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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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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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