Of the world’s great ranges, there are hundreds upon thousands of peaks that remain unclimbed and areas that remain unexplored. Some are closed because of religious or political reasons. Some are so remote that just getting to the peak is an expedition in itself, and some peaks have yet to see an ascent on a distinguishing feature or face. These mountains have tormented generations of legendary alpinists, who have attempted bold new routes on intimidating and terrifying lines. These ascents are famous for their notoriety and fame as the most legendary unclimbed walls.
Northwest Face – Devil’s Thumb, Boundary Range, Alaska
The Northwest Face of the Devil’s Thumb has been a coveted ascent for generations of great climbers. The 6,700-foot face is among the tallest in North America and has turned back 13 expeditions from such climbers as Alex Lowe, Mike Bearzi, and Bruce Miller. It’s closest attempt came in 1982, when Dieter Klose was forced to retreat halfway up the wall, which he described in an American Alpine Journal entry titled ‘The Fickle Face”.
The Northwest Face, set in a sub-region of British Columbia’s Coast Range, which sees an annual rainfall of over 10-feet, is angled at over 67-degrees. At 9,000-feet, the entire face is covered in hanging glaciers, which are the source of near constant avalanches. According to Klose, there are several conditions which are necessary for success. First, the route must be fully iced, held up by a cloudless northern facing weather pattern. Secondly, the route may only be climbed between midnight and 2:00 PM, after which, the sun hits the face directly and releases avalanches. Third, it must be climbed in a fast and light alpine style, with free-soloing wherever possible. Climbers must navigate a hanging glacier, featureless pitches of blank wall, and a shooting gallery of snow-laden chutes.
Of the 14 climbers who have attempted the Northwest Face, only 5 have managed to get en-route. Two Canadian alpinists perished in an avalanche on the face in 2003. With the advancement of fast and light techniques and equipment, the first ascent of the Northwest Face will be a combination of bold, innovative climbing and a favorable, consistent weather pattern combined with a very precise set of route conditions.
Latok I – North Ridge, Karakoram Range, Pakistan
Rising over 8,000-feet above the remote glaciers of Northern Pakistan, the North Ridge of Latok I has beaten back alpinists such as Jeff Lowe, Colin Haley, and the Huber Brothers. The concave face is a shooting gallery of icefall, rock, avalanches, and difficult, technical climbing at over 7,000-meters. Latok I saw it’s first ascent via the East Ridge in 1979 by a Japanese team and wouldn’t see a second ascent until nine years later. The ascent was seen as a watershed moment in Himalayan climbing as the expedition style which had been favored for over two decades gave way to fast and light alpinism.
The jagged ridge, which ascends to the right of the face, is heavily corniced, while the bowl-like nature of the north face casts a cold shadow across much of the rock. A 1978 expedition spent nearly 26 climbing days, climbing mixed rock and waterfall ice before retreating just above the 7000-meter mark due to Jeff Lowe’s health. The wall is so vast and high that conditions at the bottom might be vastly different from the conditions 2,000-meters higher. The crux of the route is marked by 800-meters of 80-degree angled ice, followed by a further 600-meters of 90-degree waterfall ice. A Canadian team who attempted the route in 2006 found themselves pummeled by constant rock-fall and avalanches, being forced to retreat at 5300-meters.
Despite the route’s notorious nature, Michael Kennedy wants future climbers to respect and maintain the line’s elegance. “With a few exceptions, the attempts on the North Ridge have been in at least a good a style as ours. It is my hope that future parties will continue to treat the route with respect by leaving as little trace of their passage as possible.”
Masherbrum – Northeast Face, Karakoram Range, Pakistan
Alpinist David Lama described the Northeast Face of Masherbrum like ‘climbing the Eiger with Cerro Torre on top.’ At 3500-meters, it’s been dubbed ‘The Impossible Wall’ for it’s remoteness, technicality, and height. In 75 years of climbing, the peak itself has seen only four successful ascents from the southeast and northwest faces. The unclimbed Northeast Face is a spectacular granite wall leading to a sharply pointed pyramidal summit block.
An expert Russian team attempted the route in 2006 by ascending the northern buttress. They described the mountain as extremely unstable, with so much constant snowfall and avalanches that the team could only climb in the dark from 3 until noon when the sun hit and melted the face. After four days of constant snowfall, the team decided to descend. The route has long been a dream for Lama, who attempted the route in 2014. While the team was able to get on the wall, they were quickly pushed away by constant Grade 5 avalanches. For one of the most coveted walls in the world, it takes the right combination of fitness, weather, and climbing ability.
Namcha Barwa – West Face, Himalayas, Tibet
Namcha Barwa is the tallest peak in the eastern Himalaya and the third most prominent behind Everest and Nanga Parbat. It’s ferocity and remoteness has ensured only a single summit in 1992 by a joint Japanese and Chinese expedition via the Southwest Ridge. Until then, it was the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Its daunting West Face rises over 3300-meters from base to summit. The route, which meanders up the concave ‘shadow’ between the Southwest and Northwest ridges, has never been attempted.
While there is very little actionable information about the face, it represents a part of the Himalaya that is relatively unexplored. The Namcha Barwa massif includes four subsidiary peaks above 6800-meters that all remain unclimbed due to their remoteness and rugged architecture.
While these peaks represent some of the world’s most daunting alpine challenges, many of the great ranges have only started to see first ascents due to the greater accessibility the improvements in technology. In the last few years, climbers have explored the smaller subsidiary peaks around the Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan, while others are exploring the smaller and more unknown peaks around the Neacola Mountains of the Aleutian Range of Alaska. As with the ascent on Latok I, the advent of fast and light alpinism has opened a brand new world to innovative and groundbreaking first ascents.