It Takes Three to Trango

The stormy climax of the greatest big-wall ascent in climbing history

Oct 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Last June, when we previewed the attempt by Mark Synnott, Jared Ogden, and Alex Lowe to make a first ascent of the northwest face of Pakistan's Great Trango Tower—believed to be the biggest sheer granite wall on earth—we had a feeling they were in for an epic experience. But by the time the trio had returned to base camp on July 31, "epic" seemed an inadequate description of their ordeal. During the 36-day, storm-wracked ascent to the 20,500-foot summit, Synnott and Ogden persevered at the cost of little more than hypothermia, exhaustion, and shredded hands. Lowe, however, wasn't nearly so fortunate. He contracted a mysterious intestinal infection at 18,000 feet, was struck on the head by a rock and knocked unconscious during a rappel to a bivy ledge, and took a bruising 50-foot fall while leading one of the final pitches, a mishap that inflicted several cuts and abrasions, as well as a puncture wound to his elbow.

Shortly after reaching the summit on July 29, beating a rival Russian team by more than a week, the threesome encountered a tempest that forced them to stage a perilous, rain-soaked retreat down the 6,000-foot route in 48 hours. Synnott admits he still can't quite grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment, perhaps the greatest big-wall climb ever. "By the time we were descending, things were pretty out of control," he says. "But we just sucked it up. This was without a doubt the hardest thing I've ever done."

Got Any Ice? 

"Sixth place isn't great," concedes Marshall Ulrich, 48, of his finish in the Badwater Ultra Marathon on July 15. "But I was whipped before the race began." For which Ulrich has only himself to thank. Ten days prior to the event, he staged an unorthodox solo "training run" along the 138-mile course, which ascends from Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney, in California. To aid his 77-hour ordeal, the owner of a pet food company in Fort Morgan, Colorado, lugged 21 gallons of water in a cart equipped with a rubber tube and a solar-powered pump. Impressive? Well, sure; but it also poses a rather burning question: Why? "I hate when people say something's impossible," explains Ulrich, a four-time Badwater champion whose next goal makes his present accomplishment look like a cinch. "I'd love to do two back-to-back laps on the Badwater course."