I was sure there had to be one more obstacle, one more aid seam, one more mixed pitch, but there was only sky and swirling clouds. I stared in disbelief.
After Babanov's success, only one task remained: A summit via a direct line up the Shark Fin's notorious granite face.
Russian soloist Valery Babanov was the first to summit Meru Central in 2001. Babanov estimated that 15 attempts had failed before his success, including one of his own the previous spring. During his aborted attempt he’d been following the same line we eventually climbed, up the prominent northeastern prow, but turned back at 5,800m. In September he chose a completely different route, far to the right of the Shark's Fin, on the ice face (see his feature article in the 2002 AAJ). After Babanov's success, only one task remained: A summit via a direct line up the Shark Fin's notorious granite face.
Conrad Anker's personal history with the Shark’s Fin goes back decades. Of the peak’s 25-plus attempts over the last 25 years, two were by Mugs Stump, Conrad’s mentor as a climber and as a person. He showed Conrad the ropes, literally and metaphorically, and this was his dream climb. When Mugs died in a crevasse fall in 1992 in Alaska, Conrad wanted nothing more than to finish the route for his friend.
His first attempt on the northeast prow came in 2003, with Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller. They attempted it in alpine style, climbing the bottom portion of the prow proper before exiting into ice flutings right of the main wall. Unconsolidated snow turned them back halfway up.
Five years later, Conrad recruited Renan and me for his next attempt. The main formation, he told me, featured a long alpine climb capped by an overhanging big wall that was steep enough to BASE jump. The route was perversely stacked against alpinists, since the most technical climbing, which required the heaviest gear, was near the top. All alpine-style attempts on this line up the main face had failed at nearly the same spot, the base of the overhanging headwall that starts at roughly 5,900 meters.
We battled for 19 days on the same route. The iconic mountain seemed intent to haze us. We were constantly humbled by the sustained nature and the diversity of its hard climbing. We also grossly underestimated how cold it would be on the northeast-facing wall. Despite weathering a weeklong storm low on the route and rationing eight days of food into 19, we pushed to within two pitches of the summit. We could see it, yet it felt far away. To push on would have required us to spend the night out, and we had already stepped far over the line. We knew that in our state we would not make it. We felt shattered, physically and emotionally, as we rappelled through the night to our hanging high camp.
Defeated, we returned to our normal lives haunted by those two unclimbed pitches. Yet they were a blessing. They provided motivation, and despite telling ourselves that climbing 98 percent of the route should be good enough, we obsessed privately about the unfinished pitches.
In 2009, Slovenian mountaineering legend Silvo Karo contacted Conrad about the climb. Conrad shared everything he knew, including beta on the best style to climb it in. We hoped Silvo’s team would succeed.
But when Silvo didn’t make it, Conrad called with the news. All he said when he called was, “he didn’t make it.” It was silent for a few moments. I knew exactly what he meant. I paused and said, “I’m in.” It was clear that we all wanted to return.
“He didn’t make it.” It was silent for a few moments. I knew exactly what he meant. I paused and said, “I’m in.”
Conrad, the consummate professional, had really good notes from his first two attempts. We pored over them in preparation for the next expedition, strategizing every detail down to who would lead what pitches, how we could do it faster, lighter, and in better style. In the end we chose a hybrid alpine/capsule style. We took four ropes (two lead, two static); two haul bags; a portaledge; one stove; alpine, mixed, and aid gear; sleeping bags; and food for eight days.
Back on the route, we climbed in 48 hours what had taken us six days in 2008. Over the following few days we took advantage of an ideal cold-and-dry high pressure system. At the overhanging wall (we dubbed it the Indian Ocean Wall), which we reached after four more days of climbing, we saved time by linking aid pitches we’d done separately on our first attempt. We had a fright on one of these nights when one of the portaledge’s bars snapped in half, leaving us hanging in dangerous limbo thousands of meters above the ground.
All I remember hearing was a loud creaking sound, then a CRACK! as the bar snapped from our collective weight and everything around us collapsed.
All I remember hearing was a loud creaking sound, then a CRACK! as the bar snapped from our collective weight and everything around us collapsed. It was a worst-case scenario. This was our only shelter; our only spot to sleep on this huge steep face. We were silent for a long time. Then we went to work. We pounded a piton in between the broken bars and splinted it with three ice screws, hoping we wouldn’t need them up higher. The fix held but we weren’t sure for how long.
Hanging there, we joked about our alpine redpoint attempt, how we’d fallen right at the chains but were going to send on this go. Despite the humor, doubt clouded us as we prepared to re-climb tenuous A4 and hard mixed.
On the eve of our summit bid, our charmed weather broke, and it blew hard and snowed. The wind bounced our portaledge against the wall, reminding us of the days we spent stuck on the wall in 2008. We hunkered down hoping for the best. At midnight we looked out and saw stars. It was time. Launching at 2 a.m., we flew up our two fixed lines, from which Conrad led the poorly protected mixed pitch below the summit ridgeline. The force of Conrad’s will had carried us in 2008, and it carried us again in 2011.
When we pulled over the ridge, we were blessed by the sun. At last we could face the final two pitches. The Gangotri Glacier shone far below. It was my lead, and I scrapped my way up, literally humping the knife-edge ridge to gain ground. After mixed climbing and 50 feet of aid, I built an anchor. Conrad came up and belayed me as Renan jugged the line below. Another 5.8 pitch, a simple mantle, and we were there.
We embraced on the summit, humbly accepting that this time Meru had allowed us passage. Our dream, Mug’s dream, had been realized.
Go beyond the Shark's Fin in our interview with Jimmy Chin.
At midnight we looked out and saw stars. It was time.