Dispatch 16/solid ground/5.18.08

Tossing and turning throughout the night, my eyes scoured tiny visions of darkness through the slit between my fleece hat and draft collar on my sleeping bag. Where was morning? A frozen water bottle held my watch around it’s mouth, inches from my ear but an eternity from the base of the mountain. It was a long cold night waiting for the alarm to sound and preparing for the edgeiest descent of my life.

Josh and I have towed the line on three expeditions in remote areas of the world. Most notably we have been pioneering routes in Sichuan, on the Eastern Alp like Himalaya. Our goals always process the same way-light,2 man teams for big technical mountains-climbed alone and leaving no trace. Of course,the devil is always in the details and until you are living and breathing the adventure the spirit of this style does not come alive. Here it pulsated like Chernobyl, resin of the experience now peels from my face in the form of one of over 20 layers of sunscreen. I feel intensely alive at the core.

When we began our climb, the mountain was hosting a team of Austrian guided climbers. We played around base camp and gave them a wide berth for their attempt on the summit, not wishing to impact or infringe upon their climb. We had come here with a small and resourceful team, hoping to slowly make our way up the mountain and back down skiing it. We also use only natural features of the mountain to ascend, if there are old ropes or others on the mountain we always go around them. After our first foray onto the mountain with our third teammate Tim Clarke, we were aware of the risks and conditions that were present.

When Tim elected to resign from the attempt, resorting to our tried and true 2 man style begot our trajectory. It is an old trick we use, something left over from the machismo of 80’s neon clad headband wearing hardmen. It is called Alpine Style, but we sort of think of it as just what poor globe trotting twenty-somethings who dig mountains do-go light fast and cheap. When we rappelled 200′ yesterday from an old picket-an aluminum snow anchor-using a 7 year-old carabiner taped shut with red duct tape-the warm embrace of experience of this style crept along my crusty mug reminding me that just enough got me through most things and might get me through this too.

Annapurna IV is a hazardous and lofty summit. Climbing from a base camp at 15,600′ to 24,688′ is a chunk of vertical. Comprised of complex glaciers, chossy and loose rock and molting itself daily-A4 is steep, a technical climbers mountain and yet can be skied. We were here to be the first to do the latter-ski the peak.

As Josh and I do, we concocted a medley of thought and experience into a strategy for the mountain and upon leaving basecamp, left that plan behind too. Simplicity is the only virtue worthy of the mountains. We had shed all the weight and carried our experience forward-simply read-do your best, listen to the mountain. We’re basically fleas on a shoulder, if we aren’t bucked-we’re guaranteed a ride.

A ride it was.

Climbing quickly to our camp one in the pre-dawn hours of the 13th, The slope underfoot was frozen. We had climbed this 30 degree slope before laying down a series of switchbacks on the face that now-we darted up in our boots and bespiked feet. Stopping short of the hot snow rottenning sun we camped out and hydrated awaiting the next days ascent through hip deep snow. Fascinated by every camp, the shoulder to the summit was in our sights.

Our second day was arduous and short. As we moved again just at dawn, we were overtaken by weather and forced to what we deemed an intermediate camp. Amazingly,if we were able to get more than five hours of visbility a day, we considered it a good weather window. A positive attitude is the most important component to these conditions-keep moving and you will make your way up the mountain.

It was our third day climbing that truly committed us to the climb and inherently the responsibility of climbing in Alpine style…with skis. Typically we do everything in blocks to keep an efficient procession. Josh led nearly 3 hours of steep snow and ice sometimes up to his waist or over 60 degree pitches before turning the lead to me…in front of three funky and wild snow bridges and a technical ice climb. His work kept me fresh, mine would keep keep us going, that’s team work, he is a great partner.

Faced with a potential technical meltdown at 19,700′ I breathed deeply and remembered that I could not worry about right then until it was over. Crossing the first of the three crevassed bridges was tense, at times my ice tool-pick-would pierce through. Icy cold blue and black would appear where I wanted to put a hand. It was so steep the tops of my skis would carve off sugary wet snow from above as my hands wetted out and winds blew upward from underneath my ankles. A yawning crevasse awaited any mistake. Airy people-totally exposed.

I belayed-a protected passage- Josh across and as I led upward onto the rotten overhanging ice of a crevasse wall, I was right then, right there-complete focus. Pulling a few feet upward over disintegrating snow and into a groove with a little stability I peered back at Josh and expliained the next step. Facing a stem as wide as my legs would go and in total dynamic control-a mistake would have ended our climb. In typical no pressure and smooth style Josh acknowledged our position. Confidently we overcame this section and vaulted to the next level, we knew now, we could handle anything on this mountain. Striding into camp three at around 20,000′ we were positioned for the summit.

An important fact to rember in any story, fact or fictional is always the timeline. We had moved for 4 days at this time, in the high Himalaya, without getting caught in an avalanche and without a major storm. That is a long time in the Himalaya. The evening we strode into camp three was the moment we actualized the threshold of danger we had entered.

Above camp three a short steep slope leeds to the summit ridge. On it are several large crevasses and, at the time, fresh powdery snow. The first morning we woke there-we knew it couldn’t be safely crossed. Timing ourselves to wait a day was necessary, the slope would slide with any wind or snow. Up to that point every slope we had crossed had significant and unrealized potential to bury us, we proceeded cautiously. This easy little slope we knew could not be tested.

Winds shifted and snow blew throughout the day of waiting. Our skis and backpacks were buried ouside our tiny shelter, we were forced to abandon our summit bid. At this point we both wondered; Will we even be able to descend? Which brings us to where this story started, the edgiest descent we have ever made in our lives.

I was startled at 4:19 AM when I peered at my watch. It was so cold and frozen in the tent the tiny alarm had not sounded at 4AM. We spoke through the tiny slits of our sleeping bags and then rose to the front door to find no visilbilty outside. We laid back down, patiently considering our plight Soon the sun burned off the clouds.

We readied ourselves, not like warriors to battle but like sensible engineers to a condemned building. We knew these mountains called the snow temple had strong and mighty walls, but would they fold in on us today? Each step retraced our difficult ground and at the same time led
us into the unknown. The slabby white blanket-a wind slab we snow pros call it-we traversed broke and settled with each footstep as we descended to the rappelling and technical snow bridge crossings. I wanted my body to be ethereal at that point, lighter than a feather.

We rappelled and belayed each other across the damgerous sections slowly and minimally disturbing the snowpack. Once again we were right then and right there, committing ourselves now to the most difficult proposition we had supposed against Annapurna IV, the first ski descent. It was exhilarating yet comforting, to be going down and getting down.

When we arrived at the spiny ridge between our intermediate camp and camp one progress ground down to a mere few feet per minute. This was no mans land, a rotten debris covered rock infused junk pile. Each step we abyssmly plunged through piles of lumpy sugary snow grinding to a thud when either our knees absorbed the shock or our sleeping pads on our backpacks crushed the snow behind. The crunchy sound of a fist through styrofoam and then the running of tiny pellets of sand like snow reverberated throughout our bodies as they pounded and broke the surface stopping our plunge. We swam down hill as the surface heated.

Arriving in camp one we had reached full tilt, we were connected now-to each other, to the mountain, to the concept of getting down on skis. We gathered or gear and our heads and began side stepping the loose and scary slope One caveat to offer, one that made this particular vantage a step above the rest had been a message from Tim at base camp that communicated something of grave importance about the slope below.

When we left five days prior we had ascended the slope just after dawn and found great surface conditions. One day later, our tracks were washed a thousand feet down slope in an avalanche. 2 days later the middle section of this 500 foot wide bowl had ripped all the way to the ground below leaving an enormous rocky scar, the second on the face. We had only one piton and no other rock protection to descend this face. It was ski or be trapped.

With those details present I did something I usually don’t do-communicated some deep emotion to Josh. I said, as if totally understanding we had no control whatsoever”it’s in the lords hands now Josh” he chuckled. I’m a spiritual guy but I humbly wouldn’t consider myself a great channel for god. But we’re all human and at some point realize that fate is only moments away.

Josh slid down the first 100′ section. “What’s it like?” I hollered. “On and off” he said meaning get on it get off it. With each turn a slough of wet heavy snow cut loose and gravitated it’s way down slope into an 8 foot wide choke. 45 degrees steep and covered with vergased or icy rock on both sides, sliding through this passage led us out onto the face which had slid so much. Seeing it now was like a dream.

The upper portion still held snow but almost everywhere across it looked like a total graveyard. Where we had come up, a giant brown fan like scar of rock, next to it chunks of debris five feet tall scattered about. Another similar scar cut the middle of the slope and our only passage led to the skiers right,a shoulder of rock where only one area of snow had yet to slide It wasn’t smooth, but it was skiable and navigable between the clutter of large blocks of debris.

We cut across and I dropped in first. I caught a little air off a hidden rock and landed heavily in three feet of deep wet sloughing corn snow, I arced a few big turns out of it before skiing around a block of debris and stopping to catch my breath. We were skiing with about 50 pounds on our backs, calculating the moves was somehow overriding both of our abilities to breathe. Slowly, with as much grace as we could muster, we stayed up on our skis and shooshed our way down eventually greeting the rocky ground of lower Annapurna IV.

We took our skis off and sat there, knowing now that we we safe. “How much did you eat today?” Josh asked, as if this were trivial I answered” A clif Shot and a half and a 1/4 of one of the Clif kids brownie bars” “nice” he replied. We were down safe, we could start eating again.

What we did up there and what we do in our daily lives lives up to much the same. We’re still just people searching and exploring in our twenties. All I wanted to do was set out to wake up in as many places as possible in my twenties…how was I supposed to know then what I know now. I can only think of one way-go out there and do it. That’s my life, I’ve gambled here and there but as long as the mountains are my bookie-I’ve not cheated. These experiences bring that honesty and integrity out of me. I’m still just a man and much less than the mountain.

Oh the fun of being only that though. To some this story may not appeal at all, and to those that fault is mine. My partners and myself only come to the mountains to have fun and do new things. Can Annapurna IV be skied, absolutely-we did it first! Should you combine that with Alpine Style-yea, if it’s safe you will make it-we belive it. We like the solidarity of a mountain that is high,uncrowded and committing. Those are the mountains we know and of those, few are the summits.

Like your life and your loved ones they should be cherished and forever appreciated.

As for this experience, it is still not over. We will be hiking the rest of the Annapurna Circuit. Stay tuned for more photos and stories as we hike over Thorung La pass.

In addition to the sponsors page at www,annapurnaiv.com, we would like to also thank the following people:

Jon Miller: web guru and climber at heart

Jerry Clark: weather forcaster and super accurate!

Charlie Clarke: Tim’s Brother and relayer of avy message.

Pasang and Dorje: expedition cook staff

Annie “almost Clark” Ripper: my fiancee-can’t wait to marry you in a month

Tara Butson: for being a great wife and letting Josh go on trips.


Ben Clark