Editor’s note, May 23, 2019: Richards reported on his Instagram account that the team was forced to turn back at around 7,600 meters, due to “conditions we encountered coupled with our chosen tactics compounded by exertion,” after spending 40 hours on the wall with one open bivy. Initially he said they were eyeing another upcoming weather window–but when it proved to be inadequate, Richards announced their attempt for this year was over, while mentioning starting the process for trying again next year.
Climbing a new route is what many mountain climbers live for—the challenge of picking their way through new terrain, the knowledge that they might be the first humans to ever step on this rock, the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult goal. This spring, Cory Richards, 37, and Esteban “Topo” Mena, 31, are shooting for those goals on the world’s highest peak, joining forces to attempt the first new route on Mount Everest in more than 10 years.
Even though Everest has about 20 different named routes, only about 3 percent of the nearly 9,000 successful summits of the mountain have been by a “non-standard” route—a route other than the South Col – Southeast Ridge or North Col – Northeast Ridge. And those who have taken a new route have been more likely to die during their attempt. In fact, 28 percent of the total deaths on Everest were on these other routes. The last time a new route was successfully completed on the peak was by a Korean team on the Southwest Face in 2009.
A Decade Without New Routes
This isn’t the only recent attempt at a new route, but between natural disasters or difficult snow conditions, none of the other teams met their objectives. In 2015, a German/Canadian team had planned to attempt the same route Richards and Mena plan to try but were stopped when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal and halted all climbing on Everest for the season.
Richards and Mena are planning to use no supplemental oxygen, no ropes, and no support from Sherpas. They’ll try to go from their camp at 21,500 feet to the summit at 29,025 feet in one single push, alpine style.
I asked Richards before he left if attempting a new route for the first time in a decade made him nervous. He said, “More than anything, that stat speaks to opportunity. There are a plethora of reasons why nothing new has been established in that window. Some of them alarming, others just circumstantial. Regardless, I don’t think either of us are tremendously concerned by that. We are approaching this from a fairly relaxed perspective and are just looking to go have an amazing experience together on a wild face. It’s exciting to know that there is an opportunity to establish a new line in this style on Everest at all. The elapsed time between this and the last successful new route doesn’t have much bearing on us from my perspective.”
Richards and Mena are no strangers to Everest. Combined they have six summits. Both alpinists have summited Everest without using supplemental oxygen, a feat accomplished by around 200 climbers—a tiny 2 percent of the total summits.
Richards made history at the age of 29 when he became the first American to climb a peak over 8,000 meters in winter—Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II. The movie Cold revealed that difficult journey and launched his career as a climber and a photographer for National Geographic.
Mena, from Ecuador, set the climbing world on fire when he became the youngest person to climb the South Face of Aconcagua. He has summited both Manaslu and Everest without using supplemental oxygen. In 2018 Mena summited both Cho Oyu—another of the 8000-meter peaks—and Everest with clients in under 30 days. He has set new routes in Kyrgyzstan and China, and his climb of Kyzyl Asker was nominated for the prestigious alpinist award, the Piolet d’Or.
The Intended New Route
The route they want to attempt is a 6,551-foot direct line in a couloir, a narrow rock gully, on the Northeast face of Everest that joins a high ridge and continues to a steep face and onto the summit.
They will start just above Advanced Base Camp at 21,325 feet, expecting moderate to deep snow depending on the weather this spring. At times, the angle will exceed 60 degrees. As a reference, the standard staircase in the average American home has an angle of 32 degrees. Near the top of the couloir, Richards and Mena anticipate a mix of ice and rock rated at M4 and M5, which means it will be smooth rock slabs that will require the climbers to use their ice tools on rock, a technique also known as dry tooling.
The next obstacle, once they gain the ridge, will be a series of tall rock spires called the Pinnacles, known to be very difficult. The duo will try to climb just below the towers, thus avoiding the extreme climbing along the ridge top.
Finally, they will join the Northeast Ridge route which traditionally starts above Camp 3 at 28,000-feet. Ideally, they plan to depart the standard route quickly and take a much steeper and more dangerous, but more direct, route up the Messner Couloir and straight to the summit. However, depending on conditions and their health, they may take the standard route to the summit. Without supplemental oxygen, their bodies will be colder and more fatigued than if they’d used supplemental oxygen.
The Risk Factors
The two climbers are in the middle of several weeks of getting their bodies adjusted to the high altitude of Everest. “We plan to acclimatize on Everest and in the area surrounding basecamp. We’d like to minimize our time up high while maximizing acclimatization gains,” Richards said. “Topo lives considerably higher than I do and has amazing access to a 6,000-meter training playground, so I will certainly be slower out of the gate. Once we have put in plenty of time around base camp tagging high points in that zone as a method of continuing our training before our final taper, we will move to Advanced Base Camp and begin working on the lower section of the route.”
The two plan to acclimatize high up on the route by familiarizing themselves with the line itself. “We’d like to climb quite high in the couloir to get a better view of the meat of the technical difficulties which occur above 8,000 meters,” Richards said. “We hope to spend several nights above 7,500 feet, but this is still up in the air. We want to be as adaptable as possible and just go with the flow.”
The pair will be climbing alone, with no Sherpa support, on some of the most difficult and exposed parts of the north side of Everest. “The line is a stunning one, and the most natural unclimbed feature on the face,” Richards said. “But if snow conditions prove too unstable for whatever reason, the buttress that bisects the two prominent couloirs is also an option. The obvious couloir is our primary objective, but we are adaptable and will be looking to maximize our potential given the conditions we encounter.”
Progress So Far
The climbers arrived at base camp on the Tibet side on April 17, and have been exploring the area since, stepping onto their proposed route on April 30. Mena posted on his Instagram account: “Today @coryrichards and I touched 7,000 meters and connected the first pieces of this puzzle we are starting to put our hands on. The scale is massive and intimidating, but we feel good with the process of wrapping our heads around all the challenges of this adventure (the ones we knew before coming and the ones that are just unveiling) … the weather in the next week is limiting our options so let’s see what inspiration and luck bring on the next days… oh boy!!!”
The pair retreated to base camp to wait out high winds and expected heavy snow following Cyclone Fina’s landfall in India on May 2, which brought extremely high winds to Everest as well. But they plan to be back on the route soon, preparing for a 24-hour push, very likely this coming week.