The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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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Jan 15, 2019

Not Your Father’s Ski Trip: Jackson Hole, WY

Inspired by images of her dad’s Jackson Hole college ski trip, the author heads north to tour the Tetons and tack a few pictures to the family scrapbook.



Kela Fetters

The author’s father launching a cliff at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort cerca 1987

This film shot of my father going big on a set of ridiculously thin, twin-tipped K2s cerca 1987 instilled in me a deep gratitude for today’s fat freeride sticks and a sense of duty to keep the family’s cliff-hucking legacy alive. Scrapbook open on his lap, my dad extolled the terrain of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which he visited “back in the good ol’ days” at Colorado State University. He described a steep wonderland besotted with cliffs that beg for reckoning. After the past several seasons of wimpy Colorado snow totals whilst Jackson churned out foot-deep day after foot-deep day, I was enthused by the resort’s inclusion on my 2018-2019 Ikon Pass. With my own graduation looming in May, I figured the time was right for some Teton escapades. Like father, like daughter.

Car outfitted with a socioeconomically oxymoronic stash of ramen and expensive ski gear, I punched seven hours northward and arrived the night after a vicious storm cycle spat 20 inches of fresh flakes onto the mountains. The next day popped bluebird and my posse navigated the foreign slopes via trial, error, and the inexhaustible freneticism of college kids on vacation. We nabbed fresh tracks on Headwall and Casper Bowl, giggled down pillows on the Crags, and pinballed around the Hobacks. A ride up in the iconic Jackson Hole tram revealed a closed Corbet’s Couloir, ostensibly requiring another wave of coverage before its seasonal unveiling. I was forced to settle for a waffle at Corbet’s Cabin instead of matching my dad’s drop into the legendary chute. With the blood of my father and powder-fueled adrenaline surging through my veins, I willed myself over the most tantalizing cliffs on offer in Rendezvous Bowl.

The iconic Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram, cerca 1987
Corbet’s Couloir: a timeless classic
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, cerca 1987

In the words of the great Cyndi Lauper: Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls, they wanna have fun.

It’s part and parcel of parenthood to agitate over the safety and well-being of one’s children. I’ve subsumed backcountry skiing into my hobbiesnew territory for this family’s lineage. On my nascent out-of-bounds outings, my father, a textbook concerned parent, grumbled about avalanches, terrain traps, and my insurmountable naïvity. Several seasons of diligent education, one avy bag, and countless snow pits later, I’ve earned his reluctant acceptance, if not enthusiasm, for my backcountry pursuits.  In the words of the great Cyndi Lauper: Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls, they wanna have fun.

Finding deep snow on Headwall
Pillows aplenty on the Crags

After two days of charging in-bounds, my psyche longed for the solitude of the skintrack. Teton Pass, Grand Teton National Park, and the resort sidecountry make the area a veritable playground for backcountry enthusiasts. It’s a family affair in Jackson; a fraternal ethos is evident in the fact that 97% of the nearly 4 million acres of Teton County are federally owned or state managed. Locals are quick to mark their territory on Teton Pass with the exclamatory hieroglyphs of first tracks, but the terrain is ample enough to find virgin snow. After giving the snowpack several days to stabilize post-squall, we found wiggle room on north-facing aspects along the Mail Cabin Creek drainage. Our final line of Day 1 was the Do-Its, a bifurcated powder track that converges and meanders twelve hundred feet back down to the road. At the hill’s zenith, minute snowflakes collapsed into liquid and rolled from our hardshells. We stood atop a wind-plumped knoll and observed the gnarl of peaks, foregrounded by Mount Taylor and Mount Glory, tumbling into a horizon of exposed rock and liquescent white. The unperturbed flank below screamed for human contact. I was all too happy to oblige the siren’s call with a quick tuck into the void. My skis made that sanctified first contact with the snow below. A crescendo of polestrokes invoked a maelstrom of flakes to drown the world in white. Hips squiggling, mind locked to the minutia, dopamine and adrenaline flooding the nervous system, and a raven on high with a vantage point a ski cinematographer would kill for. Then I burned through the mountain’s vertical; the dance with gravity ended in an expository wave of white smoke. I looked back and the sublime evidence was a single, undulating track across the otherwise unblemished face.

Cloud inversion over the Teton Valley from the top of Mt. Glory
Top of Mt. Glory

My final day in Jackson came courtesy of Exum Mountain Guides, an 80-year-old Teton-based guiding service that offers instruction and adventure on rope and skis in North America, the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas. The service traces their lineage to local legends of the 1930s like Glenn Exum, Paul Petzoldt, and Barry Corbet. They’re the granddaddy of Jackson guiding services and the resident experts on Grand Teton National Park. Despite the government shut-down and limited National Park operations, dedicated employees were plowing the entrance road and ensuring access to some of the Tetons best snow staches. My guide for the day was Brendan O’neill, who informed me of the birth of his daughter Jessie three weeks prior as we puttered to the Taggart Lake Trailhead.

If newborn Jessie was taxing this new dad’s sleep and energy reserves, his athletic, assiduous pace on the skintrack suggested otherwise. I asked Brendan about fatherhood, hoping to glean some insight into my own dad’s relationship with raising a daughter. He hopes to have Jessie on skis the second she can walk; he would be thrilled if she took to alpine or nordic racing, but amenable if she chose not to compete; he is excited to show her the world beyond the boundaries of a ski resort. As we muscled up towards Amphitheater Lake, I mused that twenty years from now, Jessie might look at pictures of her dad guiding in far-flung locales and make plans to fill and transcend those footsteps. I wonder if Brendan knows how much she will look up to him and his accomplishments.

Exum Guide and new father Brendan O’neill

  Even the evergreens projected patriarchy: the tallest trees nucleated their sapling broods with paternal solemnity, each molecule of powder glistening in the shaggy green branches. We broke through the forest onto snow-covered Amphitheater Lake, a cirque bounded by the bald, mangled granite of Teewinot to the north and Disappointment Peak to the west. On a snack pitstop, we watched another party of skiers lay down tracks in Spoon Couloir, a steep, enticing chute on Disappointment Peak’s lower haunch. Brendan seemed to sense my desire to get after a big alpine line and suggested we bootpack the Spoon must have been his newly acquired parental mind-reading superpower. After crossing the lake, we cut a haphazard zig-zag to the top of the Spoon’s apron and transitioned to the bootpack. 500 feet of vertical boot-punching propelled us up the gut and bookended the nearly 5,000 feet of vertical notched from trailhead to objective. From our humble perch on Disappointment’s flank, an electric blue sky slumbered atop a soupy mass of clouds, hallmark of a Teton Valley temperature inversion. Backgrounded by this topsy-turvy atmosphere, I skied down the hard-packed snow of the spoon’s handle into its apron of softer powder.

The Spoon Couloir visible on looker’s left of lower Disappointment Peak (center)
Bootpacking up the Spoon

Grand Teton, senior pinnacle of its range, poised with patriarchal authority over Middle Teton, Mt. Owen, and all the rest

To redeem the remainder of our hard-earned vertical, Brendan led us through a mellow glade percolated with unrumpled pillows aplenty. Matching his cuts through the pines was reminiscent of a childhood spent following my dad around the resort as I learned to trust my edges and my body. As I ripped skins back in the parking lot, giddy with alpine energy, I turned to gaze up at the Grand Teton, senior pinnacle of its range, poised with patriarchal authority over Middle Teton, Mt. Owen, and all the rest. I owe this unforgettable trip to Jackson Hole to my father for choosing to raise and inspire (and generously fund) a skier.

Thanks to Exum Mountain Guides for making this trip possible.

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