In recent seasons, first ascents of unclimbed peaks are uncommon in the Himalayas — but not for a lack of possibility.
In a range spanning 1,500 miles and six countries, Himalayan peaks are as plentiful as sand grains on Copacabana. Several thousand have documented names, but far fewer have documented climbing histories. Across Earth’s highest and youngest mountain range, many summits have yet to encounter a human.
Throngs of eager climbers travel to Nepal and India each year, but nearly all of them select well-trodden objectives. Name recognition and superlatives are driving forces on the Himalayan climbing circuit. Like a scaled-up version of Colorado’s 14er effect, climbers are drawn to flashy numbers like 8,000m and prestigious collections like The Seven Summits.
Mt. Everest, in particular, is globally synonymous with achievement. Not everyone shows up to climb Everest, but most pursue recognizable objectives that are guaranteed to impress their friends back home.
Garret Madison’s Unclimbed Peak Program
For mountain climbing guides like Garrett Madison, guiding on trendy mountains is essential to running a sustainable business. Clients want to climb the famous peaks of their dreams, and guides emerge to meet the demand. Renowned summits develop established routes and repeatable strategies, increasing success and safety margins. Concentrating climber impact into a manageable number of itineraries is a prudent risk management decision for everyone involved. Most guides — like chefs — develop a menu and stick to it.
Madison has strayed from the conventional path for several seasons as he develops his “Unclimbed Peak Program.” This year, Madison teamed up with fellow Mountain Hardware athlete Ted Hesser, several Sherpa, and a single client to ascend a previously unclimbed peak near Khembalung, Nepal.
In a proof-of-concept effort to further develop the Unclimbed Peak Program, the team merged the worlds of expeditionary new routing and guided client services. On November 13, the entire group tagged a summit at 18,209 feet in the Himalayas.
“There was a lot of anticipation for this year’s trip,” says Madison. “Commercial unclimbed peak expeditions are a challenge to pitch to clients. Most folks want to pursue a known quality, but our program offers something entirely different.”
Breaking the Mold, Selling Unclimbed Peaks and Exploration in the Himalayas
A common trajectory unites climbers of all disciplines — rock, ice, mountains, etc. The first stage involves gathering experience on existing routes. The higher plane, which only some realize, is the pursuit of new routes, unclimbed peaks, and the unknown. Historically, at the client level, these opportunities are not readily accessible.
Like most mountain guides, Madison chose his vocation because he is a keen climber and first ascensionist. Guiding is a segment of the service industry — but instead of just serving the food, guides sit with their patrons and enjoy the proverbial meal. On expeditions in the Himalayas, guides and clients share a vested interest in the same pursuit. The key difference between these subgroups is their contribution: guides provide risk management, decisive judgment, and mountain sense. Clients supply the bankroll.
Selling obscure peaks to a demographic that largely dreams of Everest and K2 requires creative marketing. To fill a roster, Madison must be an evangelist of his personal mountain climbing dreams. “I try to present the worthiness of venturing into the unknown,” he says. “If people can get in touch with the exploration gene, they may develop fresh reasons for going to the mountains.” Clients and guides share a symbiotic relationship in the unclimbed peak project model.
Madison and his clients have completed several first ascent expeditions prior to this one, and the framework of the concept continues to congeal as the experiences compound.
2022 Madison Mountaineering Expedition: The Known and Unkown
This year’s Madison Mountaineering Himalayas expedition offered the best of both worlds to clients interested in “known quantities” and new routes. Prior to the first ascent, the group — give or take a few members who stayed at camp for health reasons — summited Ama Dablam. Over several weeks on Ama Dablam, the prospect of climbing another peak afterward loomed in a field of question marks. After the first objective was complete, one client returned home, one relocated with the group but did not choose to climb, and the third continued up the virgin mountain with Madison and the rest of the first ascent party.
Climbing nameless mountains on the other side of the world requires a complex course of research and legwork. In Madison’s case, this process involves probing for local knowledge and combing Google Earth.
“We had talked to our Sherpa team over the years, and they told us about a peak that sat in a beautiful area above their village.” Madison has been climbing and guiding in Nepal for over 10 years, and the relationships he’s developed have yielded invaluable reconnaissance on his search for unclimbed peaks. Prior to the trip, an agent in Nepal helped Madison sort out some preliminary details and acquire a permit.
In contrast to a conventional ascent of Everest or Ama Dablam, Madison’s party possessed few details about the nature of the targeted peak. Day-to-day itineraries and step-by-step route information don’t exist for unclimbed mountains. Between Madison, Hesser, and Sherpas Aang Phurba and Dawa Tenji, the group had little more than GPS coordinates and a permit to go with their combined experience. No guidebook and no guarantees.
After Ama Dablam, the group spent a few days resting in its bustling base camp. Meanwhile, a pair of Nepalese climbers went ahead to the unclimbed peak, trekked to the base, and established a staging area. Madison, Hesser, and the rest of the group soon arrived to prepare for the uncharted.
The day before the climb, Hesser hiked onto the lower section of the route to scout and assess the terrain. “I thought this is possible, but we might need two days to climb it,” he said. Upon his return, Hesser stopped by Madison’s tent to report his findings. Madison, acutely aware of the group’s energy level and travel itinerary, knew there would only be one day to climb.
After an early start, the group found the route to be longer and more sustained than expected. By noon, they had only made it halfway. “We were having discussions about turnaround times, but the weather never threatened us, despite the dynamic clouds above,” said Hesser.
In classic Himalayan mountaineering style, the Sherpa team led the entire route, placing pitons and fixing lines for Madison, Hesser, and the client to follow. “It’s their peak above their village,” says Madison, “it makes sense for them to lead.”
In total, the leaders unspooled and fixed 1,400m of rope. Phurba and Tenji — who Madison calls “the most technically gifted climbers in the regions” — each fixed rope in massive half-day blocks, always “stoked and charging.” On the final pitch, the team had to recycle a length of rope from a lower section of the route. In the end, there was just enough — down to the last meter.
A New Route on an Unclimbed Peak in the Himalayas
Hesser found the climbing to be “technical and sustained, without much respite.” Every route has a distinct character, but many first ascentionists seek the sweet spot of challenging yet feasible. Overly technical or dangerous terrain is not welcome, especially with a client in the mix.
“It’s a high-quality route,” says Madison. “It required constant engagement. Good ice and snow kept the terrain stable.” Intermittent sections of loose rock required careful movement, but the group remained within its risk tolerance comfort zone up to the summit and back again.
As for naming the route, Hesser and Madison will support whatever the Sherpa team decides to do. The frontrunner possibility is Khembalung Peak, named for the village below where several members of the team live.
According to Phurba, the peak’s surrounding valley is a Beyul — a place where, in Buddist myth, receptive spirits can experience a broader spectrum of dimensions. It’s also a source of Yarsaguma, a rare caterpillar fungus that occurs when parasitic mushroom spores infect and mummify ghost moth larvae under the ground. Yarsagumba is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic for numerous ailments, most notably impotence. “Himalayan Viagra” is among the world’s most valuable substances by weight, and it only occurs in select alpine pastures above 3,500m.
“I could feel that it’s a special place,” said Madison. Unlike much of his guiding experience on famous peaks like Rainier and Everest, climbing the peak was a quiet and solitary experience. “It was remarkable to share the experience with our group and also feel isolated and alone.”
Three neighboring peaks have yet to be climbed. One, in particular, holds promise as Madison’s next aspiration. Looking ahead to next season in the Himalayas, Madison’s current task is to convince another round of clients with willing souls to join him.
“The Unclimbed Peak Project is so much fun, and the dynamic unpredictability is different than everything else I do. It’s been good to tap into exploration again,” says Madison.
Hesser compared Madison’s innovative approach to Himalayan guiding with the practice of polyculture farming. If expeditions to Mt. Everest are a uniform field of soybeans, Madison’s Unclimbed Peak Project is a vast garden filled with beans, corn, and chickens — a diversity of experiences.