Himalaya climbing season is just around the corner and we are busy shipping down suits and jackets around the world. As those climbers prepare for their journeys, we wanted to share a trip report by Feathered Friends ambassador Erin Smart about her first trip to the Himalaya and attempted ski descent of Pumori last fall. Words by Erin Smart. Photographs by Erin and Benjamin Ribeyre.
With my crampons secure on the 55 degree slope, and my axes sunk in above me, I looked up to Benj a few meters above as he asked me “what do you think?” I knew what he was asking. I looked down at the steep icy slope below us, and at the bergschrund that was above a 100 meter ice cliff, and then I looked above us at the 1000m of steep snow above. I spent a minute gaging the “maybe” in my head, and thought of my brothers words from the previous days satellite phone call, “Only do it for you. Remember that no one cares.”
Paul had tried to climb Pumori before in 2011, but due to bad weather, his team didn’t get much farther than base camp. He recruited Benj in the spring, and I received my invitation to join shortly thereafter. Benj and I had been in the mountains a lot before, but we only had one mountain prep trip with the whole team before we left for Nepal. We climbed and skied the Tour Ronde in the Chamonix valley in October and the team got along great. The adventure was off to a great start.
We trekked for 7 days from Lukla to our base camp, slowly working our way up the Khumbu valley. This was my first time to the Himalaya, and it was an incredible way to enter into the expedition. I was used to Alaskan expeditions where on the first day you land on a glacier. Walking through the mountain villages, meeting the ever friendly Nepalese people along the trek, and slowly seeing the landscape change was a gentle way to enter into the mountains. Because it was November, there were not that many climbers on the trail (peak climbing season is the spring); we were there during the peak trekking season. We met people from all around the world in the lodges along the way.
Our acclimatization schedule was fast, and when we arrived at base camp (5400m/17,717ft) no one felt great, including our cooks. We spent two nights there and then made our way to set up advanced camp. That morning, I woke up with a sore throat, but hoped it was just the dry air. As we made our way down the moraine beside base camp to reach the glacier below, I knew it was going to be a difficult day, since I was already out of breath walking downhill. We did not have porters to move our technical equipment up to advanced camp, so we had fairly heavy packs as we made our way through the loose glacial moraine, and then climbed up more loose, steep rock to finally reach the snow. We found a good spot for our camp at 5800m (19,029ft) and set up as quickly as we could so we could get horizontal. I have never felt so worthless in my entire life. Through the headache and dizziness, there were moments throughout that day where I could no longer understand French, which created some challenges with my French speaking partners. After a sleepless night, Paul and Benj went to go and look at the access on the broken glacier above us towards the face, and I stayed and organized the camp that we would be leaving for a few days. My cold had gotten worse, and my headache was pounding, so ascending that morning for me was out of the question. Benj and Paul found a passage, and then we made our way back to base camp with light packs.
After a few days of acclimatizing back at base camp, we had a perfect weather forecast for a summit attempt. We made the ascent back up to advanced camp in half the time of our previous climb, and everyone was feeling good when we went to sleep early in the evening. When we woke up at 4am, Benj did not feel his best, but good enough to start moving. Paul advanced ahead of us in the dark on the glacier, and remained mostly out of site for the climb up to the bergschrund. Benj lost his breakfast at one point during the walk on the glacier, but then felt better. Finally we were under the face. I still couldn’t tell if it was skiable or not in the morning light. We made our way past the bergschrund, and started moving up the steep, frozen snow. Within the first few hundred meters, we encountered firm snow with sugar underneath, grey ice, blue ice, and some sections of solid frozen snow. With the angle of the slope averaging around 55 degrees, it was becoming very clear that the face was un-skiable, at least with our conditions. Before I had to say anything, Benj looked down from above me and asked, “What do you think?” I hesitated for a moment, looking up past my axes secure in the frozen snow, then down past my frozen feet. “Maybe I could ski this…?” I thought to myself. But even through the lack of oxygen, I heard the maybe float through my head, and with the deathly exposure below, I knew the maybe meant “no.” I knew technically we could climb higher, it was more of the same steep snow and ice, but I also knew that would mean down climbing back same way. As well, above our face was a wall of rock and ice that became an unmanageable hazard by 11am. The SW face became a shooting gallery of falling rock and ice once the sun hit the upper slopes. We did not have enough time to summit and down climb safely. Skiing was out. Summit was out.
I looked back up at Benj, “what do you want to do?” I asked him. “I’ll do whatever you want to do,” he said. We decided to go down together. Paul unfortunately was already out of sight above us. Benj tried yelling, but there was no response. As I began down climbing, Benj climbed up a bit higher to hopefully reach Paul by voice. Finally he could hear him. “Paul, we are turning around,” Benj yelled up. We could hear Paul say he was continuing alone.
Once below the bergschrund, we tucked into a shallow depression and took a break. We transitioned to our skis and decided to make the most of the morning light and the incredible location with some photos. Within one turn, I knew it was going to be a loud and painful descent back to camp. My toes were completely frozen, my lungs felt the lack of oxygen, and the snow was frozen chunder mixed with mini penitents and avalanche debris. But we had come this far with our skis, and ski we would, even if it was just back to advanced camp. It was perhaps the worst snow I’ve ever skied on, but it was still more fun and faster than walking. We made it back to camp and to the sun. We pulled our feet out of our iceboxes, and spent the next hour massaging warm blood from our legs back into our feet. All the while, Benj diligently watched through the binoculars as Paul worked his way up the face. Once back in our sleeping bags, Benj looked over to me and said “I think we made a good decision.” I had no doubt in my mind that we had.
By 11am the face was in full sun and Paul was still climbing up. He was moving too slow, and all we could do was watch. Benj had had a dream the night before that he watched Paul take one turn on the face, and then fall to his death. We were both scared that we might watch it in reality that morning.
He had almost made it to the upper ridge when he began his descent. It was hard to see the details through the binoculars, but we were just able to make out that he was transitioning to skis. We saw him make a traverse across the upper face and then stop. He stopped for what seemed to be forever. We anxiously waited to see him move, as the ice and rocks were beginning to fall. In reality it was just a few minutes, which at that altitude is just enough to catch your breath and make a decision. He transitioned back to crampons and axes. No turns were made on the face. Paul made it down safely, and once past the bergschrund he too skied back to camp. The team was together again.
None of us wanted to spend another sleepless night at 5800m, so we made our way back to base camp with most of the gear. We were greeted by our amazing cooks, and had a quick dinner before we all collapsed into our tents.
We had a dream. We attempted a goal, and made a good decision to turn around. Pumori was for us. A dream that Paul had imagined almost 10 years ago, and had become one for Benj and I since this spring. For a first expedition to the Himalaya, I was not disappointed. The whole experience is what makes a trip, and we had an incredible adventure. Finally being in this mountain range that I’ve been dreaming of for years, experiencing the beautiful Nepali culture that surrounds every step you take, being humbled by the altitude that knocks you to the ground, and being inspired to continue to dream big.
You never know what conditions you will get on an expedition, that’s part of the game, but you have to try. Tried we did. We did not succeed in skiing or climbing the SW face of Pumori, but we managed to come away with lasting memories of a big adventure. And because we all made it home, we are able to make new dreams, more mountain goals and stories, more powder days, more splitter granite in the sun, more coffee in bed with the one you love.
For your future adventures, just remember it is just for you, because really, “no one cares.”