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The Wild West of the East, Part III

The Wild West of the East, Part III

[ November 2, 2009 - 3:57pm ]
Kris Erickson, Jamie Laidlaw, and Kip Garre in Kathmandu.
Lessons from Nepal, including which hand to eat with and how to improvise when getting your sherpas to keep hiking is like trying to move a herd of legless rhinos. Writer Devon O'Neil reports from his ski-mountaineering expedition to Nepal with three North Face-sponsored athletes.

You learn certain things on your first Himalayan expedition—wipe with your left hand, eat with your right; don't take your eyes off the trail when a 200-foot drop is inches inches from your boot; that black inchworm on your ankle isn't an inchworm, and it's not the one bleeding. Along these same lines, if your expedition is set in an area where almost no Westerners have ventured, it is nearly inevitable that your plans will change—often drastically.
It doesn't take long for that to ring true for us. When we land in Dhangadi from Kathmandu, the temperature is 93 degrees and the sun is beaming. During the treacherous two-day ride in a 9 1/2-ton truck from there to Chainpur—the gateway to the Saipal mountains—the death star burns our arms as they hang out the window. But on our second morning of hiking into one of the densest jungles any of us has seen, the mountains disappear and it starts to rain.
The drops fall softly at first, then get steadier and thicker as the 7 a.m. sky grows darker than dusk. So much for the monsoons ending in September.
It strikes me as unfortunate that our porters don't like walking far with heavy loads on their backs, given that is what we are paying them to do; but even more unfortunate that they understand exactly how much we need them in this desolate jungle. The fact that it rains for four straight days makes getting them to walk like trying to move a herd of legless rhinos. By the time they decide, like a corporate union on the sixth day, that they've walked far enough, we are still two days short of the base camp plotted by Jamie and Kris months before. We are stuck in Dhuli, a tiny, isolated village that is 3,000 vertical feet too low. Time to improvise.
We spend the following day humping our 30 loads of food and gear through mud and animal feces to a gorgeous pasture just north of the village—a grassy peninsula on the raging Seti River that will be our base camp. The new plan, concocted after some whiskey and map study: cache our high-camp gear up an alternate gorge with access to a trove of peaks the original plan didn't include. The reality: Five hours of hiking with food, skis, and boots on our backs the following day through bee-infested brush so thick it feels like walking through a foam pit, only leads to a dead end—sheer rock walls on either side of boiling whitewater.
Wounded but still far from beaten, Jamie, Kris, and Kip have watched their hoped-for 16 days at or above an alpine base camp take hit after hit. On the heels of the latest roadblock, they put together what will prove to be a make or break plan, and the only one with a realistic chance at delivering one of the objectives they so coveted when they set out to pioneer skiing in far-western Nepal.
We will strap seven days of food and gear for an extended stay up high to our backs, more than 50 pounds per man, and spend two days hauling it on treacherous trails and over you-fall-you-die log bridges to an abandoned village in the snow called Garaphu Odar. There, the trio will launch a fast-and-light push up the most aesthetic feature in the area, a massive and uber-steep south-facing couloir that is visible for miles. Skiing aside, simply accessing it will leave no margin for error.  —Devon O’Neil

Breckenridge-based writer Devon O'Neil and North Face-backed ski mountaineers Kris Erickson, Jamie Laidlaw, and Kip Garre went on a 40-day expedition to the remote Saipal region in far-western Nepal, where they intend to climb and ski multiple unnamed peaks. You can read all of his installments in this series here.

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