The first attempt on Makalu was made by an American team led by William Siri in the spring of 1954. The expedition was composed of Sierra Club members including Allen Steck, and was called the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu. This was the first American mountaineering expedition to the Himalaya. They attempted the southeast ridge but were turned back at 7,100 m (23,300 ft) by a constant barrage of storms. A New Zealand team including Sir Edmund Hillary was also active in the spring, but did not get very high due to injury and illness. In the fall of 1954, a French reconnaissance expedition made the first ascents of the subsidiary summits Kangchungtse (October 22: Jean Franco, Lionel Terray, Sardar Gyaltsen Norbu and Pa Norbu) and Chomo Lonzo (October 30(?): Jean Couzy and Terray).
Makalu was first climbed on May 15, 1955 by Lionel Terray and Jean Couzy of a French expedition led by Jean Franco. Franco, G. Magnone and Sardar Gyaltsen Norbu summitted the next day, followed by Bouvier, S. Coupe, Leroux and A. Vialatte on the 17th. This was an amazing achievement at the time to have the vast majority of expedition member summit, especially on such a difficult peak. Prior to this time, summits were reached by 1-2 people at most with the rest of teams providing logistical support before turning around and heading home. The French team climbed Makalu by the north face and northeast ridge, via the saddle between Makalu and Kangchungtse (the Makalu-La), establishing the standard route.