Since mountaineering became a popular sport in the 1850s, members of its community have often spoken of the “last great problems” in climbing: a peak that has yet to be summitted, a route that has yet to be conquered, an obstacle that has yet to be cleared.
Over the years, however, that list has steadily dwindled as all of the big firsts were gradually crossed off. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, for example, quickly gave way to increasingly meticulous claims to have tamed the world’s tallest peak, from the youngest female climber (just 13) to the first double amputee to the first man from Crawley.
For mountaineers who don’t happen to be 13-year-old girls, finding a way to stand out requires a little more creativity. Strategies have included being the first to blaze a new route up a difficult face of an already-summitted mountain; the first to climb an existing route in winter; the first to ski down a mountain; and the first to reach the summit of a difficult peak without the assistance of ropes, anchors or bolts. Others have achieved fame by breaking a record speed for getting up and down a particular route. Being the first to climb a previously unclimbed mountain works, too.
“Unclimbed mountains or unclimbed routes are far and away the aspiration of all serious mountaineers,” says Hilaree O’Neill, a skier, mountaineer and athlete, and the first woman ever to scale two 8,000m (26,400ft) peaks in 24 hours. “Mountaineers – at least the ones I know – are all adventurers at heart, and an unclimbed mountain, route or inventive technique epitomises that basic adventurer ideal.”
Plus, she adds, “Without a doubt, we are also a very egomaniacal group and an unclimbed anything helps separate a climber from the herd.”
No one knows how many unclimbed mountains remain in the world, but they number at least in the hundreds, if not the thousands. They can be found all over, with multitudes in former Soviet countries and in Russia; in Antarctica; in northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan; in Myanmar, Bhutan, Tibet and beyond. “There are infinitely more unclimbed peaks than there are climbed ones,” says Lindsay Griffin, chairman of the Mount Everest Foundation screening committee, who has climbed at least 65 previously unclimbed mountains himself, mostly in Central Asia and the Himalayas. “It’s a vast place, the world.”