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As the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest lures climbers (and skiers & snowboarders) from every country. It is seen as the ultimate challenge to conquer, however at these altitudes the forces of nature are extreme and deadly. So, is it possible to ski all the way down Everest? What sort of dangers are you going to come up against?
The first man to ski all the way down Mount Everest was Slovenian, Davo Karnicar, in October 2000. With his team, he spent a month slowly climbing to the top to acclimatize to the altitude. His descent took just over four hours, and he skied the entire route with some terrain as steep as 55°.
Some of the hazards you might experience skiing down Mount Everest:
1. Altitude Sickness
Acute mountain sickness can affect anyone climbing above 8200 ft (2500 m). The oxygen content of the air is a lot lower because the air is less dense, so the body cannot absorb enough. The lack of oxygen affects the brain’s biochemistry and causes the following symptoms:
- feeling and being sick
- loss of appetite
- shortness of breath
2. Unpredictable Weather
Everest is uniquely placed to receive plenty of rain and snow from the southerly monsoon. The sheer height of the mountain creates a microclimate, which directly affects the weather swirling around it as well.
3. Extreme Cold and Wind
Temperatures nearing -58°F (-50 °C) are not unusual, while winds regularly whip around at 68 mph (110kph) creating incredible buffeting and windchill.
4. Very Steep Terrain
On the steeper slopes, skiers must contend with 55°. An easier 45° slope descends 1 foot for every foot of travel.
The Kumbu Icefall is the best-known hazard on Everest and has claimed many lives. However, tons of ice can suddenly break away from any rocky outcrop on the mountain to cause injury.
Everest experiences high snowfall because of the weather systems that continually pass through the valleys. Insecure snow layers can easily separate from the lower ones to form avalanches, which sweep down the steep mountainsides.
As huge sections of glacier and ice move and separate because of the pressure of ice further up, gigantic crevasses open. These are often covered by fresh snow so there is no warning given to the unwary. Crevasses are easily big enough to swallow cars, let alone lone skiers.
Like Father like Son
When he was growing up Yuichiro Miura from Japan realized he was following in some formidable footsteps. His father, Keizo Miura, had established the first ski routes in the Hakkōda Mountains and he went on to set a new world record in speed skiing in 1964 of nearly 107 mph (172.08kph).
So, in 1970 after considerable preparation, Miura junior set off on his own challenge and climbed the South Col of Everest to a height of 26,515 ft (8082 m). From the summit, he started his descent but could only see sheet ice ahead. He tried to employ his parachute for braking, but the swirling, gusty wind made this next to useless.
Battling to keep his balance he slipped on the ice he fell and slid hopelessly towards a giant crevasse. As luck would have it, he came to a halt after descending 4,200 ft in only 140 seconds.
Yuichiro had had the foresight to film his whole expedition, which went on to become the Oscar-winning documentary called, ‘The man who ski down Everest’.
It doesn’t Always Work Out
Snowboarders have been tempted by Mount Everest as well. Frenchman, Marco Siffredi, had already cut his teeth making several descents of high peaks on a snowboard. With his experience and looking for a greater challenge, he attempted Mount Everest in May 2001.
However, things didn’t go well and on reaching the summit he discovered the coveted Hornbeam Couloir didn’t have enough snow coverage, so he had to resort to the Norton Couloir instead, which took him back to base.
He felt cheated by Hornbeam Couloir and decided to have another go later in the year when he thought there would be more snow. So, in September 2002, Siffredi and his Sherpa companion made the arduous 12-hour ascent to the summit. Saying goodbye to his Sherpa he set off down Hornbeam Couloir, as he wished, and was never seen again.
All the Way
In October 2000 ski instructor, Davo Karnicar also took up the challenge of skiing down Mount Everest with a webcam on his helmet. He was the first skier to descend the entire route without removing his skis.
Karnicar was born to Slovenian parents in 1962. Both parents skied and climbed, sowing a seed in his mind, which inspired his enthusiasm. Even as a boy he would get up early to go skiing before going to school. He later competed on Yugoslavia’s national Alpine skiing team.
He was better prepared than other mountain skiers, making nearly 1700 ascents and descents, which included the considerable challenge of the Eiger in Switzerland and the Matterhorn, which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy.
To acclimatize, Karnicar and his team took a month to climb the southeast face of Everest. They had already had a previous aborted attempt, in which he lost two fingers to frostbite. He chose to climb the last few hundred feet to the summit at night-time, as the weather forecast for the following afternoon was grim.
He started his descent from 29,000 feet early the following morning, after just a few hours’ rest. For most of the route down, he had to battle with vicious gusty winds, hidden crevasses, and ice walls breaking off the mountainside. He even skied past the body of a climber from an earlier expedition, frozen in time in the ice.
His descent took four hours and 40 minutes, but he had been battling with the elements for more than 15 hours. Understandably, he said he was glad it was all over: ‘I felt drained and couldn’t sleep. It was as if I was light-years from this world. I couldn’t even manage to feel happy.’