As David Lama teetered across a precipitous snow-covered ridge toward a scimitar of granite soaring magnificently above the Himalaya, it marked the end of a quest that had begun in 2015 and involved three extremely dangerous expeditions, including one that nearly killed his climbing partner Conrad Anker.
But it also marked the first time anyone had stood atop the 6,907-meter (22,661-foot) Lunag Ri, which, prior to last October, held the distinction of Nepal’s highest unclimbed mountain—or at least the highest of the peaks that Nepal's government allows climbers on (more on that later).
Lama's high-altitude first ascent is something that has grown increasingly rare. Over nearly a century of exploratory alpinism in the Himalaya, one by one the biggest mountains have been claimed, including Everest and the rest of the 8,000-meter (26,250 feet) summits, followed by the 7,000ers (23,966 feet).
In Nepal, which is home to the earth’s biggest mountains—eight of the planet’s 10 highest peaks, including Everest, are located in this relatively small country, roughly the size of Arkansas—finding virgin peaks is growing harder. All of the country's 40-odd 7,000-meter mountains are believed to have been climbed. (The exact number depends on topographic prominence, which measures the independence of a summit relative to nearby peaks. But not everyone agrees on the degree of prominence required for an independent mountain, hence the disparity in exactly how many 7,000-meter mountains are in Nepal.)
Nepal's last officially recongized 7,000er to be climbed was Thulagi Chuli 7,059 meters (23,159 feet), in 2015, by a team of Russian alpinists.
These issues may seem inconsequential, but serious mountaineers care deeply about them, and Nepal's economy relies on mountaineering as a significant source of revenue. Since 1949, Nepal’s Department of Tourism has opened up 414 mountains to climbing, with 104 added in 2014 alone. All mountains here require climbing permits, costing from $250 for peaks under 6,500 meters (21,325 feet) to $11,000 for a crack at Everest during peak season.
While hordes of climbers arrive each spring, hoping to add their names to the list of nearly 5,000 people who have already climbed Everest, elite alpinists, such as Lama and Anker, scour maps and satellite images looking for obscure, untouched crags among Nepal’s labyrinth of mountains and glacial valleys.
Some of Nepal's mountains, however, have remained closed due to their designations as religious sites or their locations on sensitive border areas. Notably, Machapuchare (22,943 feet), nicknamed “Fishtail Mountain” for its unique fishtail-shaped summit, is considered by Hindus to be the home of the god Shiva. (In the 1950s, a team of British climbers were granted permission by the King of Nepal to climb on Machapuchare as long as they promised to stop below the summit; they reached 500 feet below the top and turned around. The mountain has been closed ever since.)
As more mountains are climbed for the first time, the opportunity to make a true first ascent of a significantly tall mountain has grown increasingly rare—and coveted.
“It’s the last vestige of exploration left,” says Anker, who has made several first ascents during his more than three-decade climbing career. “That desire to be first is all driven by climbers’ egos. A first ascent is taking a stab at immortality.”
A Stab at Immortality
The Lunag massif, an impressively steep, mountainous wedge topped with a jagged line of at least seven distinct summits looks like a mountain that certainly could earn a mountaineer immortality—if it didn't kill him first. It was “discovered” by the mountaineering world in 2008, when the American alpinists David Gottlieb and Joe Puryear glimpsed the massif from the summit of their first ascent of nearby Kang Nachugo (22,096 feet).
“One monstrous massif stood out, and we had no idea what it was,” wrote the late Puryear in the American Alpine Journal. “It was shorter than the surrounding giants, but its bulk and steep vertical relief on all sides were impressive.”
After Puryear and Gottlieb wrote about it, several experienced climbing teams mounted expeditions to climb Lunag Ri, but none succeeded in reaching its highest point.
“I knew it wasn’t just some random unclimbed peak,” says Lama, who first saw a photo of Lunag Ri in 2013. “It was a mountain that was going to be difficult to climb, and that’s what I was most interested in: testing myself against a really hard route, and hopefully making a first ascent in the process.”
Born to Climb
If ever a child had climbing in his genes, it was David Lama. Born in 1990 to Claudia Werglef, a mountain-loving Austrian tourist who had just finished nursing school in 1988 and was visiting Nepal when she met Ringi Lama, a trekking guide. They married and two years later David was born in Innsbrook, Austria.
He was introduced to climbing at a weeklong adventure camp for kids run by Peter Habeler, the famous Austrian mountaineer who, in 1978, with Reinhold Messner, made the first summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Habeler, who knew Lama’s father, took a liking to David, then five years old, and let him attend his summer adventure camp even though it had a minimum age requirement of eight.
By the time he was 10, Lama was widely acknowledged as a climbing prodigy, earning the attention of European climbing magazines for several difficult outdoor rock climbs. In 2005, he won the International Federation of Sport Climbing's Youth World Championship for the second year in a row. The following year, he moved up to the adult division and became the youngest person to win a World Cup title for both sport climbing and a bouldering, displaying a rare proficiency in both endurance and power.
Yet, despite his obvious talent and early success, Lama slowly grew disenchanted by the monotonies of indoor competitions.
“I was spending so much time training for competitions that there was not as much time anymore for climbing outdoors,” he says.
In 2007, he blew off the World Cup and took his first trip to Yosemite with his parents.
“That was basically my first big-wall experience,” says Lama, who climbed El Capitan and other iconic monoliths. “It was one of those trips where I got to see that there are more adventurous forms of climbing.”
“His interests shifted 180 degrees,” says Jorg Verhoeven, an Austrian climber and friend. “No more training indoors, no more competitions—the mountains were his new playground.”
By 2011, Lama was focusing solely on alpinism. That he was able to bring his world-class sport climbing abilities to the mountains—where burly legs and deep lungs are more important than strong fingers—gave him an ability to accomplish goals that few mountaineers had previously considered possible, such as the first free ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre, Patagonia (an achievement which made him one of National Geographic’s 2013 Adventurers of the Year).
Anker, who was then the captain of The North Face athlete team and kept close tabs on up-and-coming climbers, had followed Lama’s big-mountain successes.
“He is the next generation of climbers,” Anker remarked. “He’s holding it down in terms of hard difficulty in all disciplines of climbing. Plus he has this unique heritage that allows him to read and analyze the rock as a European but move with the fluidity and stamina of a Sherpa.”
Heart Attack at Altitude
In 2015 Lama and Anker, a somewhat unlikely duo of climbers from very different generations and backgrounds, joined forces to make their first attempt to climb Lunag Ri.
With a mop of dark hair, Lama, 28, is leanly muscled five feet seven. Meanwhile, Anker, 56, is a fair-haired, solidly-built Californian standing over six feet tall. The two appear a strange match, except for a shared steady, thoughtful temperament that proves invaluable when unforeseen chaos strikes in the mountains.
On their first attempt, some tactical errors—such as passing up a bivouac site that would’ve allowed them to rest up before making a summit attempt—resulted in them turning around some 1,300 feet shy of the summit. Later, Anker summed up the experience, “That was a bigger, harder mountain than we are.”
With a better understanding of the terrain, Lama and Anker returned to Lunag Ri the following year, but things didn't go smoother. Their ascent nearly ended in tragedy—twice. At one point, just as Anker climbed a pitch that led him up and out of a vertical chute, he barely avoided a small avalanche of ice blocks. Had he been even just a minute slower in climbing that pitch, he would’ve been crushed.
In retrospect, that near miss might be viewed as an omen, an inauspicious sign to turn around, for soon Anker would sustain an altitude-induced heart attack that nearly cost him his life.
At the next belay ledge, Lama noticed something was off. Anker was moving uncharacteristically slow. “I’m not feeling great,” Anker said, visibly out of breath, “but let’s keep going.”
Lama climbed another rope-length of a hundred feet up the mountain, and as Anker followed behind him, he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his chest. Anker tried to shake it off and continued but started going slower and slower.
Lama grew concerned as Anker had to rest on the rope a few times. Lama held the rope tight, trying to give Anker assistance as he climbed. Finally, Anker reached the ledge and crumpled.
“He said he had pain in his heart or lungs,” said Lama. “I thought, there’s no way I can perform CPR up here. If this goes bad, this is where he’ll die.”
Anker insisted he’d start feeling better soon. There was no need to descend, he said.
“Conrad, you got five minutes,” Lama said. “If you’re not better, we’re going down.”
They didn’t even make it that long. Lama rigged a rappel and led the pair 500 feet back down the face. Upon reaching the glacier, Lama took Anker’s pack, gave him an ice axe, and they walked together as Anker stumbled into advanced base camp a few miles away.
Lying upon the glacier, Anker said, “Well, I always wondered when I was going to get the message that it’s time to let go of this game. … And I think I got it.”
Lama arranged for a helicopter. Anker was brought to Siddhartha Hospital in Kathmandu, where he required an immediate angioplasty to remove a blockage.
Before the helicopter hauled off Anker, he left Lama with a message that stuck.
“Well, David, I guess it’s on you now.”
In 2016, after Lama got word back at the Lunag Ri base camp that Anker had made it to the hospital in Kathmandu and that he was going to be ok, he found himself contemplating Anker’s words.
“That kind of gave me permission,” said Lama. “I did a first solo attempt after I knew that Conrad was going to be fine.”
He opted to try a different route up the mountain, taking a broad 3,000-foot ramp of snow with a disconcerting large serac—a vertical wall of ice that tends to slough off big blocks—that loomed above the route like an alpine sword of Damocles. He and Anker had avoided this line precisely because of the danger, but Lama had reasoned that since he was alone he could climb fast enough to duck beneath it before the sun came up and rising temperatures increased the chances it would collapse.
He made it to the West Ridge to terrain that was familiar from his and Anker's 2015 attempt. From there he tunneled his way up through deep snow along the razor-edge ridgeline. As the rock steepened, he clawed his way up, jamming his ice picks and the points of his crampons into tiny cracks in the granite.
Climbing alone while setting pieces of gear to hold the rope, a process known as “rope soloing,” is far safer than “free-soloing” or climbing with no rope at all (the method Alex Honnold famously used on his historic first free-solo of Yosemite’s El Capitan), but it's slow and cumbersome. Lama used this technique in several sections of the route. One 30-foot section high on Lunag Ri took him over an hour, a debilitating and ultimately demoralizing pace at that altitude, where you’re gulping air and every move feels leaden.
Ultimately, Lama’s 2016 solo bid ended just below his and Anker's 2015 highpoint. Again, a combination of tactical errors—such as carrying a pack that was too heavy—as well as the overall difficulty of the ridge caused Lama to turn around with the summit tantalizingly close. In his tent, a visibly exhausted Lama, gasping for breath in the thin air, turned his camera on himself and said, "I'm thinking this ends here because moving on would be suicide."
In 2017, Lama took a break from Lunag Ri to give Anker an opportunity to consider re-joining him for another attempt. "I wanted to give him every opportunity to change his mind," says Lama. "Ultimately, the reason I went alone was not making it harder or more spectacular. It was simply to me the most beautiful way I could bring this project and climb to an end, for both Conrad and me. And it just felt right."
So Lama returned to Nepal last fall and on October 23rd set off around midnight into very tough conditions. The snow slope he knew from two years earlier was now bare, wet rock, making route-finding challenging. Fifty-mile-per-hour winds dropped the temperature below -20 degrees F. Patiently, Lama worked his way up the steep terrain, passing his and Anker's 2015 highpoint before setting up a tent for the night. From this point on, he had no idea what to expect. No one had ever made it this far on Lunag Ri.
On his third day on the mountain, he began his final push for the summit. He left all of his heavy gear in his tent, so he'd be lighter and hopefully faster, but as he started climbing he noticed his toes going numb. The condition worsened as he climbed higher, making each foot placement more insecure. He stopped several times trying to get sensation back into his feet. He thought about one of his climbing partners who had recently lost toes to frostbite on Denali. Meanwhile, he wasn’t sure of his route, which line up the ice would lead to the summit.
Finally, he relied on instinct to lead him to the top: “I just committed to a line of ice, not sure where it would lead,” he says. “As the terrain got less steep, that’s when I was sure I would make it.”
Six or so hours after leaving camp, Lama became the first person to stand atop Lunag Ri. In the end, the conditions were more oppressive than on his previous attempts, but Lama was stronger than he'd been in years past. But the real difference, he believes, was that he was more willing to push himself closer to that very fine line, which marks the difference between success and disaster.
“It’s hard to see that line until you cross it,” says Lama. “I didn’t cross it … but it felt like I was really close.”