The World’s Great Unclimbed Alpine Projects

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.

devils thumbNorth­west 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. The 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.

latokLatok 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 and I saw the 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.”

masherbrumMasher­brum – 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 barwaNam­cha 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. Its feroc­i­ty and remote­ness have 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.