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The Wild West of the East, Part V

The Wild West of the East, Part V

[ November 6, 2009 - 7:59pm ]

Jamie Laidlaw puts his edges to use while skiing down toward the Seti River.

The mission: Ski a big, bad hunk of Himalayan rock. And do so without as much as a slip. Because here, deep in Nepal a day's walk from the nearest human being, the consequences of a mistake are too high to even think about.

Check out photos from this journey here.

The alarms begin to buzz at 2 a.m. It's a Sunday, not that anyone actually knows what day it is, or that it matters when you are as deep as this. The fact is, Kip, Kris, and Jamie came to western Nepal with hopes of skiing as many as four big, bad hunks of Himalayan rock. But with the way everything transpired early in the trip, the true ski mountaineering has boiled down to the peak they’re attempting today.
A liquid breakfast is followed promptly by the sound of ski boots crunching frozen snow in the pitch-black night. They are on their way by 3, on the avalanche-swept rock beneath the couloir by 6, and in the cavernous main attraction soon after that. They take turns leading the climb. Erickson grabs the early shift, Laidlaw follows up the rock, and Garre—who's been crippled by a stomach bug for three days leading up to this climb— finds a new gear and takes over once they enter the steep crux of the couloir.
With only an axe and the metal points strapped to their boots (they leave behind their rope and additional tools to save weight), the trio hammers up the gut, forgoing the skeletal benefits of the French technique for the calf-searing speed of front pointing. It isn't the most technical climb any of them has done, nor is the elevation an issue—both Erickson and Laidlaw have skied from at least 27,000 feet, and Garre has been to nearly 25,000. The most challenging part of this objective is its burliness: With heavy exposure and the ultra remote location, any slip will carry serious consequences.
Just after sunrise, having climbed more than 5,000 vertical feet, the three commence the descent in ravaged conditions. The pitch—in excess of 50 degrees at the top and nearly that steep for the duration of the couloir—is complicated by the snow, which is as hard as steel and runneled like a series of college-party ice luges across the width of the cavern.
Contrary to the blissful powder turns two days ago, these are measured individual movements exclusively designed to keep the men attached to the mountain. Halfway down, a near-disaster: Erickson's binding releases at the heel in the middle of a turn. He barely catches himself after sliding five vertical feet, quickly accelerating toward a speed that would have been too great to control on the slick surface.
"I nearly had the slide of my life," he says later back at camp, refueling from the eight-plus-hour effort. His eyes are still wide.
As it is, they have gotten what they came for, or at least a taste of it, skiing a perilous line in one of the most remote segments of the biggest mountain range on earth.
The next day, we cross the frigid Seti River in our bare feet and begin the hike down to base camp, unaware that the biggest hurdle of the trip still awaits.  —Devon O'Neil
Breckenridge-based writer Devon O'Neil and North Face-backed ski mountaineers Kris Erickson, Jamie Laidlaw, and Kip Garre are in the middle of 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 six of his installments in this series here.

Shredding Nepal

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