THE CLIMB BEGINS!
Out of the Trenches (and to the base of the rock wall…)
The Summit Push
In the game of high-altitude, big-wall mountaineering, the unclimbed Shark’s Fin route on the NW face of Meru (20,700 ft) lies right at the boundary of what is possible. The lower third is classic alpine snow-and-ice climbing; the middle is mixed ice and rock; and the final section is a supremely difficult, overhanging headwall. The Shark’s Fin has drawn many of the world’s top alpinists over the past 30 years, but none of them finished the route.
In 2008, The North Face® global athletes Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk traveled to the incredibly remote Garhwal Himalaya of India to attempt the test piece and nearly succeeded. The team spent 19 grueling days on the wall and encountered some of the most technical high-altitude climbing on earth in unimaginably punishing conditions only to be forced to turn back 100 meters from the summit. Haunted by their unfinished business, the team is returning to Meru in 2011 better prepared and even more determined with one goal in mind. Success on the Shark’s Fin.
Ten years to a child seems like eternity. A decade in the chapter of an adult is one chapter in life. On the timeline of humanity, it is inconsequential. In a cosmic and geologic timeframe it is a period of time so small it is unrecognizable. For Jimmy and I, it is a decade of sharing adventures around the world. One peak, Meru, in the Garhwal Himal, is an adventure we are drawn to.
In 2008, Renan, Jimmy and I battled a 5 day storm, intense cold and difficult climbing to be turned back 100 meters from the summit. After 19 days of toil, we tossed in the towel and retreated. Three years later, we are back to give the line we started another go.
Unfinished business. We all have something that keeps us motivated. These aspirational goals are vital to the human condition. We have the drive to finish something once started.
We departed Colorado, Montana and Idaho as summer was slowly giving way to crisp mornings and the change of color. With the miracle of jet travel, we were pretty much on the opposite side of the globe in a 24 hour window.
Delhi, home to 24 million people is one of the world’s most populous cities. The daily surge of humanity and controlled chaos is always eye opening to the three of us, accustomed to wide open spaces.
As on cue, the monsoon focused its intensity the morning we departed Delhi. The underpasses were flooded while the overpasses provided shelter to the stranded commuters. The heavy rains, while welcome for the people of India, also create difficult travel conditions on the high mountain roads.
The plains of northern India abruptly meet the Himalayas at Rishekesh. The Ganges River exits the youngest and tallest ranges of mountains at this holy city. Rishekesh was made famous in the eyes of westerners when the Beatles chilled out seeking musical and spiritual enlightenment.
The next leg of the journey is to Utterkashi, a mere 160 km away. We had heard the roads were impassable but tried our luck. We encountered several massive landslides. Most of them had barely been cleared. We bumped along through the chaotic debris with tires inches away from the edge of several thousand foot drops down to the raging rivers. We finally hit an active landslide with trees and boulders rushing by which blocked the tenuous road.
We waited for a day, sitting on the road, and finally decided to take a long questionable detour, costing us a day. After some exciting driving and digging at several other landslides, we reached Utterkashi. Beyond Utterkashi, the roads were impassable by bus, so we switched to the Indian Mahindra jeeps.
We piled into one Jeep and joined the flow of pilgrims headed to Gangotri, the holy gateway village of the Ganges River. The road seemed to be falling apart around us, but our skilled driver navigated us around seemingly impassable sections of the washed out road. As the sun set, we pulled into Gangotri.
Once in Gangotri, we exploded our gear at our lodge and spent a couple days building porter loads and visiting the temple and some of our old Sadhu friends that we ‘d met in previous years.
One Sadhu, Sunderandan, at 83 years of age, is one of the most devout people in the area. A famed yogi master, in his youth he also took part in several climbing expeditions. During that time he picked up a camera, and along side his yoga practice, Sunderandan pursued a lifetime of photography. We visited him in 2008 and we were happy to spend the afternoon with him again this year. He bestowed upon us a mantra for our expedition and gave us a blessing. It was special to be in the presence of such an enlightened being.
The following morning we shouldered our packs and headed for Topavon, a two day trek away. Along the way we stopped at Galmuk, literally the place where the Ganges spills out of the toe of the Gangotri Glacier. This is the source of India’s most holy river and we encountered several pilgrims and holy men along the way. We paid our respects, and dipped in the ice cold water, knowing the water we touched here would travel and touch many others as it flowed through the rest of India.
After an epic hike above Galmuk and across the glacier with our small army of porters, we arrived at Tapovan. Nestled below Shivling with the Bhagarathis and Meru in the distance, Tapovan would be our basecamp for the next few weeks.
After spending a two days building basecamp and sorting through mountains of gear, we carried loads up to our ABC below our route on Meru. The clouds and mist parted along the 6 hour trek up to our ABC and we scanned familiar reference points on the route, the filter pitches of steep snow and ice, the alpine ridge, the traverse pitches with the tricky hauling, the overhanging headwall, the House of Cards pitch and others. The route and all its challenges were coming back to us. It was exciting to see the icy blade of granite again after 3 years and our anticipation began to build for what would be in store for us in the days ahead.
Posted on behalf of Chris Figenshau, Tapovan Base Camp Manager:
September 28th 2011, 9AM
Gazing up from Tapovan Base Camp, I can see a solitary pinhole of light piercing the dark hulking midsection of Mt Meru. The team is safe. Dangling at Camp 2 at 19,000 feet.
After two weeks of traveling, organizing, trekking and humping loads to advanced base camp, Jimmy, Renan and Conrad have managed to scorch their way up the bottom part of this route in a 6 day push. The bottom snow and technical ice pitches were climbed in two days to Camp 1, ‘The Balcony’, which lies below several sections of alpine rock and ice. From there the team climbed, hauled and jugged their way up to Camp 2, a hanging bivy situated below the formidably overhanging Indian Ocean Wall. In the past two days the team has managed to climb, (send), the steepest and most dangerous A4 sections of the wall culminating at the ‘Crystal Pitch’, an overhanging prow of aid climbing in outer space.
“Ahhhh the Crystal Pitch,” says Jimmy. “It’s out there.”
Yeah. It sure as hell is.
Tonight the team is preparing to move camp above the 20,000 foot mark. Once at Camp 3, the team plans to make a three or four day push for the summit.
Having benefitted from their experience on this wall three years ago, the team is moving much faster. Levels are high, and the weather has been exceptional thus far with little to no moisture. . (‘Exceptional’ is a relative term that is not intended to imply comfort.) The team has been fortunate with morning sunshine on the route, but by noon the entire wall is shaded and cold due to its Northeast exposure. So far, good progress has been made each day with no days lost to weather or fatigue. With an abyss of steep, overhanging rock behind them, the team now prepares for the final sections of aid and mixed climbing on their way to the summit.
Fingers crossed, positive wavelength, incense burning.
Chris Figenshau, Tapovan Base Camp Manager
Congratulations to The North Face athletes Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk!
On Sunday October 2nd, the team reached the summit of the previously unclimbed Shark’s Fin route on the NW face of Meru (20,700ft). In the game of high-altitude, big wall mountaineering, the Shark’s Fin lies right on the boundary of what is possible. This win didn’t come easily – it was Jimmy and Renan’s 2nd and Conrad’s 3rd trip to the remote Garhwal Himalaya of India to attempt this route.
Read more about this extraordinary journey at http://www.neverstopexploring.com/blog/contributors/Conrad%20Anker/
After twelve days on the route, we summited the Sharks Fin at 140pm on October 2nd.
Often starting at night, we would climb through the day and back into the night, lost between light and darkness. Time and existence blurred. Always fighting upwards. Always pushing the line. We were momentarily confused when there was finally no place further left to go. Exhaustion and joy canceled each other out on the summit. We were numb for the descent. Another battle. Cold. Survival. After making it back down to our bivy in the sky, we spent a final night at over 20,000ft before we embarked on another 20 hour odyssey of endless rappels. Beefy anchors slowly waned through the day and night until eventually we were all anchoring in and rapping off single pieces. We would all stare, will the single piece of gear to hold as the first person would begin rappelling. “Don’t rap off the end of the rope” became the mantra.
The sharp awareness of the void below began to dull as we dumped more and more elevation with each release of the brakehand on our rap devices, jolting ourselves down the ropes. Just like we wondered if there was a top to this thing, we began to wonder if there was a bottom. Down and down we went, through the day, through the night with wet semi frozen gloves. Exhaustion was setting in. Until, finally, we reached the lower snow slopes. As the angle eased off a bit, we down climbed. Slowly at first, facing in, kicking each step as carefully as possible, knowing we were getting sloppy and careless. Then, eventually facing out, stumbling, and soon, running downward towards freedom. We tripped, slid and fell shamelessly down the slope. Twelve days in our harnesses. We finally crossed the final bergshrund dropped the harnesses on the ground. We tossed packs, gear slings, cams, ice axes, screws, everything onto the snow. We were back in the horizontal world and finally free of the Sharks Fin.
High point: Now
We’re back in Delhi a few pounds lighter literally and figuratively. And, we have a few new stories. We’re looking forward to sharing some of them when we return.
Starting the travel sequence home tonight.
Thanks for following. Here are a few more pics to chew on.