The Line: A first descent on the world's 14-highest peak
By McKenzie Funk
First published in Skiing Magazine, September 2006
From his perch at 26,000 feet, Mark Newcomb peered over the edge, trying to imagine his first turns. He could see the line--an off-camber chute passing through walls of ice and stone with a rocky, 50-degree, 35-foot-wide crux as an exit exam--but from the convex bulge of snow where he stood, he couldn't see a clear way in. The winds were simply too strong, the perspective too distorted by his lack of oxygen. He sidestepped an extra 30 feet uphill, heaving with exhaustion. Then he dropped in.
It was agonizing to watch from below. The effect of altitude on a climber--nausea, dizziness, loss of muscle strength, diminished mental function--is well known. For a skier it is all of these things and another: He cannot link turns. After four or five, the dot in the 3,400-foot-long chute known as the Untch Couloir collapsed and shrank. He turned until he fell into the mountain, then slumped against the slope, sucking air. With every turn, mini tornadoes of ice swirled around him and scallops of snow as big as hubcaps broke loose. This first descent down a chute on the world's 14th-tallest peak was taking nearly everything Mark had.
Confusingly capped by three summits, Shishapangma is an imperfect mountain. The middle peak looks the highest, but in fact the westernmost peak, at 26,289 feet, stands 12 yards taller. The only 8,000-meter peak wholly situated in Tibet, it was the last to be climbed (1964) and the last to be climbed by Westerners (1980).
Nonetheless, Shishapangma is a skier's mountain: It was one of the first 8,000-meter peaks ever skied and has hosted many of ski mountaineering's most famous--and famously tragic--Himalayan expeditions. Austrian Peter Worgotter put turns down it first, in 1985. He'd skied Manaslu four years earlier, claiming the first descent from the summit of an 8,000-meter peak and ushering in a new generation of high-altitude ski mountaineers. The names of those who followed him here and on other Himalayan giants--Sylvain Saudan, Jerzy Kukuczka, Pierre Tardivel, Hans Kammerlander, Dominique Perret--compose a laundry list of Europe's great alpinists and skiers. But 8,000-meter skiing remains the fringe of an elite activity. By the end of last year, an estimated 4,000 people had stood atop an 8,000-meter summit. Fewer than 15, however, had managed to ski from one.
In April 2000, following the 1999 ski attempt on Shishapangma's southwest side that killed legendary alpinist Alex Lowe and cameraman Dave Bridges, Aspen twins Mike and Steve Marolt became the first Americans to successfully ski the north ridge. Like most Shishapangma climbers, they stopped at the Central Summit rather than cross the half-mile of exposed, double-corniced ridge to the true peak. The first Americans to ski from 8,000 meters were thus not the first to drop in from the very top of an 8,000-meter peak. That honor went to Telluride's Laura Bakos after she skied from the summit of 8,201-meter Cho Oyu five months later. Kristoffer Erickson skied Cho Oyu in 2002, and Hilaree O'Neill and Kasha Rigby repeated the feat on September 23, 2005, the day before our team left Shishapangma's Base Camp.
By all indications we were part of a boom in ski expeditions to the Himalayas. Frenchman Jean-Noel Urban--fresh from a descent of nearby Cho Oyu--was headed for the south side of Shishapangma. We'd heard rumors of skiers already in high camps on the north side. The Marolt brothers and at least three Scandinavian expeditions were training for the north side of Everest. In 2005 and 2006, at least a dozen skiers would successfully descend from 8,000 meters--as many as during all of the 1990s.
MARK NEWCOMB FIRST SHOWED UP in the annals of Himalayan skiing in 1994. At 27, he'd come with snow-board mountaineer and fellow Jackson Hole local Stephen Koch to "blast up" Shishapangma in the light-and-fast alpine style, hoping to climb from bottom to top in a single, self-sufficient push. But as part of an older, more traditional expedition, the pair ended up having to haul loads and set up camp after camp in a classical siege. Bad weather set in before they could attempt the summit. While acclimating, Mark climbed the Untch Couloir--a diagonal slash on the mountain's north wall any Tetons skier would love--and stashed his skis halfway up. The turns down the bottom half, on chalky, easy-edging snow, were habit-forming--nothing like the suffering he would experience in 2005. The line stuck in his head.
Had he succeeded in skiing the Untch from the top, Mark would have become much more than the first American down an 8,000-meter peak. His descent would have made him one of the first skiers of any nationality to ski something other than the traditional ascent route. Among the first to look at one of the big Himalayan peaks as a skier, not as a climber, then descend the prettiest line. His next attempt to ski from 8,000 meters, on Pakistan's Hidden Peak in 1995, was blocked by weather.
In 1999, Mark was an obvious pick to join Alex Lowe's expedition, which has defined Shishapangma in the minds of every skier to follow. The North Face-sponsored team amounted to a who's who of American ski mountaineering: Lowe, Erickson, Andrew McLean, Conrad Anker, Mark Holbrook, and Hans Saari. Yet Bridges and Lowe, one of the world's greatest mountaineers, died all the same in a massive class 4 avalanche.
Their objective had been a beautifully direct, 50-degree, 7,000-vertical-foot face dropping from the true summit down the southwest side of Shishapangma--one of three "holy grails," Mark says, of Himalayan skiing. Mark had been set to join them. But a few months before departure, Lowe pulled him aside at an outdoor-industry trade show and delivered an ultimatum. Drop his relationship with the gear company Marmot, or get off what had become a North Face venture. Mark bowed out.
Six years later, he was leading our Marmot-sponsored expedition back to Shishapangma. The original plan had been the still unskied holy-grail line on the southwest side. But as our ranks swelled he decided that the direct but dicey southwest route wouldn't be the safest fit. The team had grown to 13 people: a core climbing contingent of Mark, his wife Carina, and fellow Exum guides Kent McBride, Miles Smart, and Liz Oakes; a media team of photographer Gabe Rogel, filmmakers Brendan Kiernan and Frank Pickell, and me; a Nepali kitchen crew plus the smiling Tibetan they'd hired as a helper; and 23-year-old Jangbu Sherpa, who was tasked with carrying loads to offset the heavy camera equipment. It was an unwieldy, slow-moving force for a leader used to fast-and-light. But Mark is a shocking pragmatist. The aesthetic Untch Couloir, shorter than the southwest face but still unskied from the top, was barely a compromise. A first descent of the Untch would redefine Himalayan skiing--and that seemed to be, at some level, his goal.
ADVANCE BASE CAMP
We set out for Advance Base Camp (ABC) on September 24 with 29 yaks carrying 4,213 pounds of gear and food. The plateau was yellow and brown. The sky was perfectly blue. Twelve miles away the white mass of Shishapangma towered over the horizon. Our leathery-faced yak handlers, who had a reputation for stealing climbing boots, wore red sashes in their hair and kept the beasts moving with sticks and a chorus of high-pitched whistles.
ABC was in a wind-protected pocket at 18,500 feet. It already held 11 expeditions and everything that goes with them: 119 tents, trash piles, sponsors' banners, Europeans in tights, precarious outhouse tents, rows of solar panels, and the constant whir of satellite-linked computers. At least four other expeditions were attempting to ski from the summit.
The last group to arrive, we established our camp in the overflow lot 10 minutes back. Darkness set in as we rushed to erect tents dropped wherever the yaks had stopped. Liz vomited from the altitude and stumbled through camp, delirious. Kent's head was pounding. A pressure developed in Miles's chest. Six hundred feet shy of the highest elevation I'd ever attained, I felt surprisingly good--just cold. But that night I woke four times to pee as my blood thickened. My nose clogged and my tongue swelled. For the rest of the trip, my stomach turned whenever I looked at fried eggs.
Our puja, a Buddhist ceremony to bless the expedition, was held the third day in ABC. Skis and ice axes, along with bowls of rice, candles, incense, whiskey bottles, sections of a Snickers bar, and a can of Pringles Cheezums, were piled around a stone shrine Jangbu had built with two other Sherpas and Kent.
The wind picked up and a cloud veil blew over the top of Shishapangma as the Sherpas clapped and chanted: "Soooo, so, so, so, so, so...soooo." We raised a pole and strung prayer flags in five directions across camp, pounded whiskey, and smeared Tibetan barley flour on each other's faces. Ravenlike goraks swooped down to eat the sacrificial Snickers as soon as the ceremony was over.
OTHER THAN HAULING A FEW LOADS UP THE FLANKS OF THE mountain, our job for the first days was to sit in ABC and acclimate. While the rest of us drank hot chocolate in the dome tent, Mark could be seen shuffling back and forth outside, hunching his five-foot, seven-inch frame over enormous rocks and hauling them to his tent. Unable to relax, he built Shish's finest patio.
When he did hang out inside, Mark was silent, deep in an issue of The Economist. The only time we could get him talking was when Brendan and Frank stuck a camera in his face and I interjected with the occasional question. He answered with disarming honesty but little outward emotion. "I've always been a little less patient than some," he told us one afternoon in his soft, professorial tone, looking for all the world like an accountant dressed up for an expedition. He had a few days' worth of beard on his youthful face, patches of gray in his short hair, intelligent eyes behind oval glasses. He admitted to sometimes feeling like someone riding a bicycle slowly past a village, just watching strangers go about their lives, never joining in. "But when I hit my stride in the mountains," he said, "I really feel like I'm part of it all."
Carina, a Swede whom he'd met and married in Jackson three years before, shared more about his life than he did. She told us she wasn't allowed to buy him any more nice collared shirts; he already had two. When he got drunk--she'd seen it twice--he got giggly. One night, she put a Daniel-san-style headband on him, and he karate-chopped imaginary mountains in the dome tent.
Carina said Mark's quiet, serious side was a product of having a tight-lipped father. Rod Newcomb, an avalanche forecaster and famous Exum Mountain Guides old-timer, had been one of Jackson Hole's original ski bums when he moved from southern California in 1959. He was a father who cut his own firewood, filled cars from his own underground gas tank, and referred to the outdoors as the "out-of-doors." He tried hard not to push Mark toward one kind of life or another. Mark's first climbing experiences were not with his dad but with his elementary school friend Sam Lightner on a neighborhood fir tree.
Mark set the rules, Lightner says. "OK, we can only climb the north face of the tree." He was oblivious to discomfort. His birthday parties, held on New Year's Day in the depths of the subzero Jackson winter, always had to involve sledding. In high school he was an all-conference defensive back on the football team and he skied every weekend, even if, Lightner says, it was "dust on coral reef."
After college, Mark worked as a ski patroller, a snow scientist, and an Exum guide. He began skiing lines on the Grand Teton that made him, at least in Jackson, a household name: the rope-assisted first descent of the Black Ice Couloir, normally a 15-pitch climbing route, in 1994; the first descent of the Hossack-McGowan, a 52-degree, lightning-bolt-shaped couloir on the northeast face, in 1996; and, with Doug Coombs, the first descent of the hanging Otterbody Snowfield later that spring. He and Coombs also heli-guided in Valdez, Alaska, and teamed up on an expedition to Antarctica. In 2004, Exum cleared both guides to lead ski clients down the Grand Teton.
All along, there was another side to Mark: the Mandarin-speaking academe who loved logic and science and had gone to Minnesota to attend Carleton College. He was enough of a standout student to win a fellowship for a year of postgraduate travel in China. It was a time, he says, of "existential dilemmas" as he tried to choose between life in the mountains and life as an engineer or China-savvy businessman. The choice, if that's what it was, turned out to be the mountains. But with friends like Lightner and Stephen Koch, he talked constantly about changing careers.
At 38 years old, Mark was now living mostly on a guide's salary plus what Marmot paid him to write catalog copy, and he and Carina had been priced out of the housing market in his hometown. "It's hard to imagine being in an office five days a week," he said one night on Shishapangma, "but I won't be able to do this forever. My body won't let me." It seemed an absurd remark coming from someone who was faster and stronger than the Sherpa.
On September 30, after establishing tent camps at 19,100, 21,000, and 22,800 feet, the entire expedition packed into the main dome to discuss the next move. It wasn't much of a discussion. Mark said he and Kent were going up as soon as they were rested, and if anyone wanted to come along that was great. It had been a rushed acclimation--after six days we were only a stage behind groups that'd been here for a month. But the weather was holding and everyone except for Miles, whose chest pains continued, and Liz, who would wait with Miles, decided to join the push.
On October 3, we hiked a foot-worn trail up the moraine. Mark was in the lead, as always, walking with his head down, swinging his poles, looking more in his element than he ever had sitting in ABC. He was relentless, quick on transitions, and soon far ahead of me. I'd trained by riding my bike along the shores of the Hudson River in Manhattan, spinning the pedals as feverishly as possible, occasionally doing sit-ups at a waterfront park. Stephen Koch's warning to Miles and Liz before the trip made more and more sense to me: "Try to keep pace with Mark, and you'll get sick."
We used axes and crampons to cross the "penitentes"--a glacial badlands of snow pinnacles dozens of feet tall--and reach the Yebokangjial, where we booted up windpack and over fins of blue ice. We slept at 21,000 feet in Camp 1 and woke up the next morning to slog a brutal, oxygen-deprived 1,800 vertical feet up a 35-degree headwall. By evening, we were in position on the flatter "football field" directly below the Untch at what we were calling Camp 2.5.
Mark couldn't sleep that night, and neither could Kent. At 2 A.M. they climbed out of their bags and left with Gabe and Jangbu, headlamps ablaze and breath hanging in the negative-20-degree air. Around 3:30, they switched from skis and skins to ice axes and crampons. At 7:30, they watched the sun rise over Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu. Gabe, loaded down with camera equipment, vomited.
It was not yet 10 when Mark, Kent, and Jangbu reached the Central Summit. Jangbu snapped photos. Kent left part of a frozen Snickers bar as an offering. As the wind picked up and clouds appeared, they spent 15 minutes scanning the treacherous ridge to the Main Summit. Even if they could make it, they realized they wouldn't be able to top out on the Main Summit and ski the Untch. They chose the Untch.
WHEN A SKI MOUNTAINEER REACHES A CERTAIN STATURE, IT'S not unfair to ask why he's still alive. Before Lowe's death, Patrick Vallencant, Jean-Marc Boivin, Bruno Gouvy, and Trevor Petersen all met their end in the mountains. Mark's sometime ski partner Hans Saari, who'd survived the 1999 Shishapangma expedition, died skiing Mont Blanc in 2001. The next year, Marco Siffredi, fresh from a first snowboard descent of Everest and its Great Couloir, tried an even steeper line down Everest's north face and disappeared.
Five months after returning from Shishapangma, Mark would write a eulogy for Doug Coombs, who died in a couloir in La Grave, France, and was to American skiing what Lowe was to American climbing. A month later, in mid-May, Everest's north face would claim the life of 30-year-old Tomas Olsson, who was on his way to becoming the first skier down the Great Couloir. His anchor gave way during a rappel, and his body fell 8,200 feet down to the glacier, where Sherpas found it four days later.
Even in perfect weather on the straightforward route up Shishapangma, I felt the danger. The reminders were small: an abrupt drop in air temperature when the sun set and I was alone at 20,000 feet; my ice ax poking through hollow snow to reveal a hidden crevasse; the sight of Mark and Kent racing the late-afternoon light to set up Camp 2.5.
And sometimes they were bigger. One afternoon in the penitentes, I passed the body of a Czech climber who'd died in Camp 1--an apparent pulmonary edema; he'd ascended too quickly. He was wrapped in a blue tarp and ropes, and was being dragged up and over the jagged ridges by his brother and a team of Sherpas. Where they'd passed, little specks of blue plastic stuck to the ice. On my way to Camp 2.5, I skinned past an incoherent Russian who was trudging downhill. He asked if I'd seen his climbing partner, who had vanished after a summit bid. Days later, someone spotted tracks that disappeared on the crevassed east face.
Mark has a story that he thinks partly explains why he's avoided so many of his friends' fate. One morning back when Alex Lowe worked at Exum, Mark was sitting around studying Chinese. Lowe looked at him. "Boy, if I had a day off today, I know what I'd do," he said. He'd have sprinted to the back side of the Grand Teton and soloed an ice route. "I'm in spots where a slipup could be fatal far less often than Doug and Alex were," Mark says. Done his way, ski mountaineering is more chess match than action sport--as proof, he sent me 116 e-mails in the four months leading up to Shishapangma.
He admitted that ski mountaineers do "get snuffed disproportionately to their numbers." But "the world will kill you," he said one day in camp, "no matter what you're doing." We were sitting above a frozen lake, listening to the odd whale songs of its creaking ice as winds buffeted Shishapangma. "When I'm driving down the road going 60 and someone passes me going 60 the other direction, should my life have been flashing before my eyes?" he asked. "I feel like that in the mountains. You're doing the right thing, making the right decisions, and death is just passing you by." He made a tiny gap with his hands. "Maybe by that much."
The cliche is that the closer you get to death, the more alive you feel, but for Mark the appeal of the mountains seems more cerebral: It's about being forced to make decisions that matter in the most primal, binary way. Pick the safe route down, and you have a first descent. Hesitate, and you get trapped in a storm. Pick the next aspect over, and a slide takes you off a cliff. He and Carina had dated scarcely two weeks before he asked her to marry him. Once you've seen him in the mountains, this makes perfect sense. As soon as he knows, he knows he has to act.
Mark and Kent stood on the Central Summit and clicked into their bindings. As Jangbu returned down the climbing route, they dropped off the back side--the beginning of a convoluted route to the entrance of the Untch. They made a few turns on the southwest face's 55-degree windpack, barely holding an edge. Below them, 7,200 feet seemingly straight down, were the flats where Lowe's team had made camp 11 years earlier. They wrapped clockwise around the summit cone, then donned crampons and clambered over a ridge back to the north, where they saw Gabe. He was cutting straight over from the climbing route, hoping to catch them before the traverse into the Untch. The next step would prove to be the most dangerous.
"I thought I was doing Kent a favor," Mark would later say. He stood on the ridge and waited in the frigid wind for Gabe, letting Kent go first. But the traverse, across the top of a dead-end chute that rolled over to 60 degrees, proved unnervingly difficult. Kent cut an adrenalized track toward the Untch in deep, faceted snow that stuck to his skins. He was swimming in it, burning through his remaining energy in the thin air--unable to rest because of the exposure below. He pulled out an ice ax and plunged it into the rotten slope with every step. Down in ABC, Liz and Miles watched with a growing crowd of Italians and Slovenes. "But you guys just got here," one said. "They are crazy," said another. Those of us in Camp 2.5 couldn't see them until they reached the Untch at 12:10 P.M. The climb took eight hours--the traverse nearly an hour.
Mark was the first into the couloir, followed by Kent and Gabe. They alternated leads, making five or six turns, then leaning over their poles to regain their strength. "Just think," Brendan said as we watched through binoculars, "those are three of Jackson's best skiers."
Plates of ice kept breaking loose, sometimes taking the skiers for short rides. A third of the way down, it became clear that the traverse had sapped Kent's strength entirely. He began to sideslip. Mark put him on a 30-meter rope, jury-rigging an anchor system by jamming his tails into the slope, and took turns belaying him with Gabe. Kent found the energy to keep turning, albeit delicately, and they didn't have to lower him. After two and a half hours they were gliding down the football field to Camp 2.5. Gabe popped off a chunk of ice and did a spread eagle.
Briefly, with an urgency none of us would fully understand until later, Mark made plans with Kent to go up again and bag the true summit. But neither they nor Liz and Miles--who'd started feeling better a day too late--had another chance. The winds came up, and veterans in ABC said they'd be blowing until April. The expedition was over.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SHISHAPANGMA, Jean-Noel Urban had already retreated from a high point of 7,500 meters on the holy-grail face, descending from 7,100 meters on skis and confirming that it was a viable line. High on the north side, a lone pair of American climbers had their tent blow away from Camp 3 as they went for the summit. They survived a night at 24,000 feet and then wandered half-blind and hallucinating with severe altitude sickness to our Camp 2.5. Mark, back on the mountain with Kent and Miles to take down the tents, arrived just as the two Americans did. He ripped off their crampons, shoved them into a tent, dressed them in down jackets, force-fed them energy bars and gel, and boiled water for them, throwing their frozen, useless hydration pack out of the tent. He, Miles, and Kent led them down to Camp 1, where they slept in the dead Russian's tent. As we waited for the yaks, Mark and Kent went on a long day hike to check out Shishapangma's east face, as if a grueling walk after an 8,000-meter summit were the most normal thing in the world.
But there was something Mark hadn't told anyone, not exactly. His body was failing him. Up and down Shishapangma, but even worse on big days in the Tetons, a bone spur was rubbing an ever larger hole in his hip cartilage. He needed major surgery, perhaps a hip replacement, perhaps a new career. The pendulum finally swung. Five months after returning from Shishapangma, he applied to the University of Wyoming for a degree in economics and was accepted. Still, everyone in Jackson keeps asking him where his next expedition will be. "I want to be enthusiastic," he says. "I want them to have aspirations. I don't always tell them, 'Well...I may never be going back.' "
ON OUR WAY DOWN FROM TIBET, OUR bus stopped by a steel footbridge suspended over the 520-foot-deep Bhote Khosi gorge. The brown of the plateau had become the green of tropical Nepal. On the bridge, guides were preparing a bungeelike rope swing. "I'll do it if you do it," Kent said to Gabe. "I'll do it if you do it first,"Gabe said. The rope was hundreds of feet long. We paced and peered into the gorge for five minutes, then started back to the bus. "I'll do it," Mark said quietly.
He was the first of the expedition to jump. The guide fitted him with a harness and stood him on a platform high above the rapids of the Bhote Khosi. Mark didn't hesitate. He stepped off the platform as if he were walking down a staircase, actually smiling as he dropped into space. The rope unfurled and Mark arced down the canyon, away from Shishapangma and Tibet and the roof of the world. Then the most natural thing happened. He hung in the air for a moment, motionless, and started swinging back.