If the Approach Doesn't Kill You, Try Out the Ascent
Deep in the Karakoram, three American climbers attempt the biggest wall of them all
The Cush Zone
As the fourth annual Bacardi HIHO boardsailing competition prepares to kick off in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, on the 26th of this month, participants are gearing up for what organizers have advertised as "the world's greatest windsurfing adventure!" It's hype like this that has helped the HIHO generate one of this year's largest amateur boardsailing fields (80 men and women will compete in two classes) and, in the process, administer a much-needed shot in the arm to a sport whose numbers, at least in the United States, have been in steep decline since its heyday during the late eighties. Anybody expecting the sort of hard-core, cutthroat competition typical of European World Cup races, however, will be in for a big disappointment. Each day at noon, the latest segment of the weeklong 150-mile stage race will come to a halt and give way to what is apparently the actual centerpiece of the event: a rolling bacchanalia of limbo contests, pig roasts, and general booze-cruising on the HIHO's well-stocked live-aboard yachts. All of which seems to offer up an unwitting commentary on what is, apparently, the real state of competitive boardsailing in America. "Hey, we're not running a boot camp," exclaims event director Andy Morrell. "This is vacation."
Mark Synnott remembers the first time he encountered the northwest face of Great Trango. It was during the summer of 1997; he and his partner, Jared Ogden, were cresting a ridge in Pakistan's Karakoram Range, en route to a remote tower called Shipton Spire, when they found themselves staring up at a vertical slab of granite so immense that it made Yosemite's El Cap seem like a mere bouldering crag. Synnott stopped in his tracks, agog, and turned to Ogden. The same words hung on both men's lips: Screw Shipton. "We were like, whoa, hold on," recalls Synnott. "We were seriously gonna poach it right then, without a permit."
Alas, their entourage of porters had already moved too far ahead to hear the climbers' pleas. And so off they went to Shipton where, after a 25-day assault, they became the second team to climb the 19,700-foot peak—a feat that left them hankering for their next challenge. Although the two friends were sufficiently well versed to know that the unscaled 5,000-foot northwest face of Great Trango is considered by many climbers to be a "death route," they nevertheless vowed to return as soon as possible—a pledge they will make good this month when, permit in hand, they attempt the first ascent of what is believed to be the biggest wall on Earth.
Ever since this part of northern Pakistan was opened to foreigners in 1974, climbing teams threading up the 20-mile Baltoro Glacier in the direction of Broad Peak, K2, or the Gasherbrums have returned invoking the words "Trango Group" in a tone that suggests the religious ecstasy of a Sufi mystic. This response is evoked by the Group's resplendent mass of more than half a dozen disordered crags dominated by two soaring fangs: the hulking 20,500-foot Great Trango and, less than a mile to its south, the needlelike 20,469-foot Nameless Tower, first climbed by a four-man British team in 1976.
In the 23 years since, these spires' enticingly clean facades have touched off a veritable stampede of expeditions, from the heroic to the half-baked. In 1985 a team of Norwegians successfully laid the first ascent of a bold Grade VII line up the southeast face of Great Trango during a bitter 21-day summit siege, only to fall to their deaths on the descent. Five years later, a solo Japanese climber who tried to parapente from the top of Nameless Tower was blown back into the wall and left stranded without food for six days until another team could descend Great Trango and climb Nameless to fetch him.
Despite all this activity, one of the Trangos' greatest problems has never been attempted, much less solved—perhaps for good reason. The northwest face of Great Trango combines some of the most perilous elements of any ascent in the world—steep rock and dizzying altitude—with a treacherous approach beneath a serac, or hanging glacier, that routinely sends massive chunks of ice plunging into the path of approaching climbers. "It's horrifying," huffs Todd Skinner, whose radical 1995 Nameless Tower ascent upped the ante in the free-climbing world. "Ice the size of small houses strafes that wall almost constantly. You can't believe how desperate it is."
The personalities of the men attempting the route, however, seem a suitable match for the challenge. Synnott, 29, is phasing into the persona of a clean-cut New Hampshire homeowner with a wife and six-month-old son. But he hasn't been able to shake the nickname "Scrappy," acquired on his grungy four-year tenure as a Yosemite big-wall bum and affixed permanently by friends in recognition of Synnott's single-minded tenacity on forbidding climbs like Baffin Island's Polar Sun Spire, where he and Ogden put up a first ascent in 1996. Ogden, 27, is an X Games ice-climbing champ who began showing his grit by participating in the first ascent of Nameless Tower's north face in 1995. Still reveling in the footloose lifestyle afforded an unmarried climbing junkie, he recently moved into a studio apartment in Durango, Colorado, because there was a homemade rock-climbing gym in a shed out back.
Since partnering up in 1997, the two have demonstrated an impressive (albeit unenviable) willingness to embrace the intense discomfort and extended hard labor that are fixtures of high-altitude big-wall ascents. A week into their Shipton bid, for example, an unstable cornice released a barrage of rock and ice onto their portaledge, shredding their tent. Shivering in soggy parkas and sleeping in pools of freezing water, the duo pressed on for another two and a half weeks to finish the route. "They embody that fine line between being aggressive and pushy," says climber Alex Lowe, who saw their performance up close on Baffin Island. "Plus, they're particularly good at suffering."
Hoping to stack the odds in their favor, the pair has recruited Lowe as the third member of an expedition that now seems poised to set a new standard for raw torment. After dodging through the artillery field of falling rock and ice along the lower section of the route, the team will proceed up Great Trango's northwest face at roughly the speed of continental drift, pulling off one to two pitches per day along a highly technical line of perpendicular rock that could take them three weeks or more. Every inch of the way, they'll have to hoist more than a thousand pounds of equipment and food, including a 250-pound barrel of water. "You get to this point where you need more gear than you can haul," explains Synnott. "I think others who might have been interested in this climb do the math and are like, 'What the fuck. This is ridiculous.'"
These logistics notwithstanding, their success may hinge on a rather simple strategy. Banking on their combined physical prowess and technical experience, the trio will ascend capsule-style. A less cumbersome but highly committing MO, this method entails moving up without stringing an escape route of fixed ropes from the bottom, sacrificing in safety what the team hopes to make up for with speed. Should they succeed, the route could stand as one of the most impressive in the history of climbing, further buttressing Lowe's preeminent stature while registering the first great achievement of America's next generation of climbers. To its chagrin, however, the team may have to share the milestone with a six-man German unit that will simultaneously be attempting the same wall. "This is the last great prize left in the Trangos," sighs John Middendorf, whose epic ascent of Great Trango's Grand Voyage route in 1992 has, until now, never been threatened as the benchmark of big-wall climbing. "I knew my time was over when MTV decided that climbing was cool." —NICK HEIL
Lowe and cameraman Dave Bridges missing in an avalanche on Tibet's Shishapangma
Alex Lowe presumed dead
The Mutant and the Boy Scout Battle at 20,000 Feet
A profile of Alex Lowe, from the March 1999 issue of Outside
Trango: Stalking the Biggest Wall
A report on Alex Lowe's most recent climbing achievement
It Takes Three to Trango