The White Mountain
Clouds were building over the Kali Gandaki Valley thousands of meters below me. Tukche Peak, Annapurna, Nilgiri and Machhapuchare, the highest mountains in this part of the Himalaya, broke through the ocean of clouds and were aiming their jagged peaks towards the azure sky. The warm sun felt comforting in the cold, thin air at almost 8000 meters. I was standing on a narrow snow ridge with my skis pointing out over the void of the north face as avalanches rumbled down the steep east face behind me. My safe haven of base camp was more than three thousand meters below and the only way down was the ridge between the two intimidating faces. I struggled for breath in the thin air as I focused on visualising myself making 3000 meters of virgin turns down the steep, windswept northeast ridge of the alpine giant the local Nepalese call Dhaulagiri, The White Mountain.
Fredrik at 7000 meters on Dhaulagiri
A Brief History
After its discovery by the western world in 1808, Dhaulagiri was believed to be the highest mountain in the world. This was long before the height of Mount Everest was measured and at that time Dhaulagiri replaced Equador’s Chimborazo as the top of the known world for 30 years until 8586-meter Kangchenjunga was discovered in eastern Nepal. Today, Dhaulagiri is the world’s seventh highest peak at an altitude of 8167 meters.
Trouble From the Beginning
Upon my arrival in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, I encountered the first of many challenges that I was to encounter on my adventure. My ski bag containing all the equipment that I needed for the mountains – skis, down clothing, tent and climbing gear – had been lost somewhere along the way on my ghetto-rific Qatar Airways flight from Geneva. Without it there was no way I could even begin my objective of skiing from the summit of Dhaulagiri. It was a crushing blow and a less-than-promising start to the trip.
Every day for a week I went to the airport and asked for news about my bag. The only thing the man at the counter said was “Bag not found.” After spending five days in Kathmandu with no news about my ski bag I finally gave up on the unfathomably clueless Qatar Airways staff. It had taken me a full year to accumulate and customize my gear for this expedition and as I stepped out of the terminal into the bustle of Kathmandu the enormity of my next step hit me like a sledgehammer – I would have to search this third world chaos to find replacements for all my highly technical, personalized gear.
Luckily, Kathmandu is the embarkation point for a vast number of Himalayan expeditions and as I prowled the tourist shopping area called Thamel I somehow managed to barter for most of the gear I needed. That pulled me out of my depression but I wasn’t 100% satisfied. It would be very expensive to replace all the gear and almost all of which had been rigorously tweaked for my high altitude adventure.
Finally, on my seventh trip to the airport the man at the lost bag counter said something different: “Your bag is here.” I didn’t believe him until I saw a man dragging my ski bag towards me. After a week’s detour all my gear was right in front of me again and I was smiling all the way back to the hotel. The next day I was overjoyed to be on a bus going west towards the city of Pokhara from where I would fly towards the mountains and a small town called Jomsom.
The Adventure Begins
As the small propeller plane rose through the clouds I found myself surrounded by an amphitheatre of beautiful peaks. To the east were Machhapuchare (also called the fishtail mountain), the four Annapurna peaks and Nilgiri. To the west was a particularly majestic mountain towering 7000 meters over the Kali Gandaki gorge – Dhaulagiri. Looking through the window of the airplane felt unreal, the mountain was so close I could almost touch it. At the same time it looked intimidating with its steep faces, rocky ridges and the gigantic ice wall on the north face. In the middle of it all was the northeast ridge that was going to be my ascent and descent route. At that point I could hardly believe that I would be skiing that ridge five weeks later.
A one-and-a-half-hour hike down the valley from Jomsom lies Marpha where I hooked up with my base camp staff for the expedition, Buddhi and his brother Kansha. Together we started the three-day trek to Dhaulagiri base camp. As I stood on top of 5000-meter Dhampus pass and looked into Hidden Valley I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the French expedition that was there in 1950. Maurice Herzog, Louis Lachenal, Gaston Rebuffat and the rest of team were following a map that proved to be totally wrong. It showed a river gorge leading all the way from Marpha to the northern slopes of Dhaulagiri giving them easy access to the mountain. In reality two 5000-meter passes, Dhampus and French pass, must be crossed in order to reach base camp. The French found the approach to Dhaulagiri too complicated and instead they changed their objective to 8091-meter Annapurna on the opposite side of the Kali Gandaki gorge where they went on to make the first ever ascent of an eight-thousand meter peak.
Most of the 14 eight-thousand meter peaks were climbed during the 1950s. It started with Annapurna in 1950, followed by Mount Everest in ‘53 and K2, the second highest mountain, in 1954. Dhaulagiri was first climbed on May 13, 1960 by Kurt Diemberger, Peter Diener, Ernst Forrer, Albin Schelbert, Nyima Dorji and Nawang Dorji, members of a Swiss/Austrian expedition that climbed the northeast ridge. Even though the mountain has been climbed on several routes on different sides most climbers nowadays use the same route as the first ascent team.
A few days later I was standing in base camp at the foot of the mountain looking up at the rugged north face and the Chhonbardan Glacier that flows down the northern slopes of Dhaulagiri and joins the Myagdi River further south. The glacier is broken up by a massive amount of seracs (ice towers) and crevasses (cracks in the ice) that go by the name, The Ice Fall. Ice masses as large as cars were regularly falling with a loud, disconcerting growl. It was all very humbling and I was beginning to doubt whether or not it was possible to climb, let alone ski, this majestic mountain.
Buddhists believe that gods live in the mountains and before climbing one must to cleanse his spirit and show respect to the gods with a ceremony called a Puja. A Buddhist monk came up from a village a few days walk down the valley and with the help of the Nepalese people in camp they gathered rocks and built a Chorten (a Buddhist monument). Attached to the top of the Chorten were prayer flags that spread out over camp in four directions. On the altar was a photo of The Dalai Lama and offerings that included rice, cookies, chocolate bars and beer. As the smoke from incense rose with the wind, the monk was singing and saying prayers while we threw rice towards the Chorten and smeared flour in our hair.
At 8000 meters the air pressure is about one third of that found at sea level, which means that for every breath you take you only inhale a third the amount of oxygen. This puts climbers in high risk of contracting lethal high-altitude illnesses such as pulmonary oedema and cerebral oedema. To avoid getting ill one needs to acclimatize to higher altitudes by moving slowly up the mountain, which gives the body time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels. From Base Camp at 4700 meters I made a first acclimation trip to Camp 1 (C1) at 5700 meters. By traversing the lower slopes of a steep rock face (named The Eiger because of its similarities with the famous Swiss mountain) I was able to avoid the dangerous seracs of The Ice Fall. The climbing route continued on an almost flat section of the glacier before it got steeper and I had to negotiate a labyrinth of crevasses to reach the northeast pass of Dhaulagiri where C1 was located. During the night at 5700 meters my sleep was disrupted by a splitting headache, the first sign of Acute Mountain Sickness. The only solution was to descend and fortunately the pain gradually subsided as I made my way back to BC.
After three days of rest, with my strength and confidence regained, I was on my way up towards C1 again. This time I was moving faster and sleeping better. The mountain gods were with me and with warm, sunny days and only a slight breeze I could, without too much struggle, continue up the ridge to 6500 meters where I set up Camp 2. I spent two nights in my tent on the small platform that I’d dug out on the northeast ridge before I put on my skis for the first time and descended to BC. It was an amazing experience to ski on the slopes of Dhaulagiri with mountains like Annapurna and Nilgiri in the background. My acclimatization had passed quickly and without any problems. My confidence was high and I was ready to go for the summit.
As I began loading my backpack to leave for my summit push I could see the sky turning grey and snowflakes start to fall, lightly in the beginning but more and more intensely as the hours went by. Days went by and it didn’t stop snowing. In my journal I wrote: ‘Another day of snowfall. It’s now been going on for five consecutive days and we have gone from no snow at all to more than one meter of snow in camp. I started the day with my normal routine around the tent clearing the snow that had fallen during the night. Everything got wet: my shoes, pants, jacket, beanie and gloves. When is this ever going to stop?’
With all this new snow we were trapped in Base Camp and I took the opportunity to get to know the other climbers. My neighbours, a mix of Dutch and Austrian climbers, had a nice dome tent and good tea. They started out as seven climbers but one dropped out just before they left home, another gave up in Marpha, a third got ill on the trek to base camp and turned around and now they were four. The remaining climbers were Tomas and Edwin from the Netherlands and Austrians Andreas and Lawrence.
Just below us was the Korean camp with Kim Hong Bin and his two climbing Sherpas, Mingma and Dawa. Kim is an experienced climber from South Korea who tragically lost all his fingers on a bitterly cold solo climb on Denali in Alaska a few years ago.
Higher up the hill was the French camp with an even bigger and nicer dome tent. Jean-Noel, Nicolas and Paul had a busy year with climbs on three 8000-meter peaks including Mount Everest in the spring, Nanga Parbat during the summer and now Dhaulagiri. Their neighbours were Dodo from Slovakia and Kinga from Poland. Dodo was also on a roll on the 8000ers. He had climbed Shisha Pangma and Cho Oyu in the spring and Nanga Parbat in the summer. He also made a speed attempt on K2 where dangerous snow conditions forced him to turn around at 8000 meters. As the days went by and the snow got deeper and deeper we all got a bit depressed. We saw our chances to reach the summit of Dhaulagiri fade away.
I’m Sure It’s Around Here Somewhere…
On the seventh day the storm finally cleared and the sun broke through the clouds giving me a bit of hope. Three days later I was climbing again but I arrived in C1 to find that none of our tents could be seen. The camp was completely covered with a white blanket of snow and only a pair of ski tips was showing. Almost two meters of snow had fallen since the last time I was there. After probing to locate my tent’s position beneath the snow it took me two hours of digging to find that it had been thrashed. One of the poles was broken and there was a big hole in the side. Fortunately I was able to patch the hole with, you guessed it, duct tape. But the next day as I was moving up the mountain the all too familiar snowflakes once again began falling and forced me to return to Base Camp.
Fredrik at 6400m on Dhaulagiri
Nowhere To Go But Up
After five weeks on the mountain, time was running out. I only had one more week on my climbing permit before I had to leave. The French, Austrians and Dutch were fed up with the unstable weather and massive amount of snow and decided to head home. But together with Dodo, Kinga, Kim, Mingma and Dawa, I wanted to give it one last shot.
Through deep snow in variable weather, we struggled 2500 meters up the northeast ridge of Dhaulagiri to 7200 meters where we found a rock ledge for our last camp. After brewing up and cooking dinner I was treated to an amazing sunset over the Annapurna Mountains as I tucked myself into my thick down sleeping bag to get some rest. Listening to the tent fabric clatter in the light wind I quickly fell asleep.
At midnight I left camp and followed the tracks of Kim, Mingma and Dawa who had started an hour earlier. It was dark and desperately cold. Sporting a Michelin-man setup that consisted of a big down jacket and down pants my body was warm but I constantly had to wiggle my toes to fend off frostbite. I tried to climb fast to get the heat up but the lack of oxygen slowed me down. When I stopped to rest I turned my headlamp off and enjoyed the view of the massive amount of stars visible in the dark Himalayan sky. After a few hours of climbing all six of us were gathered and taking turns breaking trail in the windpacked snow. The sun finally joined us as we continued to slowly move higher up the mountain.
About 200 meters below the summit I began to traverse under the summit pyramid to find the snow getting deeper and more windpacked – an extremely dangerous combination. A long traverse in those conditions didn’t feel safe and the decision to turn around was easy to make. After all, the most important objective is to return home to family and friends in one piece. High-altitude legend Ed Viesturs describes it best when he said, “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
The Ride Of My Life
Far below me I could see the other climbers descending as I clicked into the bindings of my skis. I enjoyed the view of the surrounding mountains while I prepared to drop in to a line that no one had ever skied before. By climbing the descent route I knew what I would be facing skiing down. I had rigorously scouted a safe route avoiding exposure to seracs and big crevasses. Skiing at high altitude is very strenuous and after only four to five turns it felt like I had skied 1000 vertical meters in the Alps and had to stop and rest. The windpacked snow didn’t make it any easier either. As I descended I felt stronger and stronger and the snow got more powdery making the skiing easier.
Fredrik skiing on Dhaulagiri
Between C3 and C2 I skied into the clouds and snow started falling, which drastically reduced the visibility. The snow was getting deeper and I was releasing slough (small powder avalanches) on almost every turn. To be safe and not lose my orientation I stayed close to the highest point on the ridge and the fixed rope. Below Camp 2 the slope got less steep and I found myself on more familiar terrain. Even though I didn’t see much in the heavy snowfall I could relax and link more and bigger turns.
Cruising down in the soft powder snow with a big smile on my face I realised that this is what it’s all about. Dhaulagiri had been a great experience and the setbacks throughout the expedition were all forgotten. Beautiful views of sunsets over the high and rugged Himalayan Mountains were flashing in my mind as I skied The White Mountain.
Text and Photos: Fredrik Ericsson
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