The fabric was pressing against my face as I vainly tried to stop the tent from tearing away from the side of the mountain. My partner Andy was desperately trying to get the stove lit in the front of the tent in order to start the crucial task of melting water. It was 3 a.m. on September 30th and we were at 7,300m on Mount Manaslu in Nepal, the 8th highest mountain in the World. The only thing that was holding the tent down were the two sets of Volkl Nanuq skis that we had carried all the way from Base Camp, some two and a half vertical kilometres below.
The seed of the idea was sown back in 2006 when I (Kenton Cool) became the first Brit to ski an 8,000m peak (Cho Oyu). I was alone and the stress of skiing solo meant that any enjoyment was eclipsed by my own fear. Now four years later I was back, poised to summit my 3rd 8,000m peak and this time not only armed with Volkl's latest weapons but a partner and all round hero Andy Eggleston (who also happens to be my accountant!).
The adventure started with a 7-day trek from the road head through lush jungle and pouring rain. For 10 hours a day we were ankle deep in mud with the local children running and laughing after the, "silly white men with their funny sticks on their backs". Finally, after a ball busting 900m super steep climb with big loads we arrived at Base Camp, some 4,600m above sea level. That's higher than the Matterhorn above Zermatt.
Our research had shown that the 'normal' route should provide us with some good skiing from as little as 30m shy of the true summit. Certainly early recces on the mountain gave the impression that, apart from a few sections in the icefall, almost all the mountain was going to be ski-able.
After 17 Himalayan expeditions I understand that any expedition requires a huge amount of luck and the weather gods need to be on your side. Here, almost every morning the ever positive Andy would get excited by yet more fresh snow, there was talk of the finest powder run ever, but deep down I knew that large amounts of snow on Manaslu would mean no chance of a summit. The very same slopes that would provide the epic skiing would also be the perfect angle for avalanches and Manaslu is notorious for them.
The patient are normally rewarded when it comes to high altitude mountaineering and finally our chance came. Carrying all our equipment on our backs with ski touring boots on our feet we got to the high camp on Sept 29th only to be hammered by high winds and plummeting temperatures.
The famous American Climber Ed Visteurs once said that "getting to the top is optional but getting down is mandatory." From what we could see at 3 a.m climbing up was never going to happen and clipping into skis to rip down the mountain was totally out the question, just getting down was going to be a fight.
We waited and waited and waited, neither of us are good at it, we were hoping that the wind would drop enough and we could attempt the summit, but the time ticked by. We had to leave soon to allow us enough time to get up and down but the wind was still howling like a banshee outside. Finally I got fed up "F**k it Andy if we don't go we never will, lets poke our noses out and see how bad it is." We quickly packed what little gear we had to take. Outside it was bitter, my fingers got dangerously cold strapping skis to my rucksack and took an age to re warm. Finally after 6 weeks of effort we were summit bound. Fighting our way up the first 200m the wind ripped at our down suits and we struggled to keep exposed flesh from freezing. But then suddenly the wind dropped, it was still -20 degrees but all of a sudden it seemed like our luck was about to change.
The climb up seemed to go on forever, snow conditions were poor for climbing and looked like they were going to be horrendous for skiing. Two-foot high wind ridges criss-crossed the slopes in every direction. Dorje Sherpa did an amazing job busting a trail through calf deep breakable crust; slowly we gained height and the vista simply got better and better, the view behind us seemed to stretch forever into Tibet...simply stunning.
Kenton Cool skis Manaslu!
Then finally the slope steepened into what we knew was the final shallow gully to the shoulder and then the top. It was Andy's first 8,000m peak and emotion was running high between all three of us (Dorje was with us as well). At the top, the job wasn't even half done; we still had to get down, hard enough at the best of times but this time we had to ski. Ripping off the neoprene over boots, the bindings made the reassuring clunk as the boots locked in. With lungs bursting with the lack of oxygen, Andy gave the thumbs up and made the first tentative turn before dropping into the gully. It was the first turns either of us had made since April and here we were at over 8,000m in the death zone.....I kept thinking, "this is insane, are we totally mad?" Clearly we were because we kept going.
The confidence flooded back with the first few turns. The hard wind packed snow was forgiving at the top but soon we were in the crust and wind ridges, this was full combat skiing, not at all pretty but it was working. Dorje was trotting down the way we came up while we tried to find the best snow, first to the West and then back over to the East, patches were nice but most was terrible. The ski set which we cursed on the way up due to the weight was now a godsend because we had something to punch through the crust with. Hitting a good section I opened things up and linked multiple turns. I was elated, with a sudden release from the tension I whooped with joy and immediately regretted doing so as my already oxygen starved lungs now burnt with the effort. And then all too soon Camp 4 came into view; typically I stacked it on the very last turn in front of some friends from another team....DOH!!
Due to the late start and the poor conditions we got back to camp at 4 p.m. We discussed dropping down further but the wind was whipping back up and the clouds were fast rolling in from the East. Andy and I spent another night at 7,300m cuddled up next to each other, both without a sleeping bag. In an effort to save weight and thinking we only had a few hours at Camp 4 we had left them lower on the mountain...fools! I've spent cold nights in the mountains, but this was the longest and coldest I have ever had. Uncontrolled shivers would wake us from our sleep and then we would spend the next hour rubbing toes to try and keep frost bite at bay.
Morning couldn't come quick enough. Assessing the top slopes we decided to descend on foot to start with but soon conditions improved and the wind dropped. The skis were back on and with slightly sun-warmed slopes we at last could rip in some fun turns. The skis were a joy, responsive yet forgiving enough in this variable snow. Catching Andy at Camp 3 his grin said it all, this is why we were here, pure fun. High altitude skiing at its very best, I even got goggle sunburn marks...always a sign of a good day.
The further down the mountain the heavier the rucksacks became until when they hit about 30kg below Camp 1 skiing became almost impossible. Having descended over 2,000m my legs were shot, finally falling over yet again in soft snow, I couldn't get back up as my sac was so heavy. I took off the skis and strapped them to my sac making it heavier still, I was about 400 vertical metres short of where it was possible to ski. I wanted to ski it all but the body just wasn't going to let me.
Staggering into Base Camp I was greeted by Andy, who was 20 minutes ahead of me, with our half bottle of whiskey in his hand (it had been full!!). Nothing had to be said....we had come, seen and skied and now it was time to go home.
Kenton Cool and Guy Willet run Dream Guides.
Check out the Dream Guides Website for more info on their mountain guiding and skiing.
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