Lost Horizons

Naysayers claim the age of adventure is over. On an unclimbed peak in Tibet, our man declares that it has just begun.


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WE ARE MOVING THROUGH A MYSTERY. Whiteness envelops us. We can't see where we are going. We can't see what lies to our left or right. Our only guide is ascent: We climb the fall line, crampon points and ice-ax picks skittering on verglas-glazed rock. There are just two of us on this expedition: taciturn Louisiana man Ross Lynn, 26, and yours truly. We're in a cirque with no name in the Daxue Shan Range, on the far eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. It has been my personal dream to come here and climb. There are no rescue choppers or Sherpas, cells phones don't work, the nearest hospital is days away. Ross and I are on our own, inside the unknown.

We can't see them, but from the map we know there are four unclimbed 20,000-foot summits looming above us. We're hoping to climb just one, 20,059-foot Nyambo Konka.

A squall swoops in, hail rattling upon our helmets like gravel.

“Can't see a damn thing!” I shout.

But the higher we go on the mountain, the more sunshine begins to break through. Within an hour, the 4,000-foot visage of Nyambo is staring down on us. Blind to the terrain above, we've managed to climb right up beneath a deeply fractured, quarter-mile-long hanging glacier—something like wandering into a building that's about to be dynamited.

Ross and I make an abrupt right-angle turn, hustle across a vast, telltale fan of avalanche debris, and descend via a safer route on the north side of the cirque.

“Let's not do that again,” I say on the way down.

“Scratch Plan A,” Ross agrees.

In the morning we move our camp higher. Plan B is to climb the central couloir, which we discover, to our alarm, is running with avalanches. On to Plan C: Ascend another couloir farther north.

We dig out a tent platform we believe to be safe from avalanche. Erect the tiny tent, eat cubes of yak gristle, drink Chinese tea, load our packs for the morning attempt, scootch into our sleeping bags, talk.

Ross is regaling me with his ascent of Lurking Fear, a notorious route on Yosemite's El Cap, when an ominous roar drowns out his voice. Our tent is being pummeled and bashed in, and Ross and I are screaming and tearing at the tent zippers, diving out into the darkness clawing bare-handed and sock-footed to safety. After the avalanche passes, we find our tent partially flattened, a softball-size rock having sliced through the fly.

“Perhaps we should move camp,” Ross says in his calm drawl.

We spend the next two hours digging out a new tent platform by headlamp, only to have an avalanche sweep by on the opposite side the moment we're back in our bags.

“Busy place,” I say.

Neither of us sleep that night. We listen, like infantry soldiers in a trench, ears straining to interpret the portent of each explosion. We don't talk much; we wait. We wait to see if we survive. We wait for dawn and Plan D.

CLIMBING MOUNTAINS is an act I happen to love, but it is only one narrow version of adventure. There are thousands. In fact, there's one for every human with the passion to push personal boundaries.

Recognizing this, W. L. Gore & Associates, the manufacturer of Gore-Tex, began awarding grants in 1990 to “small, unencumbered teams of friends with daring and imaginative goals,” teams that would attempt their projects “in a self-propelled, environmentally sound, cost-effective way.” The Shipton/Tilman Grants, as the program is known, have supported a wide array of exploration—caving in Thailand, crossing the Gobi by foot, sea-kayaking around Tierra del Fuego, kite-skiing across the Yukon. Our plan to climb Nyambo Konka earned a grant as well, in part for its imaginative simplicity: one rope, two guys, three weeks, four ice tools, and an unclimbed peak in an unexplored amphitheater.

Eric Shipton and H. W. Tilman were two British mountaineers a half-century ahead of their time. From the 1930s into the 1960s, they explored mountains in Africa and Asia with an elegant, prescient style. While most expeditions of that era were enormous, nationalistic undertakings, Shipton and Tilman usually chose to move quick and light, low-cost and low-impact. Together they were the first to traverse the West Ridge of Mount Kenya, the first to break through the Rishi Gorge into Nepal's Nanda Devi Sanctuary, and the first to explore and survey the northern approaches to K2 and its subsidiary glaciers.

The duo epitomized the best of what adventure can be—exploratory, gallant, in search of higher truths—which, frankly, made them historical anomalies. Although it hasn't been a linear progression, exploration has evolved profoundly over the past half-millennium. In his encyclopedic Great Adventures and Explorations (1947), Vilhjalmur Stefansson, twice president of the Explorers Club of New York and a legendary polar explorer in his own right, bluntly characterizes the “self-confessed greed for riches, lust for conquest, and bigotry in religion” that motivated many early explorers. Prior to the 1700s, expeditions were generally military forces with the dual purposes of imperialism and religious conversion. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on knowledge, ethics, and aesthetics, profoundly changed the adventure landscape. By the 19th century, science—not merely gold, slaves, or converts—had become integral to most exploration. German geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) were luminary examples.

At the turn of the 20th century, only the farthest corners of the earth were left unexplored. American naval officer Robert Peary reached the North Pole in 1909; Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made the South Pole in 1911. Shipton climbed the first 7,000-meter peak, Kamet, in the Indian Himalayas, in 1931. A four-man American team made the first ascent of 24,790-foot Minya Konka, the highest peak in the Daxue Shan Range, a year later. Frenchman Maurice Herzog nabbed the first 8,000-meter peak, Annapurna, in 1950; Hillary and Norgay summited Everest in 1953.

In the past two generations, all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks have been climbed. The Amazon, the Nile, the Niger, the Upper Tsangpo—all have been run. Everest has been skied, Angel Falls BASE-jumped, the sky itself surfed. So what's left?

Nothing, according to some fin de siècle defeatists. You've likely heard the lament: Africa has the Internet, the Silk Road is a highway, the Inca Trail a tourist trap—time to play Dragon Quest VIII.

Columnist John Tierney, in a 1998 New York Times Magazine critique titled “Going Where a Lot of Other Dudes with Really Great Equipment Have Gone Before,” promoted this sort of fashionable jadedness by coining the word explornography: “the vicarious thrill of exploring when there is nothing left to explore.” According to Tierney, the “Age of Exploration has been succeeded by the Age of Explornography.” Even Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner, who should know better, declared last year in London's Guardian, “Mountaineering is over. Alpinism is dead. Maybe its spirit is still alive a little in Britain and America, but it will soon die out.”

They're both wrong.

It's self-evident that the age of grand geographical exploration—with the enormous exceptions of deep space, deep earth, and the deep sea—is over, but as I see it, the age of adventure has only just begun.

THE MOMENT THERE is even a semblance of light, Ross crawls out of the tent and through a monocular studies the wall of Nyambo above us.

During the night, using a Russian 1:200,000 topo, altimeter readings, and GPS coordinates, I pinpointed our location. But these are just numbers. They establish our position, but not the conditions—the hollowness or hardness of the ice, the depth or danger of the snow, our fatigue or faith. These, the actual exigencies of a mountain, can be ascertained only the old-fashioned way.

“Which couloir looks good?” I ask.

“None,” says Ross, handing me the monocular.

There is a 100-foot-deep cornice hanging over the breadth of the face. Our best option appears to be angling northward, crossing avalanche chutes, trying to climb largely on the rock ribs.

The first few hundred feet are a scramble, then the face steepens and we are confronted with the appalling insecurity of the rock—thousands of feet of sharp, irregular blocks stacked one on top of the other and held together only by the mortar of ice. Pulling out any chunk might bring down a million tons of rock.

Plan E: Forget the cornice, climb yet another couloir.

Had Nyambo been previously ascended, we would have already known what to do, and for me, much of the mountain's magnetism would have been lost. What enthralls me most about entering unknown country is that you have to make it up as you go. There's no rule book. Improvisation is imperative.

And yet there's something even deeper, something even more seductive, about exploring one of the millions of slivers of terra incognita left all across the planet: If no one has been where you're going, you have no idea whether what you want to do can be done. The reason to go is to find out. The reason to go is to find out whether you can do it. Whether you have the nerve and craft, the resilience and resourcefulness to think on your feet and dance on your fears.

Unroped, swinging ice tools, Ross and I gradually ascend a web of interconnected couloirs. It's sometime in the afternoon when we stop at a ridiculously insecure belay. Spindrift is flying around our faces.

“We're moving too slow!” I shout over the roar of the wind. Ross nods. Yelling back and forth, we discuss our options. Continuing upward, whether we reach the summit or not, will guarantee an exposed, bagless bivouac. Hypothermia certain, frostbite probable. I stab my finger downward, and we turn around.

We rap off several disconcertingly small rock fragments frozen into the wall before finding a gully we can downclimb. It's a long haul back to the tent, where we both collapse.

IT'S TRUE THAT the most obvious adventure icons, the Everests and the Amazons, have been done. But there's still so much left, and it's accessible to more of us than ever before. Airplanes and the Internet have democratized adventure. It took the 1932 Sikong Expedition three months to get to the Daxue Shan from the U.S.; it took Ross and me less than a week. You no longer need special contacts or sponsors to pull off a world-class trip. You need only a good partner, a few weeks, and a fistful of desire.

According to the International Union of Alpine Associations, there are 144 unclimbed 7,000-meter peaks (those falling between 22,965 and 26,246 feet). At a recent Alpine Club symposium in Penrith, England, Japan's Tomatsu Nakamura, the leading authority on the mountains of eastern Tibet, estimated that there are 200 to 250 unclimbed 20,000-foot peaks in this region alone. Even after all the peaks have been climbed, there will still be beautiful routes left to find.

“As technical standards continue to increase, people look at things with different eyes and see new possibilities,” says Kelly Cordes, 37, assistant editor of The American Alpine Journal. The Estes Park, Colorado, climber has put this theory to the test, making several unrepeated first ascents, most recently scaling the 7,500-foot face of Pakistan's Great Trango Tower in a stunning four-day sufferfest. “The potential for adventure is limited by your imagination, not by geography,” says Cordes.

This evolution—from planting the flag to a more subtle, primal focus on the personal how and why—is the future of adventure. “From a kayaker's point of view,” says Asheville, North Carolina, river rat Daniel DeLaVergne, “there's an endless supply of places to go get lost and get in trouble, an uncountable number of unrun rivers in Alaska, Canada, New Guinea, China.”

DeLaVergne, 28, should know. Last spring he and his pals did the first descent of Mosley Creek, in the Coast Range of British Columbia, a deadly three-day carnival of Class V+ rapids.

“But you know, it's not really all about first descents,” says DeLaVergne. “It's about how you paddle. It's about keeping your shit humble and making good decisions. You can do the same river everybody else has done but try to do it in better style. No matter what happens, every time, you learn something.”

And it's more than just technical prowess and physical risk. A friend of mine has journeyed to Nicaragua and El Salvador to monitor elections, and his tales match those of any adventurer.

Ecologist Michael Fay's 1999–2000 Megatransect, a 455-day foot traverse of Central Africa's Congo basin, is a perfect example of modern exploration at its best. Fay's goal was to “go as deep into the last wild place on earth as possible” in order to help conservationists and governments identify the most vital places to protect. He walked 1,243 miles, used 12 rolls of duct tape on his blistered feet, and filled 39 yellow waterproof notebooks with everything from accounts of thousands of elephant sightings to descriptions of plant species. In 2002, due in large measure to Fay's journey, the government of Gabon created 13 new national parks, setting aside more than 10 percent of the country's land area.

Adventure, then, is no longer simply about exploitation or adulation; it's about the quest for understanding. You don't need a mountain or a river or a jungle—you need only an open mind. Your goal does not have to be a first; it need only be something that takes you to a new place and challenges you physically or mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

ROSS AND I BACK OFF all the way to base camp, sing Johnny Cash songs around the campfire for a couple of nights, then attempt Nyambo's south ridge.

The first 2,000 feet are an unbelievable briar patch of rosebush thorns and cactuslike stickers. It's so steep I fall backwards and smash my right forearm. When we finally emerge onto the alpine slopes above, we're so scratched and bloodied, we'll be pulling spines out of our hands for the next month.

We dig camp into the rocks at 15,000 feet. The wind is fierce, and we resort to lining the inside of the tent with brick-size rocks to keep it—and us—from being blown into the sky like Dorothy's house in The Wizard of Oz.

The next morning, our second summit bid is no less dicey. We dislodge boulders that career frightfully through space. We climb sideways and down and over and sometimes, when we're lucky, up. The weather is splendid and, despite my bruised arm and a nasty wind, I think we have it made.

Then, somewhere above 17,000 feet, Ross slumps to the ground. His legs refuse to go any farther.

I ask him to sit tight and rest while I recon above. I climb up the arête, crisscrossing through a maze of stone turrets, entranced by the terrain. My progress is eventually stopped by an overhanging stone face I can't scale without a rope. I climb back down to Ross, hoping he might have recovered his strength, but his face is ashen. We have no choice but to descend.

I don't say anything to Ross, but I'm burning with that agonizing, compulsive need to stand on the summit. I secretly, perhaps foolishly, decide I'll solo it.

Once Ross is safely back in the tent, I march off along various spurs to inventory my options. I sit in the buffeting wind and move the tiny, circular window of the monocular up and down every possible route. All the rock is rotten, the glacier a spiky ocean of seracs, the summit a minefield of hidden crevasses.

Ten years ago, little of this would have mattered. Ten years ago, my drive and ambition would have gotten the best of me and I would have gone on regardless. But something inside me has changed. I sit on a frozen promontory and study the lines of Nyambo Konka, and somehow the risks just don't seem worth it. Thoughts of my daughters and my wife, my friends and my community and my climbing partner, overlay my view of the mountain. This has happened to me before, but usually I've been able—for better or worse—to put these distractions aside. This time I can't. I seem to have lost my single-mindedness of purpose, and I feel disappointed in myself.

Right up until sundown, I desperately search the south side of the mountain for a route to the summit that I can justify soloing, but I find none. On my first visit to Tibet, in 1984, I was willing to do whatever it took to reach the top. Now, I've learned, I'm not.

But I'll be back. It's who I am. Nyambo Konka is not the hardest or the most dangerous mountain on the planet. It's just my peculiar challenge.

Striving for superlatives is part of human nature—the highest, the longest, the deepest. But now that many of these goals have been reached, the future of adventure lies in more subtle, more discriminating endeavors: the most beautiful, the most technical, the project accomplished with the most style. Adventure will be less about simply surviving and more about performing with grace and virtuosity. More personal, more internal, just you and your dream.

Adventure has always been about discovery, but because we and our world are constantly evolving, what we discover is, and forever will be, something new. The golden age of adventure is upon us. Now go.

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