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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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