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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Unclimbed": Seven Years Later

I've just been editing a story for the American Alpine Journal about the first ascent of the north face of Chang Himal in Nepal, by British climber Andy Houseman. Andy said his climb, with fellow Brit Nick Bullock, was inspired in part by an article called "Unclimbed," published in 2003 in Alpinist 4, in which various writers identified nine great unfulfilled challenges in the alpine world. Which, in turn, inspired me to dig up the article and see how climbers have done over the last six and a half years.

Not bad, as it turns out, not bad at all. But these lines have proved to be worthy challenges. Here are the nine routes and their status:

Annapurna III, Nepal, southeast ridge. Not yet, but the peak has seen some action: The southwest ridge was climbed in 2003 by Kenton Cool, Ian Parnell, and John Varco. And Britons Jon Bracey, Nick Bullock, and Matt Helliker are headed to Nepal this spring to attempt the stunning southeast ridge. [Photo courtesy of]

South Tower of Paine, Chile, south face. Not yet, but big-wall soloist Dave Turner spent months in the Paine in early 2009, hoping to attempt the face, before an injury forced him to focus on smaller objectives.

Shingu Charpa, Pakistan, north ridge. Climbed. Twice, more or less. Or not at all. Depends on how you look at it. In 2006, a Ukrainian trio claimed to have climbed the route, but it later turned out they had turned back perhaps 100 meters below the top of the peak. A month later, Kelly Cordes and Josh Wharton climbed most of the route, but also retreated near the top because they didn't have the right gear for the summit icefields. In 2007, a Russian team climbed the east face and continued up the final section of the north ridge to the summit. [Photo by Clint Estes.]

Namcha Barwa, Tibet, west face. Nope. The 7,782-meter peak has been climbed only once, in 1992, from the south. The 3,300-meter west face has never been attempted.

Janak, Nepal, southwest pillar. Climbed! Slovenians Andrej Stremfelj and Rok Zalokar pulled off a stylish alpine-style ascent in 2006.

Chang Himal, Nepal, north face. Climbed! Those Brits, Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman, polished off the route, alpine style, in a five-day round trip from the base of the wall.

Mt. Tyree, Antarctica, southeast face. Not yet. Antartica's biggest and steepest alpine wall remains untouched.

Latok I, Pakistan, north face. Not yet. Several teams have attempted the line but diverted to the north ridge, also unclimbed.

Torre Traverse, Patagonia. Climbed! Rolando Garibotti and Colin Haley linked Cerro Standhardt, Torre Egger,and Cerro Torre in January 2008.

So, more than half of these routes remain unclimbed. But it would be a mistake for either climbers or the media to focus attention exclusively on these lines. As the Alpinist compilation's editor, Sean Easton, wrote in his introduction, these climbs "represent only a minute sampling of what remains to be found."

Indeed, one of the great thrills of working on the American Alpine Journal is seeing photo after photo of great unclimbed walls around the world (and those other mountains, barely in view over the shoulder of that peak in the foreground...what are they?). The world still holds enough great alpine challenges for generations of ambitious climbers to come. Time for a new article?


Peter Beal said...

Great post Dougald. Do you have the feeling however that while these objectives are interesting to certain climbers, that they are no longer the topic of a larger discussion even within the climbing community?

Dougald MacDonald said...

Peter, you're quite right: These routes will never be famous like Everest or K2 or the free attempt on Mescalito or any Sharma route. But cutting-edge alpine climbing has always been a bit obscure; it often takes a full generation before a new route gets recognized for the mega-classic it is. And some alpine routes never become classics because they look much better than they are. Shingu Charpa, for one: gorgeous line, terrible climbing.

kelly said...

Terrific post, D. I've gone through this on my own before, actually -- and came away amazed at how many of these things got climbed in a fairly short time frame. Just seems to me, from my observations as well as personal experience, that so much shit has to come together to pull of the mega alpine objectives that it rarely happens. But, damn, people are getting good. Bullock and Houseman, those bastards, became the latest to cross one off of that Alpinist 4 list. Indeed many others exist, however -- look at what Joe Puryear (IMO one of the great under-recognized climbers in our world) keeps doing.

Re: Peter's question, I've wondered that as well. But my highly unscientific observation -- like all of my musings -- is that the absolute numbers of keen alpinists has probably remained stable. Meanwhile, the larger umbrella of climbers has grown massively. Thus, it depends on the expression -- relatively speaking, sure, I'd say, fewer climbers care about this stuff, naturally, given the exponential growth and popularity of more accessible forms of climbing. These increasingly popular forms have their appeal, for sure (I'm sick of huddling up with swarthy dudes at cold bivies, but I suck too badly to impress anyone better looking at the boulders). Those passionate about the alpine remain so, same as ever, even if today their pursuits drift more to the fringes by comparison. Maybe not so different as it always was, in a sense -- fringe dwellers in one form or another.

And, yes, the climbing on Shingu Charpa sucked. IMO, I think the N Ridge still unclimbed. Neither of us (Ukrainians nor Josh & I) finished it off. Close, but no cigar. Gorgeous line, though. What suckers we are...and will continue to be.

Thanks again for the cool post.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Dougald and Kelly. I am writing a review of Steve House's book that is titled more or less, "Alpinism and the Avant-Garde" that will explore this point, that high-end alpinism is becoming a very exclusive pursuit in all senses of the term.

Dougald said...

Peter, I won't argue with "exclusive," but I would argue with "becoming." I think alpinism at the high end has always been exclusive. Although it's impossible to generate real numbers, I'd say more people today, not fewer, are climbing cutting-edge alpine routes, simply because there are more climbers than ever before, and thus more at the top of this particular pyramid.