The Final Push
Right now, even as the fall Himalayan climbing season has mostly wrapped, American climber Chad Kellogg is still out there, possibly gazing up at Nepal's highest virgin peak, 6,895-meter (22,621-foot) Lunag Ri.
Just two weeks ago, he and fellow American David Gottlieb arrived at the base of Lunag Ri Massif, and began scouting a summit route up the unclimbed mountain. They soon settled on a highly technical, four- to five-day-long route—4,000-plus vertical feet of ice and steep mixed climbing, punctuated by sections of aid climbing—and established advanced base camp at 17,800 feet, just beneath the massive wall. Then, until last Tuesday, the pair shuttled supplies up in preparation for a summit bid. That's when Gottlieb came down with a fever and a persistent cough, the early signs of a common-in-the-mountains but still nasty upper respiratory infection. The next day, Halloween, Gottlieb decided to ditch.
For many climbers, that would be the end of it. Late in the season with no partner at his side, staring up at a climb that was difficult with a partner and next-to-impossible alone, and running out of time and supplies, most climbers would be forgiven for packing it in. But Kellogg isn't like most climbers. Over the years, he's suffered more than his fair share of setbacks and losses.
In 2007, his wife, Lara Bitenieks, died in a climbing accident in Alaska's Ruth Gorge. Only three months later, he was diagnosed with life-threatening colon cancer. Since then, 17 friends and family members have died—"nearly every friend in my life," he told Outside. And that's just the bird's-eye view of it. There were injuries, financial setbacks, failed speed attempts on Everest in 2010 and again in spring of this year. All of this has led Kellogg to become a uniquely spritual and introspective person. So when Gottlieb dropped out of the climb last week, rather than retreat, Kellogg meditated. He sat out for two days and two nights, considering a solo climb of Lunag Ri, but gave up on the original routes. And he wrote an incredibly revealing, soul-searching expedition dispatch about what he was considering and why. Here's an excerpt:
While I was in the hospital recovering from having stage 2 colon cancer removed, following the death of my wife Lara 3 months earlier, I had a renewed outlook on life. There were many things I had wished I might have done in my lifetime. Given the fact that the impermanence of life had given my a renewed sense of purpose I determined not to waste a single day remaining. The thought even now chokes me up.
As he left it, he's still studying the peak, checking all angles for a route he can handle solo. "My ego is in check and my ambitions have been broken and reassembled with a new opportunity," Kellogg writes. "I can now go lighter with a goal that includes rock, mixed and alpine ice terrain. Lunag Ri provides a shot at an unclimbed 6,900-meter summit. These are the best of the best opportunities. ... May my love of life and the mountains inspire you in some way. This is the most I could ever hope for."
That was his last dispatch, posted to ExplorersWeb on Sunday, Nov. 4. Whatever Kellogg's up to now—hauling himself up that giant wall in his uncomplaining, workhorse style or humping his gear humbly back down the valley toward Namche—we sure hope he's safe. And yes, Chad, we are inspired. Thanks for that.