Makalu 2008: "One of the hardest propositions of all"

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Makalu 2008: "One of the hardest propositions of all"

Post by Guest on Sat 15 Mar 2008, 8:39 am

Four teams from across the Armed Forces will attempt to conquer the fifth highest mountain in the world in an ambitious expedition launched last night, 13 March 2008.

Makalu, 22km east of Everest on the border between Nepal and Tibet, was once described by Sir Edmund Hillary as "One of the hardest propositions of all".

The expedition formally kicked off at an event in central London, hosted by the Duke of Westminster and attended by Defence Minister Baroness Taylor, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman, Chief of the Air Staff Sir Glenn Torpy and other senior members of the Forces and expedition sponsors.

Air Vice Marshal Nick Kurth, President of the RAF Mountaineering Association and chairman of the expedition's higher management committee, set the scene for a journey to the top of the world. He was unapologetic about the expedition's strapline - "Endeavour, endurance, excellence" - and explicit about its aim; to develop Service personnel, as a microcosm of a military operation.

Makalu 2008 is the next milestone in a four-yearly cycle of UK military mountaineering expeditions, which began exactly 50 years ago with the first joint-Service expedition in 1958.

The expedition has taken some two-and-a-half years to pull together. An earlier expedition to Makalu in 2004 was forced to abandon its attempt at the summit due to bad weather. Some of the team from that expedition are returning to the challenge this year. AVM Kurth said:

"A number of people on this expedition see 2004 as unfinished business - and that is a spur to keep them going all the way to the top."

Team selection

The expedition team is made up of 42 Service personnel drawn from across the Royal Navy, Army and RAF, including eight Servicewomen and a mixture of officers and other ranks. For all of them, taking part in an expedition like Makalu 2008 comes second to their commitment to their parent units. AVM Kurth - who himself will be travelling to the base camp - admitted that the high tempo of current military operations had made finding and keeping the best team a challenge:

"Some have just come from operations, some will be going on operations, we've pulled through all our reserves."

Makalu 2008 comprises four separate but linked expeditions: a main team who will attempt the summit, a subsidiary team, a high altitude development team who will aim to stretch potential future main team members, and a junior team that will take on a safer but nonetheless demanding goal - the highest trekking hill in the Himalayas.

Getting into any of the four teams was a challenge in itself, involving rigorous physical and aptitude tests. 170 applied and were interviewed, 80 went forward through six different training sessions and camps, with just 42 being selected for the four final teams.
Tight competition

Competition to get into the junior team was particularly tight. 55 hopefuls where whittled down to just eight who will go to Nepal. Nick Taylor of 14 Signals Regiment, one of the successful applicants, explained the process:

"We went to JSMTC Indefatigable [the Joint Service Mountain Training Centre] and then did a climbing course, and a summer mountaineering course. Then we did two weeks selection training in the Alps, and a winter course at Tulloch in Scotland."

Fellow junior team member Private Craig Januszkiewicz of 2 LANCS AGC(SPS) learned about the expedition in April last year:

"I was in Iraq when I applied. I read about it on the intranet. I never did any climbing before in my life. I thought it would be a one-off opportunity. My CO (Commanding Officer) signed it off, he was a mountaineer himself. I was accepted and went on the training when I got back from Iraq."

Royal Marine Dwain Ross described his feelings on learning he'd made the team:

"You knew that if you didn't get a phone call, you were in the team. I was ecstatic.

The Expedition's major sponsor is KBR, with further help and support in the shape of funding, equipment or services being provided by BAE Systems, EADS, Cobham Aviation Services, Fujitsu, NSSL, MBDA, Cotswold Outdoor and a number of smaller sponsors. The team have also managed to secure a number of grants from official bodies, including Service sports associations.

A proportion of the money raised will go to the Expedition's nominated charity, SOS Children's Villages, the world's largest dedicated orphans charity.

SOS Children's Villages provides care for orphaned and abandoned children by creating families for them, building schools and developing local communities. Currently over 60,000 children live with their SOS mother and family, and in all their work support over a million children and adults worldwide. In Nepal, SOS currently support eight children's villages, each helping 100-150 children.

Helen Elmerstig, SOS Children's Villages schools and volunteer co-ordinator, attended the launch. She said:

"The Makalu team approached us - they really wanted to raise awareness and give something back to the community."
Knife edge ridge

The expedition is led by Squadron Leader David Tait from the RAF Regiment who set out the route the expedition will take. From Kathmandu the teams will fly on to the isolated airfield of Tumlingtar. From there, base camp is still a 14-day trek away. In all, the teams will spend around two-and-a-half months in Nepal. Sqn Ldr Tait explained:

"We'll start feeling the altitude before we even get to base camp. People will start to get headaches; we'll have to watch each other carefully."

Once base camp is fully established, the Main Team's effort will be to get their highest camp - itself at a daunting 7,800m - built and stocked with supplies. Then they will need a 3-5 day break in the weather to make the final reach for the summit, at a terrifying 8,463m.

To succeed, the team's strongest climbers will need to conquer 5-6km of knife-edge ridge in bitter cold and howling wind. Sqn Ldr Tait showed a photograph of a seemingly-impassable feature known as The Black Gendarme. He said:

"It's like scaling the Rock of Gibraltar with high altitude boots on, thick mittens, and about half the oxygen. It's pretty full-on."

Squadron Leader Colin Scott has the job of making sure the climbers have the kit they need, from sourcing it in the UK to freighting it to Nepal. He talked about the extreme-weather boots, gloves and clothing that will act as each team member's personal life-support once on the slopes of Makalu.

The full cold-weather outfit could not be demonstrated using a live model in London, as anyone wearing it for more than a few minutes would suffer heat exhaustion. Despite being the lightest and best available, the clothing rig still weighs around 5-7kg - and this is before you've picked up your pack and climbing gear. It is worth around 1,500 per person, and much will be re-used on other expeditions.

But there's another good reason why the team won't be leaving the tons of kit they are taking to the Himalayas behind. Sqn Ldr Scott explains:

"We will aim to leave the mountain in the same condition as we found it."

Communications vital

Squadron Leader Emily Flynn is head of communications for the expedition. She explained that the comms gear will serve three main purposes: communication within and between the teams, keeping the outside world informed of their progress, and calling for assistance in the event of an emergency. The expedition will achieve this through a combination of UHF and VHF radios, and Iridium satellite phones.

Meanwhile ruggedised laptops, rated to minus 20 degrees and coupled to BGAN/Inmarsat data uplinks, will enable the teams to post updates to the web direct from Makalu. Although optimised for cold weather rather than hot, the set-up is broadly similar to that used by the Forces' Joint Media Operations Teams to relay video footage back from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Powering the equipment will be a major challenge, Squadron Leader Flynn confirmed:

"Up there, there's no electricity, no phone connection, and the nearest habitation is several miles away, so we've got to be self-sufficient."

The Main Teams and Base Camp will use a combination of diesel generators and solar panels, but the Junior Team will rely purely on solar. Large solar collectors will be used to top-up 12V DC batteries, for powering static kit such as laptops, while team members will carry their own smaller, foldaway solar cells to help power handheld equipment:

"It's not infallible - we are expecting the weather to give us trouble, but the kit will hold enough charge to keep us going," said Sqn Ldr Flynn.

The experience she gains on Makalu will be of direct benefit to her career as a RAF communications engineer, currently serving with the Joint Support Unit at DGISS Corsham. Emily said:

"It's scary, but once you've stretched yourself you never go back."

Physical Challenge

WO1 Neil Greenwood of the Royal Engineers spoke about some of the physical challenges the team would face:

"6,500m is about the highest the human body can acclimatise to. After that you're on borrowed time - and the higher you go, the shorter that time."

WO1 Greenwood has developed a new system for supplying oxygen at high altitude, which uses a Nasal Cannula rather than a traditional face mask, and supplies oxygen when the wearer demands it rather than through a steady flow.

The new system typically provides 40 hours of oxygen where a traditional system would provide 10, meaning mountaineers can sleep while wearing it. Other advantages - such as being able to eat and talk while wearing the kit, and being able to see your feet - mean the new set-up has found favour with Sherpas as well as the Makalu team.

Now fully formed, the bulk of the teams will be leaving the UK at the end of March. Expedition Leader Squadron Leader David Tait summed up how the team was feeling:

"It's been a long and winding road to get to this point. Now we've got to get out there, get to the summit, and get everyone back in one piece."

Provided By: MOD -


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