BD Athlete Thomas Gaisbacher: Skiing In the Shade of the 8000m Peaks
On 13th April it finally happened. Stefan, Gumpy, Martin, Johannes, Andreas, and myself arrived fully packed at the Munich airport. Our goal—skiing down the Shimshal Whitehorn in Pakistan. The information we were able to collect about this peak was rather sparse. Up until now, only two teams have made it to the top of this mountain. On top of that, the route we wanted to ski down has never been climbed yet. Only one person has attempted an ascent of this wall and has been missing ever since. But the pictures of the north-eastern face convinced all of us to go on a journey to this place.
After arriving in Pakistan, for two days we traveled north on the Karakoram Highway to Karima-bad. The already poorly maintained roads were growing increasingly interesting. Hardly conceivable in Europe, here self-constructed routes led through huge canyons and narrow valleys. Sloping rock plates stacked with loose rocks, without other supporting materials like concrete or iron, were now used as a road. Just wide enough to allow for one off-road vehicle to drive on it. Downward views and adrenaline guaranteed!
After one more day we finally reached the small village of Shimshal in Hunza at 3100 meters. This was the starting point of our expedition. It was the beginning of spring, and all the people of the village were busy tending their fields. In the barren landscape, it almost felt surreal. Far and wide only sand, stones and huge slopes of scree.
The weather didn't receive us with the same friendliness as the locals of the village. The valley was covered in snow and the temperatures were too cold for this time of year. Our first goal was an acclimatization tour up on the mountains on the opposite side of the Whitehorn. From there we should be able to get a good overview of our mountain. In a snowstorm, we moved our luggage with the help of carriers up to Zartgurben at 4100m. There was a small stone hut at the far end of a large plateau. The locals used this field to play soccer or cricket. The next morning, we were quite impressed as we stepped outside the door. The weather had turned better overnight, and the mountains were gleaming in an unparalleled and vibrant white. The contrast was simply amazing.
The Whitehorn—it was indescribably beautiful how it rose from the ground. Its slopes were laden with snow. Now, euphoria and joy were rampant. With our binoculars, we studied possible lines and agreed. Skiing down this giant might work. But first, we needed to acclimatize properly. After a day at 5000m and setting up a bolted route for the locals of the village, we continued upwards. After an endless valley and 600 meters at altitude, packed with our stuff, we reached another hut. This time I was really exhausted. During our journey food poisoning had knocked me out for a while and now I realized that I had not fully recovered from this yet. To the contrary. During our first ascent I had somehow irritated my pleura and now had problems breathing.
The night wasn't much fun. I knew that any other day at this height would only worsen my condition. This meant that I would lose a minimum of three precious days of acclimatization. So, I decided to climb up to 5000 meters one more time, but only for a short while. I left the tent at 4 a.m., as I was unable to lay down any longer. I informed my colleagues about my plan and marched away. After 1.5 hours I finally reached a saddle covered with snow and continued with my skis. The ridge that climbed in the direction of the summit became ever more narrow and led over enormous flanks of snow. It became too narrow, and I needed to move into the slope a bit. Then, I heard a loud bang. The ground was shaking, and I remained rooted to the spot. One meter below, the entire slope had broken off and, with an almighty crash, plummeted into the depths.
Slightly shaky on my feet, I moved back to the broader part of the ridge. I felt sick, and my knees were trembling. I knew how lucky I had just been and I was angry at myself. I had been so fixated on myself and my body that I had completely underestimated the dangerous conditions. The fresh snowfall had not been able to bind well with the old snow. Dry and large crystals restricted the binding of the two layers. Just a little bit of extra weight would trigger a huge avalanche. Now I noticed the incipient cracks everywhere. Only on the western side, the snow had settled. There, I found a safe slope and skied back down. My friends were just having breakfast when I returned to our camp. I told them about the incident, and they were not exactly enthusiastic. Now we knew, if we found the same conditions on the Whitehorn, an ascent of this mountain or even skiing down would be impossible.
The photographer Andreas Vigl accompanied me on my way back to the village. He too was still battling the consequences of food poisoning.
My teammates remained for another two days before returning to the valley. We discussed the situation and decided to give it a try and ascend the Whitehorn within the next few days. Should the conditions be the same as in Zartgurben, we would try the Couloir of 1000 Gutters as an alternative. It is a couloir up on the northern ridge of the Whitehorn. It is far less high, steep, and exposed as the north-east face but not to underestimate when skiing down. We would move up on the southern side and hope that the snow had settled or that all avalanches had already gone down.
But first, we took a good break. In the meantime, we set up a small climbing park for the locals and organized a climbing competition for the children. After enjoying all the happy and thankful faces, we felt ready and organized some carriers for our adventure. Unfortunately, everybody was busy tending their fields, and we had trouble finding only four carriers. Also, they would only accompany us up until the snow line. Afterwards, we would be on our own.
Therefore, we packed minimalistically and carried most things ourselves. The carriers were tired from working on their fields and didn't even make it to the snow line. When we finally reached our camp, we were pretty exhausted and looked forward to our meal. We had made an error during packing, and a bag of food was missing. Our faces turned longer and longer when counting the calories that were supposed to supply us with energy over the next days. It equaled not much more than a sausage in a roll for everyone.
The next day we set out early and climbed the upper plateau of the glacier, located at the base of the Whitehorn. Although we had been on our way for 3 hours, our starting point wouldn't come any closer. For the first time, we started to realize the sheer dimension of this mountain. In the snow, we noticed cracks everywhere and saw that under the snow there was just plain ice. There had been no snowfall all winter, just one meter of fresh snow when we arrived in the valley. In the lower sector, large areas had ripped away, and higher up, the snow was only waiting for someone to step on it and trigger an avalanche. It was clear that this was a no-go and we had to look for alternatives. And as we had hoped, on the Couloir of 1000 Gutters an avalanche had already come off and alleviated any further danger points. We climbed up across the avalanche deposit, always in view of this gigantic mountain. We suddenly felt very small.
To carry your skis on your back in this height was already tough, but the sun at its peak was driving us completely crazy. My inflamed pleura had started hurting again, and I had a hard time staying motivated. Only Gumpy was in high spirits and paved our way in the snow like a machine. After what seemed like one million footsteps and three pain-killers we finally stood on top of the couloir at an altitude of 5750 meters. An unforgettable panoramic view. The ridge sharp as a knife. Unclimbed and forbidding. From now on, it was only downwards—what a relief. The upper part was hard, and we were able to ski some beautiful lines into the couloir. Further down, the avalanche debris stopped our flow. The bumpy ride used up our last power reserves. Completely exhausted but overjoyed with the successful descent of the Couloir of 1000 Gutters we arrived at our basecamp. None of us felt like going back to the village, but driven by hunger, we managed that as well. Leaving 2700 meters of altitude behind, we finally got back to the village and celebrated the descent with a nice glass of cold cola.
It does not always work as you would like. But even though we hadn't been able to ski down the Whitehorn, just traveling there was an incredible experience and adventure for me. Having been able to ski this incredible couloir in spite of the poor conditions was just great and made this trip an unforgettable undertaking.
--BD Athlete Thomas Gaisbacher