WARNING: This post is long, full of words, pictures and films. Not suited for the short attention span of the internet reader but where else do you write a blog? Good for readers with 15 mins to spare.
I think I finished my last post with “never say never” on whether I would do another Himalayan expedition. Well, that proved to be quite apt, as here I was at the beginning of September about to set off on my second such expedition. This time I hoped things would be a bit more fun!
The previous winter season which was rapidly fading hadn´t really been ideal preparation to try and climb and ski a 7,000m peak on the Tibetan/Nepalese border, 8km to the west of Mount Everest. Our house (which I am still renovating) had turned into a labour of love and a black hole of my personal time. So, I had done next to no snowboarding at all all winter, apart from going to the local hill in Drammen to skin up and down. One thing I have learnt about mountains since I´ve been in the Oslo area is that a mountain is as big as you make it which translated into going up and down Drammen ski hill 6 times to turn it into a soaring 1800m mountain once or twice a week to keep some form of fitness and get some form of fix. So the board skills might well have been a little bit rusty to say the least on arrival at Pumori.
I had decided to give these Himalayan trips one more shot if only because this time some of the variables which were present last time and which had bothered me weren´t present this time. And I just wanted to make 100% sure that these sorts of trips were or weren´t for me without any lingering doubts.
My very first attempt at organising a trip to the Himalayas had been in 2007 with my friend Seb de Sainte Marie. He had been the instigator and chosen the very ambitious mountain Nanda Devi East in India. That never came to anything but it was the beginning of Seb heading to the Himalayas on a fairly regular basis. I then tried to drag Seb along on my first expedition to Laila Peak last year (read post here) but that wasn´t to be. So when Seb said that he was organising a trip which would be sponsored and paid for by Mammut bar my flight ticket and the team would consist of good friends, there was not a moment´s hesitation on my part. I was in!
Things were never going to be quite so straightforward. The group of friends slowly whittled down to just me and complications started to arise regarding the financing of the trip with the sponsor to the point where the trip was no longer a certainty. This limbo persisted for months until, sure enough, with weeks to spare, Seb worked his magic and the trip was finally back on track. We were going to Nepal.
At this point, I would normally fast-forward to the face and I wouldn´t normally talk about the logistics of getting there as it´s a trip that´s been made thousands of times before. On this occasion, our trip or the “epicness” of it is an integral part of the story and had consequences for how this trip turned out, both physically and emotionally.
For someone who has a brain like a sponge and an almost control-freakish need to understand his surroundings (especially when unfamiliar), flying on long flights surrounded by unfamiliar faces and arriving in Kathmandu, surrounded by even more unfamiliar faces (both people´s and dogs´) and the cacophony of noise from cars, people and dogs that accompany it, I couldn´t sleep! Not on the flight and not in Kathmandu. So the early start at 5.30am to get our flight to Lukla was the continuation of the exercise in sleep deprivation which had been running for three days now. Fine to a point. As long as I get some sleep soon! And that´s just the thing with these sorts of trips. You never know…… I finally got some sleep three days later.
The flight to Lukla was duly cancelled due to bad visibility in Lukla and you don´t mess around with Lukla in bad vis. (for those of you who don´t know, this airport is supposedly one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Certainly the most dangerous airport I´ve been to). We then found out that there had been no planes in or out of Lukla for 4 days which did not bode well for our prospects. It would be an additional two days if we took a jeep and trekked to Lukla instead. That seemed like the most sensible thing to do. Lock in a two day loss instead of a potentially infinite amount of days waiting for a flight. And that´s what we did.
I already had the bone-jarring 26.5 hrs non-stop pleasure ride in a tin can on the Karakoram Highway in the memory bank from last year, so this would surely be a doddle in comparison. In some respects, yes. In others, no.
The scenery was just stunning. Lush green jungle. Water and water falls everywhere. My idea of heaven to be honest. In stark contrast to the dry and arid landscapes we experienced in Baltistan, last year. We left Kathmandu at around 14.00 (without a guide who was off on another trip to Manaslu with his girlfriend. Priorities…?) and it was long dark before the first problems found us. The jeep was burning up…. which was sorted out with some trusty water in the radiator. Then anything that was illuminated in and on the jeep decided to blink for the rest of the night (lights, dashboard, everything). Thankfully, no one was epileptic but there were some very tired eyes. This became known as “Disco lights”. Then the front left brake decided to give up the ghost in the middle of nowhere (generally everywhere seemed to be the middle of nowhere to be honest) at around 01.00 in the morning. Yes, we were still on the go! After an hour of fixing, what looked like a night spent in and around the jeep was avoided and we were able to move again, find somewhere to sleep for a few hours before getting up at 06.00. Four days and little sleep and my humour was not quite as radiant.
We had encountered some pretty torrential rains during the night. I wasn´t sure if this quantity of rain was normal for the region or not. The first landslide we came across in the morning told me it was not. Hours spent with the locals removing tonnes of rock did the trick and we were on our way again only to find a tree blocking our way another 15 mins down the road…… thankfully removed by a local bulldozer soon thereafter. And finally after 24hrs bar a few hours kip we arrived in Ghurmi where we got out of one jeep and into another for another 12hrs of fun (river was too big for our jeep to cross), this time on roads which were more like trenches due to all the recent rainfall which made for very slow progress.
So what was the damage so far…… Our camera man had been sick from the motions of the jeep along with one of the porters who had been sick for long periods. And everyone else….? Not sick but hardly a barrel of laughs either, especially on a diet of biscuits and not enough water. By the time we were finally able to get out of the jeep and head to bed for a few hours sleep before the trekking was to start the next day (at 06.00!), we were already two days in on a trip which was only supposed to take two days! Needless to say, Seb was not a happy bunny and we were now eating into the time we were supposed to be spending on the mountain which in turn led to Seb driving everyone that much harder. This seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip.
The fact that we only had four porters who were young, spindly and half my size and who were contracted to carry 30kg each looked like a hopeless scenario. I´d flagged this a couple of times with Seb but to no avail. This was going to be problematic! It seemed, at least, that mine and Seb´s approach to dealing with problems was very different; I would see problems and try and solve them before they happened. Seb would see problems, hope they didn´t happen and then try and solve them when they did, the lack of porters being a case in point.
Needless to say, the porters weren´t able to go 20 steps without having to stop and have a break due to the weight of the loads…… to our frustration, as we saw immediately that we wouldn´t be getting to Lukla any time soon at this rate. We soldiered on hoping to hire some porters on the way, having some luck finding one who was completely pissed and lasted an hour before his urge for a drink overwhelmed him and we had to find another one to replace him. Guideless and to help take the strain off Seb, I took responsibility for the porters, staying behind with the slowest and trying to keep them in line until we met up with our guide who was three days away by foot.
To keep things nice and neat and continue with the “epicness” of it all, we put in as long days as possible of course, up at first light, trekking all day until last light and then finding a lodge, dinner and then to bed (read: 2 days trekking for 12hrs and one day trekking for 9hr). We were having a riot! Little did I know it but this was the beginning of groundhog day for 7 days until we got to Base Camp (BC). When we finally met up with our new guide just south of Lukla, we had taken five days to do what was supposed to have taken two! And thanks to our “epicness” we were no slouches.
The sense of urgency to get to BC was now starting in earnest. As opposed to making the most of the shorter trek times which gave us all the time in the world to get to the next village, we for some reason had to be there in record time every day, just so that when we arrived we could eat lunch and then sleep through till dinner to recover from our brisk pace, then eat dinner and then sleep again til morning. Clearly, this made no sense to me. Where was the element of fun in this? Aren´t there supposed to be some smiles along the way, not just brave faces….? I think I looked at my feet more than the scenery, trying to navigate through the rocky trails. We never stopped to take in the views and enjoy the surroundings. Which made even less sense, as by this stage, Seb had got himself a cold and of all people he would have benefited most by taking it easy until we got to BC. What can I say…? I just couldn´t get my head around it? Asking Seb for an extra hour´s sleep one morning to be rested for the mountain was vetoed. Asking to stop the jeep at an earlier stage in the trip to eat was vetoed, even though we had only eaten once that day and it was now or never for meal number two that evening. Asking to be allowed to do things which were basic was starting to wear on me to be honest. There was no real sense of team here. But I was in a difficult position.
My hands were very much tied over how much influence I could have over proceedings on this trip. Seb was the sponsored athlete, had organised the trip, got it paid for, dealt with all the problems to make it a reality. This was never going to be a team effort even though it was just me and him. He had invested too much of himself to be able to relinquish any control and I could feel that, so I didn´t push it when I saw bumps in the road and he didn´t want to listen. It was quite clear that I was only going to be a passenger on this trip. As much as that was understandable, it did prove difficult at times, especially when all the decisions were affecting me, including any decisions made on the mountain.
Anyway, onwards and upwards. We weren´t far off from BC before the first headaches hit. Headaches at altitude really have a habit of making you feel like death warmed up, especially after over 130km of trekking in your legs the last 6 days. Both me and Menk, the cameraman, were sidelined from the evenings entertainment which was watching the Nepalese having a good time! I had been taking Diamox from around 3,000m but it didn´t hinder the headache after 1,000m gain from 3,900m to 4,900m in one day. Nothing that a bit of Ibuprofen couldn´t handle though. We were both soon back on our feet and after our first day´s rest to acclimatise we were ready for the final day´s trek to BC. Thank God, Groundhog was almost over. According to my map, we had put behind us somewhere in the region of 130km to 150km in the space of 6 days along with the most delightful off-roading and at a guess went up and down something like 6,000m (certainly up anyway). Not a world record by any stretch but we certainly weren´t fresh with energy abounding! Climbing the mountain would be a piece of piss after this as long as we could muster some reserves.
For those interested in getting to Pumori, we followed the Everest BC trail from Lukla all the way up to the last lodge at Gorakshep (5,100m) and then started heading West away from Mount Everest. The trail is easy to find. It´s only about another 2 hours from Gorakshep and 300m up at (5,400m). For those who have not been on this trail and who like their creature comforts, you will not have to forsake much. There are lodges everywhere, fully stocked with every kind of sweet and drink you could want and a westernised menu and mobile phone coverage. Quite a contrast to what I expected and had experienced the year before. It´s a real tourist trail and the tourist money is evident. Below is a clip of the lodge at Gorak Shep with Seb and Menk and too much chatter, boys!
And on 14th September, we finally arrived in BC. It was nice to finally have my own tent, both for the sense of freedom it offered and to have a bit of time to myself. The first two peaks you see in the clip below are of Everest and Nuptse over Seb´s shoulder and then it pans up to the face of Pumori and then round to where we gained access to the moraine to find a way onto the west face. Very nice weater!
It wasn´t long before we got down to business though, trying to find a way onto the west face. Seb had gathered as much info on the mountain as he could and it appeared we would be able to simply march up the west face directly from the moraine, so we set about laying the foundations of a path through the big boulder field the day we arrived, ready to try and navigate the glacier and get onto the actual face the next day. After about three hours of faffing around on the moraine, finding the way, making cairns, I was done. This coupled with the hike to BC from Lobuche and all the previous days´hiking had taken its toll. I was due for a few days´rest which I duly took for the next two days.
But not Seb of course! He needed to push on and would not rest until he had found a way through the glacier to get onto the face and establish ABC. It seemed to me that Seb was putting himself under a lot of pressure and allowing the presence of a sponsor to get to him and ultimately me. They were like the pink elephant in the room. Never present but always there. The mountain was not giving up her secrets easily though and after two days of exploring various alternative routes, we were none the wiser. This was starting to feel like Laila Peak all over again where the hardest part had been finding a way up. We could end up losing precious days just trying to find a way through. On all accounts, accessing from the west was proving fruitless, so we changed our angle of attack and decided on another way which we had briefly discussed on arrival; the south west face with its small glacier ending in a ridge which stared down at us every day (See very first picture for position of ABC). The unknown was whether we would be able to get down the other side of the ridge to join the west face…..? And on the day of my birthday after four days at BC, we set out to explore. Unfortunately, this would prove to be the end of my trip.
My back had been causing me a few issues from the intensity of the trekking and the lack of rest days. Suffering from (what I consider at least to be) pretty bad scoliosis, my back is always causing me problems. In fact, every waking moment is accompanied by some discomfort. So it is just something I have to deal with and the problems I was facing now were just problems I had to deal with. It just meant digging a little deeper and getting there. My back had never stopped me before and to just keep going was a tactic with a 100% success rate. Until now. I struggled from the outset of the climb with a heavy pack and could feel my back protesting as soon as I put it on. Unfortunately, it just got worse and worse as I started the relatively easy climb up the 300m ahead of me. My back has a tendency to bend out to the side and want to walk next to me, causing me to have problems fully inflating my diaphragm, losing some coordination of my legs and thus balance and all my core strength. Just perfect! So here I was, breathing like I was at 8,000m, using ridiculous amounts of energy to get my legs to push me upwards, my back spasming and just hating every moment, digging so deep I was losing grip of the spade! It was just a hopeless task, especially in the face of another 1,500m when we actually got on the face at higher altitude! With only 12 more days to climb, there would be no miraculous recovery for me. Simply not enough time. No chance. So while I had a private moment, wrestling with my disappointment that my trip was over and I hadn´t even put my board on and the guilty conscience of telling Seb and letting him down, Seb carried on up to the ridge to find it was passable and scrambled down with the good news.
Base camp was decidedly deflated when we finally got back down from ABC. My decision to pull out was taken as well as could be expected (or at least it appeared so) and I was naturally feeling bad for putting Seb in a difficult position; both to continue on solo and with regard to all the effort in organising the trip and his obligations to the sponsor. But what can you do? Somethings you can work on, other things you just can´t, especially with so little time. The length of the expedition had been planned with no room for unforeseen problems. Acceptance has been a big part of getting older for me and this was another one of those situations.
So, Seb continued carrying up to ABC to get ready to climb the face and had decided to ski the triangle just beforehand to ensure some footage for the film and to build some confidence before the big day. I just pottered around base camp, washing my clothes, reading and then reading some more, rearranging my tent and then rearranging my tent some more. I felt guilty watching Seb continue on his own and the prospect of another 12 days in camp with nothing to do was not very appealing, so I decided to leave camp early on 23rd September, an week earlier than planned, for the trek home.
But that was not before some sweaty-palm moments watching Seb ski the triangle through binoculars at base camp. This ended up being survival skiing of the first order. It took Seb 1 hour to ski 400m and he put in maybe 4 turns on the whole face, the rest of it agonisingly slow slide slipping. The sun was not able to thaw the snow due to cloud which had formed on that part of the face for some reason every day we had been there. Despite this, I couldn´t get Seb to admit that the skiing was terrible. Unbelievable! That was not what I considered to be skiing or fun. We clearly disagreed on what was fun, on what was skiing. Had I not had a bad back, Seb would have fully expected me to come with him and not understood if I had not gone on that face to only slide down it white knuckling my ice axes, a totally pointless and dangerous exercise. If I´m going to risk my life, the reward has to outweigh the risk. There´s no reward for me in slide slipping down mountains.
This disagreement seemed to be one of several over the days before my departure which led to a frosty atmosphere, and the long, protracted silences at dinner were deafening. No chance of Menk making any conversation. A lovely guy but not the world´s best conversationalist! We were too far apart on too many things and there was a blatant personality crash lurking, had I not shown some restraint. We were simply at different ages and at different stages in our lives wanting different things. So it came as some relief when I finally set off to head home on my own with the poor porter carrying my load. Four days to Lukla and then the most exciting plane ride I have ever had to Kathmandu (not forgetting the reputation of this little airport)! And you wouldn´t believe who I bumped into on the way there but Luca Pandolfi who had come to Pakistan with me the previous year and who was just about to head off on his own adventure with TGR and Jeremy Jones. It was really good to see him and condolences once again, mate, for your loss Jeremy seemed like a lovely fella too.
So, what do we reckon…? “Never say never….” or Never again! I think the latter. As much as I try, I just cannot understand why I would want to do another expedition in the Himalayas. It just doesn´t make sense to me. There are so many mountains around which are so much more easily accessible for skiing, have enormously better odds of success, cost a lot less to get to, require so much less personal investment in time and where you don´t have to erect a small village to live there and bring a small village along to live with you. Oh…., and where you don´t have to contend with the problems of altitude (at least not over long periods) and eat crap, processed food (our cook was terrible), be jumbled about in jeeps, sleep deprived and generally feeling like shit for long periods (and I paid for all this!). And this is purely from a skier´s perspective but I like the ratio of up and skiable terrain to be equal or as close to as possible (call me anal!). That is impossible on these trips. Loads of up and a little bit of skiing down, probably on shit snow Well, at least I didn´t get diarrhoea this time.
So, why do people go on trips to the Himalayas as opposed to other mountains…? Because they grew up reading about the stories of legend and mystic and want to relive those moments? Because they want to increase their profile and this is where the world´s attention is honed? Because the Himalayas are established as the mountains to rival all mountains and that´s where a sponsor´s focus lies and consequently where your focus and the sponsored athlete´s focus lies? The most fertile grounds for an ego to grow? Or do they lend an air of credibility to the climber, a sort of graduation or rites of passage to elevate you into the elite? There´s probably some truth in there somewhere and some of it has certainly applied to me in the past. All I know now is that it doesn´t make sense for me anymore.
As a side note and in the context of our obsession with naturing a picture perfect Facebook existence, I´ve tried to portray things in as true a light as possible without going into sordid details for all concerned. There´s nothing wrong with reality and its imperfections. That´s all there is.
And Seb? I got word from Menk that they have since left BC and that the weather was too bad after I left and Seb never got a chance to go back on the face.
Despite my mixed feelings about these trips, I am very grateful to Seb for putting it all together. A big thanks again to Vicki at Power Traveller for the solar equipment. I added the Power Gorilla to the collection this time and what a difference it made. One charge lasted all the way to BC and one more charge got me all the way home.
And then there´s John Keffler, founder of Phantom Splitboard Bindings who was kind enough to donate his lightest bindings yet to the project. A lovely guy and I wish I had held up my end of the deal by putting some turns on Pumori for him. These bindings are the best thing since sliced bread for hard booters. There will be plenty more opportunities this winter.
The name of the trekking agency is conspicuous by its absence. Not very impressed.
WARNING: This post is long, full of words, pictures and films. Not suited for the short attention span of the internet reader but where else do you write a blog? Good for readers with 10 mins to spare.
With four uninterrupted weeks of “me time” ahead, I left work ridiculously overladen with bags. My destination was Oslo’s Gardemoen airport where I would be whisked away to the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan for a mini ski expedition. If only it were that easy…
That was on 31st May, 2012. By the 8th June, we were finally in base camp. It took seven days to get there. Never do you hear: “I’m going on holiday…It’s going to take seven days to get there.” Not these days anyway. You probably couldn’t even manage 80 days around the world slow enough anymore but we managed seven to get to the Karakoram which meant another seven to get back and which left us with 18 days to climb and ski.
I’ll spare you the details of the trip there (and back. It was the same) but suffice to say after an epic 26.5 hrs non-stop drive on the famous Karakoram highway to Skardu which was pretty uncomfortable and sleep deprived with the odd armed police escort, we were all more than ready to get to Laila Peak base camp, recover, rest and acclimatise.
I first saw Laila Peak in 2006 on Fred Ericsson’s website (skied together with Jørgen Aamot) and then came across it again in a book by Simon Yates (of “Touching the Void” fame) called “The Flame of Adventure” and was instantly struck by its beauty. It’s not a particularly well known mountain outside the climbing world but I think all would agree that seen from this perspective, Laila Peak would be vying for top spot on the podium of a Miss Mountain World competition.
Only joking. But this is seriously how we found her for the first 7 days. Very shy. The weather was conspiring against us, so we never really got to have a good look at her but we luckily had a postcard to remind us of why we had come half way around the world. Who needs the real thing when you have a postcard. Overrated. I managed to snap this shot while she was feeling a lot more brazen but still unwilling to reveal herself completely.
My first attempt at organising a trip with a friend, Riis, fell through in 2010/11 when he injured his knee. On my next attempt, there was no mistaking and we managed to get a team of four together: me (splitboard), Brendan O’Sullivan (splitboard), Edward Blanchard Wrigglesworth (yes, that is his real name and the token skier!) and Luca Pandolfi (snowboard). Chamonix was the common denominator for all of us, having either lived or currently living there.
The only person I knew from the group and had skied with before was Brendan. I’d had an intense “getting to know” week with Luca when he came to visit me in Lofoten in April and had met Ed for about a minute many years previously when he burst through Brendan’s door in chamonix full of excitement about nothing in particular. No wonder our trip was described by one person in Chamonix as a “mail order” expedition. I knew Brendan and Brendan knew all of us, so there were risks involved if we didn’t get on but I accepted them if it meant going to ski Laila Peak. Either way, none of us had been to the Karakoram or Himalayas before. We were all Karakoram rookies and equal in that sense. Time would soon tell whether this had been a good decision or not.
The north west face of Laila Peak looked like the perfect introduction to high altitude, steep skiing. Not too high and not too steep. Achievable. At 6100m and with a gradient of around 45 degrees for most of the face and steepening for the last 150m to an unknown gradient (Fred’s blog puts it between 55 and 60 degrees but he was never on the summit himself), it looks like a straight forward line down.
This is where I have to take umbrage with the Pakistani Tourist Board for their marketing ruse (and any other Flikr enthusiast who has ever taken a picture of Laila Peak for that matter). Face on, Laila Peak looks nothing like any of the picutres taken of its beautiful profile. Absolutely nothing like it. It is an enormous, complex and intimidating face with massive, terminal exposure. With the collective experience of the group, this was probably going to be the biggest line any of us had skied. And that was saying a lot. Among the group, some of the biggest, most technically demanding descents Chamonix has to offer were being skied week in, week out before this trip. I speak for the group and I might be wrong but I think everyone was intimidated. And not in a nice way. To the point where we started looking for more achievable objectives.
The above picture was taken at 4400m. The face might look small in this picture but is in fact 1700m high from where I’m standing. That’s a little over 4 times the height of the Empire State Building in New York or more than eight times the height of Canary Wharf in London.
The upper face and all the rock bands. We couldn’t see a clear ski route through anywhere. It looked like there would have to be a rappel. After scouring the face for any chinks in the armour, it seemed like Fred’s line was the only one that really went.
This picture shows the only real weakness in the rockband from the summit that we could see. Laila Peak has never been skied from the summit, so this was all unknown territory.
After a few more looks from different angles, we all started to feel better about Laila again and it was now on! Now we just had to find a safe way up it. There were a few options and a big thanks to Trey Cook for all his help on route information. Climbing the face direct would prove to be too hazardous but there were safe options on the east and south flanks of the mountain. After a failed attempt on the east face due to bad weather, we finally went with the south face which was easy and safe and we were even able to skin up.
As none of us were Greg Hill or anywhere near the level of the light and fast Dynafit team (we were definitely not light), we would not be climbing the face in one push and decided to establish a camp at the col at 5400m. That was 1200m from base camp and 700m from the summit.
Light and fast has its advantages. Well, it’s light…. and….errr….fast. As opposed to its counterpart which is heavy and slow. We were heavy and on the slow side. We managed to boot pack at about 250m/hr with packs ranging from 18 to 25kg. The packs were heavy and it was a bit of a sufferfest at that altitude. Nothing particularly enjoyable about it unless you love suffering. My snowboard alone is around 6kg. Light and fast is always going to be a very hard principle to apply to ski mountaineering. You just have so much more weight than the skiless climber and you have to be that much stronger to carry it all.
After a few midnight starts and lots of slogging, we finally had everything stashed up at the col on 19th June ready for the camp before the summit push on 22nd June. But was the face ready for us?
The problem with our approach to the mountain was that we weren’t climbing what we would be skiing which meant that we spent the best part of five days (including rest days) going up and down the south side of the mountain and never actually being able to see the north west face which we would be skiing. We had no idea what was happening on the face. Not a good position to be in.
When we went round to have a look (which in itself takes up half the day from base camp), the face had changed significantly. There was a lot less snow, the rocks on the upper face were much more visible and there was more ice in the exit couloir. The unstable and cool temperatures of the first week had been replaced by a high pressure system with little cloud cover and lots of sun. Everything was getting baked!
I have never experienced anything like the weather and snow conditions you find in the Karakoram. It’s almost as if the aspect is irrelevant here. Due to the latitude, the sun is so high in the sky that it’s directly overhead for a good few hours through the day baking all faces, even north faces. The temperature swings were drastic too, ranging from 15 degrees while the sun was out and then down to 0 as soon as there was cloud cover. Big changes and snow pack do not like each other.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was constant activity from the mountains on all sides, the streams around camp were flowing faster, there was more and more wildlife and flowers appearing. It really felt like a seasonal change was happening.
That was it for me. The face was out! Things were too hot and too unstable at these altitudes.
We spent two hours watching the face from 16.00 to 18.00 just as the sun was on it. There was a lot of activity on the line, serac fall. All the activity you could possibly want. I managed to get some film of the continual sluff coming off the upper face and some serac fall. It’s a bit hard to see in the video but you can just make it out:
We were all sorely disappointed after all the effort we had put in leading up to and during the expedition. Brendan, the dynamo in the group, was not so keen to admit defeat despite what we were seeing and plans were formed to either just summit and not ski or try and ski a line from lookers right from the summit and back down to the col. The lower part of the face was completely out due to ice and all the snow being washed away. I was fairly firm in my decision not to ski but would be inhuman if I wasn’t wavering. I was wavering.
Understanding the valuable lesson in life that the world doesn’t care about your plans and will do whatever it will despite you doesn’t mean the decision not to ski is any easier. The mountain doesn’t care whether I’ve spent two years planning this trip, a small fortune in gear, pushed and pushed and pushed, had arguments along the way, spent 7 days getting here, used blood, sweat and tears to get up the thing. It all boils down to one simple question: Is the mountain in condition or not? It’s that black and white, that yes and no. If you make it any more complicated than that, then you want it to go but know deep down that it doesn’t. Now you are firmly into Russian Roulette territory, somewhere all my experience and hard learnt lessons are supposed to keep me out of. Remember: the effort you have expended on the mountain is irrelevant and does not make it safer.
We still had all the stuff stashed at the col, so we had to go up again anyway. There was no harm in leaving the door slightly open. At least go and have a look, right? Like I say, I would be inhuman if I wasn’t wavering only slightly.
Things had changed again on the route up to the col. I was suffering from a bad back and wanted to break up the 1200m push to the col, as we had a tent lower down, so went up on my own a little earlier to sleep for a few hours. It was unnerving navigating my way up the snow tongue to the tent in the dark. A new, gushing stream had appeared on the way up. There had been new avalanche activity, big in places and worst of all, the snow was not refreezing. If I had been wavering before, I certainly was not anymore! How deaf did I have to be not to hear the mountains talking to me. I got the closure I had been searching for after my earlier decision not to ski.
I managed to get four hours sleep before the boys joined me and we set off for the remainder of the climb up to the col, getting there for around seven in the morning. It was another beautiful blue bird day with fantastic views towards K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum.
We dicked around on the col for a bit, started melting snow, eating, preparing a platform for the tents and just generally enjoying the rest, good weather and views. The face was looking a little too shiny for my liking. Brendan climbed round the big rock buttress to get a better look at the face before the snow got soft and came back with nothing in particular to report. But he had missed one thing.
Due to the angle of the sun he was unable to see an enormous crown on the face. Directly on the line that we had originally hoped to ski when we came to Pakistan. You can see it in the picture below.
None of us had ever seen a steep face like this slab avalanche. They normally self-purge and are the safest place to be with regards avalanche at least. The avalanche had gone right down to rock, taking with it the snow for a whole season. If ever I needed confirmation for my earlier decision, this was it. The decision was completely out of my hands. In a perverse way, everyone was relieved and happy. We all knew we shouldn’t have been skiing it but the devil on the shoulder was supplying copious amounts of self-doubt. The avalanche silenced him for good.
And so our trip to the Karakoram ended. Ed made one last trip around to the foot of Laila to get a better look at the avalanche and got some nice pictures. The funny thing is that when I’d spoken to Trey, he told me that the face ripped the very next day after they decided snow conditions were unsafe and climbed off the face. We calculated that the face must have avalanched the day between us having a last look and the day before we climbed to the col which was 20th June. When it avalanched on Trey’s trip, it must have been on 18th June when they left for K2. Almost exactly the same time. Hmmm… I see a trend developing here.
And that was that. Our first Karakoram/Himalayan expedition behind us. To be honest, the expedition was tough. I’ll quote Brendan here who said it so well: “I expected it to be tough but I thought it would be easier.” It think that captures the feeling of everyone in the group. We are all skiers first and climbers second. None of us had spent 18 days trying to climb and ski ONE mountain. I don’t think any of us was really getting enough of a fix with the snowboard. Too much slogging and not enough sking. Our packs were so heavy at times when establishing the camp that we even contemplated ditching the boards and walking down, so we didn’t have to carry them up again. I think I personally skied around 2000m in the whole trip which is a paltry amount. We all realised that expeditions of this type do not lend themselves well to getting lots of skiing in. They are driven by an objective and that is to ski Laila and not to ski as much as you can. Like I say, there was a lot of hard work and not a lot of fun with the snowboard.
And then if you add altitude to the mix, you increase the work factor again. Everyone in the team bar me was taking Diamox. Somehow I missed that memo and only found out about it once the trip had begun. I don’t think there was any marked difference in performance (especially in the latter stages of the trip. Come on boys, cut me some slack ;)) but I had real trouble sleeping. I continually stopped breathing (apnea) throughout the trip which meant I hardly ever slept at times and would wake up feeling like I was suffocating. When I was in the tent at 4900m on my own on the last trip to the col, I woke up thinking the tent had collapsed from an avalanche and I couldn’t breathe. Bit of a bad dream. On all accounts, sleep deprivation and these pleasant dreams did not add to the already sparse fun factor. Add to that the epic 7 day trip in and everyone getting ill to varying degrees (I got ill again on the way back and gained 6kg in two days when I got home. I lost a lot of weight) and you can see why this sort of thing is not everyone’s idea of holiday. In fact, I wouldn’t even use the word holiday to describe these sorts of trips unless the word’s completely redefined first, to be synonymous with sufferfest
Would I do it again…….? Never say never but don’t ask me just yet
And before I forget I’d like to thank Brendan, Ed and Luca without whom I would never have been able to do this trip. I would also like to thank Mohammad Ali, Ali Muhammad and Munna of Karakurum Magic Mountain, our agency, who were just fantastic. Everything worked and then when we changed plans, that worked too. Fantastic and professional service. I highly recommend and would use again.
Big thanks also to Vicki at Powertraveller who has been so generous with solar panels over the years. These things are just the best. Light, solid and easy to use. We were able to charge absolutely everything… even the expresso machine (no, there was no expresso machine). And a big thank you to Turmat who kept us fueled with their dehydrated foods.
The weather continued to be unstable today, so we decided on a couloir again for best visibility. I saw a youtube video on the Presten couloir a couple of years ago and Luca saw it recently himself, so we thought we would go and have a look.
I found very little info on the couloir other than the youtube video but it turns out that it’s pretty easy to find. Driving from Leknes to Henningsvær, you can find it just outside of Henningsvær in an area which is popular amongst climbers in the summer and looks like this:
The couloir is a little bit further on from where I’m taking the picture and easy to see.
Unfortunately we didn’t find the couloir in good condition. It looked amazing but when we got on it, the rain affected snow was in clear evidence with light fluffy powder on top. There was lots of sluff in the couloir where it had purged which made for pockets of avy debris and exposed, icy rain affected snow.
The gradient on the lower part of the couloir is never more than 40 degrees, so we knew that section of the couloir was skiable in those conditions and hoped that it might get better as we climbed. There is a big fallen boulder in the middle of the couloir (the crux) which is easy to pass both up and down. We had crampons and two ice ixes for the climb which were definitely needed for this section in the condition we found it.
The snow just above the crux was also very hard and icy and it would definitely be wise to board this section with both ice axes to arrest any fall or loss of control or just simply down climb.
Once passed the crux, the couloir gradually steepens to around 45 degrees and up to around 50 degrees as you start to top out (all gradients were checked with the inclinomoter). The condition of the couloir didn’t improve as we climbed and we were unsure whether it was skiable. Having had a serious fall on ice before, this is not somewhere I like to be, so we decided at the worst we would climb to the top, enjoy the clouds and then downclimb.
Just as we were nearing the top (probably 50m below the top), I released a slab avalanche on 50 degrees. It wasn’t particularly big (crown of around 30cm) but big enough to take us both off the face and start falling down the couloir. I managed to self arrest around 50m from the crown and Luca fell around 100m toma-hawking and finally coming to a stop.
As soon as I got on that section of snow, I just knew it was going to go and then it did. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to shout “Avalanche”. Then I got snow in my mouth and down my wind pipe and was struggling for breath when I finally managed to stop.
Luckily, nothing more than a slightly twisted knee for me and a bruised elbow for Luca. And then a hasty retreat down the couloir.
So, the long and short of it is that this beautiful couloir is not in coniditon at the moment due to all the rain last week. And a word of warning….. While we were down climbing, it started snowing heavily. All the snow from the side walls sluffs into the couloir. We were protected under the rock at the crux but there was surprisingly large amounts and they came much quicker than I would have ever thought.
We’ve had the odd bit of new snow over the last few days but nothing more than a few centimetres. We don’t really need much more snow now to be honest. Things are shaping up nicely in the snowpack locally. It has been windy though, so there is a risk of some wind slab formations and we did see some evidence of that on this tour.
Luca, a friend from Chamonix, has come up for a few days to check out Norway and Lofoten for the first time. The weather has been more than a bit frustrating since his arrival and everything we have tried to do has ended up in complete white-out at the summit in strong winds and snow, hoping for a weather window.
We went up Stornappstind yesterday to ski the South Couloir. I skied this last year for the first time solo (here are more details on how to get there and specifics on the couloir.)
The weather had been shifting all day and it looked like nothing was going to happen. Hoping things had settled down a bit and would improve, we went for it. Of course that never happened and we ended up waiting on the summit in a complete white out with strong winds and snow for about 1.5 hrs unsure if we had found the entrance to the couloir. Finally a window of sorts presented itself and we could see the entrance (indeed where we thought it was) and dropped in.
And well worth the wait it was too! The conditions in the couloir were fantastic. Really cohesive snow and things seemed to be really well bonded. You could ski it pretty fast.
Luca finally managed to get his first line. Let’s hope for a few more in the coming days.
The couloir is protected from the current wind so there is no windslab. But as a result, it does have wind transported snow in there. I couldn’t see any signs of instability but it is something to bear in mind.
We’ve finally got a little variation on the theme……… We went to bed and it was snowing and we woke up and it was snowing. What is going on? I don’t think it could really get much better than this in terms of new snow, rain affected old snow and avalanche. Just a little bit every day, settling nicely with every day that passes. Today, we had another 10 to 15cm.
Today was going to be a solo day and given the new snow I wanted to do something that was conservative and chose Hustinden which is a 5 minute drive from the house in Napp. Ski-in, ski out (well, almost).
You have to drive to Nappskaret car park which is the same car park to go up Stornappstind. You’ll see it as soon as you arrive. This tour seems like a really good tour on those days you’re not sure of the snow pack as you’re nice and safe on the ridge the whole way, so if anything goes, it should go below you.
I had to cross a small river at the start which was easy and then skinned up the first section which is around 30 degrees and then it gets steeper to around 38 degrees (checked on inclinometer) and then mellows back down. Once I get to the steeper section, I boot packed up.
The whole trip is around 700m vertical gain from the car park. It took me about 2 hrs up and down which was a bit slow going. The wind was blowing almost perpendicular to the ridge, so there was a lot of deep wind transported snow on the leeward side, the side I boot packed up but more importantly also the side I boarded down The snow was just below my knee for most of the way. Nice powder.
The snow seemed really cohesive on the lower angle stuff but as I gained elevation and started to climb up the steepest section towards the top (42 to 45 degrees, one section of 48 degrees for 10m (checked with inclinometer)), the snow was drier and I didn’t have a great feeling about it. I dug down to the old rain affected layer which was about 30cm below the new snow and it just seemed a little too light and fluffy for my liking. I could easily just wipe it off the rain affected layer. It just didn’t feel good enough which might have something to do with being solo. Either way, I decided to turn about 50m below the summit and get out of there.
Being solo and having doubts is an endless battle. Are your doubts genuine or because you are alone. Very often it’s hard to tell the difference, I find. Wind, bad visibility and cold only add to the internal struggles ;).
The snow behaved normally but as the terrain was steeper, I was easily going through to the rain affected snow beneath which is food for thought for steep skiing later in the week.
So the trip achieved what I set out to do. Get some safe, powder turns and check out how things are shaping up. Hopefully, a little bit wiser this week. Things definitely need to bond a bit more on the higher elevations where the snow is drier.
I hate to repeat myself but once again we went to bed to clear skies and woke up to clear skies and the snow fairies had once again been with about 10cm of new snow. And if you want any new snow on semi-solid rain affected snow, this is the type of snow you want. Nice and wet and sticky. Perfect!
Considering we’ve now had two days of new snow (around 20cm accumulated) on top of a hard rained on layer, we wanted to just take a nice cruisy tour today and see what the lay of the land was. So we headed over to Middagstinden on Flagstad island. This picture is taken from Ramberg.
This tour is the epitomy of cruise. I’m guessing it’s around 30 degrees and perfect for some nice big turns. Unfortunately, it is on the short side at around 550m vertical gain, so we were up in around an hour and down again in a few minutes. But they were a very fun few minutes!
The tour starts at Bergland where you can park the car. The snow cover left a little bit to be desired on the way up.
We ended up boot packing the whole way up even though you could have skinned after the initial first few hundred metres. The rain layer was still there but the new snow seems to have bonded well to it and should only get better over the next couple of days.
Once we reached the top, it is basically just one big snow field at around 30 degrees. I had a good old charge. Conditions were really good but the hard rain affected layer is lurking if you make too big turns.
Nice family friendly tour.
Luca is arriving tomorrow, so excited to see what mischief we can get up to!
We arrived in Lofoten last night to clear blue skies…..and again woke up to clear blue skies this morning. And somehow in between the snow fairies managed to bring a light dusting of new snow. That put a big smile on my face!
As last year, the first tour of the Lofoten trip was to be Stornappstind (click here on how to get their, route finding e.t.c). It has been raining here recently, so I was anticipating a bit of dust on boiler plate and decided to take the ice axe with me just in case. How many times have I left it behind only to get myself in a spot of bother….? Enough to now take it with me. And I was very pleased with that decision.
There is still snow cover all the way from the car park to the top. Not that we got to the top. That’s where the boiler plate comes in….. This picture is very deceiving:
I could lie and say it was “epic”, as so many seem to do who stand on one or two planks. But it wasn’t to be honest! I gave up skinning up on my splitboard and started to book pack. I hardly made a dent in the snow with my hard boots to be honest but made quick progress with the ice axe. Angelita carried on up on skis for a while before she couldn’t go anymore and started sliding back down the way she came.
So we had no choice but to put the planks on there and ski back down around 100m for the summit. The ski down was surprisingly good to be honest. Much better than I’d been expecting, so a good day out in the end. Just great to be in Lofoten again anyway. The views are always stunning and the pace of life perfect compared to the usual rat race.
With the conditions as they are locally, things just cannot get colder. If it gets cold, it will put a stop to any hopes of skiing anything steeper. A few road trips look like they are on the cards ;).
I headed up to Jotunheimen again with old friend, Jørgen, in the hope of finding an improvement in conditions to be able to ski something a little more interesting further in the Leirdalen valley.
As the road is closed for the winter past Leirdalvassbu, the options are pretty limited so we plumbed for Loftet which forms the first peak on the west side of the Leirdal valley from the road. The face is north north east facing depending on which particular line down you take but on all accounts very similar to the couloir I wanted to ski further down the valley.
As the road is closed at the moment, we had to skin up around 15mins before climbing the mountain proper. It’s a pretty straightforward skin up although it was icy in some places. There is still clear evidence of the Dagmar storm and rain affected snow which has refrozen to ice in places although it had filled in again in many others.
There’s not really much of note to this tour to be honest. We got there pretty late which meant coming down as the light was starting to fade but we were lucky to get beautiful weather.
We skinned up and skied down the same line to get us back to the car. It’s a pretty even gradient the whole way up and down. A nice cruisy tour for any standard of skier.
We were up and down again in around 4 hours with 1200m of vertical gain from the car. The conditions up lead to some conservative skiing on the way down, expecting to bottom out on a hard, icy layer but that didn’t always happen. Too late after the event!
A nice cruisy tour to get the legs going. Needless to say the conditions weren’t encouraging enough for me to want to check out the couloir I had in mind. I cannot imagine conditions improving anytime soon to be honest. The slightest wind is blowing the snow away and temperatures are in the -10 to -15 range making it difficult for the new snow to bond to the hard icy layer. Or maybe the couloir is nice and protected… Hmmmm. I shall persevere.
Want to see more splitboarding in Norway…..? Click here.