Lafaille to return to Camp I.
Finally, on January 12, Lafaille gave up the effort and returned to advance base camp, where he endured a wait of two full weeks. Precision weather predictions far more accurate than anything that could be obtained in Nepal were relayed daily from Chamonix by Yan Giezendanner, the team's routeur, a specialist in the art of guiding glider pilots, long-distance skiers, and climbers with micro-forecasts. But day after day the news was the same--the winds up high were far too strong to battle.
Meanwhile, advance base camp turned into a four-man ghetto of ill will. The Sherpas were so cold and miserable, they wanted only to go home. A serious language barrier meant that for days, the three Nepalis sat in their tent, playing cards and chatting in their own tongue, while Lafaille sat alone in his tent, where, as he told Katia, "I hardly speak a world all day."
The four men built stone walls to try to protect their tents from the wind, but the constant gale had stirred the whole Barun Valley below them into a Himalayan sandstorm. At advance base camp it rained sand. The ground became a morass of mud; fine particles somehow found their way inside tents that were closed tight. The sandblasting on the tent walls woke Lafaille up again and again, drowned out the sound of his Walkman, and made it impossible for him to concentrate on the book he was reading.
The acknowledged experts at winter climbing in the Himalaya are a small group of hardy Polish alpinists. Their experiences have taught them a stern dictum: The longest span of time humans can endure at high altitude in the dead of winter is 30 days. But by the time Giezendanner relayed a forecast of a brief window developing in the month-long gale, Lafaille had been on the mountain for nearly 50 days. He was also no longer on good terms with his cooking staff. As he got ready to start up the mountain again, he so distrusted them that he left his belongings padlocked inside a case. Climbing back up toward Camp I, he told Katia by sat phone that he had not bothered to take a two-way radio to communicate with the Sherpas because "they don't give a damn about me."
There were three other sat phones at advance base camp, but Lafaille hadn't taught the Sherpas how to use them, for fear they might break them. After January 24 Lafaille's only contact with the rest of the world was the satellite phone he carried with him, which he used each day to call Katia.
By the time night had fallen in Nepal on January 27, Katia hade-mailed Lafaille's friend and America's preeminent high-altitude mountaineer, Ed Viesturs, at his home on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. On May 12, 2005, Viesturs had provoked a similar ordeal to what Katia now endured, after his sat phone broke down on Annapurna. Waiting at home, Viesturs's wife, Paula, had listened to her own silence through a terrible, sleepless night, until she became convinced that her husband was dead. Only after Viesturs regained high camp at 10 p.m. was he able to let his wife know he was safe. Now Viesturs e-mailed Katia back: "There is always hope. Please give him time to come down."
As the news of Lafaille's overdue return spread, his friends clung to their own diminishing hopes. If anyone could survive a mishap in the "death zone" above 26,000 feet, it was Lafaille. In 1992 on Annapurna, Lafaille had lost his friend and mentor Pierre Beghin when, during a retreat on the south face, Beghin's rappel anchor pulled loose, causing him to fall thousands of feet to his death. Left with no ropes or hardware, Lafaille downclimbed the rest of the fiendish route in five days, the last three with a compound fracture of his right arm (see "The Prisoner of Annapurna," February 2003). To this day Lafaille's retreat from Annapurna is considered perhaps the finest self-rescue ever performed in the Himalaya.
After January 27 a full day passed, then another, as the silence from Makalu reverberated with the dawning sense of tragedy. Had Lafaille gone missing during a normal spring season, there would have been hope of launching a rescue, or at least a search. There would have been other strong, acclimatized mountaineers nearby--say, on Mount Everest, only 15 miles away--who could have been helicoptered over to Makalu. But in January, no such mission was possible. At the moment, there was not a single other climber in the world acclimatized to 25,000 feet. All the Sherpas who in April and May would have carried loads and fixed ropes on the 8,000-meter peaks had retreated to their valley homes for the winter.
On his Web site, before setting out for Makalu, lafaille posted a kind of rationale for the solo winter assault: "The idea of being alone pleases me very much...," he wrote. "I like it because it's harder....But it is also true that I have never found another person with whom I have the 'feeling.'" Feeling--one of Lafaille's few words in English, his private shorthand for "the zone" he entered that allowed him to complete routes that almost no one else could touch.
Of his winter ascent he wrote: "I think that there is nothing more difficult than to want to climb a summit of more than 8,000 meters in the winter season, yet for years I have dreamed of attempting such a challenge."
But such statements fail to capture the mystical intensity that was Lafaille's hallmark. When I first met him, in 2002, Lafaille offered a cryptic definition of mountaineering: "A form of obsession that fights against one's doubts." His process: "I imagine the route before I do it. It is in my head. There is first the dream, then the doubts, then the commitment." By trying to climb Makalu alone in winter, Lafaille made a total commitment. He would have no safety net, no backup. The challenge was, in climber parlance, as "pure" as it gets.