This account of the historic first descent is available in full, with additional images, in the 2019 Photo Annual now on newsstands.
Photography by Nick Kalisz and Dutch Simpson | Words and Interviews by David Page
ON THE AFTERNOON of September 30, 2018, with the sun shining and the wind just beginning to rise, Hilaree Nelson, 45, and Jim Morrison, 43, dropped their packs and skis and sat down in the deep, sugary snow atop the 27,940-foot summit of Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain on the planet. It had been 12 hours and 4,140 vertical feet of climbing since they'd left Camp 3—12 hours of slow, cold, focused, hypoxic suffering; kicking and slipping in breakable crust; crawling on all fours; wallowing in waist-deep snow; and, finally, scrambling up a gnarly section of rocky cliff near the summit.
About 1,400 feet below the summit, they caved to their fundamental need for supplemental oxygen, despite Nelson's deep phobia of the mask and their shared desire for a clean alpine style. But in the literal shadow of Everest, it helped. "I started looking around and taking in where we were," Morrison recently told me over the phone from Nelson's house in Telluride. "It was shockingly beautiful. I did not take for granted the fact that I was right next to the tallest mountain in the world, climbing the fourth tallest, and that we were the only ones in the entire Western Cwm (the valley between Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse)."
Eventually they came to the snow-filled choke and knew for the first time—finally—that Lhotse was indeed skiable. Known as the "Dream Line," the Lhotse Couloir spills off the summit at steeper than 60 degrees, and goes for 1,500 vertical feet before flushing out onto the Lhotse Face.
ON THE SUMMIT, they struggled out of their heavy down suits, traded mittens for gloves, buckled their boots, shouldered packs, and stepped into their skis, about to become the first people to ski one of the most coveted lines in the Himalayas. It was the culmination of at least two decades of collective dreaming, planning, training, waiting, brute suffering, teamwork, competition, card-play, tragedy, doubt, and, at certain key moments along the way, extraordinary, almost impossible luck.
Other highly accomplished ski mountaineers had tried the Lhotse Couloir without success, most recently Kris Erickson and Jamie Laidlaw in the spring of 2011. For Laidlaw, it was his second attempt; he was turned around by either oxygen tank issues or altitude sickness. When the following year, in 2012, Nelson became the first woman to climb both Everest and Lhotse in under 24 hours, she'd brought her skis, but there was no snow. "Going up Lhotse, being in a couloir, I was like, 'Are you fricking kidding me?' If this had snow it would be the most insane high-altitude ski descent," she told me. "And pretty much from then on I've been obsessed."
Nelson climbed her first 8,000-meter peak, Cho Oyu, in 2005. Then she climbed Gasherbrum II in 2008; skied Denali in 2011; Everest and Lhotse on shitty rock in 2012; Makalu in 2015—where she met Morrison, a steep-skiing pioneer from the Sierra Nevada—then Denali again and Papsura. "All of that, in my mind, was training to go back and ski Lhotse Couloir," she said.
ON AUGUST 30, they flew from San Francisco to Chengdu, China, having no idea what conditions might be like on Lhotse. On the hop over to Kathmandu, out the right side of the plane, they got their first glimpse. "We could see the south side of Everest and how much snow there was at the South Col," Morrison said. "We couldn't see the couloir or the face, but we went from having no knowledge to, 'Oh, we're going to do this. There's snow.'"
Then all they had to do was get themselves and a month's worth of gear and food out of Kathmandu and onto the mountain during the monsoons, pioneer a new off-season route through the Khumbu Icefall, avoid crevasses and falling seracs and avalanches and frozen dead bodies still attached to fixed ropes, and then kick their way up variable and exposed conditions with diminishing oxygen, all before the jet stream started pushing bad weather toward them at the end of the month. It was autumn, and there was no one else up there if anything went wrong. Their photographers, Nick Kalisz and Dutch Simpson, had never been above 20,000 feet. Palden Namgye Sherpa, their head Sherpa, had been pushing back against what he thought was an unrealistic pace. At any point, any of a long list of possible mishaps or occurrences could have ended the whole effort.
INSTEAD, THEY’D SHOT THE MOON, and here they were: on the summit, at the apex of a grand ski tour, ready to drop into a line they now knew was eminently skiable. "It's totally reinvigorating when you get to the top," said Nelson. "You're so exhausted on the way up. You're playing mind games: You're never going to get there. And then you do and it's like you get a clean slate. You get to start all over. Especially putting skis on, it's like, 'Ah, this is my medium.'"
WHAT FOLLOWS ARE reflections from Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison from their historic expedition.
From the Everest Base Camp, the team traversed the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. During peak climbing season in the spring, Camp 2 is often teeming with hundreds of people. But for this crew, they were the only ones present in the entire basin, known as the Western Cwm.
"Camp 2 is just this lateral moraine next to the glacier. It's hard to tell how non-flat it is. It's constantly moving. Each tent platform was chiseled out of rock and ice." —Jim Morrison
"We carried all our own gear, tents, and stoves. It was snowing a little and visibility got really bad, basically zero, to the point where the Sherpa and the icefall doctor wanted to turn around. Instead of us going back down to Camp 1, we decided to wait it out. We set up one single-wall, super-light tent and all four of us got in and started playing Hearts." —Jim Morrison
"I was the only one who'd been in the Western Cwm [aside from five Sherpa], and the tent was not where I wanted it to be, right under the 7,000-foot face of Nuptse." —Hilaree Nelson
"We're sitting there playing Hearts, with avalanches roaring down like 747s. You can't see anything outside. And I'm shooting the moon. 'Guys,' I say, 'just play your cards.' I was more nervous about losing the mojo of shooting the moon. Needless to say, I did shoot the moon. And they were so pissed that we broke camp, roped up, and forged ahead—in the wrong direction. Two days later, the whole spot got taken out by a massive avalanche." —Jim Morrison
To ski from the top of Lhotse, the team would first drop into the Lhotse Couloir, which is tucked just looker’s left from the summit, and then descend the Lhotse Face, a 4,640-vertical-foot wall. The above photo shows Camp 3, located on the face at 23,800 feet.
"As a skier and a climber, you get to where you're like, 'I don't want to walk down this mountain.' I've climbed a lot of mountains that I've had to walk down. And it's pretty awful. Going downhill is by far the most physically demanding part of all of it. It's hard, and, from our perspective, kinda crazy. Ideally, you should ski that shit." —Jim Morrison
Nelson and Morrison decided to not use Camp 4, the highest camp on the Lhotse route, in order to go light and fast. This meant that from the summit, their packs weighed only 20-25 pounds. In the 'death zone' above 26,247 feet, every gram counted.
"We put on oxygen and I freaked out. Everything closed in and went dark. I had a claustrophobic panic attack. You get a lot warmer. I went from shivering to so hot I had to take clothes off. I was ripping the mask off. It took me 15 minutes to get through the freak-out. The trailblazing didn't get easier. It was this super breakable, weird surface you couldn't get points in [the team used crampons the entire climb]. You were slipping and on all fours. I wasn't sure we were going to make the summit. We still couldn't see the choke or the summit pyramid and those were the two big question marks as to whether we were going to have to down-climb or rappel or do some crazy finagling to get through. We didn't know if they were covered enough to ski." —Hilaree Nelson
"Once we put oxygen on, it took us about two hours to summit. We were so depleted and so crushed from climbing to Camp 3 without oxygen. It wasn't like we were immediately cured and back to just charging. But it helped. It was shockingly beautiful. I think the combo of warming up and what happens when you're in the light, I started looking around and taking in where we were." —Jim Morrison
"Getting skis on, getting gear switched over, is a huge undertaking. But then there's that thing of being a skier, being a ski mountaineer your whole life and knowing that once you get your skis on everything's going to change. I got this. We're going to go skiing… I felt like I was at the top of the ski lift and I'm just going to sit down here and buckle my ski boots and then stand up and put my skis on." —Jim Morrison
"We came through the choke and we were looking at each other and we were afraid to say it. Holy shit, did that just happen? I was totally blown away. It was 100 percent a ski line. The conditions were pretty abysmal, but nothing worse than a really bad day at Telluride. Totally manageable." —Hilaree Nelson
"I have two boys, 9 and 11. My ex-husband and I have 50/50 custody. Generally, we're week on/week off. This is the longest trip I've done in three years. He takes care of them when I'm gone. We find a way to finagle time afterward so he can go on a trip. He has helpful parents and I have helpful parents. It works out. I talked to them two to three times each week until our whole communications system imploded right around the third week of the trip." —Hilaree Nelson
"My wife and kids were killed in 2011 in an airplane crash. They were 5 and 6, a boy and girl. My whole life went from amazing to over in an instant. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how to stay alive. It's still something I live with every day. But I met Hilaree three years ago climbing Makalu. I started dating her six months later and now I've got her kids to try to force cereal down and make eggs for." —Jim Morrison
"There are two windows every year for 8,000-meter peaks: the last part of May and the end of September. There's a concern that one year that window might shift one way or another because of changes in climate. It doesn't seem like a stretch. You spend all this time and money and effort to go put yourself in a position to be acclimatized and ready to run up to the summit when the wind comes down on one day. At some point, there's a likelihood that the window won't open." —Jim Morrison
"We snuck in there. It's funny how you belabor certain things—not moving fast enough, this or that is going wrong. But looking back, it all happened exactly the way it needed to happen." —Hilaree Nelson
This account of the historic first decent is available in full, with additional images, in the 2019 Photo Annual now on newsstands.
The North Face, Clif Bar, and MSR sponsored this expedition.