The Himalayas, Nepal, fall 2018
It´s the morning of the last day of September and high above the clouds on the sunny top of Mount Lhotse at 8 516 m, two people are carefully putting their skis on. It´s a mere stone´s throw to Mount Everest, the highest mountain on the planet, with only South Col, a knife-edge ridgeline above 8000 meters, separating the two peaks.
Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison are standing above the abyss, that is the Lhotse Couloir, the covoted crown jewel of ski mountaineering descents – a 700-meter couloir starting with a 60-degree slope angle over exposed terrain and followed by a mandatory descent of the 1400 m mountain face.
Nelson and Morrison are some of the most experienced ski mountaineers in the world and they have honed their skill sets and fitness levels for years to be able to attempt such an exposed ski route starting at the awe-inspiring “death zone” in the Himalayas.
Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison started their climb to the of Mount Lhotse at 1 o´clock at night. The thermometer read -30 degrees Centigrade.
After climbing for roughly 12 hours the duo had finally reached the top. Putting their skis on gave them a new boost of energy and having just climbed up the couloir, they knew, that unlike on Nelson´s first attempt at skiing it during 2012, it now had plenty of snow. They are now more than ready to drop in the Lhotse Couloir.
As Morrison makes the first turn after the 60-degree steep entry point, a huge sluff avalanche is released right in front of him and he watches as it charges through the entire couloir to the bottom of the Lhotse face. Relieved, the pair then reaches the crux of the couloir.
With 55 degrees steepness and a width, that barely allows their skis to pass through, Nelson and Morrison are forced to careful side-stepping over the 1400-meter mountain face below them. Any mistake here and things would get really serious.
The snow in the couloir is so variable, that it takes a lot of energy for Nelson and Morrison just to stay on their skis. And the altitude doesn´t make it easier either: “for half the couloir we were linking 2,3,4 turns before stopping to catch our breaths”, says Nelson about the descent.
When they reach the mountain face after the couloir, they can enjoy linking 10-15 turns before stopping, thanks to a more consistent snow base. All-together, the descent takes 4 hours, including a 30-minute stop at camp 3 to pick up gear.
The following question and answer interview was conducted with Hilaree in September 2019.
What was the Lhotse descent like?
Hilaree: I had climbed Lhotse in 2012 spring and I had brought skis, I was so fired up to try ski it. When we got in the Lhotse couloir it was 75% rock – no snow. There were a couple of sections in that ascent where I couldn´t even imagine being enough snow to fill the main choke of the couloir.
It was maybe 50 cm wide and in a gully, you werent´even climbing in the center, but on the sides. The right before the summit there is probably close to a 10 meter vertical rock wall. Those two sections I thought, that we will be definitely rappelling them down with our skis on.
You can´t see the couloir anywhere, but from the shoulder of Mt. Everest, so we didn´t even see it until our summit day. When you´re actually climbing through it to ski it. To my happiness and great surprise it was completely filled in.
What were the conditions like on Mount Lhotse?
Hilaree: I had that optimism, because hearing from other people climbing it, I understood, that 2012 was just a record bad snow year, we had not seen this little snow in 30 years. It was just a very dramatic year. It´s such a fine line to have all that snow and not have it be deathly dangerous of avalanche. We had enough, but not too much.
It´s really close to 60 degrees, because you have that rock there in the beginning, that was barely filled in with sugar. The good part of that is that you have that super steep section, maybe 40-50 meters long and then it rolls into this bowl, which is the least steep of the whole descent.
So maybe it rolls back to 35-40 degrees. Jim made the first turn and set up this huge sluff avalanche, that went down to the bottom of the Lhotse face.
Once that cleared out, we were breathing a little easier. So you have this nice reprieve from the steepness for few turns and then it rolled back again for maybe 55 degrees through the choke. The choke was maybe 175 cm wide, so we were tip to tailing with our skis and it was really tough conditions – you definitely couldn´t fall there, because there was no reprieve after that.
How did the high altitude affect your skiing in the Lhotse Couloir?
Hilaree: One thing, that worked in our favor is, that we skipped the high camp in Lhotse, so we did 4000 feet from our camp to the summit and it took us 12 hours to summit. We were exhausted, when we got to the top, but it was a funny phenomena of switching sports mid-epic day.
When we put the skis on, it was like we got a restart button and the day started over and we got all our energy back. I think it really helped the altitude of that descent. For sure, for half the couloir, we were linking 2,3, 4 turns before stopping to catch our breaths, breathing so hard.
By the time we got to the Lhotse face we were linking 10-15 turns before having to stop and catch our breath. The snow conditions on the face were also consistent, where as in the couloir they were so variable, it took a lot of energy to stay on your skis and be ready for different conditions with each turn.
It took us 4 hours to ski down and that included stopping for about 30 minutes at camp 3 to pick up a lot of our camp. So, actual skiing was pretty fast, 3 hours.
Any plans for future expeditions?
Hilaree: I´ve been enjoying being home a lot. We had one of the most incredible winters here in the U.S. and Telluride, we got a lot of skiing this winter, which was the polar opposite from the year before, where we literally did not have a winter. And last year was the biggest winter ever on record.
I took some time off, but now we´re gonna jump back on with a new year trip to Antarctica. Back on the program. It was really hard to come back after the Lhotse trip, it was such a life time goal, that it was hard to get motivated for something else. I would do it again though, I really like skiing an 8000 m peak. That line just might be the best one there is, it´s pretty perfect.
We´re hoping to ski a new line on Vinson and maybe explore some of the other higher peaks nearby, if we have the time (Antarctica). There is a lot of organizing to it.
“Only those, who will risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go” T.S. Eliot.
Hilaree Nelson 1972-2022 In Memoriam.
Words: Jaakko Järvensivu, Photos: The North Face