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The Peaks of Good and Evil

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After obsessing over a remote mountain in India for over a decade, my dream became a reality. But be careful what you wish for- the Peak of Evil lived up to it's name and then some.

Flying over the same towering mountains of the Punjab Himalaya, deep in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, that I had visited a decade before, one peak held my attention. It was the same mountain that on my previous trip a friend had identified as White Sail, a huge mysterious monolith, gutted by an impressive couloir spilling directly from the summit. My friend pointed out that, to the best of his knowledge, it had never been skied. For more than a decade, I dreamt of mounting an expedition to climb and ski this magnificent line on this remote mountain. It wasn’t until I started planning the expedition in earnest, in 2012, that I learned the 21,186ft White Sail was known locally as Dharamsura, or the Peak of Good. But Dharamsura, I also discovered, had a taller, more insidious twin-the 21,252-foot Papsura, or “Peak of Evil.

When I compared my single 12-year-old photograph to the images on Google Earth I realized what I thought was White Sail was in fact Papsura. The twin peaks also come with a dose of local superstition. The two are said to vary in height according to how good and evil are balanced in the universe. Evil, I found, has apparently been doing well-Papsura is nearly 70 feet taller than Dharamsura.

As the beating rotors of Himachal Heli Skiing’s Bell 407 brought us closer to our high camp and the mountain’s immense bulk, however, Papsura looked more intriguing than sinister. Despite weather obscuring parts of the west face, I was stunned by the view-it was beautiful and terrifying, far more impressive than my old photograph indicated.

With the 40-mile length of our planned route stretching out far below the helicopter, I was also struck by how remote we were, so far from civilization, I realized the radio I was carrying would be useless at communication with the Himachal Heli’s base station. We would be alone on our mission, testing ourselves in the battle between Good and Evil.

Angels or demons, the objective I had spent more than a decade dreaming over was still the same. Our group, including fellow North Face athletes Giulia Monego, Johnny Collinson and Emilio Previtali, photographer Chris Figenshau, and Sherpa Cinema’s Anjin Herndon and Jay Trusler, would attempt a first ski descent of the west face of Papsura via the couloir splitting the face down it’s center.

We planned to access the route via a 40-mile, high-altitude traverse across three different glaciers over twelve days with heavy packs and pulling sleds- a difficult and complicated endeavor even before adding in the climb and ski descent of Papsura.

First, we needed to access our base camp via helicopter due to the remoteness of our objective. Second, in order to climb Papsura, we had to deviate 5 miles and set up an additional high camp at 18,000feet. Finally, after Papsura, we would cross over the 16,000-foot Sara Umga La Pass, ski roughly 15 miles down a river valley to snowline where, in theory, porters would be waiting for us to help carry out our gear the remaining ten miles back the village of Tosh.

Monego and Collinson had the critical job of picking a safe spot for our first camp on the Chhota Shigri Glacier, the easiest and most direct access to our ski descent. Ease came with a price- the first camp would be located at just over 14,000 feet, an abrupt and potentially dangerous jump in altitude for our team. My experience with India is that there is nothing gentle or subtle about the country: the people, the colors, noises, mountains and weather are all in your face, all the time. The storm that hit our second night at basecamp confirmed my experience. By midday enough snow had accumulated that we could hear huge avalanches rumbling down the steep cliff faces on the west side of the valley, unnervingly close to our camp. By nightfall, three feet of wet snow buried what now felt like a very small and exposed camp. We all heard it at the same time- a massive rumbling hidden in the dark of the night, headed in our direction. In a matter of seconds, a blast of blinding wind hit, but the feared wall of snow never came.

As the air cleared, we could barely make out a tail of debris 200 yards from camp. In stunned silence, Figenshau handed me a Nalgene bottle of whiskey and I took a big swig before crawling into my tent for a sleepless night.

The next morning, we would see that, while it hadn’t come as close as we’d feared, the avalanche was massive- the debris was several hundred feet wide, easily 30 feet deep and ran a half-mile down the valley. Our Camp was protected by a huge earthen berm that turned the avalanche before it was able to rise up and crush our camp. Guilia and Johnny had chosen the best possible spot for camp. Nonetheless, we were all spooked enough that we decided to move 1000 feet up the valley where the glacier widened and offered even more protection from the steep mountain walls. Despite the abbreviated stay at 14k and our move to a higher camp, it seemed everyone was feeling good- except Johnny Collinson, who was moving slow and felt depleted. The next morning, he was again in the back of the pack; a problem as our next camp was at the Sara Umga La camp at 16,500 feet.

As the group reached the pass, I headed down to help Johnny. He was all smiles but very obviously struggling. I took his sled and grabbed his backpack, and the reason became apparent- with each exhale I could hear bubbling in his breath, a tell-tale sign of pulmonary edema.

The condition, an accumulation of liquid in the lungs, is common to high-altitude mountaineering and can cause fatigue, insomnia and ultimately respiratory failure. The only real fix to pulmonary edema is to drastically descend in altitude. We both knew he needed to make it to our next camp at the pass as the other side of the Sara Umga La pass was the only option, outside of a helicopter rescue, to descend to necessary altitude. We could not go back the way we had come as there was no way to get below 14k. Once at the pass, with Johnny’s condition deteriorating, we decided the only truly safe option would be to call in a helicopter, so we pulled out our satellite phone.

There are a lot of seemingly irrational, constantly changing laws in India, the specifics of which, as a foreigner, are impossible to follow- the standard response while organizing the trip was, “Oh no, we cannot do this. The law just changed three days ago.” Paying for our helicopter time, a new law states a credit card can only be used once in 30 days for a maximum of $3000 USD. It was a new law that no one is allowed to take still while flying in a helicopter and video is strictly forbidden.

Three-day mandatory background checks are required for anyone wanting a cell phone SIM card, and despite populating nearly every street corner, few banks are allowed to exchange currency and ATM machines only work for Indian bank accounts. The most vaguely detailed maps are prohibited, due to the risk of terrorism. Satellite phones are so illegal they are not even allowed in the country. If one were to successfully smuggle one in – well, heaven help you if you had to use it. Because of the remote places I climb, I always carry a satellite phone for emergencies and to have contact with my family. As a result, I have traveled all over the world with satellite phones and it never occurred to me, in planning this trip, that India would have a different set of rules. When I landed in Delhi and saw the customs forms explaining in detail that sat-phones are illegal, I made a quick decision to not declare the phone—there was no way I was going on such a remote expedition without a source of communication in the event of an emergency.

With Johnny’s condition critical, we found ourselves with no choice but to use our smuggled satellite phone knowing it could result in police time, fines and any number of post-trip bed outcomes (which it did). We transmitted our call for a helicopter evacuation through a friend in Italy in hope that we would somehow not get in trouble with the Indian police or get the helicopter company in trouble for answering a satellite phone call.

A pickup was scheduled for the next morning.

That night I shared a tent with Johnny, giving him meds every few hours to make sure his condition remained stable. The morning was blissfully clear and calm, it was decided that Emilio would accompany Johnny on the flight out. The Heli showed up and within minutes, we’d lost two valuable members of our team. We were down to five.

Our morale had taken a hit with the hole left from Johnny and Emilio’s departure. The next day we moved our camp up to our final and highest camp at 18,000 feet. From there, it was a short ski tour to ridge that gave us our first unobstructed view of Papsura and Dharamsura peaks.

The previous few days we had been blessed with incredible weather, but it became very clear that the two peaks, the highest in this range, created a weather system all their own. The face we had come to ski was being hammered by wind, the couloir transformed into a sheet of blue ice mixed with giant wind sastrugi. It was crushing. At camp, we solemnly discussed if it was even worth crossing the Papsura glacier for a better look. In the end, we decided we had come too far—the Papsura cirque was one of the more magnificent and fearsome places I had ever seen, and we needed to, at the very least, stand at the base of the face. Guilia Monego, Figenshau, Anjin and I decided to head across the glacier while Jay remained on the ridge to capture video from afar.

We made our way through a maze of crevasses on the glacier, a route that would lead to objective hazards from hanging seracs. Figenshau, with a pregnant wife at home., felt it wasn’t worth the risk knowing we would not be summiting and headed back to the ridge to join Jay. We continued into the shadow of the peak, past debris that had slid the day before, and soon found ourselves on hollow wind slab and below even more sketchy seracs. We decided to get the hell out of there. Today was not the day to take on this route. For the duration of the expedition, I had stubbornly continued to call our objective White Sail. Finally standing at the base-seracs, wind and a terrifying face hanging over our heads- I cave. The Peak of Evil seemed much more apt. Fortunately for us, there remained a lot of good turns at lower elevations, and our high camp proved so stunning we decided to stay an extra couple of nights. While not Papsura, a variety of lines from 19k to 16,500 feet were still impressive, with the Peak of Evil’s intimidating malevolence as a backdrop.

Since we had already condemned ourselves to jail stint for using the illegal phone, we decided using it one more time couldn’t make it worse. Calling my husband Brian, we learned a very crucial piece of information: another massive, several days storm was expected to hit in three days’ time. This gave us less than 72 hours to pack up camp and navigate 15 miles and some 9000 feet down beyond the Sara Umga La pass- an area we were completely unfamiliar with. We packed up straightaway and moved our camp to the pass. The next morning, we crossed over the Sara Umga La with heavy backpacks and onerous sleds full of gear. It took a lot of effort to navigate the pass down to the glacier.

With several undulating miles across the glacier ahead, we stripped off as many layers as possible so as not to overheat in the unbearable sun. Our sleds flipped and spun in protest, yet we were all enchanted by the endless, untouched ski descents surrounding us on both sides of our 3rd and final glacier- the Tos glacier. In a few hours’ time, we came upon the first signs of the rushing Tos River (which we soon coined the Death River). The afternoon was waning but because of the threat of the storm, we decided to push on. Loaded with 80-pound packs and cumbersome gear sleds, we struggled against rotten snow on 50-degree valley slopes, while below us the raging spring waters of the Tos seemed to snap at us, willing us to fall in and never be seen again. It was a virgin and desolate territory, but we were committed; our satellite phone couldn’t find a signal in the deep gorge and, even if it could, there was no one that could help us.

The river valley continued to narrow and steepen as the river swelled. We continued to descend but the extreme heat was causing wet slides to shoot off the cliffs above us and the weight of our sleds were pulling us down toward certain death in the river. We were exhausted. We had dropped 6000 feet over 12 miles in 8 hours. Finally, we found a small, relatively safe spot that was flat enough to set up camp and lick our wounds and polish off the whiskey I’d been hauling around since our first night at basecamp. It would be our first time sleeping below 14,000 feet in two weeks.

The next day we knew we had to change our strategy. The river valley was too dangerous. We finally left the dreaded Tos river for the surrounding ridge tops and, we hoped, if we contoured at this elevation, we would eventually find our porters and missing teammates. About an hour into the climb, Anjin crossed a set of very fresh bear tracks. We decided to follow- the bear probably knowing better than we did where safe ground and trails might be. Literally within five minutes we were cresting an unseen ridge. From there we could hear voices and moments later we ran straight into Johnny Collinson and our porters, our Liaison Officer “Happy” and our lead outfitter Khem Sing. The bear, it appeared, was our savior.

With the extra manpower we were able to make it through the remaining snow and to a large open meadow where we set up another camp. We spent the night gorging ourselves fireside, sharing stories and laughing in the maniacal manner of those who have been close to the edge. By morning our tents were covered by a foot of unseasonable wet slush- and while hiking out the remaining miles through slippery mud and snow, we could easily imagine the dire straits we would have been in had we not escaped the Tos. It took another night and two days before we reached civilization. Twelve years before, I had sat on a large rock in my ski boots, waiting for Himachal Heli to pick me up for my first helicopter ride and my first glimpse of White Sail. As I walked through the valley, we passed that very same rock. I headed away from the once-enticing view, humbled and tempered by the knowledge that in order to appreciate the Good, sometimes one must endure a little Evil.

Combining a passion for exploration, mountain adventures and skiing, Hilaree Nelson has traveled to some of the most exotic mountain ranges on earth. She is an avid proponent of wild places and holds to the philosophy that these places have huge significance in the well-being of both the planet and the human psyche.

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