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Athletes

Apr 06, 2017

Ueli Steck Heading Back to Everest with Big Plans

The “Swiss Machine” Ueli Steck is one of the world's best alpinists alive today.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

He has already climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen once and has many other Himalayan ascents to his name. Now, after a foiled 2013 bid, he will attempt perhaps the most ambitious, Himalayan climbing expedition ever: an alpine-style enchainment of Everest and Lhotse.

News Update: Ueli Steck has died in a fall on Nuptse face while training for the Everest push. Our community mourns his loss. Read The Outdoor Journal’s obituary of this generation’s greatest alpinist here

Ueli Steck is heading back to Everest! The Swiss alpinist and two-time Piolet D’or winner is headed back for unfinished business on the world’s tallest mountain and its neighbours. In 2013, Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith hoped to make the first link-up of Everest (8,848 m) and Lhotse (8,516 m), and in the process complete the first repeat of Everest’s Hornbein Route. Those plans were derailed after their now infamous confrontation with Sherpa fixing ropes for the season’s commercial Everest expeditions. So now, four years later, Steck will try his hand once again on the Everest-Lhotse traverse.

“This Hornbein Route is a big story,” by itself, he says, even without the Lhotse link-up in the equation. “There’s lots of history there. It’s never been repeated. To be honest, even if we climb just the Hornbein and we’re too tired to get to Lhotse, I’ll be happy.” (The Hornbein Couloir—the route’s most prominent feature—“has been repeated starting in Tibet and going straight up,” Steck says, but the entire route has not seen a second ascent.)

steck-western-khumb-1His partner this go around is Tenji Sherpa, a young climber Steck calls part of “the new generation of Sherpa that really want to climb.” Tenji and Steck climbed Everest together in 2012 without supplemental oxygen, and have since then joined forces on the North Face of Cholatse (6,440 m), in the Himalaya, and on numerous objectives in the Alps, including the Eiger (3,970 m), the Jungfrau (4,158 m), and a tandem paraglide from the Jungfrau back to Interlaken. “He really enjoys climbing,” Steck says of Tenji. “It’s why we get along so well together.”

The traverse will take the two climbers on an unprecedented tour of Everest and Lhotse. The Hornbein Route, climbed in 1963 by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld during the first successful American expedition to Everest, starts by ascending to Camp 2. At that point, following the original route, Tenji and Steck will cut sharply left toward Everest’s left shoulder in a big traverse that will take them to the Hornbein Couloir. After exiting the Couloir, rejoining the West Ridge, and summiting Everest, the plan is then to “go down the South Col, make a traverse, and eventually meet up high with the normal Lhotse route.” From there, they’ll only need to climb several hundred meters upward to the summit of Lhotse, after which the pair will descend back down to Camp 2.

everest-lhotse-lineOr will they perhaps keep going? Talking with Steck via Skype, I mention that there are rumours that he might try to enchain a third mountain. “Where did you hear that?” he says, laughing. “The full ‘horseshoe’” of the cirque includes “the whole traverse, up to Nuptse,” Steck says. Full stop from the Swiss Machine. “Well?” I ask him, a hint of exasperation in my voice. “I have the permit for Nuptse,” he says with a chuckle. “So who knows? We may just do Nuptse to get acclimatised.” Despite his coyness, the unspoken is abundantly clear: If he and Tenji are feeling strong and have a weather window, the possibility exists that they’ll push on to Nuptse (7,861 m) after Lhotse.

The Everest-Lhotse traverse will be feat of endurance and commitment unrivaled in the world of high-altitude alpinism. “If you climb just Everest, it’s like running a marathon,” Stecks says. “But now we’ll be trying an ultramarathon.”  

The traverse doesn’t entail the same degree of risk as many of Steck’s more technically difficult ascents, but he’s perfectly happy about that.  “I’ve reached a point in my climbing where I realized if I keep moving in that direction”—of speed soloing things like the Eiger North Face—“I’ll kill myself,” Steck says.  Rather, the expedition will require the entire skillset that he has honed over a 20-year career.

everest-gipfel-2012-8

Tenji and Steck intend to move quickly, but not too quickly. While he feels confident they could climb from Camp 2 to Everest’s summit in a single-day push, he expects to spend at least one night bivvying on the Hornbein Route: “We have to be careful. We need to have energy to get up Lhotse. It doesn’t make sense to do one push to the Everest summit and then be too tired for Lhotse.”

They’ll also travel with frighteningly few supplies. They’ll have a sleeping bag weighing around 400 grams, but no tent. “Rest for a couple hours, and then keep moving,” Steck explains—that’s the name of the game.

Whether or not he and Tenji Sherpa are successful remains to be seen for at least another month. After flying out of Switzerland on April 8, Steck will meet up with Tenji and the two will make their way to the mountains. Then the acclimatisation and waiting games begin.

ueli_steck17EN0049

Both climbers have already been preparing for months—Steck even joined Tenji in the Khumbu in February, where they did a bunch of altitude training, logging 240 kilometers and 16,000 vertical meters in just 13 days—but they will continue training their bodies over the coming weeks, trying to reach peak fitness around May 20. Prior to mid-May the weather is usually too cold to attempt Everest. But after that, weather permitting, it’s open season.

Check back with The Outdoor Journal for updates on Ueli and Tenji’s expedition as well as other news from the 2017 Everest season!

For a talk with Ueli after he climbed 82 four-thousanders, alpine style, spread over Italy, Switzerland and France in 62 days, head here.

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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