On Sept. 30 The North Face athletes Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk summitted one of the last great unclimbed features of the Himalayas by topping out on the Shark’s Fin route on the northwest face of 20,700-foot Meru in the Garhwal Himalaya.
The trio finished the climb nearly a week ahead of schedule due to favorable weather, climbing conditions and the strengths each team member brings to the high-altitude table.
“We all complement each other well,” said Ozturk, who participated in the expedition just five months after fracturing his vertebrae and skull in a ski-mountaineering accident in Jackson, Wyo. “Conrad is the ice- and aid-climbing master, Jimmy is strong on aid-climbing and steep, snow trenching, and I’m more tuned for the free climbing required on the climb’s middle section.”
In the game of high-altitude, big-wall mountaineering, the previously unclimbed route represents one of the world’s ultimate mountaineering tests, with the lower third a classic alpine snow-and-ice route, the middle a mix of ice and rock, and the final section an extremely difficult, overhanging headwall. The Shark’s Fin has drawn many of the world’s top alpinists over the past 30 years, none of them able to finish the route.
Anker first attempted the route in 2003 with Bruce Miller and Doug Chabot, only to retreat two-thirds of the way up. In 2008, he returned with Chin and Ozturk to spend 19 grueling days on the wall before turning back just 100 meters from the summit, as featured in Ozturk’s film Samsara.
“It’s some of the most technical, high-altitude climbing on earth in unimaginably punishing conditions,” said Anker. “This time we came back to settle some unfinished business. We all had something that kept us motivated.”
Traveling through monsoonal rains after departing Delhi, the team began their expedition after reaching the Ganges River, India’s most holy river, as it spills out of the Gangotri Glacier. After trekking above Galmuk and across the glacier, they arrived at their base camp of Tapovan, where they spent three weeks acclimating, sorting gear and studying the route before them, including pitches of steep snow and ice, the alpine ridge, tricky traverses and the overhanging headwall, dubbed the House of Cards.
Benefiting from their previous experience on the wall, they spent the next six days making record time up the bottom part of the route, including two days ascending the bottom snow and technical ice pitches to Camp 1, the Balcony. From there the team climbed, hauled and jugged their way up to Camp 2, a hanging bivy just below the formidably overhanging Indian Ocean Wall. Next, the team climbed the steepest and most dangerous A4 sections of the wall, culminating with Crystal Pitch, an overhanging prow of aid climbing. Finally, they made a three-day push for the summit up the Shark Fin’s final overhanging headwall.
En route, they fully tested The North Face’s new Meru Kit, a collection of product built specifically for high-altitude mountaineering.
“We worked with The North Face to design the Meru Kit especially for this climb,” said Chin. “We built it with specific design elements founded on our previous attempt. The new designs and materials worked perfectly up there.”
On the previous 2008 attempt, the trio didn’t anticipate how cold it would be. The layering and insulation systems developed for this attempt made them far more comfortable. “It’s key to be warm and comfortable in order to focus on the climbing and stay motivated on such a daunting and technically challenging objective,” said Chin.
Ozturk also praised the new gear. “The reason why so many expeditions before ours have failed is because of how the peak’s alpine, big wall and mixed terrain are all stacked on top of each other,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to really specific gear and strategy for a hybrid-style ascent. The new kit is finely tuned in terms of its warmth-to-weight ratio and game-changing new fabrics like innovative new insulation.”
Ozturk added that the Shark’s Fin line has fascinated climbers for nearly 40 years. “Many of the most prolific and experienced alpine climbers have tried it,” he said. “For me, climbing is all about the team, cultural experiences and landscapes. Meru is an amazing combination of all of these elements…following the sacred pilgrimage path up to the headwaters of the Ganges and then climbing with such close friends in one of the most visually stunning parts of the Himalaya is the kind of adventure that fuels my soul.”