This article was featured in Kiss The Snow magazine (spanish)
I remember that cover like it was yesterday. A skier with his legs open like an Olympic gymnast to keep both skis in contact with the snow such was the slope. I was just a teenager who spent the long, boring winter afternoons looking for the warmth of the refuge’s fireplace and browsing through the loose issues of mountain magazines that piled up on the shelves. It was the year 2000 and in one of those magazines you could see on the cover the Slovenian Davo Karnicar stuffed into his high altitude clothing making efforts to keep the skis in contact with the icy snow slope. The headline read “Everest on skis”.
Skiing at great heights is a complicated exercise, once we put on our skis at a great height, after the difficulties to finance an expedition to one of these peaks and the effort that the ascent has cost, the descent itself not only requires the technique and capacity to evaluate the snow as in any other descent, but also the drunkenness of the height will give us that slight sensation of floating, a way of making decisions (how will I receive this turn?) more disconnected from the consequences, and the effort to make a turn, especially in complicated and sloping terrain – concentrating, evaluating where we are going to close the turn, the possible dangers, deciding to go for the turn, jumping, extending our legs and bending them by pressing until we close and stop the turn – will make us stop to breathe and recover strength every three or four turns for a few seconds.
This year we have seen how the descents of 2 of the few 8000 that were left virgin with the boards were culminated in two committed descents, not only because of the height but also because of the slopes that the skiers found. Bargiel, Morrison and Nelson have taken a step forward in a history that started by the Swiss Sylvain Saudan almost 4 decades ago. Or maybe it started earlier?
High altitude skiing has followed the path of skiing in all the lower massifs. First it was used as a means of transport between valleys or to access the foot of the mountains, then to climb and descend peaks on their normal tracks and then to look for more difficult lines.
In 1907, the Swiss mountaineer and topographer Marcel Kurz, ascended the Chardonnet in the Chamonix valley for the first time with skis, because according to him those “are tools to travel (in the mountain) more easily”. A couple of decades later, Marquette Bouvier, one of the pioneers in skiing, and the guide Armand Charlet ski for the first time from the top of Mont Blanc, during a cold month of February with temperatures of up to – 40ºC. More than 20 years went by until another guide from Chamonix, the writer of “Les Conquérants de l’Inutile” Lionel Terray with the American Bil Dunaway completed the first complete descent from that same summit, on its north face, in July 1953.
During the following decades, most of the routes unimaginable in the Alps were skied, since Saudan opened the Pandora’s box, many skiers were raising the difficulties until they descended (almost) as much as possible.
A few years before Sylvain revolutionized downhill skiing in the Alps, the German Fritz Stammberger, on an expedition in 1964 with two other companions made the first oxygen-free ascent of Cho Oyu on the first expedition to a large Himalayan mountain where skis were carried. During the descent things went wrong, and his companions died. Fritz put on his skis at an altitude of about 7400 meters to quickly descend to ask for help, in vain, but leaving a milestone by being the person who had skied from the highest altitude. The expedition was controversial as to whether Fritz’ decision had been the right one, and he immigrated to the United States, settling in Aspen and making a living between ski lessons and printing, and began climbing new routes or skiing new itineraries in Colorado. But the Himalayas kept calling him and his creativity prevented him from being satisfied with the moderate heights of the American continent, so by imitating his European contemporaries he began to promote himself and through the friendship of Bil Dunaway, the conqueror of Mont Blanc, who knew how to handle the politics of mountaineering and financing, he was able to devote time to his expeditions. Without much success in a series of expeditions, Fritz died in 1975 climbing the 7708m Tirich Mir in Pakistan alone, which he intended to descend, although his wife, model Janice Pennington, concluded that he went to Afghanistan to help the CIA establish military bases on the mountainous border between the two countries, dying in battle.
During the 1970s, the most prominent skiers of the day shifted their focus to mountains higher than those in the Alps. While the French invaded the Andes and its peaks of almost 7000 meters, and Patrick Vallençant, Jean-Marc Boivin or Gérard Chantriaux, who built himself a tilt table of 8 meters high and 4 long where he put ice to see what maximum slope he was able to ski! The 3 Frenchmen descended the Pisco, Quitaraju, two routes in the Huascaran and two more in the Artesonraju ( this last one with a repetition of the descent of Vallençant by the Toti Bes from Girona in 2003). In 1971 a group of Austrians managed to descend from the summit of Noshaq the highest peak in Afghanistan with 7,492 m and the Russian Pavol Rajtar the first descents of the 7000 of the Pamir: the Shatayeva, Tzetlin, Korzhenevska Peaks (with Robert Gálfy), Kommunizma and Lenin.
Photos: Gerard’s Incline board: http://gerard.chantriaux.pagesperso-orange.fr/ski/ecoleski.htm
Special mention deserves the Japanese Yuchiro Miura who in 1970 skied Everest from the South Col from 8200 meters, if you can say skiing shuss looking for the line of maximum slope waiting that the parachute that was tied to his back slowed him down enough. The invention worked until in an area of rock and ice, when trying to turn a little began to fall until finally stopped at an altitude of 6200 meters. The film “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” illustrates this crazy adventure, and although he did not descend from the top, nobody can take away the fact that he was the fastest person to descend from 8000 meters, because it only took him a few seconds to reach the foot of the mountain.
In the following years, there were some other expeditions that took skis to eight-thousanders, such as the French Jean Afanassieff and Nicolas Jaeger who descended in 78 from the same southern pass of Everest with their skis, or the also French Anselme Baud who took the skis in an attempt to the southern ridge of Dhaulagiri the following year, and where he descended a corridor around the Base Camp.
The first expedition dedicated exclusively to descend an 8000 with skis was in Annapurna, the first 8000 ascended by the French, and another French team tried in the spring of 79. Without the help of oxygen and after 4 days of ascent Yves Morin and Henry Sigayret reached the summit on April 30th at 5 pm. Morin put on his skis and skied from the summit to the last camp (IV) at 7500m, where they spent the night. The next day Morin continued the descent with the boards, but when the jumar got stuck in a fixed rope at about 6700m his strength was minimal. His companions could only watch him die of exhaustion before continuing the descent.
FILM Annapurna premier 8000 à ski: https://www.cimalpes.fr/Films-de-montagne-752-1676-0-0.html
Two years later the Austrians Josef Millinger and Peter Woergoetter descended from 30 meters below the summit of Manaslu, in two days to the Base Camp. One year later, on July 27, 1982 the “skier of the impossible” 15 years after his first extreme skiing in the Alps managed to descend 8000 meters from the summit for the first time. More than 3000 turns needed to be made on the steep slope of about 50º of the north face of the Gashebrum I. His progression took him there. A few years earlier he skied the Denali through one of its channels, the later named Messner which made the first ascent after Saudan descended it, then came the 7135m Nun Kun and an attempt at the Dhaulagiri in 1979 where two climbers and a Sherpa disappeared in the storm.
This descent was something Sylvain wanted “That first 8000 in skiing I needed it, I wanted it. It seemed logical to me because in the Alps I was the first one to launch myself in the impossible slopes” With this bigger descent, even today without repetitions, made without the use of oxygen and in a strong slope with narrow skis of 2 meters long closed the incredible race of the Swiss skier that explains the sensation of skiing at 8000 meters this way “Up there everything is at the slow pace, you think slowly, to make the movement that we think requires us a great effort. And during that time there is a decalage: the ski, the, slides at the same speed as below”.
After the Gashebrum I, also called Hidden Peak, the other eight-thousanders were skied on their normal tracks, first the Gasherbrum II in 1984 when two French expeditions went to that mountain carrying skis and even a monoski! The descent was achieved by the French Patrice Bournat and the Swiss Wilhemus Pasquier in three days. This mountain, with about fifteen descents is one of the most “popular”. The following year the Shisha Pangma went for Peter Woergoetter and Oswald Gassler, starting a series of descents in this mountain that have been carried out by another fifteen skiers. Note that the great Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka used the skis to descend from this peak, the penultimate on his list of 14, after opening a new route on the western ridge.
In May 1988 the Italians Flavio Spazadeschi and Lino Zani made the first descent of the 8000 most popular for skiers, the Cho Oyu, which has more than fifty descents today. That same autumn, the Frenchwoman Véronique Perillat was the first woman to descend this mountain, in monoski!
The Manaslu, which was skied from 30m below its summit in 1981 by the Austrians, was not fully skied until the new millennium, and today it has a good dozen breaks.
The 90’s were moved by what makes skiing in the Himalayas and Karakorum, and not only looking for descents from the summits by their normal routes, but also by new itineraries.
In Pierre Tardivel’s long list (more than 100 to date, and continuing…) of first descents, which began in 1980, there are about thirty extreme openings, among which the north face of the Pain de Sucre or the masterpiece of the Grand Piler d’Ange, before its first and only opening in the Himalayas. In 1992 it was already a legend of extreme skiing and to get out of Ju Alpine garden (mostly the massifs of the Aravis, Vanoise and Mont Blanc, although it also has some first Pyrenees as the North Face of the Tallada) did not look for an easy target: “I had to leave the summit at about one o’clock in the afternoon, with a shy drift. And I had to dare that first turn. The problem was the 2000m face I had under my feet,” he says of his descent from the southern summit of Everest (8751m) on the Nepalese side. With the use of oxygen on the climb. “After two, three turns I found my confidence again” But Pierre was no longer bothered by the great heights and returned to the alpine mountains where he could make new descents almost every day.
It must be understood that a descent to this height is not only a physical and technical milestone but also economically and logistically and is very time consuming. An expedition to an eight-thousand-metre altitude costs a few thousand euros, dozens if you use porters and oxygen, and a minimum of a month and a half or two months of time. And this only to reach the foot of the mountain, then you have to wait for the conditions to be right to be able to ski, without much ice and stones, the problem in winter or spring or with risk of avalanche and the effort to open the track, during the monsoon and in autumn.
The one who was curious about high altitude skiing was the Austrian Hans Kammerlander, who was Reinhold Messner’s companion in his last eight thousand, who spent a good part of the ninety-two thousand in descents and attempts at different summits. In 1990, together with the Swiss Diego Welling, with whom they chained the four edges of the Matterhorn in a single day, they descended the Nanga Parbat, putting on their skis 1000 metres below the summit. In 1994 they descend the Broad Peak from their hill, at 7850m to the Base Camp, two years later they are on the north face of the Everest. After a good acclimatization and a few days of rest in Lhasa he returns to the mountain and makes a very fast ascent from the ABC. 17h to reach the summit without oxygen and carrying the skis himself, without a carrier! He puts on his Atomic skis of meter sixty at the top “I know I’m tired and my reflexes are slower. I know that I can’t make any mistake with the edges and no fall is allowed (…) To understand us, it’s not an orthodox way of skiing, but a controlled slide” The spring conditions don’t allow him to make a complete descent and after 300 meters from the summit pyramid he has to take off his skis until 7700 meters and from there ski the north edge and back to the ABC in less than 24h.
In the same style he tries the Kangchenjunga two years later, where he skis from 7600m and at the beginning of the new millenium to the K2 where he puts his skis on the top and manages to ski the first 300 meters, but he has to take off his skis to keep going down because of bad snow conditions.
Two Slovenian brothers burst into the Himalayas at the same time. With a different philosophy to Kammerlander, prioritizing skiing than the whole activity, Andrej with 25 years and Davo Karnicar with 32, former members of the Slovenian alpine skiing team and working as skimans for the Elan brand in the World Cup, descend Annapurna from the summit to Base Camp for the first time in 1995. Two years earlier Davo had tried K2, where he had to abandon his project when the wind blew his skis away at 8000 meters!
Five years passed until Davo made that descent from the summit of Everest, along the Nepalese route, on October 7, 2000. “I used oxygen, because my main objective was the descent and the climb was only the beginning of my adventure” In only 4 hours and 30 minutes Davo descends from the summit to the base of the mountain, with difficult passages, of extreme difficulty on the ridge and the Hillary step, which he handles without taking off his skis. That descent would not be repeated until 6 years later, in 2006, when a group of Americans and Scandinavians managed to descend from the summit, among them the first woman, the American Kit DesLauriers.
After that descent, Davo decides to move away from the 8000 and devotes himself to ski the highest peaks of each continent.
In 2017, Davo returns to the great heights, this time at the age of 52 to try the then unprecedented descent of the second highest mountain on the planet, K2, but an injury prevents her from passing from Camp 1.
But before we go to K2, let’s still return to Everest. At the end of the 90’s the irruption of snowboarding and its comfort for the big slopes also reached the Himalayas. The great Himalayanist Jean Troillet was one of the first to look for unconventional lines to descend from these peaks. In 1996 he returned to the North Face of Everest, where ten years earlier he had made a 43-hour non-stop ascent along the Horbein Corridor with his partner Erhard Loretan. This time he returned to the same corridor, with another partner, Dominique Perret, and with the same light and alpine style they climbed up to 8450m, where Dominique put on his skis and Jean his snowboard and descended that mythical line that cuts vertically the north face of Everest. The following year he returned to the same rider, this time with Apa Sherpa and they stayed near the summit, at 8700m where Jean put his board back on, to descend this rider to the advanced base camp.
The turn of the millennium led the most famous and rebellious snowboarder to conquer the Himalayas. After a descent from Cho Oyu, Marco Siffredi, who had descended almost every possible line in the Mont Blanc massif with his board, wanted to be the first to descend from Everest with his board. With a purely skiing objective, climbing with porters and artificial oxygen, he reached the summit on May 23, 2001. The day before, the Austrian Stefan Gatt had also climbed to the top with his board, in this case without the use of oxygen and carrying his board. Stefan descended the sumital pyramid to 8650m where he hesitated to enter the Norton corridor, but the hard snow of spring did not inspire him confidence and he decided to take off his board and descend the normal route on foot to 7600m where he put his board back on until the ABC. Marco with a freerider style and a slope skiing technique went into the Norton corridor, surfing big curves until he reached the yellow bar, a rocky barrier of a dozen meters at an altitude of 8200m. Without much hesitation, he made a turn and jumped over the bar. It was the first complete descent of Everest on its north face, but Siffredi, who the locals called “Thunderstorm” wanted to surf what he considered the Grail of extreme skiing at altitude, the Hornbein corridor. The following year he returned in the summer to find more snow on the mountain. On September 8, along with 3 porters, he reached the top again on his normal route. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon when he started to slide towards the Hornbein corridor, where he was never seen again.
Another mountain that called out to skiers in search of the line rather than the summit was the Shisha Pangma. In 1999, after skiing the Denali, Andrew McLean and Mark Holbrook thought that the next logical step was to ski something in the Himalayas. A friend opened a book for them with the photograph of the south face of the Shisha Pangma and said “Here is the line you want to ski”. Seven other skiers and cameramen joined the team, including some of the best climbers and skiers of the moment such as Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, Hans Saari, David Bridges and Kris Erickson. Alex defined the expedition “It has been a great goal for me to ski an 8000. There are many people trying Everest, but for me it must be an aesthetic descent, with quality. And the Shisha Pangma has the best line of all 8000. It’s a line that goes absolutely straight down its southwest face. It’s going to be a very good descent! On October 5, Alex, David and Conrad went to inspect the bottom of the wall when an avalanche caught them. Conrad was able to get out of the avalanche, but Alex and David remained there until years later when Ueli Steck and David Goetler found their bodies.
With the same idea that McLean and Lowe other skiers more interested in the line that for the summit followed their steps. In 2004 and 2005 Jean Noel Urban made a couple of attempts on this face, managing to ski from an altitude of 7600m the slopes of about 50º. Jean Noel had already descended the Cho Oyu and G2 and later tried the Norton corridor on Everest, the Nanga Parbat, the Dhaulagiri, Manaslu or the Gashebrum I where he died falling into a crack in 2008.
The Swiss Sébastien de Sainte Marie, took over from Urban in 2011, trying again this mythical face, skiing from about 7000 meters, a few other attempts in the following years ended with the same result, leaving this line for the next generations.
Among these skiers who today are taking downhill skiing to the next level is the Polish Andrzej Bargiel, with only 30 years got this year the first descent from the top of the K2, after 2 years of attempts managed to reach the top without oxygen and put on his skis to go down looking for a route without having to take off his skis, with steep sections and various exhibitions. Luis Stitzinger, who in 2011 skied the Kukuczka route from 8000m defined the difficulty of skiing the K2. “You have to be a very good extreme skier, and always give your all because there is not a single flat meter, you go out from a great height between rocks and ice and in the lower part there is wet snow as heavy as butter, with risk of avalanches cleaning the couloirs”
Andrzej ended this dream of Kammerlander, David Watson, Stitzinger or Fredrick Ericsson, a Swede with great experience in skiing in big mountains who died in the attempt to descend the Pakistani pyramid.
It was not the first time that Bargiel skied slopes at this height, because despite his youth he had already skied the Manaslu, Shisha Pangma and the first complete descent from Broad Peak.
This year also saw two Americans, Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson achieve another downhill that generations had been dreaming of, the dream line was the Lhotse runner, who since Jamie Laidlaw tried it 10 years ago had attracted a dozen skiers to try it. Jim skied from the top, making a couple of turns on the 50+ degree someral cornice, where Hilaree used a handrail before entering the couloir, so narrow that her skis barely touched the walls!
Podcast Hilaree Nelson: https://soundcloud.com/american-alpine-journal/hilaree-nelson-skiing-lhotse-ep-14
Although today only the Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat, Makalu and Kangchenjunga have not been skied from the top, future generations look at the great lines like the Hornbein or the southern Shisa Pangma with bright eyes dreaming of putting their spatulas on them.
Table of 8000m peaks descents: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1DCWjQv07EILx8N1TonAUM9StnePor8AwFxHzll0KYWQ/edit#gid=279252223