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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Makalu: climb for the ages

Small, underfunded 1980 Spokane climbing team put first American atop Makalu

Jim States (left) and John Roskelley pause on a ridge as they shuttle gear to higher elevations during their 1980 climb of Makalu.
 (Chris Kopczynski)
Time does not forget great moments in history, even if the present can sometimes be oblivious. After initially being shunned by the American mountaineering community, the 1980 Spokane-to-Makalu Expedition has recently been recognized by the American Alpine Club as one of the world’s 10 most significant climbs of the 20th century. The club, which has chronicled American mountaineering achievements for a 100 years, featured the Makalu climb in the 2002 American Alpine Journal centennial edition. The four-man team of John Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski, Jim States and Kim Momb culminated an 80-day Himalayan ordeal of pain, sickness and danger by becoming the first American expedition to reach the 27,790-foot summit of Makalu, the world’s fifth highest peak. The French had already climbed the mountain’s mesmerizing west pillar ridgeline in 1971, said Bill Fix, a Spokane investment counselor and mountaineering historian. “But the French used the traditional full-fledged expedition. The actual climbing was done by 11 professional guides, and still only two made the summit,” Fix said. “Four other American expeditions had tried Makalu and failed,” said Joe Collins, long-time member of the Spokane Mountaineers and climbing mentor to Roskelley and Kopczynski. “Then along comes this little team of four guys, all from one town they started climbing at Minnehaha who walk into the Himalayas and show the world something new.” Only Roskelley reached the summit, but he said he needed every ounce of determination from the four-man team in order to do it. They set a new standard for climbing the world’s highest mountains because they did it on a shoestring, and they did it on their own. They raised $20,000 in cash from Spokane supporters and about $9,500 worth of donated food and equipment, leaving them only about $8,000 in the hole after reaching such soaring heights. By Himalayan standards, a $38,000 expedition shouldn’t even have made it to base camp, Fix said. “The big rollers in this area wouldn’t donate,” Collins recalled. “They didn’t want to give money for somebody’s vacation. They didn’t understand that Himalayan climbing is an international thing. This was America’s team.” ”Roskelley later wrote, “We had chosen to raise ourselves up to the standard of the mountain, not to pull the mountain down to our level with large teams of climbers and Sherpas.” From the border of India, they walked 120 miles across Nepal to Tibet with the help of porters. But from base camp on up, they carried all their loads and fixed all their ropes on the technical route without the support of the fabled high-altitude Sherpa climbers. “That’s remarkable enough,” Collins said, “but they also came home friends. That’s even more incredible if you know anything about expeditions. “It’s amazing that this team isn’t recognized in the local sports hall of fame over in the (Spokane) Arena. There’s even a horse in the hall of fame, but not the greatest climbing team to ever come out of Spokane in a sport that demands stamina, discretion and tactics.” Roskelley is currently a Spokane County commissioner and Kopczynski owns a local construction company. States is a physician who recently moved his practice to Bellevue. Momb was killed in a 1986 avalanche while guiding heli-skiers in British Columbia. In the 1980s, however, Roskelley was a professional climber, widely recognized as America’s top high-altitude mountaineer. He had a reputation for being blunt and focused, qualities that made him controversial while keeping him alive in lethal environments. Roskelley’s crown of achievements, all without aid of bottled oxygen, included Dhaulagiri, Nanda Devi, Trango Tower, Gaurishankar, K2, Uli Biaho, Cholatse and Tawache. He started climbing as a teenager in the Spokane Mountaineers, where he met Kopczynski, a top-ranked high school and collegiate wrestler, who also was captivated by climbing. Together, they became the first Americans to travel to Europe and scale the north face of the Eiger. Later they joined with climbers around the world for an epic expedition in the Russian Pamirs that became the subject of a book. “Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs” was later made into a television movie. Roskelley was at the peak of his game in 1980, while the other climbers were still emerging. Kopczynski, States and Momb all went on to climb Mount Everest in subsequent years. Momb and Kopczynski were on a 1983 team that made the first ascent of Everest’s east face, a route that has never been repeated. “I knew they all had what it takes to climb the big peaks,” Roskelley said. Kopczynski said the Makalu dream was years in the making. “Basically John and I had been working up to that type of expedition since 1965, to show that a small competent team could do the same thing as these giant 100-men armies that different countries were sending to the Himalaya.” “Chris and I were intrigued by an aerial photo taken by the French years earlier,” Roskelley said. “The west ridge looks very technical, but it was that steepness and difficulty that also made it relatively safe from avalanche. “Above base camp, the four of us pretty much fixed rope and carried loads for 45 days.” Momb worked so hard that he became physically and mentally depleted. “It was the exuberance of youth,” Kopczynski said. “But he basically put the rest of us in position to succeed.” Almost the entire route was in place when trouble emerged in a poorly prepared American team that was trying to climb Makalu by a different route. One of the climbers had fallen ill up the mountain while the Spokane team was in base camp preparing for the summit push. “I was willing to help them, but they said they had the personnel,” Roskelley said. Indeed, two climbers were with the victim, while expedition leader Armando Menocal was assembling porters from a lower camp to go up for a rescue. The Spokane team donated clothing and gear for the porters. “Their expedition was poorly thought out,” Kopczynski said. “They didn’t even have radios, so we loaned them one of ours.” Menocal stayed in camp while California climber Betsy White led the porters up toward the victim after borrowing flag poles from the Spokane group in order to make a stretcher. Meanwhile, Roskelley and Kopczynski had started up a different direction to put in the highest safety ropes on their more technical route. In an interview last week, White confirmed that she was almost at the glacier where the victim was holed up when she met the other two climbers coming down. “They were feeling sick, so they abandoned their teammate,” Kopczynski said. White said the porters started to balk at going farther. Roskelley heard about this on the radio from high up on the ridge near their third high camp. “I radioed down and Betsy said they wouldn’t go any farther,” he said. “I told them to put on the Sirdar and I basically threatened him and said he had to get that guy down the mountain.” The porters agreed and accompanied White to rescue the victim, who had lapsed into a coma and surely would have died. White said they even had to borrow an oxygen mask from the Spokane group in order to start treating the victim on the way out. With that distraction far below them, Roskelley and Kopczynski fixed the last crux of the route as States came up to Camp 5 at the dizzying altitude of 25,500 feet. “We got up at midnight and tried to boil water, but our stove wasn’t working right, and that’s not good because you need a lot of water at that altitude,” Roskelley said. “We started up the ridge in the dark at 2 a.m.” Kopczynski tried to break trail across a snow slope to avoid one dangerous pitch, but he nearly exhausted himself in the soft snow. They decided to go up a rock wall instead. “We’d come so far, after a while you live in this world of risk, so it’s all relative,” Roskelley said. “The wall was dangerous, but so was the chance of avalanche on the snowfield.” Then, with the summit nearly in view, the affect of altitude began overwhelming States. “It was like he was severely drunk,” Kopczynski said. “He had the willpower to go on, but he was sick.” Instead of making the mistake the other expedition had made, the Spokane team realized States had to be led to a lower elevation immediately while he could still function. They were totally on their own without bottled oxygen at 27,000 feet. “That was the toughest decision of my life,” Kopczynski said. “The summit was just 500 vertical feet away. I said I would belay Jim back down. I wanted John to make it. Jim and I both cried like babies as we watched him continue up.” From there, none of them had a cake walk. Roskelley reached the summit at 3:30 p.m., snapped some photos, gathered some rocks, and started down, mustering every ounce of strength and waning concentration to keep from making a fatal mistake. Meanwhile, Kopczynski painstakingly belayed States down every pitch to assure his safety. Just as they were coming toward their high camp, Kopczynski heard someone on the ledge above. Roskelley reached the camp at 8:30 p.m., shortly after his partners. “He was exhausted,” Kopczynski said. “He dealt with some really awful stuff up there alone and in the dark.” The team was recognized for their achievement back in Spokane, but on a national scale they were surprised to hear they were being scandalized. The American Alpine Club did not even invite them to make a presentation at the annual convention, a place where climbs of this caliber are routinely featured. “The Menocal expedition came back and said we’d abandoned them and left a climber to die,” Kopczynski said. “That wasn’t true at all, but climbing circles are like a bunch of old hens. They won’t even call to get your story.” Time has put the expedition in focus. The American Alpine Journal has recognized the climb as “a seminal moment in Himalayan climbing history.” “I couldn’t help but be almost shocked because of all the great climbs that have been done over the years, particularly in that decade, when there was a lot of interest in the hard, difficult peaks,” Roskelley said. “I always knew this climb had made a difference in the sport,” said Kopczynski, who still commemorates the achievement on his vehicle license plate, which simply says, “Makalu.”