My first attempt to summit Meru, a 20,700ft vertical wall of rock in the Himalayas (Part 1)
I really didn’t know what I was getting into. Meru is kind of obscure. There isn’t much publicity around peaks that people have failed to climb.
But I was invited by Conrad Anker, the captain of The North Face climbing team, one of the best alpinists in the world. How can you say no to an invitation like that?
Meru is called The Shark’s Fin because it looks like one. The peak is at 21,000 feet and it’s just stacked with obstacles. It was the most complicated and difficult mountain I’d ever laid eyes on – and that’s before I came to know what climbing it really entailed.
It’s at the headwaters of the Ganges in India. Millions of people believe the Ganges to be the most sacred river in the world, and the mountain itself is considered by many to be the center of the universe.
Conrad had already tried to climb Meru and failed. In his mind, this had become the climb of his career. It’s the anti-Everest. The trade route on Everest is a very commercial climb. It’s basically a walk. Ropes are fixed from the base to the summit and you can clip into the rope and whenever you fall you don’t go anywhere because you’re on the rope and you can literally close your eyes and make it up. Besides that, you’ve got massive support teams of Sherpas and other porters and guides helping with the logistics and carrying all the loads.
Meru is the complete opposite. You have to put all the ropes up yourself, and we only had a few. You have to lead climb up, which means if you fall you drop twice the distance to your last piece of anchor in the mountain. There’s no support team. Nobody’s there to rescue you.
Beyond that, Meru is one of the most technical climbs. When you reach the Shark Fin itself, you’re on 1,500 feet of smooth granite. No fissures. No cracks. No footwalls. We’re talking about a sheet of rock. Sometimes it’s so steep that it’s overhanging. That means if you’re on a rope, instead of touching the ground or the wall of the climb, you’re just dangling in space at 20,000 feet. I could go on and on . . .
All the disciplines of climbing are contained within Meru – and they’re all stacked in the complete wrong order of how you’d want to face them. The most difficult and steep climbing where you’re just dangling in the air is towards the top. That climbing can be so difficult that just to put a rope up on that terrain – a single rope length, 200 feet – can take all day in conditions at 20 below.
But I was young and excited and I knew it was a big opportunity to climb with Conrad and Jimmy Chin. At that point, 2008, I was 28 and I’d been climbing professionally for five years. Conrad was 46. And Jimmy had been a member of the North Face team for seven years. I’d gone on some small expeditions with Conrad, but I didn’t fully understand how important this climb was to him until much later.
His mentor had tried and failed. Mugs Stump. I don’t think anybody had ever gotten more than 30 percent of the way up Meru. So this was a climb Conrad wanted to make to capstone his career and to honor his mentor. And some of the stuff he saw in Jimmy Chin and I told him he could pass on all the knowledge he’d accumulated over the years to us.
So you can see what an amazing opportunity it was for someone like me. This type of climbing is really obscure and difficult. It’s a skill gained over time. It’s hard to get that experience if you’re not having a direct mentoring relationship with someone in the Himalayas.
The start of the journey is the simplest part – and the first couple of days were really difficult. We were hauling about 300 pounds of equipment in these bags through these little counterweight pulleys. So, not only do you have to climb every pitch, but after you climb, you painstakingly haul the gear up by rope, foot by foot. At 18,000 feet, that altitude really beats you down more than you realize.
The first section was prone to avalanche so we went about 18 hours straight to make progress, and on the first night we were too exhausted to set up the tent, so we slept on a small ledge in the snow. It was an exhausting start.
Then, two days in, a giant storm hit. We found out afterward that it was one of the worst storms that region in the Himalayas had seen in the last hundred years, and that people on the trail below had perished from exposure.
We were pinned to the wall on this hanging tent platform called a portaledge. Part of the game is to go as light as you can so you can move quickly. So we went with a two-person portaledge and positive 20-degree sleeping bags. That left the three of us crammed into this tiny platform that’s smaller than the size of a single bed – and it was easily negative 20 degrees outside.
For four days, we were stuck in this tiny claustrophobic icebox unable to move. There’s condensation and fog and ice crystals building that are crashing down on you when the avalanches hit, and when the winds roar the fly of the portaledge flaps violently and smacks you in the face.
We had food – salami, cheese and couscous – for seven days and were rationing. Our food was in these cylindrical tubes that we used to carry all the equipment up the wall. These haul bags were hanging outside the ledge, but just getting the food into the tent was extremely difficult. Because if you open the fly all the wind and snow and spindrifts would cover the inside of the ledge making you even more wet and miserable than you already were.
You recede into your own thoughts and try not to talk about eating real food and being warm or comfortable. We were in what climbers like to call a bivouac. Only we called it The Samsara Bivy.
In Buddhism, Samsara is the cycle of birth and suffering. The Samsara Bivy. The Bivy of Suffering.
We couldn’t go up and we couldn’t go down. We were pinned to this wall in this storm for four days.
In my experience in Himalayan climbing, if you have food for seven days and you haven’t gone anywhere in six and basically depleted your food supply, it’s time to go back down.
So when we finally woke up to clear skies I assumed we were headed in that direction. The wall was covered with ice and snow. The climbing conditions were horrendous. Our supplies were depleted to the point where it was certain that we wouldn’t have the food or fuel to make it. But instead of racking up the gear to go down, Conrad and Jimmy started to go up.
I was a little confused as to what was going on. But I had to trust that they knew what they were doing. They had more experience.
I didn’t have as great an understanding then as I do now why Conrad was so driven. It was because of his mentor who had put the dream of this peak in his mind. We were halfway across the world, this was his dream climb, and he was not going to let that storm stop him.
I also learned later of an experience Jimmy had had that made him willing to take a lot more risks on this climb. He had made a promise to his mom. Because he did all these dangerous climbs, he promised her that he wouldn’t die before she did. That promise always had made him pull back a little in dangerous situations. But the previous year his mom had passed away from cancer and that gave Jimmy more of a wild hair.
I was questioning what I was doing as we began climbing again. But I didn’t want to be the one who said: “I want to go down.”