Everest’s Last Great Challenge? The Fantasy Ridge

Perhaps now is a very good time to have a fantasy or two – but just to keep us grounded, lets start with words from the imitable Elizabeth Hawley, doyen to all things Everest: 

“And for the next generation, Everest also has one of most daunting and futuristic of the Himalaya’s “Last Great Problems”—the Fantasy Ridge. It begins on the right side of the Kangshung Face, and was named by George Mallory during the 1921 British Everest reconnaissance expedition, supposedly because he thought it could only be climbed “in one’s imagination.”

The route entails thousands of feet of climbing on a narrow, double-corniced ridge just to reach the halfway point on the Northeast Ridge, which itself is one of the most difficult routes on the mountain.

Unlike many other Last Great Problems that eventually succumbed – routes like the North Face of Jannu (25,300’) and the South Face of Lhotse (27,940’)—the Fantasy Ridge is so far ahead of its time that to this day it remains virtually untouched.”

Elizabeth Hawley – writing in 2002

Yet it still hasn’t been climbed? Perhaps soon the time will come? Somebody, somewhere, must have a burning desire to climb this? 

Ed Webster and Reinhold Messner (right) talk climbing while stuck together for three days in Lhasa awaiting flights. Reinhold was in the area researching his fascinating book: My Search for the Yeti.  I think I was still waking up (left)? Photo: Joe Blackburn 

We spent almost two months looking out at the Fantasy Ridge when we did our new route on the Kangshung Face, tracing the ridges double sided cornices, watching avalanches roar off down both sides. And yet still, dreaming from afar, of yet another route on Everest.

Yet why hasn’t anyone seriously taken a shot at this – what is probably one of the finest lines on any of the 8,000 meters peaks?

It is probably a few things, all combined, that create this incredible challenge.

 

Joe Blackburns large format camera captured the Kangshung Face at dawn, the Fantasy Ridge on the right. Two starts pose themselves, the rocky ridge coming from far right and starting just above the shadow. The left spur indicated is the most direct and aesthetic.

The hard climbing will start low down, then probably just gets harder and becomes more dangerous in the center section. Finally reaching the North-East Ridge you still have to climb through the Pinnacles and out onto the upper part of the North Ridge.

By the time you reach the Second Step on the North Ridge, the ladder will be the least of your worries. Russell Brice and Harry Taylor were the first people to climb through the Pinnacles, maybe they will do a topo? 

Everests’ Kangshung Face, Fantasy Ridge far right. A rather sinister expanse, with 4 vertical kilometers of weaving, twisting and rather steep climbing.  Photo: Ed Webster from an original B+W transparency.

If one wants challenge and honor and endless fun climbing on Everest, this is the route to do. Needless to say you won’t be waiting in line.

With only a few half-hearted attempts over the last three decades, the whole Kama Valley below the Kangshung is as remote as it gets on any side of Everest – undoubtably a part of its awesome beauty as well.

Climbers, while still tackling a few of the lower and harder faces on Everest, have really shied away from applying themselves to this. That it is hard, high and dangerous goes without saying – but it certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done in fine style by a well prepared and experienced team. 

I thought about the Ridge quite seriously for a number of years after we did the Kangshung Face, looping in my Everest teammate Paul Teare on a few audacious plans.

Stephen Venables, Paul Teare and I glass our route from Advanced Base Camp. Upper section of the Fantasy Ridge far right. Our route on far left and the American Buttress directly behind us. Photo: Ed Webster

The Fantasy Ridge is so long and challenging, we considered starting to the right of the right hand subsidiary ridge. Over there, a long but visually straightforward snow slope leads up to where the lower ridges join. Above this, while we certainly saw areas of double cornicing, weaving a way upwards should certainly be feasible?

Perhaps more aesthetic would be to start on the left ridge, where scree slopes lead up to the twisting ridge, before the smaller ridges join together. Google earth, perhaps a drone and a good telescope should help sort out those options. Using a bit of modern earth based technology seems only fair with a challenge of this size. Getting it right from the start and not wasting time is essential.

Descending into the “Jaws of Doom”, only slightly melodramatic. The Kangshung Face inevitably treats one to a surprise or two.

 Another consideration, is having some support either below or above the Pinnacles. With a small support team, they could provide resupply from the North side, and should your ethics allow, perhaps a bottle or two of oxygen for the upper heights.

Spending a few days climbing in the death zone may just not be all that realistic. The sad thing would be to see the route sieged for the simple sake of getting up. Although with those cornices and the snow laden slopes, it may well be a place not particularly suited to such an approach. Fast and bold my be the only option. That can only be a good thing.      

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 by 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, little interest has been shown on this remote and intimidating part of the mountain where so many opportunities still exist.

In addition to the ridge, to its left, three ice and snow couloirs rise up direct on the face. We named these the Trinity Gullies – they are the sight of some of the largest avalanches on the Kangshung Face – perhaps the ribs between them could be ascended? 

Everest, North-East Ridge extending down onto the unclimbed Fantasy Ridge in the clouds below right. As seen from the French Couloir on Makalu.

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.

Choosing the route, mapping it out in your head and figuring out the right team, the right  approach to climbing, and the gear will be essential.

Two years ago, Cory Richards and Esteban Mena, the first climbers in ten years to attempt a new route on Everest chose their own parameters of where to climb, how to climb and with whom to climb – all in highly commendable style. While hundreds will continue to crawl up the ridges, on their own individual toils to the top of the world, it is on new routes where some real history of Everest will be made.

A few strong, brave climbers, in a small tent, on a big mountain, with some steep and challenging climbing that has never been done before .

Everest doesn’t get much better than that.

Everest Kangshung Face – going where no one has gone before. First day, first lead on the Face for me. It doesn’t get much better if you are a climber. Photo: Stephen Venables

 

Read more about the 7 Summits Solo and the Kangshung Face, in my books on Amazon.