Words: Heather Hansman
Hilaree O'Neill is home in Telluride after ten weeks on the road and she sounds worn down. She's been in Nepal on an expedition to Mount Everest during arguably one of the mountain's most brutal seasons ever. While she was there, four climbers died on the mountains, the snowpack was sketchy to non-existent, and the weather rarely lifted. Her team eventually summited during one of the short weather windows, but conditions were so bad that they pulled the plug on skiing. "I wish I could be telling you some awesome ski story, but that's not really how ski mountaineering works," she says.
O'Neill is one of the most accomplished female American ski mountaineers ever. She's posted first descents from Lebanon to Baffin Island, but she'd never been to Everest. "It's a place I've heard about for my entire life," she says. "It was pretty easy to want to go."
She and six other The North Face athletes went to the Khumbu Valley to climb Everest and to attempt a ski descent on a trip spearheaded by mountaineer Conrad Anker. Anker and photographer Cory Richards wanted to tackle the rarely climbed West Ridge. O'Neill and Kris Erickson, who skied part of the Lhotse face last year, planned to ski the southeast ridge of Everest and the Lhotse face, which is directly to the south and connected to Everest by the South Col. If conditions were right, climber Sam Elias would ski with them.
"When we first got up above the icefall, the Lhotse face looked fabulous," O'Neill says. "That night, the jet stream dropped down and it blew for two days. It never snowed again."
By the time the jet steam lifted, the Lhotse face was blue ice and rock. There was significantly less snow than most years; rockfall danger was high; and a huge avalanche came down from Nuptse, underscoring the instability of the snowpack. They decided to abort the ski portion of the expedition.
"I was totally bummed at first," O'Neill says. "But to be honest, the decision was so obvious."
O'Neill says skiing Everest from the top isn't straightforward, because there's no obvious line. It was first skied in 2000, by Slovenian Davorin Karnicar, who was also the first person to ski the seven summits. Since then, successful ski descents have been scarce. In 2006, American Kit DesLauriers skied it via the southeast route that O'Neill and Erickson were planning to descend. Last winter, Chris Davenport and Neal Beidleman summited Everest and also skied the Lhotse face. "At least one team tries to ski it every year," O'Neill says.
This season they didn't even get a chance to try. Once they decided not to ski, they brought their ski gear down from Camp Two—the only skiing they did on the trip—and waited for the weather to pass so they could attempt to climb again.
When they finally summited Everest, it was brutal and frustrating. "It was worse than I imagined," O'Neill says. It was 50 below on the summit, and she couldn't get her oxygen mask to work correctly. Because the good weather windows were limited, big teams made summit pushes the same day causing backups on the route and making for what O'Neill calls unsafe climbing conditions. It was emotionally tough too; the grim realities of the dangers of Everest were obvious and painful. Four people died on the southeast ridge this season and their bodies were still on the mountain. "The Korean guy, you had to unclip your ascenders to climb around him," she says. "I've seen bodies on other mountains before, but I wasn't expecting it to be right in your face and that gnarly," she says.
So what happens after you get shut down on the biggest mountain there is? Do you go back for more or do you push on to something else? O'Neill says she isn't sure. She has other mountains in her sights, but she's felt the appeal of Everest now, and she knows why people go back. "I'm a sucker for punishment," she says. "The problem with the skiing aspects is that you never know, and there are so many other mountains and peaks."