American climbing legend Conrad Anker and Austrian prodigy David Lama have returned from a Nepali expedition – here they tell us how they reached the headwall of the untouched summit Lunag Ri together and learned from each other.
A 6907m granite giant caught between Nepal and Tibet, Lunag Ri is a very challenging climb from all sides, which is why all previous expeditions have failed.
Lama, whose father is a mountain guide from Nepal and mother an Austrian native, partnered with Himalaya-veteran Anker. Together they decided to try and make the first ascent of the peak via a new line on its northwest face. After climbing a steep rock wall up to the northwest ridge, they started their summit attempt before dawn on November 13, only to realize after 12 hours of a very exposed ridge progression that it was out of reach. A 300m headwall still stood between the summit and them, and bivouacking without a tent or sleeping bag in -25°C and strong winds was simply too risky.
“He brought enormous experience to the table” said Lama about his 53-year-old climbing companion. In turn, Anker spoke of the 25-year-old’s “Nepali feet” and said he is “efficient in his conversation and what he expects of his partner.”
Both found a common ground and want to return to Lunag Ri next year. “While for many there might be a difference in generation,” added Anker, “David and I are on the same page. We are dedicated to the pursuit of alpine climbing and have found a solid basis to explore the mountains.”
Q&A with David Lama and Conrad Anker
So what happened on Lunag Ri?
David Lama: “During the last years, my wish to return to the country of my father grew stronger. On one hand, I wanted to see the Nepali part of my family again; on the other hand I wanted to do some mountaineering. […] At the end of November, Conrad and I travelled to Nepal to try Lunag Ri, which had never been climbed before. Thanks to the perfect weather, we acclimatized quickly and within less than two weeks at the basecamp, we were ready. Because of the lack of snow and ice in the lower part of the face, we chose a line through a much steeper and more difficult terrain. On the first day, we climbed about 12 pitches to the ridge that we’d hoped would take us to the summit. On the second day, the weather forecast forced us to stake everything on one card and so we left our bivy [bivouac] with a light backpack at 3am. At around 3pm, about 400m below the summit, we had to accept that we were too slow on the consistently difficult climb to reach the summit that day. An open bivy – without tent or sleeping bag – was out of the question with temperatures around -25°C and winds of 50-70km/h, and we were forced to descend.”
Conrad Anker: “On November 12, 13 and 14, David and I gave the West Ridge of Lunag Ri an alpine style attempt. We led blocks of three pitches each and found it challenging climbing throughout. On the 13, we hoped to attain the summit from our single camp. Alas, the climbing was more complicated than anticipated and the final summit headwall was steeper than expected.”
Why choose each other as expedition partners?
DL: “From the first time we met, when we did a first ascent in Zion, it became clear that we work together well and I was sure that Conrad’s passion, like mine, would truly show on a mountain like Lunag Ri.”
CA: “I’m three years older than Rinzi, David’s father. While for many there might be a difference in generation, David and I are on the same page. We are dedicated to the pursuit of alpine climbing and have found a solid foundation to explore the mountains. David probably thinks I want to take too much stuff, which slows us down, yet affords safety and comfort. Aside from how many centimetre cube of beans to take, we are both in unison on how we climb – techniques and timing. And why we climb? We are unified and build upon each other’s strengths and support each other’s weaknesses.”
What did you learn from each other?
DL: “Conrad, despite his age, still has tons of motivation and energy. At the same time, he brings enormous experience to the table.”
CA: “David has Nepali feet. They are strong, balanced and a result of many generations of walking on the land (plus chicks dig ‘em). This connection to earth and the vertical world is the foundation of his climbing expertise. From a personality view point David is efficient in his conversation and what he expects of his partner. He speaks with clarity and intent. Perhaps this is part of being a Lama?”
You didn’t reach the summit – but to which extent was the expedition a success?
DL: “We climbed on completely virgin terrain up to 400m below the summit, a new high point on the mountain, and at the same time we could collect valuable information that will help us enormously for our next attempt next year.”
CA: “Expedition climbing is an adventure. Did we find adventure? Yes – lots of it. The difficulty of the climb has kept us at the top of our game. Without question it was a very positive and enriching experience. I simply love being in the mountains. Sharing this with a new group of friends made it that much more special.”
The highlight of the trip?
DL: “One of the last pitches that we climbed before retreating will remain engrained in my memory for a while. You follow a very thin crack that offers just enough room to jam the ice tool picks inside, while your crampons search for holds on the snow-plastered slabs below.”
CA: “On Saturday, November 7, we acclimatized on “Fox Peak” (translation from Sherpa / Tibetan). The summit at 5700m was quite airy, exposed on all sides. The sunset, with the sun to our backs, on Chomolungma (Everest), Lhotse and Makalu was exceptional. It provided a view of the Khumbu Himal that was new and refreshing. With a waning moon rising between the summit of Chomo and Lhotse we experienced the majesty of our planet.”
And the worst moment?
DL: “After about nineteen hours of full-on climbing and rappelling, we realized that we had rapped to about 50m below our bivy. After we pulled our ropes, one of them got stuck below us, so that we had to descend even further to free it before climbing upwards to our bivy.”
CA: “Friends of ours climbed a new route on the North Buttress of Tawoche. On the descent one of the climbers slipped and fell to his death. Upon hearing the news I was sad. One questions the meaning of life and, in particular, the challenges of alpine climbing in such moments. Aside from this, there were no bad moments. Life is a gift and each day we get to unwrap it anew.”
So what’s next for you both?
DL: “Winter is arriving and I have a couple projects in the Alps that I would like to climb over the next few months. And I think that the moment we decided we had to turn around, we both realized how much we wanted to reach the summit of Lunag Ri. We want to try it again next year.”
CA: “Over the next six months, I will train on water ice, alpine rock and in the gym in Montana and keep my eye on the goal: a return to Lunag Ri in 2016. As long as David is keen to climb with me, I’m more than motivated. I live for this and the two of us can attain the summit.”