Makalu: The First Ski Descent

Makalu is the fifth highest mountain in the world at 27,766 feet. Photo: Doug Kofsky

At 27,766 feet, and with several technical sections, Makalu is one of the most demanding climbs in the Himalayas. Follow along as a team of some of the top mountaineers attempt the first ski descent of the world's fifth-highest peak.

The Makalu Ski Expedition Is Exactly What Mountaineering Should Be

The crew's "intimidating" view of Makalu from base camp. Photo: Adrian Ballinger

The Makalu Ski Expedition Is Exactly What Mountaineering Should Be

The five elite athletes on the team share their first-descent plans and expedition concerns

This month, a team of five elite climbers and skiers are in Nepal in pursuit of a project that has been tried but never successfully completed: the first ski descent of Makalu. The 27,766-foot peak in Nepal is the fifth-highest peak in the world and one of the more difficult climbs in the Himalayas—only 16 percent of expeditions are successful in their attempts. (Everest, by comparison, has a success rate of approximately 20 percent.) If successful in getting up the mountain, the team will then look for a skiable route from the summit.

“Fewer than 200 have even climbed it successfully,” says Adrian Ballinger, owner of mountaineering outfitter Alpenglow Expeditions and one of the team members. “And it’s never been skied above 7,500 meters. But there is a potential ski line from the top, especially if the monsoons have deposited enough snow on the summit.”

The group is comprised of Ballinger; Kit DesLauriers, the first woman to ski the seven summits; Emily Harrington, a North Face climber; Jim Morrison, a noted ski mountaineer; and Hilaree O’Neill, the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks in 24 hours. The five climbers—and four Sherpas who will make the summit attempt as well—arrived at base camp earlier this week. They plan to make their summit push in late September or early October. The following responses were culled from emails from the team members, written while on what Ballinger called a “tough and wet” week-long trek through jungle and along steep ridges to Makalu base camp, at 16,000 feet.

OUTSIDE: Why Makalu? 
ADRIAN BALLINGER: I attempted to climb and ski Makalu in 2012 with Sergey Baranov. Sergey and I have successfully skied Cho Oyu and Manaslu together, and also attempted to ski Lhotse and Everest. But Makalu is the one that captured me. We didn’t ski from the top, though we did ski from 7,500 meters, and I’ve been dreaming about getting back ever since 2012. It stands alone, and the entire upper mountain is a perfect pyramid of dark rock. It’s really impressive. 

EMILY HARRINGTON: I remember seeing Makalu from the summit of Everest in 2012.  It's a gorgeous, proud peak with relatively few ascents. I like the fact that the approach is through the Makalu Valley rather than the Khumbu. Everest was a positive experience for me, but it's not a place I want to experience again. But I still want to experience another 8,000-meter peak, one that's less crowded and feels a bit more out there but still within my realm of possibility. Makalu, to me, fits that expectation.

KIT DESLAURIERS: The most obvious draw is that it’s an un-skied 8,000-meter peak that appears to be skiable in the right conditions. But that objective alone wouldn't be enough for me without the right core team—skilled, small, committed, and friendly—and the post-monsoon season, which is the same time of year that I summited and skied Everest and translates to no crowds. We’ll be the only ones on the mountain. And though it’s a small expedition, we’ll be bringing some level of tourism back to Nepal after the earthquake as well as awareness that Nepal is still a supremely beautiful place worthy of traveling to. Being deep in a remote part of the Himalayas is a draw in itself. 

What part of the attempt are you least looking forward to? 
HARRINGTON: I'm pretty nervous about the altitude above 8,000 meters, as I should be, I think. Climbing without oxygen is an entirely different animal, and one I have less experience with. I'm hoping I can gauge how I'm feeling in a way that balances pushing my limit and fighting through the suffering with maintaining a level of risk I'm comfortable with. 

MORRISON: Leaches. And the endless frosty nights in a tent. 

BALLINGER: The waiting game. The autumn post-monsoon climbing season in Nepal can be really tough. The summit weather window is meant to occur in the small pause when the monsoonal storms end and the winter winds begin. It can be a small and elusive window. It’s much more difficult to count on than the spring summit window. So there tends to be a lot of waiting. We will need to be patient to get a skiable summit day.

This is a big climb. Did you do any special training for it? 
BALLINGER: I’ve been working out really hard, as have all of my teammates. After Emily and I came off El Cap this May, we completely shifted our focus from technical rock climbing to mountain running. I’ve done a few marathon-distance runs this summer, as well as lots of tagging high peaks and plenty of interval hill training. We finished the summer with a 34-mile run in Desolation Wilderness that included over 7,500 feet of vertical. 

HARRINGTON: I'm in the best aerobic shape of my life at the moment. Besides the runs with Adrian, I also went to Ecuador earlier this summer with him and Jim to attempt to climb and ski two 6,000-meter volcanos. We had terrible conditions and ultimately failed, but I think it was actually better preparation for this expedition than if we had been successful. 

You guys are going as a fairly small expedition in comparison to the way commercial expeditions work these days. What’s attractive about that to you? 
DESLAURIERS: We had a moment where we thought we might be able to do this climb with no help from outside our team of five, but in reality that would have meant adding two weeks more time commitment which became a barrier. So we're going as minimal as we feel that we can within our seven-week window.

MORRISON: It's akin to visions I had as a teenager reading about big expeditions heading into the mountains of Nepal. It looks as if we will be the only team on the mountain.

What difficulties does that kind of small team present? 
HARRINGTON: It's a huge mountain, and not having other teams to share work with will make it harder on us. 

DESLAURIERS: Any fixed lines we may have on the mountain we'll be installing ourselves, and there will be a lot of trail-breaking, both of which add to the physical workload. We’ll have to make all our own water from snow, and prepare all our own food while on the mountain, so much of the time that can often be spent resting while at high camps will instead be filled with the realities of caring for ourselves. Of course, there is the added dimension that help from outside our climbing team is pretty much nonexistent should we run into difficulties.

Keep up with the team's progress via DeLorme Inreach communication and tracking devices:

How Hilaree O'Neill Bounced Back from the Most Demoralizing Climb of Her Life

O'Neill at home in Telluride, Colorado. Photo: Jeff Lipsky

How Hilaree O'Neill Bounced Back from the Most Demoralizing Climb of Her Life

One of the best climbers of her generation points her skis down 27,766-foot Makalu

Early last November, Hilaree O’Neill was on a ledge roughly 1,100 feet below the top of Hkakabo Razi, pinned down by one of the harshest winds she’d ever experienced. Hkakabo Razi, in northern Myanmar, is believed to be the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and O’Neill was leading a two-month expedition to measure the peak’s true height. If successful, it would be only the second ascent of the relatively unexplored mountain, and a month into it her six-person team was coming apart.

O’Neill had spent two years planning the expedition, poring over Google Earth and World War II–era charts. (Modern maps of the area are nonexistent.) Her team of climbers—North Face athlete Emily Harrington, National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, photographer Cory Richards, and Taylor Rees, the base-camp manager—had traveled across Myanmar, then marched more than 100 miles through dense jungle as their food supplies dwindled and gear was abandoned to save weight. Once on the mountain, they climbed for five days over false summits and up dead-end routes before finally, their strength diminishing, they neared the top. Up to this point, the climbing was similar to a lot of other Himalayan peaks—snow packed into ice—but the group were unsure what conditions they would encounter on the narrow ridge leading to the summit. 

At high camp, the team discussed the summit push. Everyone agreed that a three-person team would be best. As the conversation turned to who should go, O’Neill realized the men had already decided that she should stay behind.

“The guys were seriously distressed about the safety of the team,” Jenkins later wrote in one of many expedition blog posts on National Geographic’s website. “It was unsafe and thus unwise for Hilaree and Emily to continue the climb. Emily readily acknowledged that she did not want to go any higher; but Hilaree was deeply, furiously offended… Would ego actually trump safety?”

Ozturk caught the confrontation on film in Down to Nothing, a documentary about the climb, which premiered last May at Mountainfilm in Telluride. 

“You don’t think I can do this and be strong and fast on it, fast enough to get us there,” O’Neill says in the film.

“You’re taking it personally,” Jenkins says. 

“Of course I am.”

As a ski mountaineer, O’Neill had covered similar terrain the year before on Papsura, a 21,165-foot peak in India. She believed that she had the strength and the résumé—35 expeditions over 15 years, ranging from mellow climbs like Kilimanjaro to a difficult ascent of Mount Waddington in British Columbia—to reach the summit. But most of all, she was shocked that the men had come to a decision without consulting her. 

“I was totally stunned by that sort of betrayal,” O’Neill recalls now. “I was also really pissed off.”

Both Jenkins and Ozturk maintain that they were merely starting the discussion about who was best suited for the technical summit push. (Richards could not be reached for comment.) Jenkins pointed out that O’Neill had been nearly hypothermic upon reaching high camp, and Ozturk said that the men had more experience with the fast, technical climbing ahead of them.

“We were trying to have an open conversation about how we could summit safely,” says Jenkins. 

Over the next several hours, the men tried to talk O’Neill out of climbing the last stretch of the peak. “It was like musical tents, everyone cycling through,” Ozturk says. Tempers flared. At one point in Down to Nothing, O’Neill says, “I’m going to say one thing, and it’s not going to be nice. Fuck you, Mark, for the vote of confidence.”

Richards eventually got tired of the arguments and said he’d give O’Neill his spot. But come summit day, she felt that conditions were too harsh and her ability to lead had been compromised. She backed down. 

It wasn’t mountaineering’s first disagreement, but it was one of the most widely publicized. Ultimately, the men abandoned their summit attempt, pushed back by wind, cold, and a treacherous approach. Tired and hungry, the whole team descended Hkakabo Razi and trekked back through the jungle for two weeks on a diet of nettle soup and rice. O’Neill returned to her family in Telluride, rail thin and depressed.

“It nearly broke me,” she says. “It was almost my retirement trip.”

If this had been O’Neill’s final expedition, it would have capped an impressive career. The 42-year-old is the first woman to have climbed both Everest and neighboring 27,940-foot Lhotse in 24 hours. (She did it on a sprained ankle.) She skied from the summit of 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain, without supplemental oxygen. She climbed Kilimanjaro with a broken leg. She has made first ski descents of big peaks in Mongolia, India, Russia, and Greenland. 

The youngest of three children, O’Neill started skiing at age three in Seattle. In winter, she rode the bus to local ski area Stevens Pass with her brother and sister. In summer, she traveled the Inside Passage on the family’s boat. She learned to climb between biology courses at Colorado College. After graduating, she left for Chamonix, France, where she planned to spend a winter. She stayed five years, working as a cycling guide and freeskiing on her days off. She became the European Women’s Extreme Skiing champ in 1996, but it wasn’t until she took up alpine climbing that she found her niche. 

“On my own, I think I’d be a good skier on big mountains, no big deal,” she says. “But when I combine it with climbing, the meeting of sports has definitely played in my favor.”

  Photo: Jeff Lipsky

In 1999, O’Neill joined ski mountaineer Mark Newcomb and photographer Chris Figenshau to ski the Bubble Fun Couloir on Wyoming’s Buck Mountain, a precipitous line that ends at a 200-foot cliff. It was the first female descent, and it launched O’Neill’s career. “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she says. “It was really steep. It was a bigger deal than I knew at the time.” 

Three weeks later, the North Face put her on a plane to the Indian Himalayas for her first expedition, up 19,688-foot Deo Tibba. She started rolling through trips at a rate of three or four a year. In 2001, she became a paid North Face athlete.

“I didn’t even know this lifestyle existed,” she says. “The door was wide open for me in the beginning.”

O’Neill’s athleticism and stoicism have won the admiration of other climbers. “I have enormous respect for her,” Jenkins says. “She’s the toughest woman I’ve ever met.”

“She’s got presence, charisma, confidence, and she’s incredibly strong” says mountaineer Conrad Anker. “Just getting to the base of that mountain in Myanmar was an incredible feat.” 

It took O’Neill months to get over the Hkakabo Razi ordeal. The mental and physical aspects were exhausting enough, but she also felt that Jenkins had publicly vilified her in one of his posts. (O’Neill wrote her own account of the climb for the North Face’s website, leaving out the group dynamics.)

To recover back in Telluride, she skied, hiked, and spent time with her husband, Brian, a realtor and an accomplished skier, and their two sons—Quinn, eight, and Grayden, six. She has considered scaling back her mountaineering trips to be with her family more often. “It’s hard to return from an expedition to that day-to-day humdrum of life, having to pay bills, go grocery shopping, and clean toilets,” she says.

It affects her relationship with her family, too. Brian looks after the boys while she’s gone, and she sometimes envies their closeness. “I feel like an alien when I come home,” she says, “like a stranger in the house stepping into the routine and getting in the way.”

Sometimes she imagines finding another sport—endurance running, say—that she can do during the day and still coach her boys’ soccer games in the evening.

But O’Neill isn’t very good at scaling back. When Quinn was ten months old, she left for a two-month expedition to attempt the first female ski descent of Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. (Conditions forced her to turn around at 24,600 feet.) “I look back now and think, Wow, that was probably a little aggressive,” O’Neill says, although she notes that male climbers with kids are rarely questioned about the risks they take. 

When the opportunity arose to join Harrington and her boyfriend, mountaineering guide Adrian Ballinger, in attempting the first ski descent of Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak, O’Neill signed on. 

She also decided to incorporate some family time into the expedition—this year, Brian and the boys will join her on the ten-day trek to Makalu base camp in August. (Teacher: “What did you do on your summer vacation?” O’Neill boys: “Trekked to Makalu so Mom could make the first ski descent.”)

O’Neill will then climb with Ballinger, Harrington, and pro skiers Jim Morrison and Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski the Seven Summits. Makalu is one of the Himalayas’ most difficult peaks, with steep ice and a technical rock ridge before the summit. “It’s a beautiful mountain,” O’Neill says. “My goal is to climb it without oxygen. But it’s a much harder climb than Cho Oyu, and I’m ten years older.” 

Whether she’s successful is secondary to the effort itself. “I have this intense fear of every day being the same,” O’Neill says. “Mountaineering gives me a way to keep my life somewhat uncomfortable.”     

The Making of a First Descent

At 27,766 feet, and with several technical sections, Makalu is one of the most demanding climbs in the Himalayas. Here's how the team plans to do it.

Map by Mike Reagan

Woman Versus Mountain

Few expeditions have ventured to the world’s fifth-highest peak, but O’Neill has been working toward this for a long time. 

May 1955
: Frenchmen Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray summit via the north col.
May 1977: An American team fails to climb the mountain via the west face.
May 1990: American Kitty Calhoun is the first woman to summit.
May 1997: A five-member Russian team summits via the west face.
January 2006: French mountaineer Jean-Christophe Lafaille disappears while making a solo attempt at the first winter ascent.
February 2009: The first successful winter ascent is completed by Italian Simone Moro and Kazakh Denis Urubko.

December 1972
: Born in Seattle.
March 1996: Wins the European Women’s Extreme Skiing Champion, Chamonix, France.
January 1999: Makes first female ski descent of Bubble Fun Couloir, on Wyoming’s Buck Mountain.
May 2002: Completes the first ski descent of all five Holy Peaks in Mongolia’s Altai range.
October 2005: Skis from the summit of Cho Oyu without supplemental oxygen.
May 2012: Becomes the first woman to climb two 8,000-meter peaks—Everest and Lhotse—in 24 hours.


The Guide Putting Everest Expeditions on a Fast Track

The Guide Putting Everest Expeditions on a Fast Track

California guide Adrian Ballinger makes his play to become Everest's top dog with a climbing model that's fast, light—and very expensive.

“Everyone’s still climbing Everest in exactly the same way as in the early nineties—in two and a half months,” says Alpenglow Expeditions founder Adrian Ballinger. A wiry, British expat who lives in Olympic Valley, California, Ballinger has some big ideas about how best to ascend the world’s tallest mountain. More specifically, he thinks it can be done in half the time that most expeditions take.

40 days
The time Ballinger's clients need to summit—a month less than most outfits. 

Starting this spring, the 38-year-old veteran guide will begin screening small groups of experienced clients, charging them top dollar, and requiring them to use hypoxic tents to begin acclimatizing at home, so they can fly by helicopter directly into the 14,180-foot town of Dingboche, a day’s walk from Base Camp. (Climbers more typically spend ten days trekking from the town of Lukla.) There he will outfit them with battery-powered boot heaters and the latest high-flow oxygen masks. The idea is to make it from the U.S. to the top of the world and back in just 40 days, paying $89,000 each, roughly twice the average cost of a guided Everest summit. Last year, in a trial run, Ballinger successfully led his first client in that ambitious time frame.

Ballinger’s strategy allows his clients to bypass the crowds that clog the most popular route up Everest, the South Col, where a glut of budget guided trips have caused recent traffic jams, contributing to several deaths. The crowds also take some of the allure out of an Everest summit: who wants to brag about standing in a high-altitude conga line? Ballinger’s clients, who have more experience than most paying climbers, have the freedom to unclip from the fixed lines when crowds bottleneck and bypass the mayhem. It’s a bold plan that promises to change what’s possible for commercial expeditions on Everest—and to place Ballinger among the mountain’s handful of power brokers.

“It seems more sporting than what some other people might offer,” says Conrad Anker, perhaps the most influential alpinist alive. “If someone called up and said, ‘Who should I go up Everest with?’ I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, Adrian for sure.’ ”

Until 2012, Ballinger played second fiddle to the most powerful guide on the mountain: Russell Brice, owner of Himalayan Experience (Himex), a respected outfit based in Chamonix, France. The two split after that season, unable to agree on a deal for Ballinger to take control of the company, and Ballinger took Himex’s head Sherpa, Dorji Sonam, with him. Brice declined to comment, but Ballinger acknowledges some acrimony. “If anything happened where we needed to work together, I have no doubt that we would,” he says. “But we don’t drink beers anymore.”

After leaving Himex, Ballinger immediately began putting together Alpenglow’s speed-oriented model. The strategy borrows from practices used by top Western guides like Dave Hahn, Dan Nash, and Tim Mosedale, all of whom have led boutique Everest trips for individuals and small groups. But no one has combined all the elements Ballinger uses—technology, helicopters, client screening—to such effect. Perhaps equally important, the Alpenglow founder is very good at selling himself. In January, he appeared on the Fox Business channel, and the rollout commercial for Apple’s latest iPad featured Ballinger and his girlfriend, the elite American climber Emily Harrington.

Not everyone thinks accelerated ascents are a good idea, and Ballinger’s approach has irked some of the sport’s purists. “A big mountain like Everest is not something that should be rushed,” says longtime Everest journalist and 2011 summiter Alan Arnette. “Everest is a climb that should be savored.”

But Ballinger maintains that his true motivation is safety—for both his clients and his workforce. He points out that Alpenglow goes beyond required insurance levels for Sherpas ($8,000), maxing out workers’ accidental-death coverage at $23,000. Ballinger also requires his Sherpas to train in rescue and emergency medicine at the nonprofit Khumbu Climbing Center, based in the nearby village of Phortse.

“We believe—we know a better way to guide these mountains, and that’s all we know,” Ballinger says. “We’re all in.”

  • Kit DesLauriers makes her way through Everest's treacherous Khumbu Icefall on September 17, 2006. "The Icefall is one of the few places where you can make all the right decisions and it could still collapse," says photographer Jimmy Chin.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Kit and Hahn at Base Camp post-acclimatization hike.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Ang Pemba's mess tent at CII.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Hahn at Camp II.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Veterans Arita Sherpa and Pemba Dorje Sherpa, who between them have been on 37 Everest expeditions, and famous "Icefall Doctor" Ang Nima Sherpa, who every year fixes the ropes on the most dangerous part of the mountain.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Kit and Rob on the summit.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Kit carving at 25,000 feet on the Lhotse Face, almost a vertical mile above Everest's Western Cwm.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

  • Rob's second-closest shave, at Base Camp.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

The No Fall Zone

When freeskier Kit DesLauriers dropped in at 29,035 feet on Mount Everest in October, she became the first person to ski off the Seven Summits. Kit, her husband, Rob, and photographer Jimmy Chin also became the first Americans to ski from the top of the world's tallest mountain.

I left my clients on top of Mount Everest. They wanted it that way. Truth be told, Kit DesLauriers, her husband, Rob, and their great friend Jimmy Chin barely even noticed when I left. They were busy laughing, crying, taking pictures, hugging, and pointing out the far corners of the world visible at 11 a.m. on October 18, 2006, along with our crack team of nine climbing Sherpas, who'd heroically fixed every inch of the route up from our high camp at the South Col. I'd have preferred to stay and celebrate, too. Except these weren't just any clients. Each of the three was an elite athlete (Jimmy and Kit are both members of The North Face's professional team). And we had a deal: If they climbed to the top strong and responsibly, I'd let them find their own way down...on skis.

Mount Everest is not yet popular with skiers. Go figure. Perhaps it's because one must climb up first. Or the small matter that skiing Everest is life-threatening on the best day. It has been skied before. Among others, a few notable attempts include Japanese speed skier Yuichiro Miura, who in 1970 set his sights on the Lhotse Face, taking off from 26,000 feet at the South Col with a parachute, barely surviving a several-thousand-foot tumble and an Evel Knievel like disregard for fractures. More recently, Slovenian Davo Karnicar is the only person in history to have actually skied continuously from the summit to Base Camp, which he did in less than five hours in 2000. Frenchman Marco Siffredi snowboarded the Great Couloir, on the north side, in 2001, before returning to the mountain and disappearing in the effort to board the Hornbein Couloir in 2002; he was 23.

After skiing the summit ridge, Kit waits above the Hillary Step at 28,800 feet for husband Rob, in black, right to ski-rappel around the 40-foot cliff.   Photo: Jimmy Chin

Kit, 37, the world freeskiing champion in 2004 and 2005, had her eyes on two prizes. No woman had skied Mount Everest, and no person of either gender had yet skied from each of the Seven Summits, the highest points on each continent. Everest was to be Kit's seventh. Rob, 41, was tagging along to film his wife's accomplishment, but with an illustrious career in ultra-steep skiing, he couldn't easily resist the temptation to make his own turns at 29,000 feet. Jimmy, 33, is well known for his mountain photography and had been to Everest's summit in May 2004, so, as a Jackson Hole neighbor of Rob and Kit, he was an obvious choice to get still shots. He meant to do that while skiing himself. Wally Berg, the leader of our expedition, was ably directing these efforts from Base Camp. I was the team's one-way climbing guide.

Fortuitously, my other job, when not guiding, happens to be ski patrolling, and as I climbed down from the summit toward the Hillary Step, at 28,800 feet, I rationalized that I'd simply switched hats up there on Everest. I would set up a belay anchor and position myself above the Step, then I would declare it "open" terrain for my skiers. We'd agreed that as I got my anchors set, they would ski down to me from the summit. I'd try to make sure they didn't go out of bounds—for instance, into Tibet, three inches to the left and 9,000 vertical feet down the Kangshung Face.

After ten minutes, Kit skidded to a stop just above me. Having descended the summit ridge on skis, she'd already accomplished the feat of skiing from the tops of the Seven Summits. I was impressed, but I was still worried as hell. I didn't know how she, Rob, or Jimmy would manage the next section, the Hillary Step, a 40-foot vertical rock face.

Rob showed up a moment later and very confidently tied into my belay line. His intention was to descend and traverse the Step while I safeguarded him from above. There were problems with this plan, aside from the obvious one, which involved the snow's reluctance to hang around on rock faces. Within just a few minutes, Rob was down and around a corner and I had no communication with him.This wasn't from lack of trying. We had belay signals, rope tugs, radios, and yelling at the top of our lungs as possibilities, but none seemed worth all that much when time dragged on and Rob's weight didn't come off the rope. Kit began to edge down toward the blind corner, and a few members of our Sherpa team made their way down to see what had happened to Rob. He'd made nearly all the very difficult moves needed, but then he'd run out of oxygen, meaning the last of those moves was nearly impossible with skis on. He was stuck.

Kit began to take off her skis in an awkward and steep spot. She got her crampons on and moved around the corner, putting her out of touch with me. Word got to me that Rob was out of oxygen. I wasn't terribly worried; I could see the big pile of full oxygen bottles our team had stashed about 250 feet away at the South Summit. But I was unaware of the strenuous and contorted position he was in on the Step. Eventually, the rope went slack and I pulled it back up. Jimmy was anxious to get tied in, and he immediately slid to the corner on his skis and disappeared.

Time stretched on, with only a tug here and a yell there. The rest of our climbing team clambered down past me, and I was relieved to see first Kit and later Rob making their way on foot to the South Summit oxygen depot. After I'd been in my cold belay seat for two hours, the rope finally came up free. As I deconstructed the anchors, I watched Jimmy ski across the wild traverse to the South Summit. (Jimmy had also run out of O's on the lower part of the Step and had nearly gotten flipped when his skis caught on old ropes.) I was last and now in danger of being left behind in the gathering snowstorm. I saw the gang holding skis up on top of the South Summit, and I reached for my radio. I asked them to consider that the window of opportunity for skiing was closing with the weather, the late hour, and the unexpected difficulties that the Hillary Step had presented. They accepted my cautious thinking, adding their own observations of avalanche potential. Their intention had been to ski every inch of the mountain from the summit, but life in the stratosphere requires flexibility, and their biggest goal still remained—skiing the steep and slick Lhotse Face the next morning. Our team cramponed down to high camp, at the South Col, in snow and wind, carrying skis and "arm-rappelling" the steep fixed ropes. Rob and Jimmy couldn't resist strapping on the boards for the last few hundred vertical feet into camp. I had to admit that this was a beautiful and inspiring thing to see in a late-afternoon burst of sunshine at 26,000 feet.

The wind came back up in the night, and at six in the morning on the 19th of October, it was tough to be enthusiastic about anything. But Kit woke up eager to ski and radioed over to the tent I was sharing with Jimmy to see how quickly he could be ready. Their goal for the day: to ski nearly 5,000 feet down the 50–degree Lhotse Face. It didn't seem to bother them that the face was a bulletproof sheet of unforgiving white and blue ice any vaguely pleasant soft snow had been sandblasted off by wind and avalanches and that there would be no way to retreat once they'd made their commitment to it. One blown edge, one missed pole plant, and they'd tumble thousands of feet to their deaths.

Rob climbs toward Camp III in a shower of spindrift on the central part of the Lhotse Face on October 6, 2006.   Photo: Jimmy Chin

At 27,940 feet, Lhotse is the world's fourth–highest mountain (one climbs a big chunk of it to get up Everest), and the face is a sick and mean aspect of it. Fifty degrees is about 15 degrees steeper than what can normally be found on double–black–diamond ski runs in North America. Foreboding and sculpted clouds capped both Everest and Lhotse, but Rob, Kit, and Jimmy suited up, donned oxygen setups, and stepped directly from the tents into their skis. We shook hands and hugged, and they schussed away. I began my tedious descent, sans oxygen, along the ropes and tried to keep an eye on my friends. They quickly were several thousand feet below and to one side of me. From time to time I'd stop to breathe and turn my head to count the three dots on skis. At one point, my eyes played tricks on me and I thought I saw one of the dots disappear. My heart rate accelerated instantly to unworkable levels and I had to pause, taking another wrap of the rope around my arm in order to make sure all was still OK.

I've always believed that one should approach climbing objectives with the utmost humility, and I've grown to fear people who have no fear. My time with Jimmy, Rob, and Kit had convinced me that they had rational and legitimate fears, but they were smart about not indulging them. And they were equal to the challenges they faced. They were also skiing as a team, making decisions for a group and not just an individual. Those kinds of decisions, I came to see, are made more carefully, especially when you're friends, especially when you're married. The trust between them was essential. An hour and a half after leaving the col, I could see them moving across the final obstacle at the base of the face: the bergschrund, or last crevasse. Then I could see them hugging.

I caught them a few hours later at Camp II, where our cook, Ang Pemba, had just treated them to heaping plates of fried rice. Their turns on the face had all been deadly serious, and they described surface conditions that an ice ax could barely penetrate. Now, at 21,000 feet and relative safety again, they were almost giddy about their accomplishment—and that they'd lived through it. Kit told me of the mantra she'd developed for the day: "Like your life depends upon it." She'd repeated this during each turn on the face. When I heard Jimmy relate that he hadn't gotten all the pictures he'd wanted because he'd been too scared to put both hands on his camera and bring it up to his eyes (try this at home on a pitched roof after an ice storm and you'll realize the difficulty), I was a bit startled. Jimmy doesn't scare easily, and he doesn't miss many photos. Rob told me that at one point halfway down the face, he'd skied up to Kit, who'd related matter-of-factly that she was scared and didn't want to die. Rob said that he'd replied, "That's good," and then they both skied on down. Rob took Kit's revelation to have been just right: A sane and functional human on skis in the middle of the Lhotse Face should be both scared and not willing to die. And a husband, upon hearing that his wife is thinking correctly, should then concentrate on his own turns and his own unwillingness to die. That was, of course, the mindset required to survive.

Skiing from Camp II, they dropped 1,000 feet through the Western Cwm. They had planned to ski through and alongside the dangerous Khumbu Icefall to Base Camp. I worried again, not because I didn't think they could do it but because worrying is what I do best. But a snowstorm was making it impossible to see, so they took off their skis and hoofed it to Base Camp. There we all eventually met up and toasted with glasses of very cold champagne to unlikely success, safety, and the good things that can happen when you have the right mix of fear and confidence. They'd skied more than 6,000 technically challenging feet (about half the vertical from the summit to Base Camp).

Some will say that this wasn't a "complete" ski descent, but I'd advise those people to try it themselves, after climbing the mountain in the snowy post-monsoon season, when summits are rare. Others may ask why anyone would want to ski the mountain in the first place. Jimmy put it best when he said, "You're hanging it out there, but that's what we do. We're ski mountaineers. Sounds completely insane, I'm sure, but we're very calculated about it."

With her goal accomplished, when she returns to Jackson Hole Kit has set her sights on starting a nonprofit called the Balance Institute, providing support to people "who follow their hearts to crazy places like skiing off the summit of Mount Everest."

"But I won't ever hang up my skis," she said. "I plan to ski till I'm 100."

Skiing Makalu: The Trek to Base Camp

Jim Morrison enjoying a break at 14,800 feet, a day's walk from base camp. Photo: Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions

Skiing Makalu: The Trek to Base Camp

After a long and wet week, the team attempting to ski the world’s fifth-highest peak has made it to the base of Makalu

After six days of trekking up through the Arun and Barun Valleys of the Himalaya mountains in Nepal, we have arrived at the foot of the world's fifth highest peak. Over the last week we hiked from 1,200 feet above sea level to nearly 16,000 feet. 

We started in sweltering heat and jungle then trudged along muddy trails teeming with leeches and spiders as big as your palm in the middle elevations, and eventually we bounded up over 14,000-foot passes in chilly monsoonal rain. From there, we walked down through silty glacial rivers that had overtaken the trail in the height of this monsoon season, soaking our shoes and socks to the point where none of us even bothered trying to keep them dry. An umbrella was perhaps the most important item I brought with me on the trek in. It provided the most shelter from the downpours that occurred everyday while walking. 

Day one on the trail to base camp.   Photo: Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions

Just a few miles to the West lies the much more developed and frequented Khumbu Valley, the gateway to Mount Everest from the Nepal side. By comparison, the Makalu region is much more remote, with fewer travelers passing through, far more rugged trails, and smaller, less developed human settlements. The combination of the weather, topography, and lack of other foreigners made for an authentic and adventurous experience—one I think we were all grateful for but are not necessarily eager to repeat again any time soon.

This season we are the only team attempting Makalu. That is perhaps due to the earthquake this past spring, which scared many climbers and trekkers away from returning to the country, even though Nepal needs tourism now more than ever in order to recover and rebuild. We hope our expedition shows that the country is ready for visitors to trek and climb here. On a more micro level, being the sole team attempting an 8,000-meter peak creates a huge amount of work for a small group of climbers. Usually multiple teams share the efforts of providing gear and putting in the effort to fix the route on such large peaks, but for better or worse this time around it will be up to just our team of five western climbers, four hired Sherpa climbers, and three hired kitchen staff at base camp. 

Now that we are at base camp and the trek is behind us, our attention has turned toward our objective: reaching the summit of Makalu and skiing down. This next phase of the expedition will require an enormous amount of patience, hard work, and luck.

Today, we leave for advanced base camp, at around 18,500 feet. From there we will begin the slow and arduous process of carrying loads, establishing camps, and painfully acclimatizing to higher altitudes. Summit or not, I've found that these expeditions unearth a certain rawness and openness about human nature, they strip us down and force us to face ourselves in our truest form. Which is, I suppose, why I continue to seek out these types of challenges.


Skiing Makalu: The Puja Ceremony

"There is a massive mountain looming over me, calling my name." Photo: Emily Harrington

Skiing Makalu: The Puja Ceremony

As the team attempting the first ski descent of Makalu prepares to ascend, they first perform an ancient ritual

Sunday was our Puja ceremony for our Makalu climb. We did it early in the morning with the whole of Makulu as our backdrop, as the sun rose slowly over the peak’s West shoulder. For me, it was like stepping through a doorway.  

I can think of a million metaphors to describe what it's like when the time comes for me to compartmentalize my life as a mom and put on my climbing face. Normally I would have done this weeks ago, as soon as I stepped out the door of my home and headed for the airport. This trip is different. This time my husband and kids came to Nepal with me and trekked all the way up the Makalu valley to base camp.  

  Photo: Courtesy of the O'Neill family

It was a crazy, stressful, amazing experience that I had dreamt of for years.  Of course, dreams and reality are rarely the same thing. In order to arrive at base camp for prime fall climbing, we had to start our trek during full-blown monsoon season. Alas, much of our hiking was in the fog and rain. The leeches were....intense is a nice way to put it. The trail was oftentimes more of a river than a path but, miraculously, my family was amazing. I think, with some distance, they may even say they enjoyed their time scrapping 12,000 feet up the Arun and Barun valleys to see the Himalaya for the first time. I know I was questioning my sanity in forcing this undertaking upon my six and eight-year-old boys, but already, only two days since they departed, I think it was totally amazing. 

  Photo: Emily Harrington

Now my transformation has to happen incredibly quickly. While my family is landing in the U.S. and driving home, I am sitting cross-legged in front of the traditional puja juniper fire at 18,700 feet, watching hundreds of prayer flags being strung up around me, throwing rice on the chorten altar, and drinking Red Bull. There is a massive mountain looming over me, calling my name and I need to honor the side of me that dreams of thin air and glaciers and suffering that I only find when I push myself beyond my limits. That's why I am here. This is the beauty I wanted my kids to see.  

  Photo: Adrian Ballinger

On Tuesday, our team will start our first rotation and spend three-to-four nights moving between Camp 1 and Camp 2, climbing as high as 22,000 feet. The snow, so far, looks amazing and we will use our skis to descend back to advanced base camp. I'm both excited and crazy nervous but my mind is ticking and my body is thrumming and I am happy.


  • Emily Harrington mid-turn on the steepest part of the descent above Camp 1.  Photo: Hilaree O'Neill

  • Hilaree O'Neill tries to navigate the last two turns on the tail of the glacier at Crampon Point. Below are Adrian Ballinger and Jim Morrison.  Photo: Hilaree O'Neill

  • Jim Morrison points to Makalu La where Camp 3 will eventually go.  Photo: Hilaree O'Neill

Skiing Makalu: Rest, Ski, Work, Play

The team attempting the first ski descent of Makalu finally gets a chance to play in the snow

I fell asleep last Friday at advanced base camp (18,700 feet) to the sound of snowflakes on my tent. It was only 9 p.m.; my body and brain were worked. I had just had half a glass of boxed wine and a dinner of fresh chicken and buffalo and a Nepalese attempt at angel food cake. We all had huge grins on our faces. Why? Check out the #SkiMakalu2015 feed on the social media channel of your choice. Our team of four* skiers and four Sherpa just completed a hugely successful rotation on the mountain. 

The route is in to over 23,000 feet, we slept and survived a night at 21,750 feet (Camp 2), and for the first time this season our team skied from our high point all the way down to the end of the glacier. And, unlike most skiing on 8,000-meter peaks, every turn was sweet. Conditions were perfect—stable, edge-able, and even with a few centimeters of fresh to play in. We found steeps, spines, and big open faces. It was like a day at home in the Sierra. Except each time we stopped making turns and remembered to breathe, we could barely stand from hypoxia. It was perfect!

A day like that, and a trip like this one, holds a special place for me. I have attempted to ski Makalu before, in 2012, while working for my guide company Alpenglow Expeditions. That 8,000-meter peak expedition was one of 16 I have guided over the past eight years. And I’ve been incredibly lucky in that guiding role—I have summited 8,000-meter peaks twelve times, skied two of them, rope-fixed with Sherpa to make the first summits of the season on Everest, Cho Oyu, and Manaslu, and shared all of these climbs with talented and dedicated clients and Sherpa. 

But I have never attempted an 8,000-meter peak for myself. I have never climbed at my pace. I have never skied at my limit. My rule has always been to reserve at least 50 percent of my energy for when the shit hits the fan. Others’ safety and success has always been my job. 

And that’s why this expedition means so much to me. Today, I am typing in our hangout tent surrounded by badasses that push me. As climbers and skiers, they are my equals or beyond. Due to my five months a year in the Himalaya, I am the expedition leader. But Hilaree, Emily, and Jim, and equally Panuru, Tenzing, Mingma and Palden, all play as hard as I dream of. I finally have the opportunity to see how fast I can move at altitude. And, if weather and conditions allow, how cleanly I can summit and ski an unskied Himalayan peak. 

*Editor’s note: A fifth climber, Kit Deslauriers, began suffering symptoms of acute mountain sickness last week and, later, high altitude cerebral edema. She left the mountain for Kathmandu in order to receive care. Deslauriers recovered, but has decided to end her expedition.


Skiing Makalu: The Waiting Game

Mingma Chhring Sherpa breaking trail out of Camp 3 towards the summit of Makalu.. While deep snow and fresh avalanches turned us around at 25,000 feet. Photo: Adrian Ballinger

Skiing Makalu: The Waiting Game

After a good weather window disappeared, the team waits for another in their attempt to make the first ski descent of Makalu.

Just days ago, four climbers and four climbing Sherpa were resting in camp three at nearly 25,000 feet and feeling great. Alone on the mountain, our team of eight had established an outpost at the Makalu-La (a lower peak connected to Makalu by a two-mile saddle) and we were ready to go for the summit. Sitting in tents at camp three and watching our team of Sherpa prepare to push the route further ahead was a glorious experience filled with a sense of confidence that we were about to summit Makalu. An afternoon break in the weather had camp abuzz with excitement as we could see the French couloir full of snow and for the first time we knew a ski from the summit was possible. Then summit day came on Monday, September 21, and Adrian and I were so ready and excited to find our way to the top of what is, in terms of conditions, a nearly perfect ski descent of an 8,000-meter peak. 

But then: there was no summit. Avalanches, the threat of more to come, and deep snow turned us around and sent us sliding down the mountain to ABC in full retreat so that we could begin to wait for snow to settle and winds to subside. 

Waking up above the clouds at camp 2, around 21,500 feet.   Photo: Adrian Ballinger

But that's how it goes with 8,000-meter climbing. There is no room for error up there, and this massive gorgeous mountain was not ready to let our little team make the summit. Now we wait, wait, and wait some more. Everyone—Adrian, Emily, Hilaree, Panuru, Palding, Mingma, and Tenzing—is fired up and patiently excited. Lots of downtime becomes rest, mental preparation, and anticipation for the inevitable hurt locker of climbing to extreme. 

It doesn't really matter what happens from here—just that we did our best, pursued the summit, tried as hard as we know how, and humbly accept what this mountain will give us. Clearly Makalu has more potential energy than our strong fit tea, but we wait here on her flanks hoping for a bit of respite so that we can experience a journey to the top and a long slide down.

For the next two days, we will rest camp and study weather. We are scheming to head back for another shot at the summit on September 27, local time. The snow will have had a chance to settle, the winds should have died down and we, with our stir-crazy spirits, will be ready to climb. A few more walks to a sacred alpine tarn to pump some fresh glacial water and then we will be off to climb what has been laid out over months and months as a huge challenge and ski what is undoubtedly a line ripe for the taking. With that, we wait and see what happens next.


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