For three decades, Conrad Anker quietly obsessed about climbing Shark’s Fin, a slab of virgin Himalayan rock that had vexed him twice before. Last fall, his team set out again, battling falling ice and mental breakdown to get to the top.
Credit: Photograph by Jimmy Chin

When Ozturk woke the next morning, he found Chin watching over him as if seeking an answer: Do we go on or go down?

Ozturk started to speak and realized he still couldn’t do it. But he could move his limbs and was feeling slightly stronger. He gave Chin a meaningful nod. Chin knew how much danger they’d all be in if Ozturk fell apart on the upper wall, but he also knew his teammate. “There are moments when your climbing partner looks at you and it’s the full-on red alert, like, ‘I’m totally fucked, dude. We’ve got to drop now.’ ” Chin felt Ozturk’s look was saying the opposite.

The next few hundred feet were supposed to be Ozturk’s lead — a section of rock and ice on which his superior gymnastic ability would shine. “I started to speak,” Ozturk recalls, “but Jimmy said something like ‘Don’t talk. And don’t say anything to Conrad.’ ”

Chin got Ozturk out of the tent and into his crampons. Then, as if he was dressing a child for school, he hung a huge rack of climbing hardware around Ozturk’s neck, tied a rope to his harness, put ice axes in his hands, and gestured for him to lead the way.

“I led a couple pitches and didn’t fall,” says Ozturk. “And that ended up being another really long night — we climbed until 3 am and set up the ledge again in the middle of the night.” The next morning, Ozturk felt better still, but just as he climbed out of the portaledge, it broke in half — “a big cluster fuck,” as Ozturk puts it, with Anker and Chin still tangled inside.

Worse still, according to Anker, that bivouac site was exposed to snow and rock fall: “Snow chunks were coming down, and ice cubes,” Anker says, “kind of disconcerting. If they’re moving fast enough, they’re going to hurt.” So the team had to burn hours repairing the ledge and then moving it onto higher, safer ground.

They spent three full days there while they pushed their ropes higher and higher. Then Chin confronted one of the hardest sections on the mountain, which they dubbed the House of Cards — a bewildering expanse of bodysize blocks plastered to the face by little more than ice and accumulated snow. If Chin dislodged one, he’d die for sure, probably taking Anker and Ozturk with him. But the only way to make upward progress was by gingerly setting hooks onto the suspended blocks, clipping stirrups through the hooks, and then standing up in the stirrups and praying the blocks didn’t break loose.

OZTURK STARTED TO SPEAK AND REALIZED HE STILL COULDN'T DO IT. CHIN KNEW THE DANGER THEY'D ALL BE IN IF OZTURK FELL APART, BUT HE ALSO KNEW HIS FRIEND. HE GESTURED FOR HIM TO LEAD THE WAY.

By their seventh day on the mountain, they had moved their portaledge, as planned, far higher than in 2008. It was now dangling completely free under overhanging rock, at over 20,000 feet. As they cooked dinner that night — bowls of couscous — snow began falling hard against the storm cover. Then the wind picked up, bouncing them around amid a deafening roar as they lay down in their sleeping bags, packed side-by-side like filthy, aching sardines. When the alarm sounded at 1 am and Anker zipped open the storm cover, he saw millions of stars. Within the hour they were climbing again.

Chris Figenshau, a friend they’d brought along to manage their advanced base camp and to call Anker’s wife and kids on the satellite phone with updates, began tracking the team by listening in on their walkie-talkie radio frequency. The morning’s first transmission, uttered in the predawn blackness, came from Anker screaming, “This wind is eating me alive!”

Figenshau knew that Anker was leading an extremely technical stretch of 80-degree ice. He also knew that a howling wind, in extreme cold, can suck energy right out of a climber’s body. “Pretty dangerous stuff,” as Anker later put it. He fretted over every swing of his ice axes, every kick of his crampons. If that ice cracked, he faced a death fall, and yet if he stopped moving for too long, he’d freeze. Given their desperately exposed position — the wind chill now well below zero — they faced the possibility that cold alone might shut down the climb.

Chin called up to Anker: “What do you want to do?”

Anker barked his answer into the radio, and his down jacket was sent up on a rope. Just then the sun hit, sweeping light across a bright blue sky and over a white-jeweled mountain range. Anker’s climbing began to pick up speed. As he trenched his way through yet another cornice to reach that summit ridge, blocks of snow shot downward, rocketing past Ozturk and Chin at the belay.

Regrouping on the very spot where they’d pulled the plug on their previous expedition, they saw something hard to believe: “Right where the Shark’s Fin goes from overhanging to a little less than vertical,” says Chin, “there’s this giant quartz crystal wedged into a slot in the wall and you end up sitting on it.”

From that crystal, Chin led a final, steep rock section and then an easier triangular face on which he had to hook his heel around the wall’s outer edge and haul himself up onto what turned out to be the summit.

Figenshau, back in base camp, heard with his naked ears a joyful, far-off scream. Then the radio woke up.

“Jimmy’s on the summit,” Anker said. Soon, Ozturk and Anker joined Chin, pulling themselves onto the narrow platform, an improbable perch among the glittering peaks of the Garhwal Himalaya. Time is of the essence on big mountains: Weather can pop up at any moment, and climbers typically sprint back down from the summit almost immediately to begin the difficult descent. But the view — and the moment — were too precious for Anker, Ozturk, and Chin. Four thousand feet below, they could see the vast white expanse of the Gangotri Glacier, source of the Ganges, and distant Tapovan meadow where the sadhus live and pray.

“The fatigue cancels out the joy,” Chin says, “so you’re kind of in this middle space.”

Anker’s thoughts were equally conflicted. Exhilaration is something the great climber rarely experiences on the summit. “I mean, sure, we were saying, ‘Wow, we made it.’ But I always get to the summit and somehow it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just another point. It’s crazy. The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters. I’d been so, so happy to be back there, and climbing that mountain again, but only because I’d loved the climbing itself.”

Anker’s thoughts naturally drifted to Stump. He muttered something, as if speaking directly to his old friend. And then he opened his backpack and pulled out a small butane stove. He lit the blue flame and melted snow, brewing up instant coffee to energize them for the journey back down.