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Three Years for Seven Days on Jannu

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 85, which is still currently available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 85 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Matt Cornell casts off on the first pitch of day five, high on the north face of Jannu (Kumbhakarna). Farther up the pitch, Cornell discovered an improbable line of pockets filled with quartz crystals that allowed for a seemingly magical passage. [Photo] Jackson Marvell

The scale was beyond what Jackson Marvell and I could wrap our heads around as we walked through the high meadows below Jannu in September 2021. We had tested negative for Covid-19 to travel from Salt Lake to Kathmandu, then we’d driven for thirty hours and then walked for a week; now, after a year of planning, we were looking at the 3000-meter north face of the fabled peak. A Kirati man approached us as we neared a temple under construction. 

“You will die if you go up there,” he said, voicing our darkest thoughts. 

Jackson and I looked at each other and shrugged. We had no idea what the hazards would look like up close, but this fellow wasn’t telling us anything we hadn’t already quietly contemplated. 

“I have talked to the guru. They say you won’t survive,” he assured us before resuming his work on the temple. The construction site was in a beautiful section of meadow at 4600 meters looking directly at Jannu. It was only a twenty-minute walk east from our base camp. Despite the proximity, we didn’t return for the uplifting pep talks very often. 

The thirty-second-highest point on Earth—at 7710 meters high—is known by several names and is considered to be a sacred place by many people. To the Kirat Limbu, who were among the first to inhabit Nepal, the peak is Phaktanglung (or Phoktanglungma). To most Nepalese, this mountain is known as Kumbhakarna. In Hinduism, Kumbhakarna was a great warrior known for his gigantic size. He befell a curse that had him sleep for six months at a time and then awaken with a nearly insatiable hunger, driving him to devour anything and anyone in his path before sleeping again. Some know Kumbhakarna as the “Sleeping Warrior Mountain” because of this. To the people I met living in the Ghunsa Valley, however, Kumbhakarna mostly represents an income source. 

Western alpinists often refer to the peak as Jannu—such a simple name for a mountain that carries so much history and inspires such trepidation. The stark view of Jannu’s north face from the village of Kambachen is a highlight of the Kangchenjunga base camp trek, drawing tourists from all over the world to this secluded valley in eastern Nepal. To a climber, the north face presents one of the ultimate challenges on Earth, requiring big-wall tactics in cold shade above 7000 meters.

The previous ascents on this aspect of the mountain either skirted the main headwall or involved a protracted siege with fixed ropes by a small army of climbers, as was the case with the 2004 first ascent of the Russian North Face Direct (VII 5.10d M6 A3+, ca. 3100m). In a Mountain Profile for Alpinist 57 (2017), Paul Hersey wrote, “The history of Jannu … reflects, in part, the development of alpinism in the Greater Ranges: the shift from siege tactics toward a lightweight approach.” Hersey then quoted Valery Babanov’s words from Alpinist 24 (2008), about the first ascent of the West Pillar in 2007: “Any ascent of Jannu is a leap into the unknown.… At these altitudes, technical problems are compounded by unstable weather, hurricane winds, thin air and arctic temperatures. Any path to Jannu would require the surpassing of ourselves.”

The north face of Jannu with the line of Roundtrip Ticket (AI5+ M7, 2700m) drawn in red. The route takes the Southwest Spur to the top. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

For Jackson and me, Jannu’s north face felt like three objectives in one, beginning with the opening 300-meter rock climb. The second section involves a long icefall and the crossing of a complex glacial plateau to reach the start of the real difficulties—a 900-meter ramp of sustained névé that leads to an intimidatingly steep 500-meter headwall.

It was early October and the monsoon still showed no signs of abating. Every day by noon the clouds would overtake our base camp, followed closely by soaking rains. Between storms we climbed the initial rock buttress a couple of times. It looked ominous and both of us were surprised to find an efficient line of moderate difficulty through this first obstacle. There was still more than 2400 meters of elevation towering above us to figure out, but Jackson and I began to feel like maybe it wasn’t a completely ludicrous idea to climb on the north flanks of Jannu after all. 

We’d given ourselves low chances for success. Considering the list of heavy hitters who had been turned around, how could we expect to succeed where so many others had not? I’d talked with Andy Lindblade, who had co-authored the Mountain Profile with Hersey, and he told me how the portaledge he shared with Athol Whimp had been destroyed by rockfall—while they were inside it—below 6500 meters. It was a miracle they were uninjured. In 2000, Jared Ogden, Mark Synnott and Kevin Thaw encountered bitterly cold temperatures, deep trail breaking and avalanche conditions that were too unstable for them to approach the headwall. Willie Benegas described an overwhelmingly large and complex face. He wished me the best of luck. Everyone we spoke to was encouraging but cautionary. Jackson and I thought we would get to the base, see a war zone of rockfall and quickly change objectives. But now we felt the tiniest inkling that it could be possible.

The latest weather update from my wife, Emily, called for a very wet two days. After enduring the damp mists and afternoon rains in base camp (4700m) for a couple of weeks, we headed down to the village of Ghunsa for a change of scenery and thicker air. There, we visited our friend Tshring Tashi Sherpa, who had grown up in the valley and was in the process of building an upscale teahouse. He was excited to hear that I had spent several seasons working as a mountain guide in Europe. He knew the Alps were famous for coffee and pastries, and quickly offered me a croissant and espresso he’d made, saying, “Tell me what’s wrong with it, I want to get better!” 

Tashi kept us entertained with stories from his childhood about his interactions with the Russian team that climbed the North Face Direct in 2004. He told us about how he and his father brought several resupplies of liquor to the team’s base camp. He recalled how he was scolded for looking through the lens of their long-distance telescope. “They were very mean,” he said, looking down and shaking his head. 

The village of Ghunsa, Nepal. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

After three days in Ghunsa, we hiked the ten miles and regained the 1200 meters of elevation to our base camp. We had received word that some high pressure was moving in and the monsoon appeared to be ending. Over the next three days, Jackson and I went back up the mountain and saw the icefall and the start of the headwall up close for the first time. Things once again seemed safer than we had anticipated. After a two-day rest in base camp, we embarked on another rotation up high. There were only four days of clear weather in the forecast, but we figured we could use more acclimatization and reconnaissance.

We both knew it was unlikely the weather window would get bigger, and even less likely that we could climb the peak in four days. But that didn’t stop us from trying. We came out of the gate hot and pushed hard every day. In three days we found ourselves setting up a hanging bivy on the headwall at 7200 meters! We estimated that we would need another three days of clear weather to hit the summit and descend safely—time we didn’t have. The forecast Emily sent us that evening predicted only thirty-six hours until the next storm would hit. 

That night on the wall was more exciting than we wanted it to be. We were sleeping side by side in two inflatable portaledges, with my “pod” on the inside edge, when mine flipped sideways. Suddenly I was hanging from the anchor, pinned between Jackson and the rock.

“Jackson, it’s happening!” I yelled. 

He rolled over, chuckling. 

“No, I’m freaking out, I can’t move!” I pleaded.

Jackson did a pull-up off the anchor, allowing my pod to flop back into position, and we sat next to each other, panting from the midnight exertion. We spent the rest of the night sitting upright with our backs against the wall. 

Emily sent another update in the morning, saying the storm was still on track to arrive the following day. Besides that, we were not acclimatized well enough; we’d awoken feeling lethargic and our faces were puffy from edema. The choice was clear and we packed our things to descend, but it was hard to take our gaze away from the headwall above. It was a dreamscape for mixed climbing—golden, fractured granite was plastered with Styrofoam névé in every corner.

It was a dreamscape for mixed climbing—golden, fractured granite was plastered with Styrofoam névé in every corner.

Our excitement was running high when we got back to base camp. “Man, we were way up there!” Jackson exclaimed, looking through the scope. We had three weeks left and felt confident that we would get another chance to climb. Now that I had seen 80 percent of the face, I felt like it wasn’t so crazy for us to be there anymore. It made me reflect and wonder: Were the current conditions just really good? Were we oblivious to hazards? I tried to step away from the giddiness and be more objective, but I couldn’t find a reason why we shouldn’t go back. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how incredible that headwall was. It embodied what we had been searching for, teetering on the brink of what seemed possible. A passage from Graeme Dingle’s book Wall of Shadows resonated with what I felt: “To me … mountain climbing epitomises man’s constant search into the unknown. A search that mystifies man himself, but that craves knowledge of the human psyche and the entire universe. For the mountaineer a mountain is usually the means for this search, not an end to itself. Jannu is a stage in my development.… My life can never be the same after.”

The forecasted storm turned out to be a powerful typhoon, bringing massive amounts of water from the Indian Ocean to the Himalaya. It began to snow lightly in base camp while we ate dinner that evening. I brushed off my tent before going to sleep. Three hours later I woke up with wet, cold tent fabric pressing against my face and immediately realized that we were in a massive, tent-collapsing storm. The snowfall was more intense than I had ever seen. Jackson and I, along with our cook, Sirius, spent the next few hours digging out tents with pots and pans, but the snow seemed to stack up as quickly as we could remove it. The storm ended the next evening. The sky cleared and the temperatures plummeted. The season had changed. With our minds still infatuated with the headwall, we pointed our feet downhill and began the long trip back home empty-handed.

Within a week of getting home, Jackson and I started planning our return to Jannu. We had learned a lot from our first foray to the mountain and agreed the face would be easier with a third person. The upper headwall seemed like it would lend itself to standard big-wall techniques such as hauling packs and short fixing. Distributing the work of leading, belaying, cleaning, hauling and cooking between three people would save time. Plus, our packs would be lighter for approaching the headwall, because the group kit wouldn’t be too different from what we had already been carrying: two ropes, two G7 Pods for sleeping on the wall and one stove. 

Before we’d even considered adding a third person to the roster, Jackson and I had a Yosemite trip in which we climbed Zodiac (VI 5.6 A3, 1,850′) on El Capitan in a day with Matt Cornell. Remembering how well we had functioned as a team, Jackson floated the idea of inviting Matt to join us. I was on board, and Matt immediately said yes. 

We gave our three-person partnership a proper alpine test run in May 2022 by attacking the Slovak Direct (AI6- M8-, 9,000′) on Denali’s south face in a single push. This section of Denali is one area of the Alaska Range that seems to have a truly Himalayan scale.

That April and May might have been the best weather and climbing conditions the central Alaska Range had ever seen, or ever will see. Matt and Jackson started the season by completing two new hard routes on Pyramid Peak in the Revelation Mountains, with Jack Cramer and Austin Schmitz accompanying them on the second climb. While they were in the Revelations, I guided the Mooses Tooth twice, followed by the full West Ridge of Mt. Hunter (Begguya). Immediately after my guiding work, Matt, Jackson and I flew back into Denali base camp with a month of supplies. Four days later we summited Denali by the upper West Rib from the 14,000-foot Camp and returned to base camp the following day. After two days of rest, we set off up the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. 

To us, attempting a one-day ascent of the Slovak Direct represented a step into the unknown. The existing speed record of sixty hours had been set by Scott Backes, Steve House and Mark Twight in 2000. Over the next twenty years, many talented alpinists climbed the route, but none of them were able to climb it faster than the team in 2000. 

Matt, Jackson and I flowed well climbing as a team of three—we moved at a similar pace, we shared a similar tolerance for risk and, most importantly, we enjoyed spending time with one another. We were thrilled to complete the massive route in twenty-one hours and thirty-five minutes. It bolstered our confidence that we could apply the same tactics on Jannu. Unlike the record set in 2000, ours would stand for only nineteen days, as our close friends Sam Hennessey, Rob Smith and Michael Gardner climbed the route in seventeen hours and ten minutes on June 3.

We’d all climbed the Slovak Direct as a training run for future objectives. Despite the media’s best attempts to create a story of rivalry, we felt nothing but support and happiness for everyone’s success on the route that season. Most importantly for us, it was clear our chances on Jannu would be elevated with Matt on board. 

Logistics were finalized, flights were purchased and before I knew it the three of us were in Kathmandu getting started on Jannu round two.

One night I awoke with a sharp gasp, jolting upright, drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. I was happy to find myself alive in bed after dreaming I’d been killed on the headwall.

Back in Nepal, Matt and I met up with Jackson in a hotel restaurant. Moments after we sat down, Jackson’s phone lit up with messages. Anxiety overtook his normally unbothered demeanor as he stepped away from the table to make a call. From his quick pacing and furrowed brow, Matt and I realized something was very wrong. A few minutes later, Jackson told us that his partner had just had a serious climbing accident in Europe and she’d been taken by helicopter to a hospital. He needed to leave as soon as possible. Wishing us luck, he headed back to the airport. 

Our team of three had turned into a team of two. Matt and I continued on with our Jannu plans, but we both felt strange going to the mountain without Jackson. Though Matt and I had become friends and built trust in each other during our Alaska trip, Jackson had brought us together. And Jannu was a project I’d started with Jackson, so it didn’t feel right without him.

The weather ended up being terrible, and we were afraid for Jackson’s partner, who was also our friend and was now recovering in the hospital. It simply wasn’t the year for us to climb Jannu. Despite the off-kilter energy, and even though our highpoint was a thousand feet lower than on my previous attempt with Jackson, Matt and I learned more about the mountain. We became close friends, and Matt gained a sense of shared ownership in the project. Corresponding through inReach messages, the three of us agreed to return in 2023—before Matt and I had even finished the hike out. 

The Sleeping Warrior was proving to be a worthy adversary. Back home, I wondered if we would ever get conditions in which I would feel comfortable committing to the headwall. If we do, will I have the physical and mental fortitude to make it through to the top and back down? Self-doubt was a constant companion. Any moment of downtime would see my thoughts drifting into the shadows of the north face. It was all-consuming. Every workout was spent thinking of Jannu. Any time I thought of knocking one set or one rep off the workout, I would remember the fatigue I’d felt up high on the frigid wall and push the workout until my muscles failed. Although often motivating, Kumbhakarna was creeping into every facet of my life, even my sleep. 

One night I awoke with a sharp gasp, jolting upright, drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. I was happy to find myself alive in bed after dreaming I’d been killed on the headwall. Knowing it would be futile to try to go back to sleep, I apologized to Emily for waking her—she has become accustomed to this annoyance over the last fifteen years—and left the bed to make coffee. I’ve experienced this countless times in the last two decades. It seems my subconscious mind sometimes struggles to process the baggage that comes with spending more than 250 days a year in alpine terrain; I’ve seen people fall to their deaths, I’ve sustained serious injuries and I’ve had too many near-misses to keep track of them all. Still, the vivid nature of the Jannu dreams was more jarring than usual.

That week my dental hygienist told me I’d been grinding my teeth. She informed me this is usually a sign of stress and anxiety. “You don’t say,” I replied. I’d spent four months of my life in the Ghunsa Valley and nearly three years thinking about the Sleeping Warrior. Is it worth it? The question rarely left my side.

In March 2023, I was back in Alaska with Matt and Jackson, heading to the lower Ruth Gorge for another big objective. We hoped to climb something steeper that would demand more from our big-wall skills. After the Slovak Direct, we were feeling confident in our abilities to simulclimb together. But since we had only belayed three pitches on the 9,000-foot climb, we figured there were still some wrinkles to iron out when it came to climbing sustained mixed terrain where we couldn’t simul as much. We soon settled on an unclimbed chimney system on Mt. Dickey’s east face that had seen previous attempts. It was late March and still felt like Alaskan winter. 

Once again, we proved to work well together, though there were moments when we probably hung it out there a little more than we should have. We all had leads that took hours to complete as we overcame massive runouts, aerated alpine ice and insecure drytooling. Each of us knew that if we backed off a pitch, another member of the team would likely give it a shot. We all had our blocks and wanted to complete our allocated work for the team. Whenever I’m in those situations, I feel like we are cogs in a machine, our combined efforts enabling us to extend beyond our normal limits.

I wake to Jackson saying, “Oh no, that piece of ice tore the fly.” 
“Are we fucked?” I ask.

Following three days of battling snow mushrooms and subzero temps, we reached the top of Dickey’s east face. Our route, Aim for the Bushes (AI6 M6 X, 5,250′), gave us renewed faith in everyone’s ability to walk the line between responsibility and recklessness and move efficiently through continuously difficult climbing with sparse protection. 

Five months later, Emily and I meet up with Matt and his girlfriend, Whitney, in Doha, Qatar, on our way to Kathmandu. Emily and Whitney will hike to base camp with us this year. Jackson arrives and the energy is right. Things feel light. The vibe is carefree as we party our way up the Ghunsa Valley, drinking tongba and chang, laughing the whole way as a cohesive group of friends. Again, words from those who have traveled here before me ring true, including the words Hersey wrote near the end of his story in Alpinist 57: “The mountains are an important part of the journey, but they are not the completion of it. The story is multilayered, interwoven with local culture and international customs, an appreciation for the earth and a surpassing of the self that is measured by much more than what summit we may or may not reach.”

Walking from village to village, we see all the familiar faces we have gotten to know over the past two years. “You are back for Jannu north face?” they ask. Arriving in Ghunsa, we learn that Tashi has nearly completed his vision for the Dzonga Family House, his teahouse. It has beautiful woodwork, a warm dining room heated by a woodstove and solar-heated showers. He smiles with well-deserved pride as he invites us in for cake and hot lemon ginger tea. I feel lucky to have seen the labor-intensive process of construction and witness Tashi’s vision come to life. 

Two weeks later, the monsoon still blankets the Himalaya. Emily and Whitney have gone home. We have finished our acclimatization, rested in Ghunsa and returned to base camp. It’s the third of October, we are waiting for our window and it is hard for me to sit still. Doubtful thoughts arise. Will we get to try this? Is it going to get too cold? I hope snow doesn’t accumulate on the lower rock buttress. I don’t verbalize my concerns. Relax, wait for things to unfold, I tell myself. Restlessness takes over and I leave the dome tent to wander around in the cold mist that has enveloped our base camp meadow. There is a near-constant rumbling in the clouds from avalanches and falling seracs. The whole valley vibrates as we wait. 

It’s still raining steadily when I get a message from Emily saying dry weather is beginning to show up on extended forecasts. The window appears to be a couple of days, then it extends to three, four, five, six … With each passing day the forecasts show a larger high-pressure system. In the meantime, we’ve been packing fuel cans, counting calories and deciding how many pairs of socks and gloves to bring with us. 

By October 7 we have a week of clear weather with relatively warm temps and light winds predicted. Finally, after three years of waiting, we leave base camp with a forecast that gives us confidence. The energy is right as we cruise across the mile of rock glacier to the first buttress. 

This is my tenth time ascending this section of Jannu, which has come to feel like a familiar chore. As I move through the mossy sea of sloping granite, I consider the irony that my mind has memorized so much unmemorable climbing. Avoid the block on the left—it’s loose; clip piton, smear right foot, step through. I feel like I could slog through these 300 meters of marginal, chronically wet rock with my eyes closed. If this works, you won’t have to climb it for an eleventh time, I promise myself. Matt leads the whole buttress in one block of simul-climbing, and we are at 5300 meters three hours after leaving our base camp.

Jackson Marvell picks his way through the icefall above the 300-meter rock buttress en route to the base of the north face on Jannu (Kumbhakarna) during the first attempt in October 2021. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

On top of the buttress, we shift from light footwear into our 6000-meter boots and crampons and pull out our ice tools. The icefall ahead is a maze of huge seracs. We unrope and solo through the ice steps to reduce our time amid the unstable blocks. It is a struggle to find the balance between moving fast in order to minimize exposure and conserve our energy for the 2400 vertical meters left to climb. Once again we make it through the icefall unscathed, then begin breaking trail across the hanging glacial plateau at 5700 meters. We inch toward the sharply defined sun-shade line on the glacier—the shadow of Jannu. The three of us pause for a moment, acknowledging that this will be the last time we will feel the warmth of the sun for days. 

Proceeding up the glacier, we employ all the knowledge gained from our previous forays, in which we made no shortage of route-finding mistakes. Today, we reach the bergschrund at 5800 meters with enough daylight to set up a comfortable bivy for the night. 

We wake to spindrift hitting the tent. All of us ignore it until it can no longer be ignored. “We are getting buried in here,” Jackson says, a hint of frustration in his voice. 

“Do we need to get out and fix it?” I ask, hoping I can go back to sleep. 

“Yeah, we need to take care of this.”

Soon we are all outside digging out our tent and building a wall of snow to keep the spindrift away. Fortunately, we only need to take care of this once, and we all sleep until our alarm sounds at 5 a.m. 

The morning ritual begins with brewing three liters of coffee and three liters of electrolytes. We consume them together while still in the tent. Next, we melt enough snow for two liters of water to split while we climb during the day. This process takes more than an hour, but we enjoy the warmth of the lit stove and the hot liquids in our stomachs. 

The second day on Jannu’s north face is a brutal one, requiring 900 meters of elevation gain on steepening névé. By midday our calf muscles are screaming for oxygenated blood and our triceps are cramping. I’d always thought that if we could make it through day two without being destroyed, we would probably be strong enough to reach the summit. This is my fifth time climbing this portion of the mountain. Every time it has felt Sisyphean. You climb for hours and the end of “the ramp” never seems to get any closer. All the while, there is tremendous overhead hazard, and the weight of the headwall looms above. We tiptoe upward as quickly as our legs and lungs will allow, hoping the Sleeping Warrior doesn’t wake. 

“Perhaps someday, a pair will climb a direct route on the north face in alpine style, but they’ll need to accept the likelihood that they’re buying themselves a one-way ticket.”

—Sergey Kofanov, “Open,” Jannu Mountain Profile, Alpinist 57

Jackson is leading on overhanging glacial ice near the top of the ramp late in the day when he says, “This is too dangerous, guys! I’m coming down.” In five years of climbing with him, this is a first. He is one of the best ice climbers I’ve seen and commands a boldness few possess. In trying to find a new way to gain the hanging glacier at 6700 meters, we had hit a dead end, putting a halt to the day’s efforts. 

Our previous way through this section had involved slow and dangerous snow climbing through hollow flutings, followed by a big pendulum to hit the hanging glacier. We’d hoped traversing farther left would reveal an easier passage, but instead we found overhanging glacial ice and very steep blank rock. 

Fortunately, our dead end happens to have a glacial cave with a flat floor. We set up for the night and try not to think about what would happen if an earthquake occurred. We sleep well, aside from one of us waking in a terrible scream during the night. Later we laugh about it, still unsure who it was.

The next morning, two right-traversing sixty-meter rappels get us back on track. All of us are beyond excited to reach this section of the mountain. Here, we are done with the boring slog of the névé ramp and get to move into some fun ice-filled chimneys that slice through the steepening face. The climbing becomes more challenging as we weave our way up to the start of the 500-meter headwall that guards the summit slopes. Along the way we find traces of the Russian ascent: short, unusable pieces of fixed line sticking out of the ice and old rusted pitons. Upon reaching the headwall at 7000 meters, we deviate from the Russian Direct, opting for an unclimbed corner system to the right.

Starting day three in October 2023, a few hundred meters below the 2021 highpoint. The previous day’s progress was halted near the top of the 900-meter ramp when the team tried to find an alternate route that ended up being too difficult and risky to continue. They spent a comfortable but spooky night in a glacial cave before getting back on route with two rappels out of the cave in the morning. The three climbers had worried about what might happen if they were caught in an earthquake while sleeping in the exposed position; one of them awoke with a scream during the night. “It was probably me,” Cornell says. [Photo] Matt Cornell

The three of us are standing on a fin of snow protruding from the face at 7100 meters when the glow of sunset illuminates the headwall. We are one pitch below our previous highpoint on the face, with 600 vertical meters of hard climbing left to do. The next two hours are spent stomping and chopping into the fin to create a platform to sleep on. We figure it’s worth the effort since our next three nights will be spent hanging off the wall on portaledges. 

I wake to Jackson saying, “Oh no, that piece of ice tore the fly.” 

“Are we fucked?” I ask.

“I don’t think so, but it’s a big rip.”

It’s too cold to patch the fly with tape or glue. For the biggest tear, we pinch the fabric together and use two screwgate carabiners as clamps, tightening the metal sleeves over the noses of the carabiners where the gates pinched the fabric. Much to our surprise, this actually holds the tent closed. Between hits from falling ice, we manage to get some much-needed sleep. 

Day four sees us making slow, steady progress—until the way upward is no longer obvious.

“Am I going to get messed up if I blow it?!” I shout. I’m balanced over my frontpoints, ten feet left of an ice screw, contemplating an overhanging ice blob. 

“You’ll be fine,” Jackson says casually. 

I take a deep breath and pull up onto my tools. We are at around 7300 meters and the sun has set by the time I finish building a six-piece anchor beneath an overhang. We set up our hanging bivy that night on a ninety-degree panel of granite. This is our first time utilizing the G7 Pod system as a team of three without any rock ledge to supplement the arrangement. The altitude is starting to have a noticeable effect. Everything is taking more time. Hanging from the anchor to take off our crampons and then removing our boots while crammed together inside the hanging shelter proves to be quite a workout.

 Day five starts slow, with us putting our boots back on and then hanging off the anchor to deflate the pods and stuff them into our backpacks. We are hanging 2600 meters above the rock glacier and still have 200 meters of difficult mixed climbing to overcome. 

The team’s first hanging camp on the headwall in 2023. They arranged two inflatable portaledges side by side under a fly that had been torn by falling ice. Marvell says he spent at least one night holding himself onto the end of the air-filled platform, which was collapsing under his weight. [Photo] Jackson Marvell

Matt has the first lead. He does a tension traverse from the belay across thirty feet of skatey granite, then commits to a thin sheet of ice that looks improbable for climbing. 

“Matt! You are in the position of a lifetime, dude! You are killing it!” I scream across the face. He’s in it now, I think. There is no way he is getting back to this belay

He climbs the thin sheet of ice to another pendulum off a cam and discovers a line of thin pockets with quartz crystals inside them. The pockets seem to offer a magical passage across an otherwise featureless section of granite. It is one of the most incredible mixed pitches I’ve ever had the opportunity to climb, and one of several moments during the trip that unfold like a dream. The climbing remains exceptional the whole day, with Matt and Jackson each leading a block of three pitches.

“Did you see an end to the headwall?” I ask, reaching the day’s last belay in full darkness.

“Yeah, looks like one more pitch to go,” Matt says. “It looked pretty straightforward.” 

It’s another hanging bivy but at least this time there is a small ledge to help us set up and get inside the portaledge. Once we’re inside the shelter and making water, it begins to sink in for me where we are. Only one pitch from the top of the headwall!  

“I know we still have a ton of work to do, but I cannot help but think we just did something pretty mega,” I say, afraid of jinxing it. Matt and Jackson return nods.

“I know what you mean,” Jackson says. Here we are, sitting side by side, hanging off five beaks and a tied-off knifeblade at 7500 meters, in a position we wondered if we could ever reach.  

In the morning we pack what we need into one backpack and leave the rest of the gear hanging. One pitch of iced-up chimney climbing brings us into the sunshine on the Southwest Spur. It is some much-needed warmth after four full days in Jannu’s shadow. 

The climb to the summit is much harder than we’d anticipated. Numerous steep pitches, with cruxes as hard as M5, pass by in a blur of deep fatigue.

Cornell leads the way along the summit ridge of Jannu with Alan Rousseau close behind. Each climber felt like there were other people around them on this day, but they didn’t realize all of them had experienced the same sensation until later. Marvell discovered frostbite on his pinky shortly before this photo was taken. [Photo] Jackson Marvell

All day I keep feeling like there are other people around. Matt and Jackson feel it too. It’s a nice feeling, but it is also very strange each time I realize it’s only the three of us up here. What I know for sure is that the energy of the summit ridge will stay with us forever.

Then Jackson stops. “My pinky is black,” he says, looking at his hand, realizing he has some frostbite on the tip of his right finger. “I don’t think it’s going to change anything for my outcome if I go up for another hour. If I have issues with my hand, are you guys going to be able to help get me down?” Matt and I agree. With that, Jackson turns and leads the final overhanging sequence of the route. Just thirty minutes of knife-edge snow brings us to the summit, but it feels like an eternity. We take a step or two, then stop to catch our breath. Walking the ridge, looking around, I can’t help but feel like I’ve launched out of orbit. 

We stay on the summit for maybe five minutes—just long enough to take a few photos and videos—before beginning the long descent, going down the way we came up. After down climbing the summit ridge, we rappel into the night.

 The traversing rappels on the Southwest Spur are time-consuming in the dark and use more of our cams that we would like. It’s 10:30 p.m. when we get back to the bivy at 7500 meters. With an already dwindling rack, we arrive feeling frayed, with sunken eyes and cheeks that are puffy with edema. There’s no discussion as we set up the pods. One more night on the wall, I think. 

Day seven sees us doing at least eighty more rappels as we descend from 7500 meters to 4700 meters, where we finally stumble into base camp at 11 p.m. There is a huge amount of relief, but also some anxiety as we take off our gloves and realize that I have incurred some frostbite to my left hand. 

It begins to dawn on us that a helicopter evacuation from base camp may be necessary. Jackson has some open wounds where blebs have burst. Walking five days through the jungle, followed by two more days of travel to Kathmandu, would likely result in a serious infection. We also know that if we can get to Kathmandu within seventy-two hours, we will be able to receive an IV drug called Iloprost, which could help minimize our loss of tissue.

“The mountains are an important part of the journey, but they are not the completion of it. The story is multilayered, interwoven with local culture and international customs, an appreciation for the earth and a surpassing of the self that is measured by much more than what summit we may or may not reach.”

Paul Hersey, Jannu Mountain Profile, Alpinist 57

The decision to be helicoptered out of base camp weighs heavily on us. We take comfort in the fact that there are pilots in Kathmandu who are used to flying in the 4000-meter range and above. At the same time, we feel very strongly that we do not want others to be placed in a risky situation because of our mistakes. We come to the conclusion that our base camp is a reasonable place for an evacuation, as many helicopters have landed in this meadow before. The next morning we contact Global Rescue Insurance, and thirty hours later a helicopter picks us up for the two-hour flight to Kathmandu. 

The day after our climb, while waiting for the chopper, we looked up at the face and enjoyed the privilege of considering what to name our route. I reflected on a quote we had read many times. In an essay for the Jannu profile in Alpinist 57 titled “Open,” Sergey Kofanov wrote, “Perhaps someday, a pair will climb a direct route on the north face in alpine style, but they’ll need to accept the likelihood that they’re buying themselves a one-way ticket.” I never felt like death was imminent on our ascent of Jannu. We didn’t have much margin for error, but I always felt like we had enough. I’d bought three round-trip tickets to Jannu’s north face, and I was committed to using my return leg. We all agreed Roundtrip Ticket (AI5+ M7, 2700m) would be a fitting name.

Left to right: Cornell, Rousseau and Marvell on the summit of Jannu (7710m). Frostbite is visible on Marvell’s right pinky. [Photo] Jackson Marvell

The reentry phase of getting back into the routines of everyday life has always been interesting to me. One of my big regrets from this trip was not being able to hike out through the valley. As I rode in the helicopter, I kept thinking about the people I was not getting a chance to say goodbye to. I’d planned to give gifts, thanking them for their incredible kindness. Some people I just wanted to sit with and enjoy their company for an extended tongba-fry. It was hard to hold back the tears. I’d anticipated having a week to process things during a slow walk out. Instead, the next thing I knew I was in an ambulance in heavy Kathmandu traffic, being driven to the CIWEC clinic. 

Despite receiving the Iloprost treatment and spending a lot of time in a hyperbaric chamber, I had one centimeter of my left pinky amputated just over three months after the climb. Jackson’s pinky is recovering better and he is still waiting to see if it will need any amputation. If it does, he won’t lose much tissue. We have both been climbing since the injuries and it seems the frostbite will not impact our future goals.

What is not lost on us is that the things we have done and continue to do are not possible without the knowledge of the people who’ve come before us. The pages of Jannu’s history are filled with climbers who pushed beyond what they considered possible. It’s an honor to add our story to the compendium, and I look forward to learning about those who may write the next chapters. 

We wake and we sleep. Sometimes our waking hours feel more like a dream. It’s hard to understand what we felt up high on Jannu. The three of us relied on the help of so many people to get there and back. I wonder about the summit day: Were we feeling Kumbhakarna, the energy of creation celebrated by the Kirat people? The energy of those we’ve lost? The love and support of those waiting for us back home? Or was it just hypoxia that had us thinking others were up there walking the line with us? I’ll never know. I’m just glad the guru was wrong and that I’m here to share our experience.