Larger Than Life: Everest converts skeptic Chris Davenport
AS SEEN IN THE 2012 FREESKIER BACKCOUNTRY EDITION.
WORDS: TESS WEAVER, CHRIS DAVENPORT — PHOTOS: NEAL BEIDLEMAN
ASPEN BASED SKI MOUNTAINEER CHRIS DAVENPORT HAD LOW EXPECTATIONS WHEN HE SET OUT TO CLIMB THE WORLD’S HIGHEST PEAK IN MAY 2011. “I was hired as a guide,” he says. “I most likely never would have gone to Everest on my own accord. It’s been climbed so many times and the skiing is rarely good. Plus, you hear stories about the crowds and the garbage. I didn’t expect to be blown away by its beauty. But, I thought, if we’re going there, I’m bringing skis.”
Davenport, whose recent accomplishments include skiing all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks (and all but two of California’s), co-guided client Ephi Gildor (of Bringing Down the House fame) with Aspen’s Neal Beidleman, who was part of the notorious 1996 Everest expedition in which eight climbers died (the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into Thin Air”).
While acclimatizing before the summit push, Davenport and Beidleman skied part of the Lhotse Face, a rarely attempted descent on a 27,940-foot peak on the South Col route.
But it wasn’t until Davenport climbed the final ridge to the 29,035-foot south summit that he fell for Everest. He watched the eastern sky light up over the Tibetan plateau. Just as the sun crested the horizon, it hit Everest, casting a triangular shadow across the land.
“It’s psychedelic—a true out of body experience,” says Davenport. “From that point on, I was sold. It went from being this commercial, mainstream thing I didn’t fully respect, to one of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. It’s completely deserving of being highest mountain in the world.”
It was a leisurely 10-day trek to base camp through the Khumbu Valley, with the goal of proper acclimatization. Namche is an amazing town and one of the hubs of Sherpa culture. The last time I was here, I was on my way out of a Baruntse Ski expedition in 1999. I’m amazed how this place has grown up. It was nice to be able to call home on my Nepali cell phone and talk for five minutes for 50 cents!
[There are two things that I love about the Himalaya: the epic views and the Sherpas. Both are so uplifting—the views for obvious reasons, and the Sherpas for their tireless hospitality, big smiles, incredible work ethic, and genuine happiness. There may not be a more peaceful and beautiful people in the world.]
Arrived at base camp. Mountain Trip camp is around 17,500′ on the Khumbu Glacier. Our spot was located near the upper end of this makeshift city. I outfitted my tent with pads and a small Persian rug that I bought in Istanbul on the way. We had 15 climbing Sherpas and another nine staff members running the kitchen, base camp and camp II. Steadily growing for the past decade, base camp supports more than 500 people. There is a definite sense of community here, and it’s fun to walk around and talk to folks from all over the world.
[Before ever setting foot on Everest, or any Himalayan peak, it’s customary for the Sherpa staff and climbing members to perform a Puja, an offering to the mountain in exchange for safe travel and good weather.]
We did three “blocks” or rotations on the mountain. Our first block consists of two days at Camp I, which is on top of the steep part of the icefall at 20,300 feet. Then it was up to Camp II which is at 21,400′ and right under the Southwest Face and the Lhotse Face. We spent three nights doing nothing but acclimatizing, which entails doing short hikes, hydrating, playing games, reading and trying to sleep.
While skiing down the Western Cwm, the huge cirque made by the Everest-Lhotse-Nuptse horse-shoe, we spied this line through the seracs, skiers left. It called to me, as ski lines can, and we scoped it out and skied it. We avoided the crevasses by skiing hard left under the North Face of Nuptse and found some descent snow. Amazing how a little sidestep at the end could waste me so much.
Neal and I skied an apron below the SW face and had some good turns. This was another acclimatization trip. We took out client up to the base of the fixed lines on the Lhotse Face, and then climbed about 300 feet higher to check the snow conditions on the face. The snow was really stable and soft, so we skied down across the “schrund” and then did about 50 turns under the massive southwest face of Everest.
[The fixed line on Everest gets put in every year and the ladders are maintained by a team of Sherpas called the Ice Doctors. You use a jumar and one hand on a ski pole. It’s a combination of stepping and pulling. There are lots of flats. There’s nothing more difficult than Highlands Bowl, except the Hilary Step. With the solar radiation, it gets up to 70 degrees—you can’t climb during the day without cloud cover.]
[A close up look at the meat of the Khumbu Icefall. In years past, teams might climb through the icefall up to ten times while getting acclimated for Everest. With our “block” program of acclimatization, we only had to move through the icefall three times significantly reducing risk, as this is the most dangerous part of climbing Everest.]
For our second rotation on the mountain, we did six nights at Camp II. Getting there was a long slog. Whether it was the low-angle slogging or the blazing sun, I was as tired as I’ had been on the whole trip and had a high-altitude cough. We all had nagging cough—it was like exercise-induced asthma.
While we were there, the mountain gods smiled upon us up there, and Neal and I were able to make a descent of the Lhotse Face from just above Camp III. This ski descent has only been accomplished a handful of times before, and the conditions that the mountain gave us were truly incredible. If I were to rank it in my lifetime resume of ski descents, it would definitely make the top three, joining perhaps the Messner Couloir on Denali and the East Face of the Matterhorn.
We went 200 feet onto the face proper and Neal clipped into anchor and put me on belay. I traversed out 100 feet onto the face, belayed by Neal, who was on the fixed lines, and dug a pit. Then I put in an ice screw and brought Neal out. I traversed onto the face and dug a pit. There was no tension or slab and surprisingly, it seemed really stable. I made two big ski cut turns. I could feel my tails scraping the black ice but it was powder on top. I put the rope back in my pack and skied right down the gut of the Lhotse Face and down to the bergschrund. It was about 3,000 feet of vert. I was so pumped that if the trip ended right then, I would have been happy. We approached skiing Everest in this humble, unselfish way and the mountains said “go for it.” Two days later, the winds came in the face was never the same again. Kris Erikson and Jamie Laidlaw, two skiers sponsored by The North Face who were attempting to ski from the summit of Lhotse, skied from Camp 3 in total breakable crust and miserable conditions. I talk to people who say it’s never been skied in as good of conditions as we had.
[Neal and I are about halfway down the face in this photo. The sense of scale is hard to comprehend. It’s just huge. It’s not that steep, but it’s just so big that it feels more dangerous (and exposed) than it is. There were hundreds (maybe a hundred) of people on the fixed climbing line across the way who were hooting and hollering. After twenty turns or so, I felt like I was going to pass out from oxygen deprivation. We skied the face in stages, stopping to catch our breath, regroup, and admire our surroundings. At every one of these stops, we would look at each other with these “holy shit” grins—half scared and half in disbelief about where we were.]
The mountain had transformed itself. We knew the entire face was black ice under 8-10 inches of snow. How it sticks to the face is one of the great mysteries of Mother Nature. We chose to start skiing at Camp III rather than a bit higher because we wanted to stay on the same program as our client, who had descended from Camp III. We didn’t want to push it too hard and risk getting sick and jeopardize his summit chances.
Back at base camp, we were in a patience-heavy holding pattern waiting on a good weather window to go for the summit. After an exhaustive review of numerous weather forecasts and computer weather models, we made the decision to go for it.
May 15th — We left at 4am and climbed up through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp II.
May 16th — Rest day at Camp II.
Climbed the lower Lhotse Face to Camp III. We witnessed the most amazing sunset here, with our feet hanging off the Lhotse Face. We slept on oxygen for the first time that night.
We climbed up the Lhotse face, through the Yellow Band and Geneva Spur, to Camp IV at the South Col. We rested for eight hours, then attempted the summit. About an hour into it, we turned around because of snow and wind. It’s trying mentally… you pump yourself up for months, then turn around. There was only enough oxygen for one more attempt the next day. To be at the South Col was special. This was Neil’s return to Everest. We conducted an interview with him where he spent the night in a huddle during the tragedy 15 years ago.
[We regrouped in base camp for a day, then headed down valley to the village of Dingboche, which is several thousand feet lower than base camp, for four days rest and recovery before our summit attempt. It’s much easier for your body to recover at 14,000 feet than it is at 17,500 feet.]
We left the tents at 10 pm. It had been a full moon two days ago, and the stars were out. It was about 20 below, but when you’re moving with oxygen, you’re warm enough, especially since there was no wind at all. There’s only one bootpack following the fixed-lines and we got caught behind 45 slower people. From midnight to 1pm we didn’t move—we didn’t take a single step for an hour. We knew we had to get past them, so we put in our own boot pack on the face. It was really deep snow and I redlined so fast. My adrenalin told me to take it easy. We got to what’s called the Balcony and did a really quick oxygen bottle change. Once we passed all those people, it was smooth sailing up the most amazing ridge to the South Summit. That ridge was the highlight of climb.
We summited at 7:55 am. When we arrived, there were only two other people. The summit is covered in prayer flags. I got pretty choked up—I was so enlightened, so elated, so high on life. I felt this overwhelming love for everyone I knew. We all felt great. We took our masks and gloves off and walked around shooting lots of photos and video. The summit is about 25 feet in diameter. You could look down the north side into Tibet. You’re even high enough to see the curvature of the earth. It far exceeded my expectations.
Slowly people started trickling in and all of a sudden there were 30 people up there and it started to feel a little frantic. There were people stumbling around. We knew that’s when we were supposed to go down. There was a bottle neck at the Hilary Step. We passed an incoherent women who didn’t know which way was up. Once we were in front of everyone, it was smooth sailing. But you have to be careful. On the descent, it’s a lot easier to trip on crampons or get caught on the rope. We were back at the South Col (Camp IV) at 1 pm.
Descended to Camp II.
We descended through the Khumbu Icefall for the last time to base camp. I remember being really focused going through the ice fall. I thought of it as our last hurdle before we could celebrate. When we arrived at base camp, all the sherpas were there and threw us a huge celebration at 10am.
We woke up next morning, took a heli to Katmandu and I was back in Aspen four days later. I felt a sense of ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ Never have I had so many congratulations. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but in people’s minds, Everest is larger than life.