Slow and Deliberate- Winter Himalaya Ski Mountaineering
There is a pretty good reason so few people venture into the Himalaya in the winter months. It’s really high and it’s really cold. Since the first Himalayan winter expedition in 1980, there have been about 30 winter expeditions total. Nearly three quarters of all expeditions failed to climb to 7,000 meters. This places the Himalaya in winter at the forefront of mountaineering challenge. It’s incredibly difficult and dangerous to confront the combination of extreme cold, altitude, and wind. As the jet stream starts its annual dip in late December, the Himalaya becomes a windsock. Calm days above 15,000 feet are rare. Various mountain weather sites report ridiculously cold temperatures from -40 to as much as -100 degrees. At -40, Celsius meets Fahrenheit, so the only thing easy about climbing in the winter is there is no need to calibrate your thermometer. Cold also decreases air pressure, and this can raise the effective altitude by as much as 3,000 feet in the Himalaya.
So why would anyone head to the Himalaya in the heat, (or lack thereof), of winter? For my twin brother Steve Marolt, and Jim Gile, and I, it came down to a simple matter of “what to do next”. We grew up climbing and skiing in Aspen and had spent the last 25 years progressing our climbing and skiing with expeditions to some 40 of the world’s 6,000 to 8,000 meter peaks. We had seen the gradual increase in people heading to the popular 8K peaks, and the “scene” was turning us off. Throw in death counts by the dozens annually on peaks like Everest, Manaslu, and others, and we had a desire to push ourselves to our limit, but the environment of those highest peaks in the normal climbing season became totally unappealing. Waiting in lines to climb was not conducive to our chosen style, no Sherpa / porters, guides, supplemental oxygen or drugs, so we set our sights on other no name peaks and projects where we could explore and get the same kind of fix…. alone.
Out of the gate, we realized we needed to pick a peak that would give us a remote chance. Being ski mountaineers, we gravitated towards our strength, skiing, and understood that the route had to allow us the ability to easily ski back to the safety of a camp. Really, it boiled down to survival more than aesthetic achievement, so it wasn’t about steep, never before skied lines, but utilitarian use of skis for safety.
The peak became Mustagh Atta. We had climbed and skied the peak several years before, in what amounted to- in our view- as the ultimate ski tour. It’s located on the northwestern border of China near Pakistan and Tajikistan on the Tibetan Plateau. It sits literally at the hub of the greatest ranges in the world, the Karakorum, Himalaya, Pamirs, Kunlun, and the Tien Shan ranges in the autonomous Xinjiang region of China. It rises to 7,509 meters / 24,636 feet, and is one of the most spectacular peaks on the planet. What you don’t realize until you attempt it in winter is that weather flows off all those ranges to blast Mustagh Atta with constant wind and cold that makes it the undocumented coldest place on earth in the winter. Temperatures at base camp can drop to -50 degrees, and at the summit it regularly is -90 with spells dipping into the negative triple digits. The peak had never been climbed in the winter. More people have walked on the moon than have been on the slopes of Mustagh Atta in winter.
By fall 2012, we had formulated our plan, coordinated logistics, raised funds for the extraordinary extra costs of a winter expedition, and committed to Mustagh Atta for January 21st. We landed in Kashgar, China and were greeted with -30 temperatures and thick almost brittle fog and pollution that limited our view to less than 25 yards. After shopping for our food, our outfitter jammed us with all our gear into a small bus and we started the 7-hour drive on the Chinese side of the Karakorum highway.
The peak got larger as we approached, and soon we were at the normal drop off for expeditions, but the bus kept going. We thought maybe in the winter you could approach to get closer or something, but after 15 minutes and looking at the northern flank, we started worrying. We called for the bus to stop and turn around. The guy said ok, and was bound to let us know the reality of the situation for ourselves. As soon as the door opened and we stepped out of the bus, Chinese military guards, fully armed, appeared out of nowhere. Immediately, we were escorted back on to the bus. Our hosts met with the military, they casually smoked a cigarette and laughed and a half-hour later our guy explained that there was a mix up. “Sorry guys, the Chinese military is doing winter survival training with live ammunition at Mustagh Atta’s base camp. Peak is closed. “We’ve been given clearance for another 7,000 meter peak down the road.” You can’t make this shit up. The check had been cashed, and no one thought to tell us before we got on the plane, flew half way around the world with all our gear!
The only peak remotely skiable in winter in that area is Mustagh Atta, but we were told this other peak was a “great ski peak”. As we got out of the bus and looked at the peak, it was neither skiable, and after getting back home, realized it had only been climbed once, with related deaths. I remember looking at Steve who threw his hands in the air “MUSTAGH ATTA IS A FUCKING SKI TOUR! WE HAVE 3 ICE SCREWS!!” It was one of those moments where you have uncontrollable laughter for a few minutes until you realize you are totally screwed.
We concocted another plan to sneak into another skiable slope on the northern side of Mustagh Atta out of view of the Chinese military and had our cook, a local who lived at the base of the peak, call a buddy to see if he could get a half dozen yaks to where we were. Unbelievably, he said “no problem”. Two hours later, yaks appeared out of nowhere. We loaded up, and at this point we realized we had a couple days trek to the peak, but again, justified it with typical “what the hell let’s give it a go.”
It was absolutely as cold as I had ever experienced, with a 35 mph wind that forced us into full on climbing garb, complete with altitude boots, and were accompanied by a couple of yak herders, and our cook staff of 3. We looked at these guys, clothed in jeans, tennis shoes, and layers of everything from cotton hoodies and windbreakers, one with a cotton ball cap and plastic driving gloves. “Is that how you guys are going to cross the Tibetan Plateau for the next two days, and what about hanging out at base camp?” To which they said, “no problem, let’s go….”. There was no way this was going to work. I reasoned that as soon as those yaks took one step, our money was toast. In those peaks, as soon as you break ground on an expedition towards the objective, game over. You either make it, or you are done. No refunds, no negotiations, no nothing.
We called our logistics guy in Kashgar. An apology was made with a promise to allow us to return the next year. Apology accepted, and while we were out the airfare, the bulk of the trip cost was in place. We arrived back in Kashgar almost a year to the day of our first trip, and headed directly to base camp. We arrived after the long bus ride in a state of deja vu only this time, no Chinese military. The next day we started the day trek to basecamp. The next few days were spent acclimating with day hikes and organizing loads. There was little snow at basecamp, but it was extremely windy and cold, and we knew this was going to be a limiting factor. The haul to camp 1, at 18,000 feet is a crawl up scree, so it was not possible to use overboots. This forced us to buckle our boots a bit tighter than normal as you could feel the biting cold from the wind; it felt as if there were holes in our boots. High winds kept us at base camp the next few days and we wondered how our tents were surviving on the mountain. The next round of climbing would entail a second load including the skis and personal gear, and we planned on spending the night. We were in no rush to get up to camp 1, and found ourselves there early that evening. The temperature only fluctuates a couple of degrees from sun to night, but as we entered the tent, the dark of evening seemed even colder than the -50 that it was.
Inside the tent, we stayed in our down suits, and fired up the stoves. Soon it warmed up to -20 in what would be our second lesson learned. It became painfully clear that although the single wall tents were super convenient for hauling due to their minimal weight, they were not ideal for winter cold; it’s nearly impossible to boil water when it’s -20, so we had to use tablets to purify the lukewarm water, which left freeze dried food crunchy, and Nescafe coffee a swill that even thinking about makes me gag. In the morning, the issue became getting our boots on. Putting on frozen ski boots was nearly impossible, and we spent the next hour warming our shells over the open flame of our stove just to get them on. We tried to appreciate the experience we were gaining.
After a few more days at base camp, we headed up again. We arrived at camp, went through the process of getting as comfortable as possible, brewed up, and brought up cheese, meats, bars, and readied ourselves for the climb to camp 2 the next day. We realized we would have to keep our entire boots in our sleeping bags to get them on the next morning, but also learned that a full-grown body in a sleeping bag is not very conducive for the added bulk of ski boots. When I woke up, it was to a gurgled stomach and fever, and I knew I had to head down. Steve and Jim were in better shape, and before I left, I helped them get loaded with camp two and watched them off. The day was perfect, super cold, and no wind.
I walked back down to base camp and waited it out with trips to the crapper. Up on the hill, Steve and Jim slowly moved up to about 20,000 feet, dropped off a cache, and started back to camp. They arrived later after finally skiing in the Himalaya in winter. It doesn’t matter how bad the skiing is, when you click into skis in the Himalaya, that’s a victory. Back at camp, the success was enough to help us overcome all the hurdles we had faced, and we spent a lighthearted evening with good food and warmth before falling to sleep. We would wake up to reality fueled by grey skies and high winds.
Our high became a low the next morning with another storm. We wondered if our camp was even still there, with a constant flume of wind drift rushing directly over the peak. The days clicked by until we were at the end of our window. The goal became to make an alpine run up to get as high as we could, and to grab the cache at 20,000 feet in the process. With luck, even a summit was not out of the question, but it would have to be perfect. No wind. The plan was to get up at midnight, be on the trail by 1, and just go for it from base camp.
We fueled up, and hit the trail. We were in a speechless hike, no loads, and even a few stars. It was enough to get excited about. By 4am, we had reached our camp 4,000 feet above, and headed in for a short break. The wind up higher had definitely increased significantly, but it was still dark so we decided to wait until we could see. By 5am, we could see the winds had increased drastically. The upper slopes were encompassed in a snow plume from one side to the other. The lenticular above the summit had dropped to about 19,000 feet, and in silence as we were mesmerized by the purr of the stove, but we knew the trip was over. We couldn’t even retrieve the cache above us. The entire trip home was about planning our return, what worked, what we needed to change, and how we were going to pull this off.
Back home, we were welcomed to one of the coldest winters we had experienced in Colorado in years. In an attempt to squelch a bit of summit fever, we kept training, taking advantage of the cold weather. The big issue was finding a heat system for our feet. I found a product on the Internet, Thermacell heated insoles, and to my surprise, they worked. I tested them and knew I had found a solution to a major problem! Additionally, we realized that single wall tents were not warm enough so we purchased V25 dome tents and had them shipped to Kashgar.
For the third year in a row, we found ourselves in Kashgar, on our way back to Mustagh Atta. It seemed as if we had never left, and were anxious to get to basecamp. We woke up early, and hit the trail. We arrived at basecamp, set up our dome, anxiously divided up the loads, and prepared for the climb.
We arrived at the location of our previous camp and decided to push the camp about 500 feet higher, then returned to base. The weather held with moderate winds, and spirits were high. The two previous years had given us experience and confidence, and we were able to relax at basecamp.
After a few days acclimating, we set out to supply our camp, but also to sleep on the mountain. The weather was grey, and winds were low enough to climb. Our new heated insoles were working well, and we had confidence. After the 3-hour climb, we arrived at camp, set up our double wall tent. We fired up the stove, the tent was warm, confirming our change to a double wall tent, and we slept with a satisfaction from the process that started two years before.
Morning came, and with it, unclimbable wind. The tent appeared to be holding up well, but we secured the lines, reinforced the walls with rocks, and headed down. The wind enhanced the cold, forcing us to use full down suits, facemasks, and goggles for the descent, but spirits were still high despite not being able to move up. We had great confidence in how the new gear had performed.
At basecamp, the storm increased with intensity, and we realized there was not going to be any climbing in the near future. We settled in with earplugs, iPods, and kindles to hurry up and wait. A look out of the tent was all we needed to know if conditions were climbable or not.
After 10 days, the storm subsided. We stretched out our bed rest bodies, fueled up, and got to work; there was no time left for more carries, we were on a summit bid. We would climb to camp 1 and go alpine style to the top. We had no loads, so the climbing was easy. The grey sky was lined with stretches of blue sky, but took on a dramatic look with incredible light and contrast, but it was clear that higher up, the atmosphere was a swirl of gusts. At about 17,000 feet, a wall of wind came from nowhere, and blew us to our knees. This forced us to awkwardly move ahead, leaning into the wind making the climbing exhausting. It was an exercise of balancing forward on ski poles and inching upward. We started early enough in the day to continue, thinking that once we reached the shelter of the tents and camp, we could wait it out.
Climbing in the Himalaya in the winter forces you to really step outside of your comfort zone in that it’s a completely different environment. There is no way you would continue in those conditions in-season, but in winter, you don’t have a choice. You have to push yourself well beyond reason if you want to have a chance. It is a completely different sport, and you feel like you are starting over, until you push yourself into this environment, there is nothing that can prepare you for what you are attempting. It’s very exciting, but also extremely scary.
After 5 hours of battling the wind, we reached our camp. Our bomber tent was shredded, poles broken, and the winds continuing to grow stronger. With only 2 days left, and no relief in sight, we realized that our trip was over. We huddled in the shredded tent, and with the storm raging around us, the decision was simple. The conditions were so fierce; we realized we had a massive effort ahead of us just to get off the peak in one piece. We loaded up our packs with all our gear and skis, and headed down.
We started down, and it was nearly impossible. At one point, I stood up to see how the guys were doing, and I saw Steve cartwheeling across the face with a full pack. As I attempted to turn around, a gust caught me in the chest, and I was literally airborne, flying through the air backwards. I landed on my pack and rolled to my stomach. There was not even time to panic or be scared. The slope we were on was a talus slope, and with that, what is referred to as ground effect, whereby the wind rushes over the tallest obstacles, on my stomach, I could catch my breath and think. If wind like this is experienced on smooth snow slopes, a climber has no chance. There are stories of climbers on Mustagh Atta being blown off the peak in the normal season never to be found. I was thankful I was not 100 feet higher on the smooth snow slopes; I would have had no hope of survival.
After catching my breath, I saw that Steve and Jim were back inching toward me, stepping up, leaning on their poles, keeping their bodies sideways to the wind to allow for less body surface to be exposed to the wind. We were constantly being blown off our feet. This was excruciatingly difficult work, far greater than carrying any load up. It’s crazy how your mind focuses in a situation like this, and while I was as scared as I had ever been in the mountains, I set my mind to getting down. This took enormous concentration and balance. The wind was too loud to talk, so we were all on our own trying to survive. In the mountains at the times where you need your buddies most, you are on your own. The wind chill factor with the cold temperatures was off the chart. When the large gusts came, we were blown to the ground, but could rest, catch our breath, then get back up. It was just relentless.
At about 500 feet above basecamp, an adjacent ridge finally gave us a bit of protection. I arrived at a big rock, and sat down on the ground and watched Steve and Jim who were still battling higher up. I watched them being blown around like rag dolls. They got to where I was, and our down suits were completely drenched with frozen sweat from the effort- despite the -40 temperatures. We hobbled down to base camp exhausted.
We had just survived a day we would never forget. The weather raged on, and while we knew the trip was over, the satisfaction of experiencing a day like we just did was an odd sensation of success beyond any summit, something that is almost impossible to describe to anyone who has not experienced wind and cold like that. We chalked it up to experience, and ironically, it fueled our passion to find a peak more buried in a range for protection from the open Tibetan plateau, and again, in the bus headed back to Kashgar, we vowed to continue. If we could survive in those conditions, it gave us a great deal of confidence that we could return and keep the progression towards higher winter skiing alive.
Back home, the draw of a return to the Himalaya for another attempt was fuel for the fire to continue training and planning. We were done with Mustagh Atta; there is a good reason the peak had never been climbed in the winter. We set our sights on Tibet, peaks we had climbed in season before. Norjin Kansang and Cho Oyu were first on the list. The issue became access. Tibet is closed for all tourism from December to the end of February. We considered a trip for late February to make an attempt, but could not make it work with other obligations at home. Also, Tibet and Nepal certify “winter” as ascents between December 1st and Feb 15th. Nepal and Tibetan peaks become less wintery in late Feb and early March very quickly. The idea is to force expeditions into the heart of the cold season for the prize. Regardless, mid January fit our schedule and eliminated the hair splitting.
The Chinese Mountaineering Association would not budge- Tibet is closed. Next we explored Nepal. The hurdle in Nepal is finding locals to establish a base camp. The high villages close after the fall trekking and climbing season so there very little support to be found. This would not be an issue if not for the requirement that all expeditions have no less than 2 paid Sherpa on expeditions in compliance with the post 2014 Everest disaster requirements. We don’t utilize Sherpa support and offered to pay the fee and not take them, but the ministry of Nepal Tourism would not bend. So we were basically limited to the Annapurna region where there are a number of relatively high villages. We emailed contacts from previous expeditions, and found a solution. Dorgee Sherpa is a wonderful guy and friend that found a couple of Sherpa from the area looking to make a buck and suggested a 7,000 meter peak in the recently opened region, Himlung Himal. Himlung per Dorgee would be a “perfect ski peak”. The next issue was getting to basecamp. Trekking in the winter is difficult at best. Dorgee set us up with a local helicopter airline, and arranged to have the expedition flown to base camp.
On January 20th, we were off. We arrived in Katmandu a couple days later to find that one of Steve’s bags failed to arrive. It contained critical gear, his down suit. Ugh! After 5 days waiting, Steve grudgingly agreed to take what was available from Dorgee’s gear cache, gear for normal season expeditions, and we headed to the airport. The schedule was tight to begin with, but losing 5 days was really changing our approach, eliminating crucial acclimatization days on the mountain. We would have to take a chance on pushing higher quicker than we normally would. Steve was nervous about the prospects of winter with inadequate gear, but we reasoned the gear would eventually arrive, and worked it out to have the gear trekked in. Dorgee assured us that if a Sherpa could climb Everest, a bit of cash would be welcomed, and the prospects of trekking it to Himlung is possible for a master Sherpa. After a three-hour flight, we found ourselves at base camp.
The weather was incredible compared to our experience in China the previous 3 years with crystal blue skies. It was extremely cold, but winds were calm, and we enjoyed the stark stillness of where we were. Three 7,000-meter peaks towered above us creating a mind-blowing alpine amphitheater. The region had been closed to mountaineering until recently, and the area was pristine. There were no other people for miles.
After acclimating to base camp, we trekked across a dry and broken glacier in a half day effort. Once off the glacier, we were at the foot of the northeast ridge of Himlung. The normal route found its way up onto the ridge 2,000 feet above us, but with massive snow on steep slopes riddled with huge seracs and crevasses; clearly a death trap of hidden obstacles and avalanches. We opted to follow the Himlung glacier valley. This option didn’t appear much better in that it paralleled the slopes through a major icefall on the valley floor. It also was exposed to massive seracs towering above from the ridge above further up. We didn’t know what to expect, but it was better than the alternative.
The slopes to camp one were beautiful. We could use our skis and skins to access the camp. We set off under incredibly clear skies on terrain that slowly rose to camp one at 18,000 feet. We passed over a massive glacier lake that was frozen, in a ski tour that was beyond anything we had ever experienced. With exertion and the rays of intense high altitude sun, even the cold seemed to disappear. We arrived at camp, set up the tents and cached our loads with spinning heads from the 3,000-foot effort. We headed down for a rest day and while the skiing was nearly impossible on the wind-crusted slopes, we had clicked into our skis, and were skiing in the Himalaya in winter- a victory. In the middle of winter, it’s beyond words.
Back at basecamp, we were exhausted, but satisfied. We waited out a storm, and three days later, we woke up to more blue sky and calm winds. We headed back up the mountain to sleep at 18,000 feet. By this time in the trip, the loss of days was having its impact. We realized this would be the extent of our acclimation, and had to dig deep mentally to overcome this. Climbing in the winter without the safety of camps is extremely risky. In addition, cold temperatures drastically decrease the air pressure making the range climb between 2,000 and 3,000 feet higher in the winter compared to the summer, and you feel this immediately. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how consistent the weather patterns are in the Himalaya. The monsoon hits within 48 hours of the same date every year. The same holds for the heavy snow of winter, hitting almost every year around February 20th. We were sleeping at 18,000 feet the night of the 15th. Our schedule and the environment were painting us into corner.
We sketched out a plan, and welcomed the addition of our Sherpa to help with breaking trail in order to create as much efficiency as possible. They would climb with us, not for us, and were excited with the plan that would give them a first winter ascent for Nepal; if we made it, they would stand on top before us. We would rest 3 days at base camp, and then head out mid-day for a summit bid. We would brew up at 18,000 feet, and go for the summit at just over 24,000 feet. Considering we’d be carrying skis, and climbing very steep snow covered terrain, it was ridiculously risky, but a challenge we knew we could handle. We looked forward to the greatest challenge of our lives, and realized that if we skied from above 20,000 feet, we would have taken skis in winter where no one, to our knowledge, had before.
In the morning we were ready. The plan was to take our time and casually walk to camp one so that we could get there in the afternoon, brew up, and be on the trail around 10pm. We crossed the glacier with nothing in our packs, and nervous energy being dissipated with each step. It really does become a matter of just putting one boot in front of the other, and for the time that you are moving forward, every inch is taking you closer to knowing what it will be like. By late afternoon, we arrived at camp 1.
At 9:30 with no words, we started to get ready. We jammed our feet into boots, and the stove started to warm the tent, and also produced a pot of coffee. Maybe the coffee would help to get a crap out at a time when our bodies were not used to it, but if nothing else, a slight jolt of caffeine to get the blood pumping. By 10:00 we were climbing again.
We slowly caught our breath, and started the steep climb up to a massive icefall. The climbing was an upward traverse of the 45-degree slopes, with multiple deep snow gullies that we tested for avalanche stability. The snow was completely rotten, so we had to be careful. This was extremely difficult terrain, snow on rocks, steep with cliffs below. After hours of difficult climbing, we reached a buttress even with the icefall, and then we had to find a route up the rock and ice onto the smooth glacier. The glacier was a hellacious mess of steep slopes, slots, and serac ledges that we would have to negotiate to get further up to where the glacier was less steep, and skiable.
Above the icefall we put our skins on. The lack of weight on our backs combined with the familiarity of skinning was a welcome relief. It was bitterly cold, and we had one hell of a long slog to get to the peak. Watches were buried under layers of clothing, but as the dark faded to the magenta of the skyline, and the peaks of the Himalaya stretched out behind us, we realized we had been climbing for 6 or 7 hours from the camp, and 16 hours from base camp. We arrived at a section of steep 60 degree ice that lead to a ridge, and from there, the summit, which was scoured to the blue ice beneath. We skinned up to the edge of the ice to assess.
As soon as we came to a stop, the bitter cold immediately started to suck the life out of us. The thermometer on my pack belt ended at -30, and the mercury was buried in the bottom. Was it -40 or -60… all I know is it was freaking cold! We attempted to put the first screw in the steep face, but it would not go. We tried another but had the same results. I stepped on the ice, and my crampons slid like ice skates. I tried to jam my ax into the face for stability, and it bounced off. I had heard about glacier ice being so cold that it was unclimbable. I had never seen or experienced this, and thought it to be a bit of exaggeration, but was finding out it wasn’t. By this time, our feet and hands were starting to freeze, and the cold numbed our bodies into slow motion. Even speech was impaired. With no way to climb the steep ice, and cold so intense, the summit dream faded, and the objective became getting down without incident. It’s impossible to describe how serious the situation really was. In the winter up high, if you stop, you die. We’d stopped far too long already.
My altimeter read 21,270 feet. While the summit eluded us, we knew that this was over 1,000 feet higher than we had ever skied in the winter, and more than likely, a winter high altitude ski record. After swinging our arms and legs, we took off the crampons, pulled our skins, clicked into our bindings, and pointed down. It was so cold that our skis barely slid, and squeaked along the frigid slope, which was a combination of boilerplate ice, and wind crusted soft snow. The cold held the snow in place with snow bridges that allowed for our skis to move over deep slots until about 200 feet above the icefall. We then roped up and slipped our way down through the maze. This was survival skiing at best, and required a lot of focus in thin air with our minds tired from being on the move for almost 19 hours since we left base camp.
Nearly 30 hours after we started, we found ourselves back at base camp; our feet had succumbed to pain and were completely numb. The intense cold and constant hammering of a zillion steps and little or no sleep stretched us to our limit. We were dehydrated, running on fumes, but satisfied. There is nothing to compare climbing and skiing in the winter Himalaya with. It’s the most miserable thing we have ever done, yet the most satisfying and fun. It’s hard to explain. Success in the winter takes on a different definition. Victory becomes the experience. For Steve, Jim and I, after a lifetime of climbing and skiing, we sought to figure out “what to do next”. The winter Himalaya provides the answer. We settled into our base camp tent with more experience, more confidence, in silence sipping hot soup and hatching out plans for our next winter expedition.