I hung from the exposed belay at 21,000 feet, screaming at the top of my lungs, tears streaming down my cheeks. Jimmy Chin, tucked under a rock just five feet to my left, couldn’t hear me through the constant deluge of spindrift. After 19 days on the wall with only seven days of food, I had finally cracked.
We were within spitting distance of the summit of the “Shark’s Fin” of Mount Meru—the “center of the universe,” according to Hindu cosmology, and what could be the most tried and failed-upon objective in modern alpinism. Conrad Anker had been tunneling through the overhanging cornice above us for the last hour. When he finally reached the ridge and fixed the ropes, I followed the pitch. My rope sliced through a section of cornice and a car-sized block of snow exploded on top of me, further contributing to my state of shock, depletion and hypothermia.
Upon reaching the ridge, our team was disheartened to find not the easier slopes we’d imagined, but a fin of snow and rock so thin that we literally straddled it with 7,000 feet of air below each foot. Above us, an overhanging gargoyle of rock with no visible cracks guarded the last 100 meters to the summit. It was 5:30 p.m., September 25, 2008, and we were only two pitches away from the top … but to continue up the difficult terrain would be time-consuming and necessitate spending a night in the open at 21,000 feet. Weakened, we all found it hard to utter the words that must be said.
“I’m never coming back,” Jimmy said finally with conviction. We descended into the night, silently dispatching 2,000 feet of rappels to reach our portaledge camp.
Our 2008 attempt joined the ranks of more than 20 other expeditions that also failed to reach the summit of the beautiful Shark’s Fin prow of Mount Meru in the Indian Garhwal Himalaya. This holy mountain, which feeds
the Ganges River, is also sacred to climbers, in part due to the number of great alpinists who have attempted the line—the one that goes directly up Meru’s sheer big-wall prow to the conical summit.
Perhaps the most prominent of these suitors was Mugs Stump, whose sobering death while descending Denali in 1992 reminded all of us that mountains are both serious and impartial. Mugs was a hero to all: a rare talent and legendary in the community for his cutting-edge, minimalist climbs, such as the Moonflower Buttress of Mount Hunter.
Mugs became one of Conrad’s foremost influences when they were both living in Salt Lake City in the 1980s. The Shark’s Fin was Mugs’s coveted dream climb. A photo of the peak hung inside his van, hidden behind a prayer flag that he only lifted to those within his circle. Mugs’s idea was to climb the Shark’s Fin in pure alpine style, and he attempted it twice, in 1986 and 1988.
Conrad has established technical first ascents on all corners of the globe, from the steep right side of El Cap to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, and is known worldwide for finding the body of George Mallory on Everest. I’ve always been amazed at his combination of “party-time” raw boyish enthusiasm, but also a strict discipline from 30 years of big-wall and expedition experience. His résumé is legendary but, to him, nothing compared to this climb. He saw climbing the Shark’s Fin over a decade after Mugs’s death as the ultimate tribute.
Meru was also someone to whom I’d always looked up, especially in his role as an expedition storyteller. No matter how serious the trip, Jimmy always came back with an impressive collection of imagery that captured the true experiences of the team. For me art and climbing have always gone hand in hand. In the years leading up to the 2008 attempt, I had expanded the scope of my art from painting mountain landscapes on canvas to shooting and editing video. Jimmy had not only worked on multiple big Himalayan film productions, but he was a veteran aid climber and mountaineer. Just as Conrad had a mentor in Mugs, Jimmy had been apprenticed to the late, great Galen Rowell, who set the gold standard in climbing and adventure photography before his tragic death in a plane crash in 2002.
Conrad, now 49 years old, is 16 years my senior—the same age difference that he had with Mugs. When Conrad and Jimmy had invited me on the 2008 expedition to Meru, I had felt like the lucky young apprentice—a generational hop away from both Mugs and Galen. Although I had climbed with Conrad in Yosemite, Nepal and Morocco, I knew the Shark’s Fin would be a totally different ball game. I had actually never climbed with Jimmy so I was glad he trusted me and my skills. I was excited, but from the outset a big part of me was afraid that an expedition of this scale was too soon and I’d get burned.
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Sure enough, on the mountain I relied heavily on my elders to make the right calls to keep us safe and alive. After getting caught in a storm that buried the entire Himalayan Range on the third day of the climb, we pushed on for another 16 days. Every morning I would think, “Why aren’t we bailing?” but kept my mouth shut and suffered upward. When we finally turned around 100 meters below the summit, I had reached a new threshold for my personal limits 10 times over.
Unlike the Korean team that, in 2005, had tried the formidable wall but then retreated in a storm—leaving all their ropes, portaledge, tents and garbage in place—we had left ourselves just enough energy to take all of our gear down during the retreat.
The fact that Jimmy traveled home from that trip in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t walk for two weeks after getting back, was further confirmation that we had all pushed it to the very brink.
Prior to Meru, we three had over 60 expeditions under our collective belts and there was no question that our attempt on Meru was the hardest in all our experience. The best way to explain the amount of suffering I experienced is to equate it to pure shock that transcended pain. It was a state in which I could only react to the next physical act needed to survive: swinging arms and legs to bring back frozen appendages, setting up the portaledge (usually in the middle of the night in a snowstorm), melting water or settling into another five-hour, minus-20-degree hanging belay.
My sentiments about ever returning to Meru were the same as Jimmy’s, and in the months after coming home, I’d completely sworn off high-altitude big-wall climbs.
My climbing life began after I finished a fancy education at Colorado College. The school runs on a “block” schedule where you take one class at a time for three weeks, and get a four-day break. I always spent those intermissions in places like Zion, Joshua Tree and Canyonlands National Park. These bursts fed my fascination with climbing and the beauty of the places to which it could take me.
Shortly after graduation, in a memorable moment of commitment, I gave away all of my belongings and had some friends drop me off in Indian Creek with a backpack and duffle bag. I had no tent or sleeping pad and that particular day it was raining torrentially.
“Are you sure you’re going to be OK?” asked one of my buddies.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, biting my tongue, filled with doubt.
That night I found a tiny rusted miners’ shack to use as shelter. The rain pelted down, amplified as it hit the tin roof, drowning out the fear that I had made a bad decision. I fell asleep in the only dry corner. When I awoke the storm had passed, and the landscape was sharp and glimmering as the last water evaporated off the brilliant red sandstone buttresses, receding into the distance.
I stashed my duffle bag in the bushes, packed my climbing bag and wandered down, hopping puddles looking for climbing partners.
What followed was six continuous years of living in the Creek, J-Tree, Yosemite and Squamish without a car. I hitched rides from climbing partners, sharpened my dumpster-diving and ranger-avoidance skills, and more than anything developed a deep appreciation for these iconic landscapes of American climbing. I drew what I saw in my own sketchbooks sewn together with dental floss. I used giant pieces of cardboard for canvases and developed an impressionistic style with a hodgepodge of mixed mediums, always done in the field.
My style as a climber also developed. I sought out new lines mostly based on aesthetics: on wild desert towers and arches (the Ennedi Desert of Chad), alpine rock towers (FAs in the Howser Towers, Bugaboos) and giant Himalayan ridges (FA of the Southeast Buttress of Tawoche). Even though some of these objectives had terrible choss, flared cracks or heinous approaches, to me the suffering was worth it. Climbing is like art but instead of putting a line on a canvas you physically draw a line on the earth. During my dirtbag days I gave up all the normal creature comforts to pursue these lines of inspiration.
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Climbing. Art. Life. In all three I’ve experienced a full spectrum of emotions, and they are each important, deeply interconnected vehicles for my own personal expression. In one moment, there’s uncertainty, insecurity and fear. At other times there’s rare, uplifting inspiration and things seem to flow effortlessly. Because, ultimately, it’s amazing that we are here at all, it seems to me that the more time we spend expressing ourselves through actions and thoughts, the more richly we will have lived.
Looking back to that day in Indian Creek, I can say it was the right decision.
Outdoor retailer Show, Salt lake City, January 2010.
Jimmy, Conrad and I sat in a hotel room, taking a break from the social madness of the bi-annual Outdoor Retailer show. Suddenly Conrad pulled out one of his trademark yellow expedition notebooks. He threw it firmly at me so that I was forced to catch it. I looked inside and was horrified to see another attempt on the Shark’s Fin drawn out, with all the logistics dialed in to the day.
I badly wanted to say, “Nope, not going to happen.” But I found myself smiling and instead thought about the allure of the beautiful peak with the undone line we had come so close on.
I looked over at Jimmy. One of the most intuitive people I have ever met, he responds well to pressure, but he seemed hesitant after being backed into a corner by Conrad’s enthusiasm.
“Well, I was really hoping Silvo would get it last year after we gave him the beta,” said Jimmy, referring to Silvo Karo, the alpine climbing legend and suffer-master from Slovenia. “I guess it couldn’t get worse than last time.”
While we both sat frozen, reliving the pain from 2008, Conrad, with his 6’2’’ frame, towered over us in the moment of silence. He gave us his classic Conrad stare, which pierces right through your outer shell to the core.
Conrad exploded, “Yeeeeeaaahhhh SSSAaaaaa!” The outburst and then of energy broke the tension, and Jimmy and I just smiled and then let out similar cathartic screams of excitement and fear.
Deep down we wanted to go back to Meru and try again to our line reach the center of the universe, and finish drawing our line right up the main prow.
When you endure an epic with a team, a deep bond develops that makes you, in some weird subconscious way, inseparable. It is a gift to feel a connection similar to that of a biological brotherhood but also a curse in the way it shackled our imagination to Meru. 0ur 2008 attempt had been so powerful and definitive that it would’ve been unthinkable for any one of us to go back to Meru with a different set of partners. Conrad is an alpine-climbing animal, who has even admitted that he loves to suffer. In a lot of ways he would have gone back to Meru before we would, but purposely waited for our emotional (and physical) scars to heal.
“Fall 2011,” Conrad said. “Mark your calendars, boys.” Our intrepid leader had spoken.
Two months after the trade show, I found myself skiing side country at Jackson Hole with Jimmy. Jimmy and I, with Tim Kemple, had just started our own production company, Camp 4 Collective, and were shooting with the big-mountain snowboarders Jeremy Jones and Xavier de la Rue for a new movie and a prime-time TV commercial for The North Face. It was dumping snow and we had a few really good runs and filmed a couple of great shots. I was feeling good, keeping up with the big guns with my camera pack as we hiked up the boot-pack for one more run below Rock Springs Buttress. As I charged through a section of tight trees, my skis got a little bit ahead of me in the deep powder and I caught an edge. Before I knew it, I was hurtling through the air upside-down, then diving headfirst over a cliff band. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Still in flight, I could see the rock I was about to pencil-dive into, and made a final futile attempt to avoid it. Things went black.
“When I found you, I could see into your skull,” Jimmy later told me. He also said that I was combative and tried to tell him everything was OK and I’d ski down.
My memory picks up with me strapped to a stretcher and going down the marble shoot through the tight trees, being steered by the climber/ski patroller Renny Jackson. I couldn’t see out of the fogged-up oxygen mask covering my face, was shivering uncontrollably and was being hit by big dollops of snow falling off the loaded trees. It was like a terrifying rollercoaster ride with no option to see your next twist or turn.
Even during the heavy pain meds, life-flights and multiple brain surgeries that consumed the next 48 hours, I welled up with tears thinking about Meru. Before, a part of me dreaded going back to the mountain that had nearly killed us, but now, I was just deeply disappointed. I was so close to death that I figured my shot at returning in September was surely blown.
The accident left me with two broken vertebrae in my neck, a severed vertebral artery and a massive skull fracture. Any one of these injuries has a 90 percent fatality rate, so the fact that I was alive and without paralysis was a miracle. Besides my immediate family and girlfriend, Amee Hinkley, Conrad was one of my first visitors in the ICU. I was in the hospital for 10 days of IV-injected painkillers and post-op checkups. Through the morphine haze, five days after the crash, I took my first steps with Conrad at my side. He never mentioned the return to Meru but it pervaded my thoughts and motivation.
In the following months, my life consisted of sitting immobile in my c-collar (neck brace), assisted showers and heavy doses of painkillers. Eventually I was able to walk without a walker, and by August I had been regularly visiting a magic body worker, Dr. Steve Melis, for chiropractic adjustments in my neck.
“Relax. Good,” Dr. Steve would say. “OK, just let your head sink into my hands.” Crrr-unch! “OK, great, it looks like we have a bit more movement now. You can almost turn your head 70 degrees to the left!”
It’s hard to describe the amount of doubt in everyone, including myself, that I would actually return to Meru as a fully functioning teammate. Each morning I’d cradle my own head, lifting it out of the special orthopedic bed I’d had to purchase after the accident. Thinking about climbing 14-hour days and hauling heavy loads at over 20,000 feet was ludicrous. Our flight to Delhi was scheduled to leave on September 1st and by then I would only have been out of the neck brace for one month—not even enough time to begin the doctor-recommended physical therapy. How would a creaky broken neck respond to sleeping in the cramped and crooked portaledge positions? More than anything, though, the fact that I was now missing a vertebral artery, which is one of the two major blood supplies to the brain, was a huge question mark for climbing at altitude. The odds were not looking good and everyone in my family and my close climbing friends told me not to go.
Nevertheless, I devised my own personal recovery program, which involved a recumbent stationary exercise bike and steady trips to Dr. Steve. I also repeatedly attempted to walk up the First Flatiron trail above our house, though I never made it to the top.
Up until a few weeks before the trip, I heard not a peep from Jimmy and Conrad. I took their silence as a sign of their faith in me to rehabilitate on my own terms. Instead of checking on my progress, they let time take its course, and trusted that my motivation and strength would return.
I stood at the headwaters of the Ganges River in Gangotri, India. The holy water, dark with glacial sediment, raged through perfectly polished golden granite troughs, then dropped 100 feet into a misty pit. It had taken a lot to get to this point, and the uncertainty of the journey ahead swirled in my mind like the violent water below me.
An 80-year-old swami stood before us. His face was deeply wrinkled from a long life in the mountain sun, and his eyes glossed over as if he was about to shed tears of joy.
“Aum namo Shiva, guru se nama,” the swami chanted. He pressed red dots of pigment onto each of our foreheads. The swami had created this mantra especially for our climb. It was an offering to Shiva the Destroyer, who would watch us carefully from his throne on Shivling, the peak neighboring Meru. This blessing was crucial to us as we all mentally prepared for the trying journey ahead into the heart of the holy terrain.
I love these moments, which have always been a big part of why I choose to be an expedition climber. The Garhwal Himalaya, more than anywhere else I have ever climbed, brims with traditions and beliefs. Each mountain symbolizes a god or creation myth recognized by millions of Hindus worldwide, and Meru stands as the center. As this was Conrad’s fourth trip to the region, he was very attuned to the ancient beliefs, and respected them as an aspect of the climb just as important as the gear we were bringing.
Conrad nodded toward the canvas that I was carrying. I took the hint and started working on a piece to give back to the holy man in return for his kindness and blessing. Sitting in his stone courtyard across from the most beautiful waterfalls of the Ganges, I sketched him in lotus position in front of his small shack. I let the roar of the water drown out all other sounds and channeled my energy into the composition. For the first time since I committed to return to this place, the anxiety subsided and I was purely in the moment.
The first time I ever crested the steep glacial moraine onto the Topovan Meadow basecamp and saw Meru looming at the top of the valley, I felt touched. The same thing happened the second time. Meru stood as a steep symmetrical triangle with beautifully fluted snow runnels on either side directing my eye toward the central overhanging sliver of granite leading to the spiky summit. All of the mountains in this region are iconic and impressive, but this direct line up the prow was clearly the center, and the most tantalizing—and terrifying—feature of all.
Art is all about lines. So is climbing, especially with this mountain, which had tested the best of our worldwide climbing community, who for generations flung themselves at the “impossible line” leading to the center of the universe. As an artist, I’m self-critical and sometimes destructive, willing to give up everything to chase beauty and experience. Although both Jimmy and Conrad had their own unique ways to blend climbing, art and suffering, it was clear that this objective was to each of us our greatest challenge.
Arriving at the base of the massive wall, we peered up with doubt and fear, wondering if we might be the suitors worthy enough to unlock the elusive objective. If climbing is an art and suffering is at its core, this mountain was the ultimate depiction.
The Shark’s Fin of Meru, Balcony Bivy, 19,000 feet. September 22, 2011. 6:00 p.m.
After a few days in basecamp, and with a clear weather window, we launched up painfully familiar terrain.
“Three, two, one … Haul!”
After 18 hours of climbing and hauling two oversized bags up a 2,800-foot steep snow feature, we finally reached the “Balcony Bivy.” In 2008 it had taken us five days just to get to this point. For a first day back on Meru, this push was a grueling way for me to step back into the swing of things. The little toothache that had been nagging me all week now was a searing pain thumping in my head.
At the Balcony Bivy, Jimmy and Conrad discussed the portaledge placement while I popped some antibiotics and heavy painkillers and crumpled, head down, with sheer exhaustion. Even though I hid them in my arm, the tears welled up. It was a breaking point akin to what I experienced on day 19 of our previous attempt.
I forced myself to pull it together, though, and helped Conrad with the tricky portaledge set-up for our hanging home.
Once we were all inside the ledge, Jimmy asked, “How you holding up?”
“Irf leel scordia smad,” I said, surprised by the backward gibberish that came out of my mouth when I meant to say, “I feel sorta bad.”
I tried to correct myself, but each time the words became more jumbled until I was reduced to staring blankly at the concerned faces of my partners.
In the accident, I had lost an artery that brings half the brain’s blood supply. This day was a big elevation gain and my maiden voyage back to an elevation over 18,000 feet.
“You sound like my dad did after he had a stroke,” Conrad said gruffly, adding to the already tense air of concern in the portaledge. Though no one said it, I felt there was a good chance we would be going down in the morning. I felt awful: the weak link letting down my mentors. Once more, I tried to convince them that I was OK but still I could only speak in slurred syllables. Minutes later I passed out without even having the acuity to get into my sleeping bag.
As the sun hit the portaledge fly the next morning, ice crystals fell on my face, waking me up and bringing me back to life. I knew Jimmy and Conrad had allowed this late start so that we could feel out my abilities. It was my turn to lead, since we were still low on the climb and it was part of my block of free-climbing pitches. I didn’t say a word and started racking up as a way of telling them I wanted to keep going. Even though I still had some slurred speech at the belay while talking to Jimmy, we didn’t mention it to Conrad, and I was able to lead the next three pitches through splitter cracks.
Since we had gotten such a late start, we climbed until 3 a.m. to make it past the “Rubicon,” an exposed gulley prone to rockfall which guards access to the big wall above.
“Nice job, Radster,” Jimmy yelled to Conrad as he led the final steep mixed pitch and we sat freezing at the belay. That night we set up our custom three-person ledge on less than vertical terrain, a process that takes no less than an hour.
Much to our shock, we awoke in the morning to find the platform had broken, folding around us like a brittle taco shell. It was only the second day. Without our portaledge we had no chance or even the ability to make it through another night on the face. It was my lead so I crawled out of the crumpled mess and took off up the steep cracks trying not to think about our situation. By the time my partners joined me at the belay I could see an optimistic smirk on Conrad’s face.
“Yep, we can fix it!” he said convincingly. Out of sheer luck, he had found an old-school European piton from a previous attempt that happened to fit in between our broken poles. Even though Jimmy and I were skeptical and the situation was severe, Conrad seemed to enjoy his MacGyver moment. Within an hour he had pounded the pin into place between the poles, splinted it with tape on two of our longest ice screws, and then further reinforced the weak point with an adjustable daisy-chain, relieving pressure from the top anchor point of the structure. Although none of us took our harnesses off again (to sleep in lighter more comfortable swami setups), the job worked.
As we embarked onto the “Indian Ocean Wall,” where the steep, intricate modern A4 climbing takes an entire day for a pitch, my body was able to acclimatize and my slurred speech did not reoccur. Day by day our camaraderie grew as we revisited all the hard beaking and hooking pitches from 2008. Even though we had been there before, this terrain— as steep, blank and demanding as the right side of El Cap, only at 20,000 feet— blew me away all over again.
Jimmy took us through the “House of Cards” pitch, hooking through a nest of hollow blocks and flakes above the portaledge. Conrad led the “Shiva the Destroyer” pitch, hooking out horizon- tally for 60 feet, risking a leg-breaking fall back into a dihedral just below the hanging belay. Our bodies wasted away on our nightly ration of couscous but our minds and spirits became stronger as we progressed steadily up the wall. Each night we would share cigarettes to suppress the hunger and fear, and exhaust every imaginable subject for conversation. After about a week of good weather Conrad stopped meticulously tracking our day-to-day progress, as he usually does, in a little notebook. The weather window was too good to be true and was the one thing we didn’t mention in conversation, silently hoping Meru would continue allowing us passage. Finally, after 10 days of climbing on seven days of food, we reached the high portaledge camp at the top of the overhanging wall, poised below the ultimate vertical mixed pitches that led to our 2008 high point.
Conrad started out into the difficult terrain at midnight, placing short ice screws and rock gear in flakes that protruded from the steep frozen rime. The creaking of his tools and crampons indicated the temperature, which was -30.
Even though we wore 8,000-meter double boots fit for Everest, our feet went numb and lifeless at the hanging belay in the pre-dawn. Conrad led the three long pitches to reach our former high point, straddling the fin looking up at the final rock gargoyle.
Instead of 5 p.m. as it had been before, it was 11 a.m., ample time to tackle this last aid-climbing crux. Jimmy took over the lead, setting off up terrain that had tortured our imagination for the last three years. At first he straddled the blank rock fin, scratching upward with his tools and crampons, then navigated a steep patch of snow to the base of the rock pinnacle. For the next two and a half hours he aided thin seams and cracks, placing the entire rack of beaks and micro-cams. As we joined him at the top of the long rope length, he quickly re-racked and set off again onto loose and blocky free-climbable terrain slightly to the left of the fin proper. Finally at the last visible point, he squirmed over a roof by heel hooking over his head with his giant boot and manteling out of view. Next we heard a piercing shriek, and knew that he was on the summit.
Once we were all on top, Conrad collapsed into Jimmy’s arms, close to tears, and murmuring, “I got it for you, Mugs.” Jimmy’s smile was as large as I had ever seen.
“I can’t believe we did it, dudes,” he said. “The universe allowed us passage.”
I fought back the tears and the release of all the stress and struggle that had brought me this far. For all of us the sentiment was not that of conquering the peak, but rather a stunned realization that we had been granted access by some higher forces. After spending well over two hours on the summit, we wrapped a double-length sling around a tooth-like block and started the long, traversing rappels into the night back to our high camp.
Four months after our adventure, I am still feeling depleted, and still recovering from my ski accident. The MRIs and other tests for my stroke-like incident on the wall are still being analyzed to determine what happened and what is in store for my future in the realm of high-altitude alpinism. The fact that I was able to climb Meru is still hard to understand. I’ve continually pored over the video footage from the ascent and it offers no answers but does confirm that I’m not just a guy with a brain injury making this all up.
Beyond a rich cultural journey and the day-to-day difficulty of the climbing itself, I think we all learned new limits for dealing with our doubt, fear and inner demons. My accident and the aura of 30 years of failures surrounding the route created a situation where the psychological exposure was much greater than the formidable physical exposure. It took the combined trust of the team to overcome.
The climb will remain in all of our minds as one of the wildest forms of expression of our lives.
This article appeared in Ascent 2012