Why would one ever get into the business of skiing mountains over 8,000 meters? A seasoned ski mountaineer explains the need to dream and the work it takes to get there.
In the world of skiing statistics, only a few people have attempted to ski an 8,000-meter peak. After all, there are only a mere fourteen peaks on our globe that rise above this marker of over 26,000 feet and, of those, very few have skiable routes on them. Given the difficulty, the hardships and the expense (read: grants and sponsorship) of these expeditions, why would one ever get into the business of skiing big mountains? For me, the answer lies in a physical, emotional and spiritual connection to the mountains themselves and in the inherent physical difficulties they pose. It also involves a true love of exploratory skiing and a desire for challenge.
My first trip climbing mountains in Nepal went well. Our team was near perfect, consisting of fellow search and rescue friends and teammates from Telluride with whom I had worked and trained for several years. The weather was flawless with high pressure prevailing for most of the three weeks we were there. Our logistics were well-coordinated, with everything flowing seamlessly from day one. The altitude felt great, and it was beyond spectacular to summit two peaks at heights topping out over 22,000 feet with mind-blowing views alongside a team of immensely enjoyable people. I was hooked. At the time I figured future expeditions might be the same. I was to learn that I was quite naïve. These mountains had much more to teach me.
Skiing new routes on big mountains is the ultimate challenge for a ski mountaineer. In a world that has largely been discovered there are few remaining uncharted territories. The unknowns of these frontiers come with great risk, but also with great reward. These mountains swallow people whole. They also sometimes take people in and spit them out. During these types of journeys, the process makes you very honest with yourself and, suceed or fail, you will find a small corner of the world to which you feel a deep connection.
Now, the naivety—I have survived two major incidents in the big mountains. In 2008, on a Gasherbrum II trip, I fell through a snow-bridge unroped and, luckily, landed cleanly on another weak snow bridge fifteen feet below in a deep crevasse. My axe remained in the lip above. With adrenaline pumping solidly through my entire body, I was able to stem out to the walls on either side and slowly climb out of the hole, using my hands to punch in holds as I moved up and over the final lip onto the surface. I walked away with a tweaked ankle and was able to continue on the expedition.
The second was on Denali in June of 2009. Our team had successfully skied from the summit ten days into our twenty-one day stay. We decided to wait out a storm with hopes of trying more routes and doing more skiing for the remainder of our time allotted on the peak. The second day after the storm, I was skiing a face below the Rescue Gully couloir, directly above our camp at 14,000 feet, when the entire slope avalanched and I tumbled 1,000 feet down, self-arresting with a whippet a mere 100 feet above a gaping hole that stretched across the hillside. I was lucky to walk away with only one serious injury—a torn ACL.
But even tough times in big mountains can be deeply fulfilling. Last fall, I headed out with a team of four and climbed and skied on 8,013-meter Shisha Pangma in Tibet. We were largely successful in our efforts, climbing to 7,600 meters and completing a ski descent of the mountain from 7,400 meters… but we just missed the summit. Our decision to turn back came down to human factors and a limited weather window. When the winds unexpectedly abated, we decided to dig deep and make a move from Camp Two directly to the summit, bypassing a typical acclimatization point at Camp Three. Our night start entailed extremely cold temps, with more than 3,000 feet of climbing over glaciated terrain at over 23,000 feet with 20-plus pounds of gear on our backs including a rope, climbing gear, skis, skins, camera equipment, layers of clothing, food and water. It was a long day of massive exertion with an exhausting climb in which we relied on our experience and our reserves to safely attempt our summit goal and return on skis to Camp Two. Even coming up short, we all did everything we possibly could. It felt right, good.
By making mistakes, the raw reality of survival in tough elements brings out the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of the ski-climbing soul (and the athlete it inhabits). The driving force of these trips can be the heights that you reach both inwardly and outwardly, physically and spiritually. You come home a better person for the experience. You gain a more thorough grasp of who you are and of what you are capable. I have found that to be rare, honest and invaluable feedback. If you do not take risks, your character has no chance to flourish to its true potential. It is only through hardship and suffering, and one’s ability to overcome, that one realizes one’s own worth and value, and, in what one can offer others. As Nietzche said, “The spirit grows, strength is restored through wounding.”
When lining up these big undertakings, putting in time and mileage in the mountains is paramount. Experience in the hills has no substitute and is a major foundation upon which one must build one’s knowledge and one’s skills. Then, when things get tough, you have a basis for calm reactions and a cool confidence upon which to fall back. Training is also of utmost importance. When all is said and done, and you are desperately calling your last internal reserves, all you can do is fall back on the strength, fitness and endurance that you have worked to develop over the years.
For myself and others, Telluride has provided an ideal training ground for ski expedition preparation. Being based in a mountain town that sits at 8,750 feet gives me an advantage in the acclimatization process as we regularly push ourselves in activities to over 14,000 feet. There is no substitute for spending time at altitude. It is an environment in which you learn valuable lessons about how to manage your energy and to pace yourself with less oxygen as well as the resulting fatigue.
I started out by climbing every mountain I could in the San Juans. Having a day job made it hard to get a long peak-bagging list accomplished, but after a few years my experience and my tick-list started to gain some depth. It became more interesting to climb technical peaks, and that aligned nicely with my new-found love for rock climbing. Developing multiple skill sets like ice climbing, peak climbing, rock climbing and endurance running is the best way to approach more complicated travel in the mountains. When you are prepared for any obstacle—rock, ice, or snow—you move much more safely, wisely and confidently through the terrain. Train for the worst case scenario and you will always be prepared.
To develop endurance it is imperative to spend many long days pushing your limits in the hills and as often as possible finding terrain that imitates that which you’ll encounter on expedition. Getting to the highest attainable altitude, spending a day and/or a night moving through terrain at those heights, and tackling technical rock and snow objectives can be of tremendous long-term benefit as well as providing you with an opportunity to use and check your gear in a relatively safe environment. It can also be helpful to load up a pack on longer jaunts to simulate load carries at altitude and to accustom your body to the significant strain of moving equipment and supplies up and down the mountain. Ski mountaineers often carry twice the load and the number of shuttles of a regular alpine climber. On the up, all that ski gear significantly increases the stress on your back as well as your feet.
Our evolutionary framework as human beings stems from former nomadic and wandering souls but challenge is relative to our personal beings. Not everyone needs or finds the same reward or result from the same level of undertaking. Find your own mountain, climb your own peaks and enjoy the moments of training that help you rise, set goals, meet a test and learn via either victory or defeat. Ultimately, we must decide to enter the arena and be brave enough to live our lives so that, sink or swim, we never have to wonder what might have been.
Live for your experiences. If climbing and skiing mountains, encountering perils and tackling obstacles provide a sense of self and a great happiness, then it is the best road to discover your own fulfillment. In the mountains, there is no fair or unfair, there are no gray lines. You get easy answers to tough questions, and it makes things very simple, highlighting what is important and illuminating very much what is not. In the end, what have I learned? If you allow yourself to embrace them, the mountains will transform you in character to a person of greater value to yourself and to society. •
Kim Havell is a mountaineer, big mountain skier and guide based out of Telluride, Colorado. You can follow her at havelltravels.com.