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.
March 12 - Anjin, Jonny and myself took off from the Himachal lodge in Manali first thing in the morning. The flight lasted about 20 minutes and by 7:40am we had feet on the snow, on the Chota Shigri glacier at about 14000ft.
We were in charge to recon the glacier and find a good location to set up the first camp that would be our base for the next few days of acclimatization. The rest of the crew was joining us in the afternoon, with the rest of the gear and with the load we were planning to leave at the high camp located at about 18000ft.
Jumping on a heli was quite a shocking experience. Leaving behind all the chaotic traffic noises and old style vehicles on a fast modern B3 heli out towards the loneliness and silent mountains was a great contrast and a drastic way to leave the civilization. I felt relived, though, when I found myself seated on that seat. It was the beginning of the adventure and all the traveling hustle till that point started to make sense.
When we flew over the first snowy mountains I checked my altimeter and was already showing 13000ft. It was a good test for all of us to gain in such a short time 7500ft of elevation and forced our bodies to get used to it. Not getting altitude sick was surely the first challenge we had to face.
As we touched the ground on the fairly flat glacier we tried to find a good and safe spot to pitch the tents, where we were protected from weather and avalanche hazards. The left side of the glacier was surrounded by steep high mountains, mostly rocky and scour, and the right side was delimited by lower mountains, covered in what looked liked stable snow pack, typical of the east facing slopes warmed up by sunny weather.
We decided for an elevated spot near some granite boulders in the middle of the glacier, and we all felt comfortable with it.
Digging platforms and setting up tents I started feeling the altitude right away. Every fast movement, every long lasting effort was followed by short breath and headache, that would have stayed with me for an entire first week.
The low temperatures and the cold katabatic wind of the early morning shade surprised us and made us cold and stiff till 10 o’clock when the sun finally lit our camp and raised drastically the temperatures. I always get amazed how the sunlight makes a huge difference in temperature in just a few minutes.
From day and night, and from sun to shade, even at high elevations you should expect to be hot in a t-shirt under the 18000ft sun and a few hours later slide inside your -20° sleeping bag and just feel right with it!
A few hours later, as scheduled, the pilot visited us again bringing in the rest of the group and leaving a heavy load at 18000ft. As the helicopter flew out for the last time that afternoon I realized how quiet and remote that place was, and how we would not see anybody else for the next 2 weeks. It was a peaceful feeling.
The next day we went on an acclimatization recon up the gentle slope of the glacier. A good way to stretch the legs, get the lugs to work hard and shuttle some gear on a cash that we would have retrieved in few days.
The last forecast we heard leaving Manali was calling a good storm with 20 inches of snow for the next day, so we were ready to spend another day at the low camp.
When we woke up outside the tents there were already 15 inches on the ground and it didn’t stop for a second all morning. By the afternoon we passed the 20 inches forecasted and it was still snowing hard. Spending the time between the kitchen tent, and lying flat on our mats reading books, the time seemed to have slowed down. The only noises around were the intermittent rumble of avalanches nearby, which were scary and frustrating. First because, sucked in the cloud we couldn’t see further that few hundred feet around camp and second because we couldn’t do much about it or move anywhere else.
At one moment, as I was lying in the tent, the rest of the group standing outside witnessed a huge avalanche that came down from the right side slope. That same mountain that didn’t look threatening only 2 days before, now with all that new snow, became the biggest danger for out lives. The slide got bigger and bigger, and was increasing speed down the slope and as it hit the flat bottom it just missed the camp and the debris arrived at a ridiculous close distance from our tents! It was so big and close that we got swept by its wind and I felt the whole tent shaking like under a strong gust of wind. I was happy at that point that I didn’t witness it. It would have made me frightened and hopeless more than I was already and needed to be.
At that point anyone of us was strongly hoping to see no more snow falling from the sky.
March 14th - Finally during the night it stopped snowing and by the morning it was clearing and announcing a nice day. The storm dumped at least 35 inches in 24 hours - more than what we needed and hoped, but at least we knew that from then on we would find some good powder to ski.
As the tents dried under the sun we slowly dismantled camp and prepared the sleds to be pulled up the glacier. The uphill wasn’t steep but with the heavy load, every inch of inclination more made the sledfeel 20 pounds heavier and a hopeless load to carry up, especially when braking track on fresh snow.
The wind hopefully had compacted down the majority of the fresh snow, making the traveling not as painful as expected. We moved a few miles uphill till we felt comfortable to set up the next camp and rest for the night. At this point not all of us felt good.
Still acclimatizing, the general pace was slow, but a few upset stomachs and breathing problems made us a little concerned and cautious. Jonny seemed to be the one suffering from short breath more than others and his few coughs were making him concerned.
We knew that the goal for the whole team was to all feel good, and it was key that nobody would have to go down in low elevation to recover since there was nothing lower! Our way out of the mountains was the other big unknown point of the entire expedition and surely would have been a tough mission, not to be faced by someone suffering altitude sickness.
Moving the camp every day was a risk and more demanding than leaving a set base camp. It forced you to carry a heavier load every day and involved time and energy to break down and build up camp daily, but on the other hand it was the only way to move on those glaciers and get closer to the objective.
March 15th - The pass.
After the usual morning routines and the first Italian coffee in the mug, we were on route to get to high camp where the heli dropped us the extra gear we needed to power up our team.
As we got closer to the pass Sara Unga La, 16500ft, our exit door from the high glacier, we realized that Jonny was losing ground, and quickly fell at the back or the caravan.
Hilaree, feeling strong and concerned about his health, decided to turn around to look for him, while the rest of the group was establishing camp to prepare hot drinks to support them as soon as they would get there.
Immediately Hilaree realized the gravity of the situation. Jonny was suffering the first symptoms of pulmonary edema. The group was called to make an important decision for the safety of Jonny and the rest of the crew.
Emilio didn’t doubt a second about what to do: a helicopter evacuation was the only intelligent thing to do and surely the safest. Jonny had to be taken down in elevation first thing the next morning but there were no good possibilities of getting him low enough on skis. The heli was the only chance, and thank god we had that option!
Arranging the heli pick up using the illegal sat phone (in India) was a risk that we had to take, and it worked out great. 7:30 a.m. the next day Jonny was flying out together with Emilio to Manali.
The decision to fly Jonny down was followed by the decision to send one of us down with him to help and check on him once in Manali. Emilio kindly volunteered to be that person and left with Jonny sadly leaving me and Hilaree, the only other skier of the team.
Once the heli took off with the boys, Hilaree, myself, Anjin, Chris and Jay were the members of the team that were counting on with the expedition and to keep the focus on the objective: skiing the White Sail.
We arrived at the high camp the day we started to be surrounded by incredible ridges and peaks. The view over the horizon was getting better and better each meter we climbed and we couldn’t ask for better weather.
The night was a bit tough to rest properly. The body wasn’t still used to the altitude and the cold temperatures were making the sleeping quite uncomfortable. The morning sun, though, was changing the frozen camp into a nicer place, livable and cozy. It was time to concentrate on the objective.