Facing the Fall Line

When Stephen Koch set out to snowboard the insanely steep Hornbein Couloir on Everest, he knew he might die trying. He chose life.

Keeping the flame burning; clockwise from above, Koch lighting incense at the Team's base camp shrine: Koch, Henderson, and Chin at camp; Lakpa and Kami staying warm; Koch begins the North Face descent. (Jimmy Chin)
Photo: Jimmy Chin

"THE WHOLE TIME," big-mountain snowboarder Stephen Koch says of his latest expedition, "there's just this daunting mass above you."

Stephen Koch Attempts to Snowboard Everest

Power grab; Stephen Koch carving turns at 21,000 feet on Everest's north face

Keeping the flame burning; clockwise from above, Koch lighting incense at the Team's base camp shrine: Koch, Henderson, and Chin at camp; Lakpa and Kami staying warm; Koch begins the North Face descent.

Back home in Jackson, Wyoming, Koch, 35, is talking about the North Face of Everest, where he traveled last year hoping to complete his goal of snowboarding the highest mountain on each continent. (I wrote about his ambition in an Outside feature, "Slave to the Quest," in May 2003.) Although he took a consolation run down a lower section of Everest, Koch gave up the summit effort when he decided conditions were too dangerous. "That he used discretion and decided to turn around is a great victory," says Wade McKoy, a Jackson-based ski-and-mountaineering photographer. Koch's perspective: "You want to succeed, but you don't want to die."

Koch had set his sights on the direttissima, a never-been-done fall-line descent down the center of the North Face that involves two linked avalanche chutes: the steep, rock-walled Hornbein Couloir and the wider but equally vertiginous Japanese Couloir. He was determined to climb the 9,000-vertical-foot, 50- to 60-degree route in pure alpine style—fast, with no fixed ropes or bottled oxygen. To that end, he recruited just one other climber, Jimmy Chin, a 30-year-old Jackson-based photographer. In Kathmandu, Nepal, the team made a last-minute decision to hire Lakpa Dorge Sherpa, 40, and Kami Sherpa, 26, mountain guides with six Everest summits between them. The expedition's fifth member—30-year-old Eric Henderson, a backcountry skiing guide from Victor, Idaho—served as base-camp manager.

Arriving in Tibet in late August, Koch and Chin acclimatized by climbing and skiing Changzheng, Everest's 24,890-foot neighbor. After dark on August 30, the four climbers began what Koch envisioned as a single 36-hour push to the highest summit on earth, climbing at night to minimize avalanche danger and resting by day in a sun-warmed tent.

But sloppy snow on the steep slopes slowed their progress, and at 1:30 a.m., just as the climbers reached the foot of the Japanese Couloir, they heard what Koch describes as "a noise like a car accident," followed by a terrifying rumble. Above them, a giant serac—a hanging block of glacial ice—had collapsed and was tumbling down the couloir. The debris missed the team by only a few yards, coming so close that the air blast threw Chin to the end of his rope and sent his pack and ski poles skittering 200 feet down the glacier. Rattled and behind schedule, the climbers turned back.

TEN DAYS LATER, with weather conditions looking promising, they tried again—this time from a newly established camp at 20,000 feet. The four climbed solo and unroped, with axes and crampons. "It was beautiful climbing at first," Koch says. "About 20 feet of vertical, then it backed off to 70 degrees, then 60, then 50. At midnight the moon came up over the ridge, and there was this great silvery path."

By morning, the picture had changed. The snow was knee-deep and unconsolidated, and it seemed increasingly unlikely that the team would reach a protected bivouac spot at the foot of the Hornbein by their 1 p.m. target time—much less the summit. They discussed trying to get above the 8,000-meter mark. Kami, the younger Sherpa, "was ready to punch it," Chin recalls, "but Lakpa has a family, and even though he would never say anything, I could tell he was not as comfortable."

Koch, for his part, needed to weigh not only his own decade-long commitment but his obligation to his sponsors, including the beverage company SoBe and fabric manufacturer Toray/Entrant. On the other hand, he felt "something I'd never really felt before: responsibility not just for one person, but four."

At 9 a.m., when the group finally reached a consensus to turn around, Koch's altimeter read 22,454 feet—a hefty 6,581 feet below the summit. On the descent, Koch went ahead and snowboarded what he could of the North Face's "steep and deep powder." But back at camp, the thrill had worn off. "I felt incredible disappointment, incredible relief, sadness," he says. "It was just kind of every emotion in my body going off at that moment."

Three months later, Koch seems at peace with his decision, even pleased at having undergone a "healthy ego check." His Seven Summits quest, he claims, is over. Yet it's clear the Hornbein still has a strong pull. "It is huge, truly the ideal line on the world's highest mountain," Koch says. "Someone's going to succeed on this route. I just hope it's someone who has vision and does it in good style."

Will that someone be Stephen Koch? "If the fire inside burns again for the Hornbein, I believe I could succeed," he says. "It might take more than one expedition, but eventually..."

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