Everest North Face, Photo Robert Mads Anderson

Where is the Best New Route on Everest? And Who is Bold Enough to Try It?

Are there any good new routes left to be done on Everest?

Of course there are – truly magnificent lines, you just have to know where to look. And then you need to be just a bit bold and brave enough to try it.

A real climbing day, on a new route, on Everest, is still one of the best days out you will ever have. And you will be making history.

everest, North Face everest, north ridge everest. robert mads anderson
Everest, North Face from Pang La, Tibet. The North Face extends from the Northeast Ridge on left horizon, then the North Ridge dropping down off it to the right, all the way to the West Ridge on the right horizon. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Looking at the routes on Everest, you’ll see everything from the traditional South Col route first climbed by Hillary and Norgay on the South Side, to the North Ridge rising out of Tibet. Nearly everyone goes to the top by one of those routes. They use oxygen, they are supported by Sherpas, and much of the way they simply follow the ropes and lines to the top.

That is not to say it isn’t challenging, or difficult, or that you may die.

But in the true spirit of mountaineering, that experience is about as far removed as one gets from doing a new route.

The late Ed Webster, who I did our new route on Everest Kangshung Face with, along with Paul Teare and Stephen Venables, had long been dripping hints that he had it – the route of all Everest routes.

Ed had only shared the route with the late, and certainly great, Ueli Steck, who was one of the few who could have made a credible attempt. With Ueli’s passing I went back again to see if Ed might reveal his secret? Ed had soloed a new route on Changtse, Everest’s North Peak, and had views and photos from a perspective that very few had ever seen.

And I’d spent months wandering around on the North Face of Everest on a host of attempts, from new routes to variants to solos up obscure couloirs. Perhaps Ed and I had some of the same ideas for a bold new route up the worlds’ tallest mountain? 

Ed Webster’s phenomenal ability to work out new routes, coupled with his immense heritage of finding some of the worlds’ great climbs and making their first ascent, was legendary.

From Super Crack in the Desert, to climbs in New Hampshire, to The Scenic Cruise in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, to the remote Lofoten Islands of Norway, Ed had an incredible knack for picking fantastic lines up vertical spaces and then climbing them.

We had partnered on the first ascent of a new route on The Diamond in Colorado, fitted nicely in between two of our Everest expeditions. I’d had the opportunity to see first hand his rare ability to look into the future and then make it possible on an endless stream of the Diamonds beautifully connected vertical finger cracks.

Ed Webster: photo Robert Mads Anderson
Ed Webster atop Longs Peak after the ascent of our new route, The Hidden Diamond. (For those with a historical interest, yes, that is my Grade 5, Forrest Mountaineering pack in the foreground). Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

New routes of any kind require a very different mind set.

You don’t start with a guide book, maps don’t help much and google earth doesn’t have the detail you need. New routes are about the visuals, photos if they are available, then scoping out the real mountain when you get there. One of the key elements in my equipment list for the Kangshung Face was a very high quality, high powered telescope.

Then you have to have the experience to translate the terrain to your skills: charting the way and the options if it goes wrong, tracing where the avalanches might be falling, how the sun hits the slopes, where the wind is flowing from, judging the rock and ice quality and then committing, when much of what you are committing to is still unknown and only a leap of faith will get you onto and up the mountain. It is far more art than science. And you have to be far more amenable to failure, as all the major factors are unknowns.  

The question is not “can I do this?” It is “can it be done by me at all – or by anybody?”

Ed Webster, Kangshung Face, Everest
Kangshung Face, Everest. Ed Webster climbing out of the Jaws of Doom on our new route. Not quite sure if this would go at all, being 15 meters of overhanging ice at over 6,000 meters. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

A new route on a big mountain is a guaranteed big adventure, no matter how well it goes. And on Everest it is potentially the biggest adventure of all.

And less talked about, but just as important, is the funding, the logistics, the planning, the sponsors, the gear, the permits and putting together what encompasses a small, entrepreneurial business: all started, established and then shut down in a few short months. 

And while Everest has a host of new route opportunities on the Kangshung Face with routes like The Fantasy Ridge, the North Face really does provide a more realistic option for alpine climbers.

There is great access straight up the Central Rongbuk, Advanced Base Camp is in a lush meadow with a small blue lake and Yak side deliveries. You can then ski right up to the base of the North Face (and of course, back down again). Then you have 3,000 meters of vertical right up to the summit. What could be a better combination?

North Face Everest Skier
An advantage of new routes. A good backdrop from the head of the Rongbuk Glacier, the top of the world behind you and fresh untracked snow in front. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

The very first route up the North Face took the central couloir, then shot straight up into the Hornbein at the top. It was sieged by the Japanese in 1980 and came to be known as the Super Couloir. In perhaps one of the most audacious ascents of Everest, in 1986 Loretan and Troillet did a duet solo up and down in less than two days.

So where is this magical new route on Everest?

Ed had done graphics for his superb two part Alpinist article on Everest, so he added it into that for me, in a rather bold red.

The North Face routes on Everest, from Ed’s solo ascent of Changtse. Photo: Ed Webster

You start on the slope west of White Limbo, so you will be treading close to the brave footprints of the Australians who created their own magnificent new route without oxygen or outside support, on one of the best ascents of Everest ever completed.

Off to the right will be the never repeated route the Russians did called the North Face Direct, that isn’t shown on the above image.

Everest North Face. Photo Robert Mads Anderson
In the middle of nowhere: Jay Smith, Harry Kent, Robert Anderson and Mark Hesse in the midst of the Super Couloir Route, headed up towards the Hornbein Couloir, Everest North Face. Photo: Warren Morgan

Yet even on the lower section of the North Face, you will already experience an otherworldly sense of remoteness. Unlike climbing on Everests’ ridges, on the North Face you are set against the immenseness of a mountain that spreads out all around you. Thousands of metres above, to each side, and below you, on something that will feel very much like the tallest mountain on Earth. And there is a very good chance you will see no one, and you and your team will be all alone.

When Ed shared the image of his new route, he sent along these comments:

Hey Robert, 

 
My idea was to climb the lower face halfway between White Limbo and the Russian Direct, up whichever one of those ribs looked best. 
 
Although the ribs do look kind of gnarly, but at least ( like Neverest ) the route’s technical crux would be down low. 
 
The Upper Dihedral I’ve gazed at longingly for decades, wondering why not one has ever even attempted it….
 
— Did you get a good “Looking Up To the Right” sideways view of it from high up in the Great Couloir ? 
 
cheers Ed
 

Everest North Face, Photo Robert Mads Anderson

I had fortunately, also taken a very good look at that stunning dihedral high on the face. In my book, Seven Summits Solo I’d published this photo, with the route Ed had drawn taking the prominent dark dihedral at center, leading up to the Gray Band and onto the summit of Everest.

So the route is there for the taking.

Ed Webster, and it seems only fitting as a remembrance of him, has already named it for you: The Webster Directissima

This route, if you look closely also does what great routes do, it works with the mountain, following the smaller ridges, staying out of the avalanche zones, weaving its way upward elegantly, finishing with that grand and natural dihedral ever so high on the face. Tis a real work of art, even if a bit gnarly. 

The most compelling thing about doing a new route is it creates a direct relationship between you and the mountain. You are not taking on a challenge against others and asking yourself if you can do what others have done. You are taking on a challenge that you don’t know if it is really possible at all.

In the words of Sir Edmund Hillary:

“We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And…we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t (just) drop dead

With climbing, it is then most appropriate to take on the climb in a way that doesn’t just throw every resource available at it to ensure success. With a big team, lots of Sherpa support and a good supply of oxygen and ropes, just about any route can eventually be whittled down to size on Everest. Take all that away and you have a grand challenge. 

A new route to the top of the world is where the real history of Everest will continue to be made.

Everest Kangshung Face
Everest Kangshung Face – going where no one has gone before. First day, first lead on the Face for me. It doesn’t get much better if you are a climber. Photo: Stephen Venables

Read more about the 7 Summits Solo and the Kangshung Face, in my books on Amazon.