Scarpa athletes Jordan Cannon and Jesse Huey, together with Matt Segal, went to Pakistan for six weeks at the turn of July and August this year to try to repeat the route.
"I have climbed so much in Yosemite, I grew up with the history of the world's big walls. Cowboy Direct is one of the most iconic routes, a milestone in mountaineering history. To pay homage to the route and the first climbers, each of us had our own cowboy hat! I had seen photos of the first climbers wearing hats in National Geographic. This route has always been in the corner of my head...it wasn't a concrete project for me at the beginning, I just knew it was there!" says Jordan, a young climber from Las Vegas and a big wall specialist.
"Yes, let's say the initial idea was Matt Segal's," continues Jesse, a mountaineer from Boulder, Colorado, who is passionate about everything from ice and mixed climbing to big walls. "Matt and I are old friends, we have been climbing together for years, supporting each other in various projects. In the spring we had just finished a new route on Mt. Hooker in Wyoming. That route, started during the 2020 pandemic, had been my idea, which Matt followed with great enthusiasm. So, when the project was finished, Matt asked me to help him realize a lifelong wish in his heart, to repeat The Cowboy Direct. I remember when we lived together, years ago, he had a picture of the Tower of Trango stuck on his wardrobe. I would notice it every time I went into his room and he would say, 'One day we will go there! 'This year the time has come. The reason Matt cared so much is that he was planning this expedition years ago together with his good friend Micah Dash, shortly before the latter was fatally swept away by an avalanche in the mountains of China."
Jesse, why didn't you two go alone and instead you get Jordan Cannon involved?
"After years of climbing together, trying a free big wall in the Himalayas was a big goal for Matt and me, we had been thinking about it for some time. We knew, however, that we couldn't do it alone. So we thought of involving Jordan, who with his talent for climbing, his great experience, and above all his enthusiasm for adventure was crucial!"
"It was a bit like closing a circle that started before me, realising the dream of someone who is no longer with us, keeping his memory alive together with his friends," Jordan concludes. "More than ten years have passed since Matt and Micah were planning this expedition in 2009. In the meantime, no one else has succeeded."
So you started with the arrangements
"Yes”, says Jesse, “Matt took care of all the logistics with the local agency, and contacted a couple of expeditions that had been in the area the year before to get all the necessary information. I prepared the high-altitude gear, the food to eat on the wall and the equipment for the bivouacs."
"I, on the other hand," Jordan continues, "organized the climbing equipment, managed the order on the wall, the climbing of the fixed ropes and the lifting of the bags. Luckily though, when we got to base camp Jesse adjusted the crampons on my Ribelle Tech 3...I wouldn't have known where to start!"
How did you train?
Jordan: "I have a lot of big wall experience, I was already well trained on that. I walked a lot at Red Rocks, did bouldering in the gym and sport climbing, and also some easy solo route chaining to spend many hours on the mountain. I wanted to make sure I had the right resistance while keeping the climbing level high enough to free climb the hardest passages of the route, which goes up to 7c+. We also slept for six weeks in a hyperbaric tent, to arrive in Pakistan already as acclimatized as possible."
Jesse: "It's true! It wasn't so good to spend the last weeks before we left sleeping in a tent at home...even my wife didn't like that!
I have been training harder than ever for this expedition. I did beam, weights, of course always keeping the climbing volume high. I prepared my legs for the long walks with bags on my shoulders, carrying 20kg rucksacks around. Two months before leaving, I doubled my climbing training, waking up every day at 5.30am. I wanted to climb at least 6-8 pitches every day before going to work, at least 4 of which were above 7a. If you look at the photos on my Instagram profile you think I'm just a professional climber, but I actually have a studio and work as a surveyor!"
Has anyone tried Cowboy Direct before? Why is this climb so difficult?
"Free climbing Trango Tower is very difficult," says Jordan. "It is a dream for many climbers because this wall has made history in high altitude climbing, the rock is of exceptional quality and the climbing superb. However, bad weather often rages, the wall is in poor condition due to snow or ice.
Then there are problems of oxygen shortage and intestinal disorders that always lurk in the Himalayas. I don't think anyone has seriously tried the route free. Maybe someone climbed it alpine style at the top."
"Yes," Jesse continues, "a rope team tried years ago but they stalled after the first pitch. They decided to go and try Eternal Flame, which is in the sun most of the day and therefore somewhat friendlier."
It may be friendlier, but it was first free climbed in 2009, and then attempted many times and repeated last year by Jacopo Larcher and Barbara Zangerl after several attempts! Was it your first time in Pakistan?
"For Matt and me it was the first time in Pakistan. For me it was also the first expedition, the first time climbing at altitude. And actually, it was also my first time doing anything serious ice and mixed!" Jordan laughs.
Jesse, on the other hand, gets a little dark: "I had gone to Pakistan in 2013, but I stayed there for less than a week. That year there was a terrible terrorist attack on the Nanga Parbat base camp, which left 11 people dead. I decided to return home, while my companions Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted completed the first ascent of K6 West, winning the Piolet d'Or. This year was my fourth expedition to the Himalayas, but my expectations were quite low, given all the unknowns."
So how was your arrival in Pakistan?
"As soon as possible we headed for base camp. When we arrived, the weather was quite good, so we set about fixing the ropes on the wall, getting the gear up and preparing for our free attempt.
But then the weather was bad, so all we could do was try, give it our best and hope. Of the 12 days we spent on the wall, we had just three days of good weather during which we could climb all day. Fortunately, we were able to make full use of them: on the first day we climbed up to the 'Sun Terrace'. Then we had a day of good weather about halfway up, on which we moved the camp up to two-thirds of the wall, hanging, of course.
Finally the day on which we reached the top."
How did you achieve this? What was the key to success?
Jordan: "If we managed to climb the route, it was because we took advantage of the small windows of only half a day or even just a few hours. Determination allowed us to succeed. We never let it get us down, we always motivated each other, climbing as much as we could, every single day. Sometimes we would get out of our sleeping bags and portaledges just to take an extra pitch. Every effort was a small step towards the summit."
Jesse: "True, determination was the key. But so was friendship. A wonderful friendship was created between us, a fantastic harmony: we didn't get angry when we ended up off the route, we talked openly when something was bothering us, we even warmed each other's hands and feet under our armpits before hard pitches. We trusted each other in everything. This friendship, more than the climb, more than every pitch, every sunset or every moment on the route, is what I will never forget about this expedition!"
Do you think you will return to the Trango Towers?
Jesse: I don't think so. We succeeded, everything worked out perfectly and we completed our dream. There are so many places in the world I would like to see and where I would like to climb! I can't wait to go back to Pakistan, but maybe to another area.
Jordan: Who knows...it's too early to think about that. I feel I was very lucky to come home from the first expedition with success in my pocket. Maybe I'll go back, maybe to climb Eternal Flame, or maybe, more ambitiously, to climb Cowboy Direct in a day. Or maybe I won't return to Trango Towers because I'll go somewhere else, who knows!
Thanks for taking us with you on this adventure!
Jesse: "No, wait, I have a story to tell you:"
Every evening, on the wall, while the wind and snow were beating down on the tent, we tried to lighten things up a bit by watching some episodes of a TV series on the iPad. In one scene there is Ted Lasso, the main character, playing darts with the odious brewery owner. After a few wrong throws, the owner thinks Ted is incapable, and Ted challenges him. In the final round Ted explains to the owner that there are two types of people in the world, those who judge and those who are curious. As he prepares to throw the last dart Ted stops and explains to the owner that for some reason people have been judging and underestimating him all his life. He looks at him and says: "You know, if you were curious you would have asked: "Hey Ted, have you ever played darts?" To which I would have said, 'every Sunday, with my dad at the village bar, since I was seven.'" Then, with great style, Ted scores and exclaims, "Barbecue sauce!"
It is the twelfth day on the wall and it should be our summit day. Matt and I are both tired and knocked down, having made a few mistakes on the route and realizing that we have to change direction again. Matt descends to the belay by unclimbing for 10 meters, because he doesn't feel up to making some challenging and unprotected moves. We look at each other, we're both exhausted, we know we can't make it. Jordan arrives at the belay and looks fairly fresh, but he has done a lot the previous day, and thinks and hopes he can rest a little more. Instead, it's clear to everyone that either Jordan takes the lead on the rope, or we retreat inside the portaledge to sleep.
Matt and I hand Jordan the irons, he slowly and methodically places them on the harness. He does it all with a disarming calm, while we watch him in disbelief, because it's getting dark. Jordan sets off for the pitch, to be protected only by grey and purple friends, with his feet completely smeared. Before starting a challenging section he turns to us, looks at us and imperturbably says: you know, people have underestimated me all my life...
Almost thirty meters further up, as he stands calmly on a good hand jam, having just onsighted one of the route's key pitches, he turns to us and shouts "Barbecue sauceeeee!"