All About Makalu: 5th Highest Mountain in the World

Learn fast facts about Makalu

Makalu is the fifth highest mountain in the world.
Photograph copyriight De Agostini/Getty Images

Makalu is the fifth highest mountain in the world. The dramatic four-sided, pyramid-shaped mountain rises 14 miles (22 kilometers) southeast of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, and Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world, in the Mahalanger Himalaya. The isolated peak straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet, a region currently governed by China. The summit itself lies directly on the international boundary.

Makalu's Name

The name Makalu is derived from the Sanskrit Maha Kala, a name for the Hindu god Shiva that translates “Big Black.” The Chinese name for the peak is Makaru.

Makalu-Barun National Park 

Makula lies within Nepal’s Makalu-Barun National Park and Conservation Area, a 580-square-mile parkland that protects pristine ecosystems from tropical rainforests to alpine tundra above 13,000 feet. The remote Barun Valley below Makalu is particularly important and managed as a Strict Nature Reserve to preserve its unique qualities and ecosystems. The park includes an extraordinary diversity of plants. Botanists have identified 3,128 species of flowering plants, including 25 species of rhododendron. Many animals also live here, with over 440 bird species and 88 mammal species, which includes a red panda, snow leopard, and the rare Asian golden cat.

Two Subsidiary Summits

Makula has two lower subsidiary summits. Chomolonzo (25,650 feet / 7,678 meters) is two miles northwest of the main Makalu summit. Chomo Lonzo (25,603 feet / 7,804 meters) northeast of Makalu's summit in Tibet is an impressive peak in its own right that towers above the Kangshung Valley. The mountain was first climbed by Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy during a reconnaissance expedition to Makalu in 1954 via its gentle southwest ridge. The mountain did not see a second ascent until 1993 when a Japanese expedition climbed it. 

1954: American Expedition 

A strong American team called the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu, attempted the mountain in the spring of 1954. The ten-man expedition was led by medical physicist William Siri and included members of the Sierra Club, including Yosemite climber Allen Steck and Willi Unsoeuld, After exploring the mountain, the group attempted the southeast ridge but eventually were forced to retreated at 23,300 feet (7,100 meters) due to constant storms, heavy snowfall, and high winds.

An expedition recap in The Himalayan Journal reported the last day of their ascent: "With time remaining for only one more attempt prior to the monsoon, Long, Unsoeld, Gombu, Mingma Steri, and Kippa de­parted from Camp IV on 1st June and were soon lost from view in the clouds. Anxious hours followed. On 2nd June a small figure was spotted on the crest of the ridge. They had won through to the ridge, in the face of 18 inches of fresh snow, and succeeded in setting up Camp V at 23,500 feet the night before. During a clearing in the clouds they obtained a view up the ridge and reported no difficulties, in fact, easy straightforward snow slopes as far as the Black Gendarme. Beyond this they could not see. To the disappointment of all, it was time to descend. The weather report predicted the imminent arrival of the monsoon."

1955: First Ascent of Makalu

The first ascent of Makalu was on May 15, 1955 when French climbers Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy reached the summit. The following day, May 16, expedition leader Jean Franco, Guido Magnone, and Sardar Gyaltsen Norbu reached the top. Then on May 17, the rest of the expedition climbers--Serge Coupe, Pierre Leroux, Jean Bouvier, and Andre Vialatte--also summitted. This was considered very unusual since most large expeditions at that time usually placed a couple team members on the summit with the rest of the climbers acting as logistical support by fixing ropes and carrying loads to higher camps. The team climbed Makalu by the north face and northeast ridge, via the saddle between Makalu and Kangchungtse (the Makalu-La), which is the standard route used today. Makalu was the sixth 8,000-meter peak to be climbed. 

How to Climb Makalu

Makalu, while one of the most challenging 8,000-meter peaks, with steep climbing, exposed ridges, and rock climbing on the summit pyramid, is also not exceedingly dangerous via its normal route. The climbing roughly divides into three sections: easy glacier climbing on the lower slopes; steep snow and ice climbing to the Makalu-La saddle, and snow slopes to the steep French Couloir and a finish up a  rocky ridge to the summit. The mountain is not overcrowded like nearby Mount Everest.

Lafaille Vanishes in Winter Ascent

On January 27, 2006, the great French climber Jean-Christophe Lafaille left his tent at five in the morning at 24,900 feet to climb to the summit of Makalu some 3,000 feet above. The goal of the 40-year-old man, considered one of the best alpinists in the world, was to make the first winter ascent of Makalu and do it alone. The peak, in 2006, was the only one of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks not be have a winter ascent. Lafaille, after calling his wife Katia in France, headed out in 30-mile winds with a temperature below -30 degrees Fahrenheit. He told Katia he would call her again in three hours when he reached the French Couloir. The call never came.

Lafaille’s expedition started with a helicopter trip from Kathmandu to base camp on December 12. He slowly worked his way up the mountain over the next month, ferrying loads and establishing camps. By December 28 he had reached the 24,300-foot Makalu-La, a high saddle. High winds over the next couple weeks, however, kept him from establishing a higher camp so he retreated to a lower base camp where his four hired Sherpas and cooks were staying.

As night fell in Nepal, Katie became frantic waiting for Lafaille’s call. Several days passed and still no word. A rescue was out of the question. There were no expeditions in the Himalaya and no one in the world was acclimatized to the high elevation to climb and search. Lafaille had disappeared on the world’s fifth highest mountain without a trace…or a phone call. Perhaps an avalanche took him or the high winds swept him off his feet. No trace of him has been found. Makalu was finally climbed in winter on February 9, 2009, by Italian climber Simone Moro and Kazakh climber Denis Urubko.

Elevation:  27,765 feet (8,462 meters)

Prominence:  7,828 feet (2,386 meters)

Location:  Mahalangur Himalayas, Nepal, Asia

Coordinates:  27.889167 N / 87.088611 E

First Ascent:  Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray (France), May 15, 1955