On a tiny ledge, halfway up the face on Mt Everest, solo climber Rudi Lang was attempting a new route. He had chopped a patch out of the ice for his one-man tent. It was still early season, the 1st of May, and the night-time temperatures were still dipping below minus 25c (-13f) at his 7,850 meter camp.
Just over the other side of the North Ridge, also alone, I was at at the same height as Rudi and endured a sleepless night. My toes were frosting over, breath icy, and I decided it wasn’t just cold, it was inhumanely cold, shivering to the bone. There was no way I could go up and even getting down would prove a bit desperate.
When morning came I descended immediately. Rudi opted for a second night. Sadly he never came down, succumbing to the cold at some point, disappearing into his tent never to reappear.
We had both been attempting new routes, his left of the North Ridge and I to the right, on Everest’s immense North Face. While new routes may ultimately be a physical challenge, they are much more about facing the myriad of unknowns in going where no one has gone before. And often having to push harder than you have ever done before.
The real first ascent, the only first ascent on Everest, came after years of attempts, of reconnaissance’s on the North in the 20’s and 30’s, then the eventual discovery of the Khumbu Icefall on the South in the 50’s. And finally the triumphant stomp across the summit ridge by Hillary and Tenzing.
Even today when reaching the South Col it is worth looking up and imagining the route without the stream of lights from climbers, how it would of been without the ropes draping down off the balcony, and without the footsteps of those who have gone before leading you on.
At the South Summit, looking across the summit ridge, with thousands of meters of exposure on both sides and the thin curving line of ice and rock, it is worth another pause to imagine how you would of felt knowing you were attempting something that no one had ever done before. Could it really be done?
As Ed Hillary would write (and we did have to occasionally quote on our nightly read on our recent trek In Hillary’s Footsteps🙂
“We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And…we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t (just) drop dead.”
The psychological barrier to not knowing would of far surpassed the obvious physical challenge. It has always been good to see the summit ridge on Everest is both incredibly imposing, intimidating and spectacular.
This year it is very heartening to see Cory Richards and Esteban Mena attempting a rare new route on Everest. Long before their arrival, the photos, the changing conditions over the years, the snow running out of the couloir of the route they have chosen will have helped form an idea of how they want to climb the face.
With a number of seasons in ABC at the foot of their new route they will have had plenty of time to ponder where to go and what to do up there. The questions and the inquiry will have been completely different than anyone following the well known paths, the challenge is one that is far more intimidating, but also exciting. Drawing the line on the face is very much an art, choosing the best way up, and finding ways so that things don’t fall down on your head.
The question is not “can I do this?” It is “can it be done by me at all – or by anybody?”
The fact it is just the two of them makes it far more difficult – you can’t just send up another team member or a Sherpa with extra rope. There is no back-up on the way up, no easy way out. Added to that they will be taking no supplementary oxygen and the stakes go considerably higher.
A new route on a big mountain is a guaranteed big adventure, no matter how well it goes. And on Everest it is potentially the biggest adventure of all. It is highly commendable they are going with a small team, without support and without oxygen – all the things which most people now stack up in spades to make Everest as easy as possible and their outcome assured.
There is a strong precedent for great new routes on Everest of course. After Hillary and Tenzing, it was Hornbein and Unsoeld on the West Ridge. Then Bonington led the team to the South-West Face. Messner and Habeler proved we didn’t need oxygen, followed by Messner’s solo of a new route on the North Face two years later.
Then there was the superb climb of the Australians on the North Face up White Limbo, done without oxygen or Sherpa support, following the line of the Great Couloir.
After our own climb on a new route on the Kangshung Face, sadly little interest has been shown on this remote and intimidating part of the mountain where so many opportunities still exist. The route Mallory originally named, The Fantasy Ridge, still stands as the last great natural route left on Everest.
The most compelling thing about a new route is it creates a direct relationship between climbers and the mountain. You are not taking on a challenge against others and asking yourself if you can do what others have done. You are taking on a challenge that you don’t know if it is really possible at all.
With climbing, it is then most appropriate to take on the climb in a way that doesn’t just throw every resource available at it to ensure success. With a big team, lots of Sherpa support and a good supply of oxygen and ropes, just about any route can eventually be whittled down to size on Everest. Take all that away and you have a grand challenge.
In many ways Cory and Esteban have succeeded just by setting out for their climb – establishing parameters of where to climb, how to climb and with whom to climb – all in highly commendable style. While hundreds will crawl up the ridges, on their own individual toils this year, watching how Cory and Esteban do up in that icy couloir leading to the top of the Northeast ridge and onto the summit is where the real history of Everest will continue to be made.
Two strong, brave people, in a small tent, on a big mountain. It doesn’t get much better than that.