(Tina Sjogren) Ski descents of the 8000ers are extremely rare and climbers attempting them are outstanding athletes. Luis Stitzinger started skiing already at 3-4 years old, and rock climbing at 5 (with his parents).
He trains in the Bavarian Alps every day: trail running in summer and speed ski touring in winter. During weekends he hits the mountains, in summer to rock climb in the Dolomites (Italy) or to do classic mountaineering in the Bernese Oberland (Switzerland). Come winter Luis is ski touring and ice climbing all over the Alps.
Ski mountaineering on high altitude demands intelligent fearlessness, a set of unique skills, and a big chunk of luck.
Last week Luis described how a bad storm quickly changed the objective from summit and ski descent to an emergency and rescue situation on Manaslu. In this interview: the unique challenges present in ski descents from the death zone.
Explorersweb: You say that finding the right line is the challenge. Was it a problem this time? Are you coming back or what's your next target?
Luis: Of all 8000 m peaks Manaslu is probably the perfect one to ski. There are steep sections, no doubt. But these can either be skied or bypassed. The summit plateau is often wind swept and icy.
As on any high peak you certainly need a fair portion of good luck to encounter the right conditions for a ski descent. But unlike many of his colleagues Manaslu offers a good percentage of ideal skiing slopes (concerning inclination, crevasse situation, etc) and mounts of snow.
In the four weeks that we spent in BC we had two (!) days without any snowfall, in the rest of the days it snowed between 10 and 50 cm, mostly in the afternoons and evenings. Our fellow climbers without skis often enough had a hard time making a track whereas with skis it was mostly fun.
I had already found the perfect line to do a complete ski descent from the top to BC. This bubble burst, however, within an hour on summit day. If I had not suffered some frostbite on a couple of fingers in this attempt I am sure I would have made another one later on. There were two, three short windows.
So I guess I will have to come back – but not next year.
Explorersweb: Alpine skiing veterans often say you should climb up what you ski down - do you agree?
Luis: I absolutely do – this is the safest way. You can thoroughly judge the consistency of the snow while climbing up, detect icy patches and set a mind marker for the way down.
Also mostly you have a better sensitivity for avalanche hazard because of your slower pace. You can view your intended line from two perspectives, up and downwards, which often discovers hidden details that would otherwise have come as a surprise.
It is very similar to top roping a rock climbing route you intend to red point later.
Explorersweb: What are you looking for, best climb up or best descent down?
Luis: Best a combination of both! I do not see myself only as a skier, I am also an alpinist. Once in a while I leave my skis aside and go for a tempting climb that you cannot ski, not only in the Alps, also in the “big mountains”.
Like the French Route on Aconcagua South Face or the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat. But usually you have to set clear priorities because time and energy don´t allow you to collect all the goodies that you see there.
Explorersweb: When judging the line, how do you rate ice/snow conditions vs incline, risk of avalanche etc? Your advice to other skiers for safest descent?
Luis: You have to watch the mountain, from a distance as well as from close up. Conditions always depend on a series of variables.
For some details, you need to “feel the mountain”. For instance, you know that the slope is steep – too steep in hard or even icy conditions, perfectly skiable in firn conditions, avalanche prone in too soft and wet conditions. Often enough you have all these different states on the same slope within one day or even a couple of hours.
Adding to this complexity is the huge scale of altitude on these high peaks. You may have dry powder at 7000 m, firn at 6000 m and dangerously instable slush at 5000 m - all at the same time of the day. All that makes planning a ski descent a real puzzle.
Generally you can only judge conditions from the pool of experience you collected. Nevertheless, you have to keep in mind that some things are different in the Himalayas or Andes than in the Alps or elsewhere. Snow conditions vary and there is snow consistencies that are unique, which you will find only in these mountain ranges.
As I said before, climbing up what you want to ski down is certainly never a mistake. Otherwise there are few general golden rules.
You have to be very aware and sensitive. Maybe most important, always try to put good judgement over your ambitions and wishes. If you spent a lot of money, time and energy on a project like this, it makes saying “no” definitely harder. But even more than for climbing up, skiing down requires good route conditions.
You go on an expedition and have to live with what you find – unlike as in the Alps, where you get word from someone who just did it that the conditions on the route were marvelous and then you go and repeat it in the next couple of days.
The good high mountain climber or skier has to be able to turn back – or he or she won´t live very long. The mountain will still be there next year but you might not. If you really want to you will find the time and money to go again.
Explorersweb: How does the thin air add to the challenge?
Luis: Considerably. In the process of acclimatization, when you ski your first slope, you make your first three turns and then stop and keep panting for minutes. You think to yourself “no way…”. Thank God this gets better after a while.
Skiing at 8000 or 7000 m is still murderously exhausting. You always have to keep in mind when you get to the top that you still need the energy to ski down. In steep terrain skiing demands control and precision. For this you need to save a good portion of endurance and power.
Next, final: gear, best 8000er meter ski-run yet, favorite sky skiers, dream descent, and wife/ski/climbing partner Alix von Melle.
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