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
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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.
It's a rest day at our lower Makalu Basecamp, about 16,000', but it's also a standby day for Brian O'Neill and their boys plus their friend Laura who are trying to fly out on a helicopter today to go home now that the trek is over and the climbing is beginning. Low cloud ceilings are so common in the monsoon,as is the imminent afternoon rain. #thenorthface @thenorthface
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: