"Climbing the mountain with this gear is a different challenge, belive me. Everything you need must be super-light." Image of Emilio Previtali on Shisha Pangma (Click to enlarge).
Image courtesy of Jean Noel Urban's website of the Everest Norton and Hornbein couloirs (click to enlarge).
ExWeb 2009 sky-descent special: surfing down frozen giants

Posted: Apr 14, 2009 09:47 pm EDT
(MountEverest.net/K2Climb.net) This spring, German Luis Stitzinger aims for a complete ski-descent of Dhaulagiri. American Ben Clark is back to Himalaya for an attempt to ski down Baruntse.

In summer, Swedish extreme skier Fredrik Ericsson will kick off his attempt to become the first to ski the worlds three highest mountains: Mount Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga.

For such extreme athletes, the summit is truly half-way there. Not only must they be excellent skiers and boarders; add to that thin air, exhaustion, and variable snow conditions on uncharted slopes touching the sky. <cutoff>

Last year showed well the difficulties of the challenge.

<b>2008 recap</b>

Last summer, American climber/skier Dan McCann fell on Broad Peak. His three buddies including expedition leader Chuck Boyd performed a very difficult high altitude rescue of their mate.

Meanwhile, Luis Stitzinger climbed Nanga Parbat as a guide via Kinshofer route. He climbed until Manzeno Peak, descended via Messner route on the Diamir wall and later made a speed climb up the Kinshofer route, had to abort short from summit but skied down the whole Diamir face in a 24,5 hours roundtrip.

In fall, Fredrik Ericsson and Norwegian Jörgen Aamot aimed for the first ever ski descent of Kangchenjunga. The attempt was aborted due to severe conditions, with the two skiing the steep and avalanche-prone slopes from 7,000 to 5,500 meters.

A tragedy involved French extreme skier Jean-Noel Urban, who was killed in a crevasse fall on Gasherbrum 1. Jean-Noel and Nicolas Brun planned to attempt an ascent of the Japanese couloir on the NW side of Gasherbum 1; and later a ski descent of Nanga Parbat.


Jean-Noel Urban had attempted to ski down the Norton Couloir on Everest North Side back in 2007. I'll only try it if conditions are good enough, he cautioned, and aborted the attempt consequently when weather turned against him.

For good reason; the year prior, Swedish Tomas Olsson met his death attempting a ski descent on that exact route.

The Norton, also called the Great Couloir, is extremely steep "nothing but a rock could stop a falling climber until he hits the foot of the wall," climbers told ExWeb. Climbed just once, by an Australian team in 1984, who named the route White Limbo, as for descents, French Marco Siffredi managed to slide down the Norton - on a snowboard, back in 2001.

<b>Marco Siffredi</b>

Sadly, Marco died the next year while attempting a descent down the nearby Hornbein Couloir. A few months ago, Wina Sturgeon wrote a story about Siffredi's fatal descent <a class="linkstylenews" href="http://outdoors.fanhouse.com/2008/11/12/he-rode-to-his-death/" target="_new"> here</a>.

Like most Himalaya skiers, Siffredi was very experienced. He learned to ride in 1995 and did a number remarkable descent in the Alps soon after, such as the first snowboard descent and second-ever descent (following Jean-Marc Boivins 1989 ski descent) of Nant Blanc on the Aiguille Verte in 1999.

In Himalaya, Marco summited and skied down Cho Oyu, attempted Shisha (summit, but no ride down) and summited Everest north side via the normal route followed by a board descent down Norton Couloir on May 23, 2001, at age 22. Austrian Stefan Gatt had also summited and boarded down one day before, but down-climbed parts of the route. Not far from the top Marco's binding broke, but one of the Sherpas was able to wire it, and the young boarder was in ABC four hours after leaving the summit.

Marco set out to climb Everest again in fall the following year, deciding on the Hornbein for his last descent. It's not clear what went wrong.

The ascent was fairly fast; Marco and his team arrived BC August 14, went to ABC August 22, did a roundtrip to North Col August 28, and again on August 31. They reached C2 (7500 meters) Sept 1st and kicked off summit push from C2 on Sept 6.

In C3 (8300 m) on the next day, Marco felt tired. His radio was broken and his sat phone had just died. Still, a favorable weather forecast pushed him out of the tent at 1am on the following morning, and he reached the summit with two Sherpas by 2 pm on Sept 8.

Feeling very tired but unwilling to abort, one hour later the Sherpas helped Marco to mount his backpack with oxygen and spare water; he did a few turns - and vanished down Hornbein in a cloud of snow. Except for his upper tracks still visible on the peak one month after, no other trace has been left by Siffredi on Everest.

An extensive, 2006 report about the accident in <a class="linkstylenews" href="http://snowboarding.transworld.net/2006/2/13/the-disappearance-of-marco-siffredi/" target="_new"> transworld.net</a> is still well worth reading, also for the comments from where the headline for this article was borrowed.

<b>Tomas Olsson</b>

The Great couloir was later skied by Norwegian Tormod Granheim, Tomas Olsson's mate. After Thomas fell. Tormod descended the couloir and then traversed to the North Col.

Tomas Olsson perished in the Norton about two hours after he and Tormod summited the mountain on May 16, 2006. Like Marco, Tomas also felt very tired on the summit. In a call from the top, they had reported a very hard climb up in a 14 hour push through a snow storm. "I hope we will be strong enough to ski down the north face," Tomas had said.

Tormod said that Tomas probably felt rushed, and fell when rappelling down a 150 ft rock cliff at around 8500 meters. The snow anchor broke off and Tomas is believed to have been knocked unconscious in the fall, continuing to slide down the wall.

<b>Lessons from the pioneers</b>

In one of his interviews with ExplorersWeb, Tomas said "Ill try to stick to the motto of the grand old man of extreme skiing, Pierre Tardivel from France. He said: 'climb what you aim to ski'.

The advice proved easier said than done for both Marco and Tomas; both ascended Everest via its normal route prior to their fatal descents.

Tomas, taking 14 hours on summit push, mentioned waiting lines on the steps. In Marco's case, insufficient acclimatization could have contributed to his 13-hour summit climb. Inadequate amounts of (or defect) supplementary oxygen could have contributed to the long climbs for both.

The general, serious fatigue of thin air was added to by lack of sleep, food, hydration and climbing/gear complications on summit push. Unchecked terrain/snow conditions finally undermined the shrinking chances for both.

Hindsight is necessary for followers. Yet extreme adventures always demand an elevated risk-acceptance.

Aiguille Verte, Marco's big snowboard victory in the Alps, became the last ride for another, very skilled legend. Bruno Gouvy perished there some years after parachuting from a helicopter onto the 1,000-meter, near-vertical tower Petit Dru.

Reports Transworld.net, "He [then] rappelled approximately two-thirds of the way down the face, where he strapped in and made turns down a 250-meter, 50-degree, hanging glacier, below which was nothing but 500 meters of crisp Alpine air. He finished the days activities by parapenting from the bottom of the snowpatch back to Chamonix."

Bruno did his James-Bond ride in 1986 but died on Aiguille Verte only 4 years later, in 1990.

As for lessons to future riders; it's clear that while risk never can be eliminated; preparations and knowledge of the effects of high altitude are key. If possible, the line should be checked close up, not only in binoculars. Staying warm and having good gear is another step to victory, as show the interviews in the <a class="linkstylenews" href="http://www.mounteverest.net/news.php?id=16734" target="_new"> ExWeb 8000+ ski/board mountaineering GEAR special: Stay warm and travel light</a>


Some criticize extreme riders/climbers for their deaths. Yet life can be lost all at once; or gradually day by day. Edge adventurers such as Alison Hargreaves shot back they'd rather live one day as a tiger than 100 as a sheep. "It's the ones afraid of dying that never learn to live," <i>The Rose</i> chimes in. For a fair debate; it's important to note that none of today's Himalaya riders are/were inexperienced dare-devils.

Jean-Noel had skied from the summit of Cho Oyu, Shishas south face twice (partial from main and central) and Gasherbrum II, plus made an attempt on Manaslu and the technical GIV. The climber and ski instructor lived in La Salle Les Alpes, France. In the past 20 years he had also skied a large number of 50-60 degrees steep slopes in Alps, Central Asia, and America. His life was ended in a freak crevasse accident.

Himalaya mountain guide Stitzinger returns following his remarkable ski-descent of Nanga Parbat last summer. Before his current Baruntse (7,220 metres/23,688 ft) expedition; Ben Clark of Telluride, Colo, made a ski-descent attempt on Annapurna IV (7,525 m) last spring.

In addition to Kangchenjunga, Fredrik Ericsson has made ski-descents from Shisha Pangma (central summit), Dhaulagiri (from 8 000 to 4 700 meters) and G2 (8 035 m) in Pakistan.

Tomas and Tormod both had a ski descent of Cho Oyu, check Tomas' interviews with ExWeb (and a video) here, <a class="linkstylenews" href="http://www.mounteverest.net/story/stories/ChoOyuandShishaVikingsforaskydescentdoubleheaderAug262004.shtml" target="_new"> Cho Oyu and Shisha: Vikings for a sky descent double header</a> and here <a class="linkstylenews" href="http://www.mounteverest.net/news.php?id=1599" target="_new"> Everest 2006 - ExWeb Interview/VIDEO: Vikings to ski down Mount Everest!</a>.

Like Fredrik both Tomas and Tormod lived in Chamonix where they practiced full time, in addition to other ski-descents worldvide. In Autumn 2003 the duo rehearsed for the 2004 Cho Oyu/Shisha project by skiing from the summit of two 7000+ mountains, Muztagh Ata (7546m) & Kuksay Peak (7186m) in China.

No recklessness involved, only men and women destined to touch the void, in order to further limits for the rest. Godspeed 2009 Himalaya sky-skiers; respect and no fear.

<i>While Yuichiro Miura became internationally famous back in the 70s for screaming down Everests Lhotse Face on a pair of skis, with a parachute in tow to keep his speed in check, Himalaya 8000+ snowboarding and skiing really took off only in the new millennium.

Following Kammerlander in 1996 and Karnicar in 2000 (Everest), several teams attempted to ski/snowboard from 8000m peaks in the following years. Doug Stoup and Emilio Previtali both led expeditions going for snowboard descents of Cho Oyu a few years later.

A big tragedy struck when Marco Siffredi died while attempting his second descent from Everests summit. Some time later, snowboarder Stephen Koch appeared on, Late Night with Conan OBrien, a popular, late-night talk show in the US, with his quest to snowboard down all the seven summits which ended in a failed attempt on Everest Hornbein Couloir, the same descent line that took the life of Marco.

A few years later, Tomas Olsson died in the Everest Great couloir after reporting the hardest skiing conditions he had ever faced. He died when rappelling down a section of the unfamiliar route - with his skis still on.

There have been 20+ partial ski descents from Everest, but only one has been complete - from summit to BC: On October 7, 2000 Davo Karnicar skied down from the summit on Everest south side. Hans Kammerlander skied down the north side in May 1996, but his descent was from 7800m and not complete.

In terms of difficulty, Everest north face is very different from the north ridge where the normal climbing route goes. The Great (Norton) Couloir has only been summited once; climbers who have been in the area say that the section is so steep that a fall not arrested by a rock is likely to end at the foot of the mountain, in deep soft snow.

On October 7, 2000 Slovenian skier Davo Karnicar (Zgornje Jezerko, 1962) became the first person ever to ski non-stop from the summit of Everest down to the South Sides BC. His is the first, and up to now, only complete ski descent from Everests summit to BC. Davo summited at 7:00 am with Franc Oderlap and Sherpas Ang Dorjee and Pasang Tenzing. During the nearly 5 hour descent, he took some short breaks to catch his breath but never took off his skis. </i>

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