Contemplating the Next Impossible

Posted on: June 5, 2023

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 82, which is now 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 82 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Illustration by Andreas SchmidtThe northeast face of Masherbrum. [Photo] Adobe Stock

WHEN IT COMES TO the physical limits of the human body, we are constantly wondering what is possible: What is the fastest a human can run, the highest someone can jump? Whatever a discipline's record of achievement may be, people will endeavor to break it. How many times throughout history have we seen the "impossible" made possible? Climbing is no different, though our reasons usually involve much more than simply breaking records, especially when it comes to climbs that present real mortal danger. Risk aside, there will always be those who wonder: What is the limit of human ability on high peaks and technical faces?


Many mountain aspects once labeled "impossible" have since become trade routes for today's climbers, such as the Eiger Nordwand and El Capitan. It was once theorized that climbing Chomolungma (Everest) without bottled oxygen was impossible, yet Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler did just that in 1978. Hundreds of people have now done it.

Messner has expressed opinions about the "impossible" since at least 1971. Last November I saw him speak in Aspen. At the end of his lecture, I asked, "What is the next 'impossible' for today's alpinists?"

He responded without hesitation: "The north wall of Masherbrum."

Only a handful of teams have mounted expeditions to the north side of the 7821-meter peak in Pakistan since the mid-2000s. The teams angling for the direct northeast face were turned around almost immediately because the hazards were so numerous.

Before David Lama, Hansjorg Auer and Jess Roskelley died in an avalanche while descending Howse Peak in Canada in April 2017, Lama and Auer had tried the northeast face of Masherbrum with Peter Ortner. Lama and Ortner first visited the face in 2013 and returned in 2014 and 2016 with Auer. Their best effort resulted in 400 meters of climbing before getting turned around by poor snow conditions in 2014. In an interview on, Lama described the face as an "Eiger, with a Cerro Torre on top.... There's so much danger from seracs, icefall and rockfall and avalanches."

Steve House, who visited the north side of Masherbrum in 2003 with Marko Prezelj and Matic Jost, shared some of his experience with me in an email:

The route that David and Hansjorg wanted to try (and I told them this) is a stupid objective because of the unreasonable level of objective hazard on the approach.... The north pillar on the other hand, the stunning arete that splits the northeast and the northwest face, is an incredible objective. That's what Marko, Matic and I attempted in 2003, but the avalanche hazard on what was essentially the approach to the pillar was crazy high that year. This was the typical buried-weak-layer seasonal avalanche risk. Not the random-massive-serac avalanche exposure that one would encounter on the trek up to the base of the north face.

In August 2022 Marek Holecek and Radoslav Groh reached 7300 meters taking a slightly similar line to what House described before getting turned around by storms.

Lindsay Griffin, senior editor of the American Alpine Journal, said there are other objectives that could offer a comparable but perhaps slightly safer challenge than Masherbrum's north face.

"Getting up to the headwall appears to present considerable objective danger, and would probably need exceptional conditions," he said of Masherbrum. "It may be no more difficult than Jannu's north face (Kumbhakarna, 7710m) ... but the relative lack of rock- and icefall makes Jannu a safer bet. However, I think the ultimate, in my mind, is still the (proper) west face of Makalu (8485m), where the rock headwall starts above the summit of Masherbrum. There are other unattempted steep high-altitude walls that immediately spring to mind, such as on Gyachung Kang (7861m), but they are likely to be more mixed."

Someone may eventually succeed on these high faces, at what cost we can only guess. But history moves on, and, inevitably, there will be a new impossible objective.

For all we know, the next "impossible" may end up being the challenge of saving—or at least surviving on—an increasingly volatile planet suffering the effects of climate change, pollution, disease and war. The mountaineers and explorers who have faced unknowns in the deepest ocean trenches, the highest walls and the far-flung reaches of space, learning to survive and persevere throughout nature's most hostile conditions, will have at least taught us something of what we are capable of enduring and overcoming.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 82, which is now 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 82 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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