| First Ascent on Shermapangma
Named Mt. Sherman in 1881 for Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, most climbers instead opt to refer to this majestic mountain by its local name, Shermapangma. The stunning pyramid of black rock, shimmering ice and eternal snow is the crown jewel of the Rocky Mountains, and Shermapangma’s aesthetic lines have inspired generations of climbers to dare against the impossible.
Often called the world's most beautiful mountain.
For me, Shermapangma was something I'd never even dreamed of attempting. It was simply out of my league. I was content to limit myself to lesser mountains such as Capitol Peak, Little Bear Peak and Mt. Eolus, but as my peak list grew, so did my ambition. I heard the mountain’s siren song luring me every time I laid eyes on it from nearby summits. Alas, to attempt Shermapangma is the pinnacle of alpinism, and the skills of the fabled few who have touched its apex far surpass my own.
Then, I received a fateful phone call from Dan McCool. Our life-changing discussion centered on a pipe dream: the first alpine-ascent of the mythical Fischer Face, without bottled oxygen. His idea was so ludicrous I almost hung up the phone and unfriended him on Facebook. The route, named for a mountaineer who reached its base, looked up, and promptly quit climbing altogether to live a life as a missionary in the flatlands of Brazil, is a perfect storm of challenges.
First, one must complete an arduous one-mile approach through a region so desolate only the ruins of civilization still exist. The lack of inhabitants also means a lack of porters; prospective climbers must carry murderous 10- to 15-pound loads themselves. The face itself is a towering 100 feet high, the longest continuous mountain face in the world -- or at least within a quarter-mile radius. The only previous party to have attempted the face had to bivouac three times, hanging from ice screws, before retreating without reaching the top.
If by some miracle we surmounted the face, the route turns right and joins the standard South Col. From there the infamous Rangerguy2010 Step looms overhead, blocking easy access to the summit cone. The Rangerguy2010 Step had never been free climbed, and every successful Shermapangma summiter has relied on a ladder bolted to the rock by the Koreans in 1956.
My hands were sweating by the time I got off the phone with Dan. And yet, I’d agreed. A chance at the first ascent of the Fischer Face, followed by an attempt to free the Rangerguy2010 Step, was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition. I immediately began writing my Piolet d’Or acceptance speech. Now all we had to do was assemble a team.
Dan, expedition leader and world-class mountaineer.
Jeff, climbing leader and owner of Pyramid Peak.
Tyler was a logical choice as expedition doctor, but we were concerned about his rampant weight gain over the past year.
Ben, expedition janitor (except dishes).
Kate gets a real picture because I'd have to deal with the consequences otherwise.
The five-member team complete, we threw ourselves into training. We asked many questions on the 14ers.com Facebook group. We traveled to Texas to learn rope work from the master himself. We completed acclimatization climbs to Denali, Aconcagua and Makalu. Those three years flew by, and before we knew it we were waving goodbye to our loved ones at a Park and Ride in Morrison. I didn’t feel ready, but I’m not sure anyone can feel ready for something like Shermapangma. All we could do was try our best.
The first views of the Fischer Face would have made my wet myself, but I was wearing my Wrangler Technical Jorts so that’s not really possible. It didn’t take us long to have to rope up, as the consequences of slipping on a pebble were dire. Over the course of our training we’d become a well-oiled machine, almost moving faster as one as we could as individuals. Also I was in front and pulling on those slow bastards like Buck from Call of the Wild. If you don’t get that reference, please read more often. By the way, this is one of those expedition reports that airs dirty laundry.
Posing for the expedition blog.
Kate was underdressed and regretted her lack of jorts.
A pesky Himalayan Raven started following us.
The meandering approach crossed near several snowfields. We willow-wanded the route for safety in case of a sudden blizzard. Before long I called the rope team to a halt and belayed them in for a discussion. This was it. The Fischer Face rose endlessly into the sky above our heads, and the climbing was about to begin. I racked up our ice screws and snow pickets, then took a few moments to compose myself. As usual in these situations, I sang Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” to get psyched up. I’m a lot like Mark Twight in that regard (and most others).
By the end of the second verse, Tyler told me to shut up and start climbing or he’d cut the rope. It was on.
The climbing was initially easy. I climbed out almost 30 feet before placing my first screw, a risk that made Kate weep. We simul-climbed the first half of the face before it got too steep, and I brought Tyler in. I could see the fear in his eyes. He reminded me of Bambi. But deep down in his soul I saw a reserve of strength that would see us through. Just to be sure, I tossed a Twinkie up and over the top of the route to ensure Tyler didn’t want to turn back.
Me and Tyler, on Pitch 1 of the Fischer Face.
Climbing near a group of free-soloists on the South Col route.
The challenge awaits.
Dan, Kate and Ben rest at a belay station.
I hammered in a picket, my last piece of pro, and tentatively inched toward the overhanging summit mushroom. I paused at the base of it only long enough to take a breath and settle myself. Then I began the assault. It’s amazing the emotions that such climbing will bring. Alive, free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change. I realized I was singing again when Tyler threatened to yank me off the ice.
Finally, I reached up to sink my tool and hit only air. No. Could it be? Had we done it? A few more careful kicks and I was pulling over the lip, pausing only for a series of mandatory hero shots. My estimate is the crux went at WI9.
I brought the rest of the team up and we celebrated accordingly. Our joy was cut short, however, by the impressive tower of the Rangerguy2010 Step. We established a high camp on the South Col with the intention of staying overnight, but we’d climbed so well and the weather was holding perfectly. We agreed instead to take only a brief rest before mounting a summit attempt.
Calming myself before the crux pitch, with the pesky Raven still in tow.
Woody looks on as I begin my desperate assault.
On the Edge.
NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!!!1!!!!111!
The rest of the team nears the crux summit mushroom.
A master at work.
Ben crushes the lip.
Dan crawls into his bivy, exhausted, as I set up my tent at Camp VIII.
This is what a mountaineer looks like.
Rejoining the standard South Col route, we began encountering other climbers. Almost all of these brave souls were free-soloing. I blame Alex Honnold.
The climbing was easy compared with what we’d just accomplished, but the insidious step waited above and the thin air began to take its toll without the aid of supplemental oxygen. We crawled our way upwards, often doubled over our ice axes trying desperately to fill our lungs.
The ascent rate was about 150 feet/hour in the Death Zone.
Traversing to the horrendous Rangerguy2010 Step, which had never been free-climbed.
Finally, we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the glittering Korean ladder. Once it was removed, I racked up and began the treacherous lead, one that had never before been done. It soon became clear why. The crumbly dirt was so loose it wouldn’t accept protection, so I steeled my mind and continued the climb free-solo. The ascent was most eventful for those below me, as my modified Wrangler Technical Jorts provided quite the impressive display.
I couldn’t believe it. When I topped out, the summit pyramid and its easy slopes beckoned like an eager lover. The Rangerguy2010 Step was behind me. We had done it. I belayed the team up and we hardly even paused to consider our feat; the summit called. We more or less ran to up the final section and offered Shermapangma our thanks.
The Wrangler Technical Jorts, performing once again.
The rest of the team follows up the vanquished step.
THE TOP OF THE WORLD!
A little man-love.
On top, we made a difficult choice. Kate had a small blister, Dan said he’d only slept like six hours the night before and I was starting to feel slightly hungry for a cheeseburger. It became clear we only had one option. I hit the “Free Helicopter Ride” button on my SPOT and prepared to be whisked down to the glory that now surely awaits all of us.
I want to thank Kate, Ben, Dan and Tyler for daring to dream the impossible. I look forward to seeing you all frequently this year at all of our awards ceremonies, and I hope you’ll be there when the time comes for an even more lofty goal: the never-before climbed Graysverest. We'll save that one for 14er No. 200...
Oh yeah, the point of all this was having a little fun on my 100th 14er.
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