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The Wild West of the East, Part IV

The Wild West of the East, Part IV

[ November 4, 2009 - 5:42pm ]
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On day 26 of a ski-mountaineering expedition to Nepal, the crew takes their first turns. Writer Devon O'Neil likens this to how a bear must feel when he finds his first unlocked dumpster after a winter of hibernation.

Acclimatization is a serious component to Himalayan skiing. Luckily for us, the process isn't nearly as complicated when your tallest objectives are 19,000 feet instead of, say, 26,000, the coveted 8,000-meter neighborhood. But you still need to let your lungs know they're about to be working with less.

The idea, as Kris, Kip, and Jamie draw it up, is to acclimatize by climbing a ridge a half-mile from our camp and, if possible, use it to access a 5,500-meter peak they've eyed via Google Earth prior to the trip. If the access doesn't materialize, we'll simply ski the best terrain we can.

The sun begins cooking us soon after it rises, consistent with the wonderfully timed week of high pressure we've enjoyed since our dreary hike in. Leading up to this point, we have hiked through, under, and over hundreds of wet avalanches surrounding our camp, some large enough to wipe out a small village. On any given mountain you can spot at least 10 to 15 slides that appear to have run in the prior week, remnants of the massive dump these mountains received while we were lower in the valley. Now, though, the fresh snow has settled and bonded with whatever layers existed prior to the storm.
 
The ridge we ascend gets technical after three hours of booting up it, and eventually cliffs out at 15,200 feet. Further travel will get us no closer to the peak that has been the day's loose objective, which means that at 11 a.m. on day 26 of our expedition, it is finally time to make some turns. I later equate this emotion to how a bear must feel when he finds his first unlocked dumpster after hibernating.

The snow is smooth on the surface, but there are holes where rocks below have made it hollow—and with the nearest medical treatment at least six days away, it pays to know where the holes are. Despite the holes, the skiing is nothing less than glorious. Some of the north-facing snow has even recrystallized into powder, three to four inches of cushion on top of a firm but forgiving underlayer.

Kip's 98-millimeter underfoot skis (174-centimeter K2 HardSides) aren't as light as Jamie's (170 Dynafit Seven Summits) or Kris's (164 K2 Waybacks) more mountaineering-specific boards, but on this day we all envy their planing ability. Powder skiing is a rarity in the Himalaya, I'm told, a factor none of us takes for granted as we float down a mountain that has (in all likelihood) never been skied.

Eventually we reach the bottom of our 3,300-vertical-foot run, sweating in the Himalayan heat that gives the day a summer feel. I sip water from a tiny creek and splash some on my face and neck. The following days will hold a much more serious and treacherous ski-mountaineering objective for my three partners, but right now all that stands out are the turns we just made and how pure they felt. We head back to our campsite, drape our gear in the sun, and eat a lunch of bars, dried fruit, and nuts while fantasizing about cheeseburgers.  —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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