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Adventure Travel

Jan 27, 2017

Hilaree Nelson: The Peaks of Good and Evil

In 2013, Hilaree (O'Neill) Nelson and an all-star cast set forth on a nearly impossible expedition. Through unbelievable conditions and ludicrous laws, this was an adventure threatened from the start.

WRITTEN BY

Hilaree O'Neill

On earlier trips to Himachal Pradesh’s glaciers, I had seen a mountain looming distantly and ominously. A friend told me it was called White Sail, and for more than a decade, I dreamt of mounting an expedition to climb and ski this magnificent mountain. Only later did I find out the local name for the peak and its twin: Dharamsura and Papsura, or the “Peaks of Good and Evil.” In the spring of 2013, my dream became a reality. The North Face agreed to sponsor the expedition to White Sail and we assembled a team of experienced athletes and friends, namely Giulia Monego, an Italian skier and climber from the Dolomites, Emilio Previtali, an Italian telemarketer, Johnny Collinson, a young and ambitious skier from Salt Lake City, Chris Figenshau, an accomplished photographer, mountaineer and skier, as well as two filmmakers associated with Sherpa Cinemas, Anjin Herndon and Jay Trusler.

Maps of the Indian Himalaya are very difficult to come by for reasons of “national security,

With the team in place and the date for the trip set for the month of March 2013, it was time to start planning in earnest. Detailed maps of the Indian Himalaya are very difficult to come by for reasons of “national security,” so I was left to pour over Google Earth, trying to figure out the best route for such a remote objective. At 21,186 and 21,252 feet respectively, White Sail and Papsura towered over their neighbours. I had only a single photograph of White Sail and as I matched the photo with the images on the screen, it appeared that the photo undeniably matched with the taller of the twins, Papsura.

Hilaree O'Neill and Giulia Monego share a moment at advanced base camp. Temperatures here uctuated between 0 and 50+ Farenheit.
Hilaree O’Neill and Giulia Monego share a moment at advanced base camp. Temperatures here fluctuated between 0 and 50+ Fahrenheit. Photo © Chris Figenshau

I also learned that these two striking peaks are often confused. In Lahaul, the Peaks of Good and Evil are said to vary in height according to how good and evil prevail in the world. Angel or demon, the objective was still the same: to climb a new route on Papsura for a first-ever ski descent of the 2,000-foot couloir splitting the face.

The logistics were daunting. We had to go in March so as to have enough snow on the glacier and the peak for skiing but those same conditions made the normal summer approach to the Papsura cirque impossible. In the end, we opted to use a helicopter to access our base camp on the Chhotra glacier, just north-west of Papsura and Dharamsura. Himachal Heli, operating out of Manali, which is a popular tourist destination in the northeast region of India, was the obvious choice to help us with our expedition. Their experience flying in this region over the past 20 years proved invaluable—but there was a catch. They would fly us in but, because their operating season ended shortly after our drop off date, they would not be able to fly us out.

Hiaree O'Neill drops into perfect powder near 19,000 feet on an unknown flank high above the Tos Glacier.
Hilaree O’Neill drops into perfect powder near 19,000 feet on an unknown flank high above the Tos Glacier. Photo © Chris Figenshau

Still, in the throes of winter, there is no exit from the Chhotra Glacier so we knew we’d have to complete a traverse, one that had never been done in winter. Travelling north-to-south, we would cover roughly 40 high-altitude miles across three different glaciers. This meant foregoing the ease of a single base camp for a minimum of six different camps during the 12-day traverse. In the middle of this traverse was our objective: the 21,252-foot Papsura, or Peak of Evil. Finally, on March 12, 2013, I found myself in one of Himachal Heli’s choppers, flying over the same towering mountains where I had gone on my very first expedition, as a young woman some 14 years earlier. Now, with more than 30 expeditions under my belt, it felt like another lifetime. The sensation was overwhelming.

There is nothing gentle or subtle about the place.

The helicopter flight took about half an hour but it seemed like an eternity, putting an exclamation point on how remote we really were. In addition, our base camp elevation was over 14,000 feet, significantly increasing the chances of altitude sickness. This far from civilization, the radio I carried was useless—once the helicopter left us to return to Manali, communication with it would be impossible. We were simply too far away.

My experience with the Indian Himalayas is that there is nothing gentle or subtle about the place; the colors, the noise, the mountains, and the weather are all in your face all the time. This time was no different. Overnight, 20cm of new snow had fallen and the storm was still raging. By midday, we could hear huge avalanches rumbling down the steep cliff faces on the east side of the valley, unnervingly close. By nightfall, there was a meter of wet snow burying what now felt like a very small and exposed camp. After a day hunkered in our tents, we stepped out into the storm simply to stretch our limbs. The sun was setting.

Emilio Previtali tries to think about something else as snow accumulates outside his tent at 14,000 feet.
Emilio Previtali tries to think about something else as snow accumulates outside his tent at 14,000 feet. Photo © Chris Figenshau

Right then and there, a massive rumbling roared across the shadows of the approaching night. We could see just enough to know an avalanche was headed straight for us and we had nowhere to go. We all turned our backs as a blast of blinding wind hit us but the feared wall of snow never came, and as the wind died and the air cleared, we could make out a tail of debris 200 meters in front of our camp. In stunned silence, Chris handed me a flask of whiskey and I took a big swig before crawling into my tent for a sleepless night.

The next morning we woke to calm blue skies and a pristine world of white. We could see that the avalanche had been much bigger than any of us imagined but as it hit the valley floor, the snow was diverted by a massive berm that we couldn’t detect the night before. Giulia had chosen our basecamp very well.

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Hilaree O’Neill, Guilia Monego, and Emilio Previtali work their way up towards the base of Papsura. Hauling their loads in sledges, the team pushes toward the 17,000-foot mark. Photo © Chris Figenshau

Either we attempted the unknown descent through the Sara Umga La Pass with the stable-but-sick Johnny, or we called in the helicopter for a rescue

Despite needing more time to acclimatize, we all eagerly agreed to move camp up the valley, where the glacier widened and offered more protection from the steep, snow-loaded peaks on either side of our initial location. Over the next two days, we moved our camp steadily towards the Sara Umga La Pass at 16,500 ft. This was our most crucial camp because it was the gateway to our exit out the Tos glacier and civilisation. But, as we neared the pass, I noticed that Johnny, normally very strong and leading the pack, was trailing far behind the group. I dropped my load of gear and skied down to him. As I reached Johnny, the look on his face told me things were not so good. His breaths were shallow and wheezing and his lungs bubbling, all telltale signs of pulmonary edema.

The condition, an accumulation of liquid in the lungs, is common to high altitude mountaineering and can cause fatigue, insomnia and even respiratory failure. The only cure is to descend but our options were limited: either we attempted the unknown descent through the Sara Umga La Pass with the stable-but-sick Johnny, or we called in the helicopter for a rescue—the only safe option. But we were out of range for radio communication. There was, however, one emergency option.

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In 1941, Lieutenant Colonel James Owen Merion Roberts, one of the greatest Himalayan mountaineers of the 20th century, made the first ascent of the White Sail. Photo © Chris Figenshau

There are a lot of seemingly irrational laws in India. One of them makes satellite phones, in a similar fashion to explosives or firearms, so illegal that they are not even allowed in the country. 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.

One of the more magnificent and fearsome places I had ever seen

With Johnny’s condition critical, we found ourselves with no choice but to use our smuggled satellite phone. Afraid to call for help within India, we transmitted our call for a helicopter evacuation through a friend in Italy. 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.

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.

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Dharamsura is located on the border of the districts of Lahaul and Spiti and Kullu. Photo © Chris Figenshau

The next morning we made our way through the maze of crevasses leading to Papsura, a route that led us under the objective hazards of hanging seracs – huge blocks of unstable ice that could fall at any moment. Chris, with a pregnant wife at home, felt it wasn’t worth it and headed back to join Jay on the ridge. Anjin, Giulia and I continued into the shadow of the peak and past the debris that had slid from the face the day before. Tied together, a hundred feet below the bergschrund and at the bottom of a 2,000-foot face of ice, snow and rock, we decided to get the hell out of there. the locals knew what they were talking about—the Peak of Evil was a far more apt name than White Sail.

Facing those immense obstacles, it would’ve been suicidal to go farther. Still, we knew the expedition was far from over. We’d been going uphill for days and felt that it was time to start having some fun. We found a variety of amazing ski descents between 19,000 and 16,500 feet where the snow was velvety powder. We remained at our high camp a few more nights and soaked up the sun and the views.

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Part of the Himalayan chain near the Pir Panjal mountain range, the glaciers on the east flank of Dharamsura flow into the Bara-Shigri glacier. Photo © Chris Figenshau

Eventually, it was time to pack up and finish the last leg of our adventure. We knew a storm was approaching and that the route ahead of us was largely unknown. On the morning of March 22, ten days after our journey began, it was time to embark on the traverse that would lead us back to civilization.

we clung to the sides of the valley with our skis.

It began with a 2,000-foot descent from the Sara Umga La Pass, faltering through breakable crust with sledges of gear strapped between us. From there, we landed on the Tos Glacier and, for 10 miles, we followed the undulating ice in sweltering heat, stripped down to our long underwear. Our sledges did not like the terrain and we struggled as they flipped and spun in protest. The endless, untouched ski descents surrounding us were the only things distracting us from our misery. By mid-afternoon, we came upon the first signs of the rushing Tos river as the glacier came to an end and the valley finally began to descend. naively, we decided to push on.

The wide valley narrowed and steepened as the river swelled, a shooting gallery of wet slides spanning the Tos’ boiling waters. The weight of our sledges threatened to topple us over the precarious incline and towards certain death below. Eventually, we had to shoulder the monstrous sledges as we clung to the sides of the valley with our skis.

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A beautiful day to shred the (relatively) untouched powder. Photo © Chris Figenshau

A few more hours and we were exhausted; we had dropped 6,000 feet over 12 miles, all in 8 hours. We found a small, relatively safe spot to set up camp and lick our wounds—and polish off the litre of whiskey we’d been hauling around, our previous high altitude headaches preventing us from consuming it earlier. It would be our first time sleeping below 14,000 feet in nearly two weeks.

The next day, after a tense discussion of whether to continue along the river or struggle up the valley walls, we left the dreaded Tos for the surrounding ridge tops — and, we hoped, the teammates and porters who had stuck to the ridgeline.

About an hour into the climb, Anjin crossed a set of very fresh bear tracks. Instead of turning tail and heading the other direction, we decided to follow the bear. It probably had a lot better idea of where it was going than we did. Within five minutes we were cresting an obscured ridge, where we immediately ran into Johnny and Jay, local guide and guru Khem Sing, a group of 10 porters, and Happy, our Liaison Officer from the Indian Mountaineering Federation, or IMF. The bear, it seemed, knew exactly where he was going.

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This particular motley crew of climbers, skiers and mountaineers were all very experienced in the backcountry. Photo © Chris Figenshau

I have never been so willing to hand off my pack nor so relieved to see a familiar face. The porters must have thought we were a little insane as we jumped for joy and, after 48 hours in the terror of the Tos Valley, perhaps they were right.

The weather held for our final night as we gorged on an amazing dinner next to the raging campfire, sharing stories and laughing in the maniacal way that comes from having been so close to the edge. By morning our tents were once again covered under a foot of unseasonable wet slush, and while hiking through the slippery mud and snow in our ski boots was less than ideal, imagining the dire straights we would be in had we not escaped the Tos banished any misery.

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Why do we climb peaks? Because they’re there! Photo © Chris Figenshau

It took another night and two days before we reached running water and electric lights, reflective surfaces and clean clothes. I walked right past the point where this adventure had started, 14 years ago, when I’d first looked at the peaks and dreamt of climbing them. In the years spanning my different voyages into the heart of the Indian Himalaya, I’ve learned that in order to appreciate the good, one has to endure a little evil.

Feature Image: Giulia Monego walks an unknown ridge over the Tos Glacier at 18,500 feet.
All Images © Chris Figenshau

This story was a Feature in The Outdoor Journal Winter 2013 print edition.

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Travel

Nov 05, 2019

A Flotilla Cruise Through The Inside Passage: From Alaska to BC.

With radios coordinated and quiet water ahead, adventure, whales, porpoises, sea otters, eagles, stunning channels and vista await.

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Shortly after 9 AM, the mist over Ketchikan Marina lifted. The crews of our six motor launches fired the twin diesel engines, loosened mooring lines and coordinated radios as anticipation escalated. One by one the Grand Banks cruisers eased out of the close quarters and bustle of the working fishing port and rallied in the main channel. Our flotilla passed two 10-story cruise ships as we motored southeast. Other maritime facilities, including the Coast Guard station, appeared to port. And then, as though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind. We were on our way!

We were offered the chance to join long-time sailing friends, Dave and Janet, for a 10-day, 450-mile voyage through the Inside Passage from Southeast Alaska into British Columbia. Although we had sailed in Desolation and Puget Sounds, motor cruising through the stunning fjords, inlets and channels of the coastal Northwest promised an exciting new adventure. Coupled with the rich marine life of pristine waters, and the opportunity to visit a Kitasloo community, a life-changing voyage unfolded.

As though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind.

With Dave as captain, the four of us crewed Thea, one of six boats forming a flotilla led by NW Explorations. (NWE) She was moored among boats of all descriptions. Large commercial fishing operations were mixed with day charters, amid all the sights, sounds and smells of an active marina. We took possession of our new home with a launch due the next morning. Berths secured, personal gear stored and provisions on board for the first days, we bedded down for an anxious night. Compatriots hailed from Florida, Arkansas, Wyoming, California, Washington and Oregon.

Thea in Ketchikan Marina. Photo by Jack Billings.

Thea, a Grand Banks classic yacht, was well-equipped for cruising wilderness waters. Designed like a 46-foot trawler, she carried an impressive array of navigational equipment, including GPS guided autopilot, lap-top displayed depth and distance charts and radar. Featuring twin-engine diesel motors, she was most efficient at about 8 knots. There were three berths, two heads, a well-appointed galley with fridge and freezer, an ice maker and microwave, washer and dryer, with a drop-leaf teak table in the adjacent salon. All-in-all, quite commodious accommodations.

“turn where we turn, not when we turn…”

Affable veteran guide Brian Pemberton captained the lead boat Deception (Mother Goose). He was assisted by Jordan Roderick, an encyclopedia of First Nation and European history, marine mammals, other creatures and seabirds. Jordan was aided by Chris Fairbanks, also a marine biologist. Andy Novak, our mechanic and general factotum, rounded out Deception’s crew.

Deception in the van. Photo by Jack Billings

With Deception leading the way, and other flotilla members spreading out behind her, our course was set: Foggy Bay, 38 nautical miles away. Salt spray, the call of seabirds, rugged forest coastlines scalloped by tides and winds heralded entry into the Inside Passage. When a change in course was needed, we received the admonition: “turn where we turn and not when we turn”.

Flotilla rafted at Foggy Bay. Photo by NW Explorations.

By midafternoon we manoeuvred into Foggy Bay, located at the end of a small inlet, a charming pocket anchorage no more than 1000 feet across. Despite its name, sunny skies welcomed us. To arrange for an inter-boat gathering and accommodate the tight mooring, we rafted the six boats side by side. Three anchors and three stern lines kept us in formation. After assembling for hors d’oeuvres in Deception’s salon, sea stories began. Roland Barth’s Cruising Rules applied to food and tales.

Harbor Master, Prince Rupert. Photo by NW Explorations.

Good weather prevailed the next morning out of Foggy Bay, in route to Prince Rupert, the largest city in the northern part of British Columbia. Several bald eagles monitored our entry into Cow Bay Marina.

Our itinerary called for a layover day, to allow provisioning for as many as seven days. The refrigerator had unaccountably shrunk, so we pressed two on-board coolers into service. With the help of block ice and a steady stream of cubes from the icemaker, food stayed fresh for the remainder of the trip.

Returning to Thea the second afternoon, we encountered a boat hand with three large bags of shrimp. He pointed out their boat, docked on the next boardwalk. The captain sold us enough for three meals.

Because Prince Rupert has both rail and highway access to the interior of British Columbia, it is an important shipping hub. The marina is the largest between Ketchikan and Vancouver Island and provides shore power, potable water, Internet access, a restaurant/pub and a large grocery store within walking distance. Its laid-back pace fit our needs exactly.

The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast indelible memories.

Rested and fully provisioned, we set our course over the next four days for passage to Newcomb Harbour, then to Patterson Inlet, Bishop Bay and on to Aaltanhash Inlet, a total of about 185 nautical miles. Our itinerary brought us down the narrow Petrel Channel and then across various sounds and reaches. We saw virtually no one except when we crossed the shipping lane at Granville Channel and a few boats moored at Bishop Bay.

The narrow passages into these inlets are quite protected, with tide changes, but little surge. Reflections along the water line strike vivid angles on the glassy surface.

Reflections at Patterson Inlet. Photo by Jack Billings.

Early mornings in these anchorages were magical. Overcast skies meant light emerged slowly, coupled with the first cries of sea birds, and the salmons’ leaps and jumps as they pursued their spawning destiny. Hot coffee cups warmed our hands each morning as we sat on Thea’s bow; remote did not mean sacrifice. Fishing was irresistible and often rewarding.

One sunrise a tall, black timber wolf scampered out dense forest onto a low tidal beach, nose down looking for treats then up again skyward. We held our breath, hoping for more, as it disappeared a moment into large reeds. Then out again, it retraced its path into the trees. This rare sighting happened in a flash before we had time to nab the camera. Within two minutes, silence settled in again, we caught our breath, and the usual world was far away.

Soon after leaving Patterson Inlet we crossed through Otter Passage and into Squally Channel. Our flotilla came upon a pod of feeding humpback whales. We slowed to idle and spread out, maintaining a respectful distance. The whales were fishing by concussing, slamming either their pectoral fins or massive tails on the surface, stunning the small fry below. The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast an indelible memory.

Then, without warning, two whales seemingly the size of Thea surfaced next to us, almost within reach.

Humpback at Squally Channel. Photo by Jack Billings

Apparently unconcerned about our proximity, with the sweep of a fluke, they are gone.

Humpback fluke with resident barnacles. Photo by Jack Billings

Out from our snug mooring at Aaltanhash Inlet, we set our course down the Princess Royal Channel toward our rendezvous with the Kitasloo village of Klemtu. Deception reported a small school of Dall’s porpoises feeding along the port side. As Thea came forward, several swam over to investigate.  Incredibly, they fell in with our bow, matching our speed of about 9 knots, crossing from one side to the other. Then, in a flash, they lost interest and were gone.

Shortly beyond, Klemtu came in view on the western hillside. We passed the community and made anchor in a small bay called Clothes Cove. We took the dinghies back to the village where we were given a tour of their magnificent Long House by Shane, a hereditary chief. Ceremonial uses were heralded by the lightly acrid smoke in the air. Built with massive cedar beams, its spectacular carved lintels at each end represent the four families of this Kitasloo village: eagle, raven, killer whale and wolf.

Long House at Klemtu. Photo by Jack Billings.

Since at least the retreat of the last ice age, indigenous peoples have lived, fished and hunted in the stunning, rich waters and islands of what is now southeast Alaska and the Pacific coast of British Columbia. The arrival in mid-1700s of Spanish, English, and Russian explorers brought deadly disease, slavery, and overt debasement of their cultures. The Canadian government later established residential schools, for which students were forcibly removed from their families and beaten if they spoke their native languages. Today Klemtu’s 450 residents struggle to regain lost cultural sovereignty. With a determination steeled by centuries of survival in an often-harsh environment, the people of the village persevere.

By the next morning, several boats were running low on provisions and fuel, so our destination changed to Shearwater, about 38 miles distant. Here we found the only large boat haul-out facility in a wide area. Its pub restaurant brought a break from on-board meal preparation and clean up. Fussy kingfishers patrolled the marina. After dark, a full moon, bright enough to walk by, cast mirrored reflections on the water and forest silhouettes against the horizon.

Full moon at Shearwater. Photo by NW Explorations

Not long after we departed Shearwater, a large raft of sea otters appeared. Mothers sometimes wrapped their young in floating kelp beds, leaving them on the surface while they dove for food. Sea otters were hunted almost to extinction during decades of high demand for their pelts. While their numbers have rebounded across two-thirds of their historic range, they have not returned to their earlier abundance.

Raft of Sea Otters. Photo by NW Explorations

As we prepared to leave Shearwater, the Deception crew advised that weather was building ahead of us, over Queen Charlotte Sound, to our southwest. Our course would take us down the Fitz-Hugh Sound, still protected by an outer island, but then out into the open Sound, directly off the Pacific. The likely rough seas prompted a change in plan, to turn southeast into Queen Charlotte Strait, and Blunden Harbour, 83 miles and 10 hours away.

As we entered the Sound, winds held steady at 20 knots, Thea bounced and tossed in four-foot swells and scattered squalls. Though the boat was well-designed for rougher seas, the open passage required our constant attention. In gathering darkness, the flotilla eased out of the strait and into the anchorage. After a quick meal, we called it a day and thanked the star-filled sky.

The next morning brought our last day on the water. Our destination, Port McNeill, British Columbia, was now nearby after yesterday’s long run. We left Thea, and Dave and Janet, as three new passengers were set to embark on the next 10 days down to Bellingham, Washington.

Returning home, we were refreshed by memories of marine life seen up close in native surroundings, stunning fjords cut into the pristine forest and First Nation resilience and renewal. Great fellowship, discoveries every day, gourmet meals and more. It was truly a trip of a lifetime.

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