Photo of White Sail, the highest peak just right of center. Our proposed ski line descend from the summit, down and left, roughly 2000ft. the summit height is nearly 22,000ft.
The North Face Global Team athletes Hilaree O'Neill, Emilio Previtali, Guilia Monego and Johnny Collinson set out on March 8 to climb and ski the 6000m White Sail peak in Northern India's Manikaran Valley. The following is a first hand account of their travels and adventures during their expedition.
Himachal Pradesh. India. Helicopters. Himalayan powder.
Soaring Peaks. It all sounds very romantic. That’s what India is, or at least,
my notion of India; a combination of adventure, mayhem, mountains, colors,
It had been over a decade since I’d last been to India, and
like everything in life, things change- people change, places change, entire
countries change in that amount of time but, regardless, I loved my travels in
India and I have been trying to get back there ever since. It’s the kind of
place that folds itself into your memories and doesn’t let go.
Photo taken by Melissa McManus in 1999 during my first expedition to India. We were attempting to climb and ski 20,000ft Deo Tibba, also in the Himachal Pradesh state.
The chance finally came this winter with The North Face.
Every year, as athletes, we go through a fairly extensive proposal process to
sort and plan expeditions for the coming year. Over the past ten years, I have
submitted proposals for an expedition to India but it wasn’t until this year
that the stars aligned and the trip was accepted.
My three previous trips to India have been more or less to
the same area, the Himachal Pradesh. During my previous forays into these
mountains a friend of mine, Hansueli Baerfuss, had shown me this incredibly beautiful
peak off in the distance; White Sail. Hansueli is a pilot for the Swiss owned
heli-ski company, Himachal Heli, that operates out of Manali, the main gateway
to the mountains of the Himachal, and has flown in the region on and off for
nearly 20 years. He gave me a 4X6 photo of the peak that he had taken from the
helicopter some 12 years ago. This, White Sail, was the peak I proposed to
climb and ski this winter, with only Hansueli’s single photograph as evidence
of the peak’s existence.
Still sounds romantic. Obviously, I know nothing about
modern day India. Idiotic, stressful and mind blowing (in a bad way) may all be
better adjectives for the colossal effort involved in planning an expedition of
this style to India. India is not exactly forthcoming with information about
its mountains, especially when those mountains are in “potential terrorist risk
The state of Himachal Pradesh rubs up against Tibetan China
to the east and Kashmir to the north; two places that have had a lot of change
in the last decade. As I came to learn while planning this trip, change has
greatly affected the laws and regulations in a region that, a decade ago, I
would have considered fairly lawless- a place where anything goes so long as
you just ask the right person or bargain in the right way. For the Himachal
Pradesh those days seem to be over, and now, navigating through the new India
where there seems to be a law for everything from smoking in public to using a
satellite phone in the mountains, to taking pictures from a helicopter, were
huge challenges for our expedition. The most frustrating part is that it is
impossible to know these laws until you come across them directly. The Indian
head bobble, which indicates “yes, maybe no,” is still alive and well, so you
are given the impression that perhaps you can do this, that, or the other thing
only to discover that is it “strictly forbidden, this is a new law that just
happened three days ago.” And in an instant, the best laid plans are laid to
Maps, naturally, are impossible to come by- strictly
forbidden, in fact, and I was unable to track down anyone who had climbed or
attempted to ski in this area before. Alas, we were left with Google Earth to
help us determine our route. While this is an excellent resource, I still
prefer the precision and direction only a real map can provide. Little did I
know this would prove to be only the first of many hurdles faced in planning
Map supplied to us by the IMF once we arrived in Delhi. Although we referred to this map a fair amount during the expedition, it was of little to no use in actually navigating.
My first mistake was to think that I had a lot of time to
organize our team and plan the logistics. Nothing, absolutely nothing related
to India, happens quickly. Everything takes time, a lot of time. Visas for
example. One can actually get an Indian visa very quickly, but the paperwork is
mind-numbing and exhaustive. Heaven forbid you try to get a visa in an
unconventional way. Kris Erickson, the trip photographer and The North Face
athlete, happens to live in Morocco half the year. He applied for his visa in
Morocco with two months breathing room. There was a problem, but no one knows
quite what that problem was, and only five days before departure he was
informed that he would not be getting a visa.
By some miracle, however, our team of seven (Kris Erickson
had to be replaced by long time friend and mountain photographer, Chris
Figenshau, who received a visa in 4 days - go figure) managed to all secure
visas, most of us only days before departure. When we stepped off the plane in
Delhi, there was no longer the dirty dingy airport of a decade ago, but rather,
a shiny modern day international airport signifying a new era for India. It
wasn’t until we stepped out of the airport, loaded with all of our bags, that I
was finally bowled over by the India I remembered- the one of horns honking and
smoky air and mad scents.
Johnny Collinson taking a break from the bumpy drive to Manali.
My second mistake was trying to stick to a schedule, a
schedule that essentially had no room for error. Not a good idea when
travelling in India. My intention was to
spend as little time in Delhi as possible in order to give ourselves the best
chance at staying healthy. But, in hindsight, when you consider the
inevitability of lost bags and delayed flights, this proved to be very
difficult. While in Delhi, I had a meeting with the IMF, the Indian
Mountaineering Federation, to talk about our climb and pay our peak fees, as
well as meet our Liaison Officer, or LO, whose nickname was aptly Happy. We
made a little headway in this department in that the IMF, for the first time in
their history, were going to allow us to do our climb without our LO in tow. He
would wait for us in the highest village near our planned exit off the Tos
glacier. I think even the IMF had to concede that a trip of this magnitude
would be akin to a suicide mission for Happy and who wants to kill someone with
a nickname like Happy?
Late in the planning process, I realized I would need some
help in moving our rather cumbersome group through India and navigating the
complicated bureaucracy of the IMF and the Indian government. I hired a
well-known trekking agency called Ibex Expeditions. They arranged all of our
ground transportation and hotels, as well as our early interactions with the
mountaineering federation and helped us with some of our visa issues. Thanks to
them, we were able to be hustled out of Delhi in a timely manner, and made the
rough road journey to Manali. Arriving on time, the next hurdle in the planning
department was getting Himachal Heli on the same page as our expedition team.
White Sail is so remote, especially when the Indian Himalayas are still hanging
onto winter, that access via helicopter to our basecamp was necessary in order
for us to complete the expedition in the timeframe of three weeks versus three
Giulia Monego and Emilio Previtali doing some last minute shopping in Manali for expedition food.
Again, we managed to pull it off and found ourselves nestled
into basecamp at 14,000ft on the exact day we had penciled in weeks before. I
suppose there is still some element of struggle to India, that if met with perseverance
and an unbelievable amount of patience, can result in success. I can honestly
say that just making it into the mountains was an unbelievable feat- and we
still had two weeks of climbing ahead of us.
Suffice it to say, I have led and organized many expeditions
over the years, and this was the most difficult and challenging trip I have
ever, ever, ever put together. Planning, by Indian standards, seems to be
somewhat of an oxymoron. At some point, I had to just let it go and realize
that we were in for an adventure.