The New Alpinists

Using cutting-edge techniques, three young mavericks set out to tackle one of the hardest routes in the Himalayas

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

"WE'LL AMPUTATE our feet before we go," explains Jared Ogden. "That way, we won't have to worry about doing it later." The wisecrack might be funny were it not so plausible. When Ogden, fellow American Mark Synnott, and British alpinist Kevin Thaw head to northeastern Nepal in October, they'll be putting it all on the line—toes, fingers, and noses included. Relying on only four ropes, 14 days' worth of food, and one skinny portaledge, the trio will attempt one of the largest faces in the Himalayas: an 8,000-foot frozen cliff on the north side of 25,289-foot Mount Jannuominously known as the Wall of Shadows. It will be one of the most iconoclastic climbs by Americans in Asia since Carlos Buhler and Michael Kennedy scribed a new route up Ama Dablam in December of 1985. If they make it, their achievement will not only go down in the annals of mountaineering, but signal the beginning of a paradigm shift in what young Americans climb and how.

The summit is by no means a sure bet. "They're going to have to give everything—emotionally and physically—and then find more," says Stephen Venables, the British alpinist and author of Himalaya Alpine Style, who describes the route straight up the center as "one of the hardest unclimbed lines that we know about." Upping the stakes even more, the team plans to do an "alpine-style" climb—meaning they will make one sustained push up the monolith with very little gear. Should a lingering monsoon blast the penumbral face, they could end up stuck in a hanging bivouac with dwindling fuel, a handful of beef bullion cubes, and no chance of a rescue. "Alpine-style is a big gamble," says 42-year-old Essex, Massachusetts–based Himalayan climber Mark Richey." All you need is a storm, a cut rope, someone hit by a rock, and you're lucky if you get off."

The trio's planned technique marks a departure from the American big-wall strategy, known as "siege-style," typically employed on such technical climbs. Inspired by early Himalayan expeditions and pioneered 43 years ago in Yosemite, where Synnott, 30, Odgen, 29, and Thaw, 33, all logged their big-wall time, siege involves fixing ropes to the bottom of a wall and then shuttling up and down to resupply each campsite. In the past, Synnott and Ogden (more so than Thaw) have sought out siege-style climbs on lower-altitude, pure-rock faces in Northern Canada, Pakistan, and Tierra del Fuego, Chile. (Indeed, a 1999 siege climb on Pakistan's Great Trango Tower cemented Synnott and Ogden's reputations as tenacious "suffer puppies.") Now, tired of yo-yoing up and down ropes with hundreds of pounds of equipment in tow, they've traded their "everything but the kitchen sink" haul bags for German mountaineer Alex Huber's fleet-footed philosophy. In the 1999 American Alpine Journal, Huber declared that he had seen the future of alpine climbing: "All-around mountaineering is just at the start of mixing the disciplines of sport climbing, mixed climbing, big walling, and high-altitude alpinism together."

But in attempting an alpine-style assault—ice-climbing frozen couloirs and speed-climbing granite with little more than the packs on their backs—on a route that has beaten back some of the world's best for nearly two decades, one wonders if they haven't left behind more than just gear. French climbing ace Pierre Béghin attempted a route up the center of the north face in 1982. "It was the most moving experience I had ever had in the Himalaya because of the harshness of the wall," he later wrote. "None of us had ever seen such a cold, steep face." Slovenian Tomo Cesen claimed to have climbed a direct route on the Wall of Shadows in 1989, but Reinhold Messner and other high-profile skeptics dismiss his account, citing inaccuracies in his story and his lack of photographic proof. This past spring, New Zealanders Andrew Lindblade and Athol Whimp attempted a siege-style assault on the wall, but were forced to turn back when a falling rock smashed through their portaledge. (It was empty at the time.)

Synnott, Ogden, and Thaw don't expect avalanches on their October climb; bitter temperatures will freeze chunks of ice and rock solidly in place. But there will be plenty of other dangers. After scaling a relatively easy 3,000-foot buttress and traversing a huge glacial plateau below the main face, the climbers will stash most of their gear. Then the fun begins. For the next four days, they'll hammer their toes into the face, scaling 55- to 60-degree ice before reaching a large serac at approximately 22,000 feet. Temperatures at this point will have plummeted to around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so they'll have to don down suits, step off the side of the hanging glacier, and jag straight toward the top on both rock and ice, trying to climb 5.10 pitches in their cumbersome plastic boots. At about 24,000 feet, the lower edge of the high-altitude "death zone," it gets even trickier. Unable to metabolize solid food, their bodies will begin to consume their own muscles for energy. "We've been scheming ideas for a new IV," Ogden deadpans. "Morphine, caffeine, adrenaline, hydration crystals." In fact, they'll subsist on cheese, nuts, hot chocolate, and other high-calorie, if nutritionally insufficient, foods.

The trio will either continue straight up the final, overhanging headwall, or clamber a thousand feet up the unstable, steep, snowy northeast ridge. "That's always been the big question," says Venables. "Can someone climb that technically with a combination of virtually no air to breathe and very cold temperatures?" Once at the top, the team will decide whether conditions are stable enough to rappel for three days off loops of rope webbing and fingers of ice, or whether they should walk down the safer, but slower, west spur.

The whole scheme is so unfathomable it raises the question, What the hell are they thinking? "This is what climbing is about," insists Greg Child, well known for his climb of Gasherbrum IV in 1986, in which he pushed himself for two days, without water, to the summit. "It's not about the 5,000th ascent of Everest."

Ogden takes that question a little more personally. "Alpine climbing isn't a pastime in our country," he says. "Europeans are trained from childhood and they become national heroes. In America, psycho routes on huge mountains are considered a selfish endeavor." So, the trio sees its climb as a bit of a crusade—to advance alpinism in this country beyond Everest-mania, to encourage new techniques, to inspire others to follow, and yes, to take their place in that small clique of Americans—such as John Roskelly, Mark Twight, Carlos Buhler, and Jeff Lowe—who have put up top-notch climbs in the Himalayas.

As for the risks, Synnott, for one, is adamant that the Wall of Shadows is not a "death route." He argues that by spending less time on the mountain, they'll encounter fewer avalanches and more tolerable weather. And while this climb epitomizes the predicament of the professional climber—trying to push the limits of the sport, follow an intensely felt calling, and come back alive—none on the team sees it as a do-or-die mission. If things go awry, they'll retreat. Cutting-edge climb or not, they feel the old mountaineering adage holds true. When you go to the mountains you do three things: You come back alive, you come back friends, and you go to the top—in that order.

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