Red line represents the West Ridge route, Spring 2012. Illustration: Grayson Schaffer
On Wednesday morning around 10:00 EST, Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki made it clear that he plans to push on toward the summit of Mount Everest. "Then left towards the Summit of Mount Everest," said an update on his Facebook page. "Bitter cold, and stars but out of sight, in the dark, is really like a space station. I'll see you at the top. So, I'm going! Please everyone pray."
It is not entirely clear from his Facebook page where he was on the mountain when that announcement was posted, but updates suggest that he is at 7,500 meters or higher along the West Ridge route. "The West Ridge is one of the more difficult routes on Everest, no question," said Conrad Anker.
That’s the route first climbed by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963, just three weeks after their teammate Jim Whittaker—along with Sherpa Nawang Gombu—claimed the first American ascent via the South Col route.
Back then, the West Ridge was the hardest route up the mountain, and Hornbein and Unsoeld's climb, in alpine style, remains one of the greatest feats in American mountaineering. According to the Himalayan Database, only 27 people from 44 expeditions have summited via that original West Ridge/Hornbein Couloir route or the more difficult West Ridge Direct. Meanwhile, it has killed 20 climbers—a summit-to-fatality ratio that makes Everest’s West Ridge comparably dangerous to the notorious K2.
Kuriki has added degrees of difficulty to his ascent by climbing alone and without oxygen canisters. He'll have no one to switch off with for breaking trail, and no one to lean on for advice. "Climbing Everest without oxygen is so debilitating," said Anker. "It’s a real game changer."
Teams led by Anker and Jake Norton attempted the West Ridge this past spring, but both turned back without reaching the summit. "Post-monsoon might be the time of year to climb that route—or a year that has more snowfall," said Anker. "The challenge of that is there are two to four rock climbing pitches that are 5.7—or pretty difficult."
Kuriki will encounter the section of the mountain with those technical pitches as he pushes toward the summit. If they are covered in snow and ice, they may be easier to ascend. When Anker and his team looked at the pitches this spring, the ice had melted and they required technical climbing. "I think that’s the result of the high-altitude cryosphere really melting out from 8,000 meters up on Everest," said Anker. "There’s just not as much ice on the mountain as there was 60 years ago."
For more on Kuriki's quest, check out "Expedition Watch: Climbing Everest's West Ridge Without Supplemental Oxygen" and follow his updates on Facebook. His posts are in Japanese, but you can click on the translation button beneath the text.
H/T: Alan Arnette/Twitter