Between the two of them, Cory Richards and Esteban “Topo” Mena have stood below the northeast face of Mount Everest six separate times. On all of those prior trips, one couloir, a snowy scar splitting the dark rocky face, drew their eyes.
Over the course of those trips, they’ve each summited Everest multiple times. But they’re heading back this season anyway. This year, instead of following the north side’s normal route, and instead of just staring up in wonder at the northeast face, they’re going to try to climb that couloir. If successful, theirs will be the first new route on Everest since 2009.
Rock and Ice caught up with Richards and Mena amid last minute preprations on Tuesday, April 11. Yesterday, Wednesday, they started on their long journey to Everest. They flew out of Boulder, Colorado, en route to Lhasa, Tibet. From there, they’ll travel overland slowly to Base Camp, taking their time to acclimatize and maintain fitness along the way.
And then…. Chomolungma lies in wait.
Why Go Back?
Both men have climbed Everest without oxygen—Mena in 2013, Richards in 2016—but their high-altitude resumes are full of accomplishments beyond the big E.
Richards, 37, is a National Geographic photographer, and is famous for making the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters) in 2011 with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko. On the descent, the three barely escaped an avalanche with their lives. Mena, 31, hails from Ecuador, and climbed the south face of Aconcagua—the biggest prize in high-altitude South American climbing—at just 19 years old. He has also climbed Manaslu (8,163 meters) and Cho Oyu.
So why are these guys, already with six summits between them, going back to Everest?
“In one regard it’s not about the mountain at all, but in another regard it’s completely about the mountain,” Richards explains. “Everest, for whatever else people say about it, does have some innate gravity and magnetism. There’s only one highest place on the planet.
“But it’s not purely about getting to the top. In a way it’s like an Olympic medalist going back to the Olympics again: you’re going back to refine your craft. You care less about medals and such, and it’s more about refining yourself.”
Mena echoes these sentiments and notes that, above all else, it’s about the aesthetic appeal of the face and the allure of a new line. “I love the mountain,” he says, “but I think this goes beyond Everest itself. It’s a beautiful unclimbed face, and there aren’t many faces like that left in the Himalayas.”
Everest’s northeast face rises some 6,500 feet from the glacier below. The couloir that Mena and Richards hope to climb splits the face from bottom to top, before intersecting with the northeast ridge.
If things go perfectly—meaning Richards and Mena feel strong, get good weather, and avoid any major snafus all the way up—their climb will look something like this: They’ll enter the bottom of the couloir at approximately 6,500 meters. The first 1,700 meters consist primarily of moderate snow—likely no more than 60 degrees at the steepest. They’ll hope to make decent time on this section.
Next, at about 8,100 meters in elevation, comes what will probably be the crux of the route: the final 300 meters of the couloir, which they expect to contain snow ramps, ice steps and moderate mixed terrain up to M4 and M5 in difficulty—grades that are many times more serious at an altitude of 8,200 or 8,300 meters than the altitudes at which most people climb them.
If they are still chugging along at the top of the couloir and feeling as fresh as can be hoped for at 8,400 meters, they will start traversing, up and right below a set of towering outcroppings known as the Pinnacles. From there they will continue traversing until they reach the north face proper, slightly above camp 3 on the normal route, and use a system of snow ledges to intersect the Normal Route above a section called the Exit Cracks.
[Also Read First Winter Ascent of Nanga Parbat]
But they won’t stay on the Normal Route if they’re still feeling good. They’ll cross right over it, and hopefully make their way over to the Messner Couloir—climbed by Reinhold Messner in 1980—for a direct finish.
That’s if things go perfectly; a distinct possibility, but still a big if.
“Our plan is to try to avoid the Normal Route, to hopefully make a completely independent ascent,” Richards says, “but that will really depend on our conditions: our physical condition when we get up there—neither of has climbed that kind of terrain at altitude—and weather conditions. We might be wasted. It will be an exploration of our abilities. Not until we’re up there will we know if we should pursue the full independent line or not.”
An Audacious Goal
In the first episode of a series called “The Line” about Richards and this expedition, produced by ROAMTV, Richards says, “If we get the weather window, we’ll do it. There’s no question, like—I know it. I just know it.”
That’s some serious confident. Perhaps too much?
“I think there’s a certain level of overt and potentially necessary confidence that’s required for this kind of thing,” he says. He reiterates that he does believe that—weather and conditions permitting—they’ll succeed. But he acknowledges that while that necessary confidence can come across as arrogance, it’s meant to be anything but.
“I don’t want to seem like I’m being brazen in the face of an audacious goal,” he say. “It’s more about believing: I believe that this objective is at the upper end of what we can do. But I do believe it is something we can do. To give a blanket statement saying we’re going to fucking crush it is bullshit—I don’t want people to interpret our confidnece as us saying that. We’re aware of our shortcomings, our strengths, what’s in our control, and where we can potentially fail.”
Mena compares this belief to that of a high-end sport climber, a useful analogy. “If you are trying a 5.15a,” he muses, “you are only trying it if you think you can do it. You know you’ll have to give it a big fight, but you think it’s within your limits.”
Richards tags in, picking up the analogy without missing a beat. “So we’re basically standing at the bottom of a really, really hard, really, really long rock climb and saying, Ok, we got this.”
A Unique Partnership
Even in just a quick phone call with Richards and Mena, you can sense that they implicitly trust each other. That trust is built on an everyday friendship, but extends into the mountains when they literally rely on each other to get home safe. Mena says, “Being friends is the base. But then we also complement each other on the climbs—the climbing itself, emotionally, everything.”
Further undergirding this trust is the knowledge that they are both highly capable in the hills. Knowing that they’ve both done Everest without supplemental oxygen is crucial. Each knows the other can push himself to the absolute limit.
Not only are they on the same page in regards to being confident in each other’s capabilities—each also recognize the other’s shortcomings.
“We communicate everything a lot,” Richards says. “We’ve gone through exercises where we identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We talk about pitfalls that we’ve encountered on past climbs. I think this—that I’m comfortable saying to Topo, This is where I fucking suck, and that Topo is able to say to me, This is where I’ll be strong, but this is where I need help—is part of what makes our partnership really unique. It’s definitely one of the coolest partnerships I’ve ever been a part of.”
A Vanishingly Rare Opportunity
Despite the commercialization of Everest over the past twenty years, a new technical route is as serious as it gets.“It’s unrescuable terrain,” Mena says. “Our backup is basically to make good decisions in the first place. We don’t have Sherpa support or anyone else. We don’t have people climbing to us if something goes wrong.”
But that’s part of the appeal. These guys are pushing their minds and bodies to the limit and can rely upon no one but themselves. “That’s what I love about it!” Richards says, ecstatically.
Whether they ultimately succeed or not, the line itself justifies all the effort they’re putting in. “There aren’t a lot of sort of natural, obvious lines left on Everest,” Richards says. “They’re vanishingly rare, on Everest and other 8,000 meter peaks too. To get to try this is pretty special.”
And if they don’t do it? Well, there’s a good chance they’ll just take another whack at it. “In most scenarios, if we didn’t do it this year, I think we’ll try again,” Mena says. “We want to climb hard, we want to keep exploring hard routes on high mountains.”
Watch The Journey | The Line: Episode 2