Sky-skiing special: Luis Stitzinger's Manaslu debrief

Posted: Jun 08, 2012 03:39 am EDT

( Manaslu became one of the most successful 8000 meter peaks this spring. Led by Adventure Consultants, the climb resulted in around 15 summits. Sadly, the peak claimed a victim: Iranian Jafar Naseri fell to his death while descending to lower camps.

Also on the mountain: One of the most achieved “sky skiers” worldwide at present, German Luis Stitzinger.

Stitzinger has skied down Gasherbrum II, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak (the col), and K2 (2,800 meter run). This time Luis with wife Alix Von Melle and fellow team members Rainer Jäpel, Saskia Sippel and Christian Ranke hoped to climb Manaslu without porters or artificial oxygen and try the first consecutive ski descent of the mountain.

Instead, the summit push turned into a nightmare.

ExplorersWeb caught up with Luis for an extensive interview. We kick off today however with the Manaslu debrief.

Manaslu debrief
By Luis Stitzinger

We turned around only 200 m short of the summit because the usual summit cloud had turned into a fierce thunderstorm that day.

We had opted for a summit attempt on 12.5. because we wanted to avoid the traffic jam on the fixed lines from C3 (6900 m) to C4 (7400 m) in the night before.

About a dozen climbers, along with even a greater number of climbing Sherpas had left on 11.5. around midnight from C3 to make their summit bid from there.

Moreover, the way across the summit plateau is very long and no one knew exactly how much snow to expect there.

We judged our chances to reach the summit to be higher if we started from C4. Despite, as it turned out, excellent conditions on the plateau, climbers still passed our tent (at 7400 m) at 6.00 p.m. that day, descending to C3. That might give an idea how long the way really is.

"It looked like a perfect summit day"

The twelfth started out as decent as the day before only the wind in the early morning hours was very strong and cold (around a 100 km/h). According to the weather forecast there should have been no significant difference between the two days - the inaccuracy of the forecasts on Manaslu was maybe the biggest problem on the climb altogether.

We delayed our start from 4.00 till 6.30 a.m. when the wind speeds had slowed down as much that we figured we might stand a chance. In the next hours the wind settled even more and it looked like a perfect summit day.

We followed the route up over two steep snow and ice slopes and the large plateau that lies in between that was completely wind swept and blue ice.

Fog and lightning in the death zone

At midday we found ourselves at the foot slope of the summit. A cloud had built up around the summit in the meantime and grew constantly bigger (a summit cloud had been there for half of the day on 11.5. when the only successful summit bids were made this season but later on vanished).

We had gathered at our highpoint of 7990 m (according to our GPS) to discuss how to carry on when the cloud enveloped us.

At first we wanted to continue but within minutes the short clearings had disappeared completely and the fog became thicker and thicker.

The first lightning struck, the thunder rolled, and our discussion ended. Around 2.00 p.m. we descended as quickly as we could, flinging ourselves to the ground several times to seek shelter.

I had my skis fastened upright on my backpack and was always the first to notice the increase in static electricity in the air. A short current would sting my shoulders and make my hair stand upright underneath my toque. Usually five to ten seconds later thunder struck.

HAPE forces second night in high camp

The wind had picked up alarmingly, icy pellets, later on thick snow fall, clogged and iced our goggles and the GPS display which we had to use to retrace our steps down to the last camp.

One of our mates had taken off his goggles and his eye lashes and brows turned into a cake of ice. His eyes were so swollen up that he could not see any more and had to be helped down. Finally, around 5.30 p.m. we reached our tents at C4.

The condition of our friend, who was now also showing symptoms of HAPE (caused by a combination of dehydration and exhaustion due to the enforced speed and stress on the descent, probably), had deteriorated so much that we were forced to spend another night in C4.


Next day we set off early in cloudy weather and descended to C3 which took us all day.

In the technically difficult sections between 7400 m and 7100 m we lowered the injured with a rope as he was very weak and still could not see decently.

Back in C3 where we had a larger supply of medical oxygen we made him breathe oxygen for the full night and continued giving him medication. On the 14th he had recovered by so much that he could ski down by himself to BC within the same day.

A dream day had turned into a nightmare within no time. I have been on expeditions for more than 20 years now and never seen such an abrupt change in the weather on any mountain so far (except maybe Dhaulagiri where you have very similar weather conditions).

Next: The interview.

1981 Austrians Sepp Millinger and Peter Wörgötter carved the first ski lines into the mountain´s immaculate Northeast Face, an incredible feat at that time and the first ski descent from an Eight-Thousand-Meter-Peak ever.

In the years to follow other attempts were made to ski the entirety of the vast white flanks of the “Mountain of the Spirit” including a speed-ski attempt by the German climbers Sebastian Haag and Benedikt Böhm in 2007 who tried to climb the peak in one day and ski down the route to Basecamp.

They reached an altitude of over 7000 m before they had to turn back due to masses of snow and increasing avalanche hazard.

None of the skiers so far has managed to draw an uninterrupted line into the snow, from the highest point to the foot of the mountain, however. British climbers Kenton Cool and Andy Eggleston (fall 2011) had to carry down parts of the route (steep passage between Camp 4, 7300 m, and 7000 m as well as the final 400 vertical meters to the end of the glacier).

Grandmaster: it's not a ski without skis on

Not all skiers apply rules as rigid as Swiss grandmaster of the sport, Silvain Saudan, whom the comment “if you have to take off your skis for a couple of meters, it is no longer skiing but climbing down a mountain” is ascribed to.

Actually, just as in other sport disciplines, it is a never ending debate in the skiing scene what should be considered the limits of skiing, what should be allowed and forbidden.

Stitzinger lies very close to Saudan´s views, he admits: “I think for a valid ski descent you should really ski all passages that are skiable.

There is no point in down climbing a pure rock face as the “Kinshofer Wall” on Nanga Parbat with your skis put on - but you could try to find a way around it (author's note - as Stitzinger did when he skied a parallel couloir to the “Löw Ice Couloir” on the Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat 2008, or later on a complete new line of descent through the Central Diamir Face).

Ed note: Manaslu skiing history courtesy of Luis Stitzinger.

#Mountaineering #topstory #interview

Luis high up on Manaslu at around 7300 m. "We followed the route up over two steep snow and ice slopes and the large plateau that lies in between was completely wind swept and blue ice."
Image by Luis Stitzinger courtesy Luis Stitzinger, SOURCE
The skiers at around 6500 meters on Manaslu. "We had opted for a summit attempt on May 12 because we wanted to avoid the traffic jam on the fixed lines from C3 (6900 m) to C4 (7400 m) the previous night."
Image by Luis Stitzinger courtesy Luis Stitzinger, SOURCE
Climbing the Cesen Route on K2 (2011). "Some things are different in the Himalayas or Andes than in the Alps or elsewhere."
Image by Luis Stitzinger courtesy Luis Stitzinger, SOURCE
Luis skiing down to Manaslu basecamp after a day on the mountain. The summit push turned into a nightmare of lightning and rescue of a team mate.
Image by Luis Stitzinger courtesy Luis Stitzinger, SOURCE