Thin Air: A Himalayan Diary
Words & Photography by Eric Bergeri
“Sometimes summit, sometimes no summit, but a good lesson for your life”
– Sherpa Doa, five times on top of Mount Everest
It is part of human nature to push the limits; no sport can escape this rule. These days, snowboarding’s limits are in the backcountry, and progression is made by taking park tricks into natural terrain. What could be better then, than to take this challenge to the highest mountains on the planet? That is why Per Löken and Darius Heristschian headed to the Himalayas last February; their mission: to build the highest kicker in the world in the Annapurna range. This is the story of their attempt to get some air at over 4500 metres.10th February – Kathmandu
Arriving at Kathmandu airport after four peaceful flights from Geneva, we stressed out a bit when we heard that all the snowboard bags had got lost somewhere between Paris and Qatar. A classic hitch for any solid snowboarder traveller.
Having been assured the bags would turn up the next day, we exited the terminal to meet up with our local contacts. A joyful crowd immediately leaped on us, attracted to the wealthy tourists like a bees to a honeypot. In the confusion it was hard to know who were our guides and who were just randoms trying their luck. Our bags were quickly taken out of our hands and loaded onto a taxi by some locals looking for small tips, and we were driven to the hotel downtown. It was a brutal immersion into the daily life of Nepal. The dirt streets were narrow, cars and bikes barely dodged each other and there was a constant cacophony of horns. Amid the dust we caught an occasional glimpse into people’s lives. Some of them walked through the streets with cellphones glued to their ears; elsewhere mothers breast fed their babies on piles of garbage while older kids dug through the trash nearby, seeking God knows what. A little later, Per turned to me and said “I’m shocked. I’ve travelled a lot in South-America and seen poverty, but nothing compares to this.”
Having dumped our bags at the hotel, our guides left us in the main shopping and tourist street, called Thamel. There was less of the garbage here, but the dust and the heaviness of the air was a familiar constant. We chatted with some shop tenders and people in the street, who all seemed surprised by the diverse nature of our crew – Swiss with Darius, Norwegian with Per and French with the rest of us. As we continued to wander through the town, something struck our eyes: the girls here are beautiful. Forget the Swedish chicks, the Nepalese are a class above with their unbeatable mix of Asian and Indian faces. Multiculturalism seems to be the norm here. After a good meal at a restaurant, we collapsed on our beds.11th February – Pokhara
We got up at 8am and headed straight to the temple Swayambhunath, which is remarkable for being both a Hindu and Buddhist shrine. We spent all morning visiting this amazing place. Later, while roaming the streets looking for a place to eat lunch, Per found himself sidetracked by a band of snake charmers. He did well considering his phobia for snakes!
We rushed to the domestic airport to fly to Pokhara. The security check was quite fast and less than strict – we actually had to wake up one slumbering officer. Pokhara is located at 600 metres, on a splendid site beside a lake overlooked by the Annapurnas. The air is pure, the climate tropical – it’s just a perfect little town. The touristy part of town consists of one asphalt road running alongside the lake, where restaurants, sport shops, pirate DVD stalls, discos and massage booths jostle for space for a solid mile. Criss crossing from one side of the street to the other, we crossed paths with some old hippies apparently stuck in the 60s and, further on, some young kids trying to sell drugs. It seems that despite the huge government warnings plastered around town, Pokhara is a good place to get high. It was raining in town and snowing high up in the mountains. At this point we received the news that our next destination was getting dumped on, so we wouldn’t be able to fly out the following day as previously planned. It was the first delay of the trip.12th February – Pokhara
We are in shock when we open the windows at the hotel. Ity’s perfectly blue outside and we have a breathtaking view on the Annapurna range and on the Machhapuchhre, the perfect mountain showing the entrance to the range. To make something of our day, we trek to the monastery some 12 km outside the town. The hectic life of the people around us his fascinating. We are being salute by numerous “Namaste” from everybody. Two hours later we arrive in the monastery and meet with the young monks. We disturbed them in a game of Aki bag. The kids are really skilled and nickname themselves after the great soccer players. We talk a bit of philosophy and a lot about soccer with the teachers and the kids. They were actually training before for the next inter-monastery aki bag tournament.13th February – Kagbeni
We wake up early in the morning and head toward the small airport of the town. We can watch the sun rising on the Annapurnas. A small propelled plane takes us to the small settlement of Jomsom, a tiny piece of human civilization amids beautiful mountains. When we arrived, numerous men from the village come to us to offer their service as bearer. Our two guides take care of this and enroll some of them.
The bags are divided between the bearers. The youngest is 15. They tie our bags together and carry them with a strap on their forehead. They carry their own weight. We are impressed and a bit confused. They are paid 500 roupies per day, roughly 7 euros. When we are all geared in technical clothing, the bearers are all dressed in Jeans and sneakers.
The hike to ou first spot is easy. We go along a dry bed of a river. We have been told that during the monsoon, it gets really big. Four hours later, we reach Kagbeni, a small settlement crowded with restless kids where we stay in a sort of hotel/lodge/gest house
Last night was really cold. Everything is frozen. There is no more electricity not running water. It has snowed a lot in the night which is rare at this time of the year, with lots of wind. We decide to stay at the same place and not attempt to reach Muktinath, the next village at 3700 meters high. Therefore, we are one more day behind our schedule. We know that we won’t be able to acclimatized to the altitude as much as we should do before going to the Annapurnas.15th February – Muktinath
Last night was even colder than the one before. We are delighted to see that the clouds dissapeared during the night. We quickly get ready to leave Kagbeni to reach Muktinath, 1000 meters higher in altitude. It’s 8 in the morning when our long caravan starts to walk in the deep snow fallen the previous days. That snow was unexpected. The sherpas hike in basic sneakers given away by some other trekkers. The walk is quite easy under a terrible sun combining the effect of tropical latitude and high altitude. The Thorong pass is right above our heads at 5400 meters. All of us have already guessed that due to the deep fresh snow, we will not be able to make it up there. We feel the effect of altitude but everybody feels good. Later in the evening some clouds build up above our head and we arrive at Muktinath under a grey sky. This small settlement has some hotels-shacks for trekkers. The electricity still not workin, we eat dinner at the light of our front lights and candles before paying chess and cards as we do at night.16th Feb Jomsom
Since it is clear that we won’t be able to make it to the pass, we try to make the best of our day and go visit an old monastery in the upper village. We are welcomed by a charming young sister. She opens up the door of the main room where among Buddhas and other statues, a flamme burns. The gaz comes from the moutain and became some sort of religious thing. Later on we take the road back to Jomson under a buring sun. The way down is as painful as the way up was a pleasure. Our legs are burning. We reach Jomson later in the afternoon. There is no plane on the small airstrip but a thick layer of ice being broken with axes by the military forces of the village, about ten guys. We are stuck again ! Good news, during the night the electricity comes again. The more courageous try the Yack steack that makes a sweet change from the day to day rice and vegetable. The other wait to see the effects on the stomach of the first..17th – 18th February
As we suspected, there is no way we can fly out. We can’t reach Pokhara and Humde where the heli is waiting for us to take us to tha Annapurnas. Per goes to help the militaries to break the ice and they end up playing aki bag. At night there is still a thick layer of ice on a big part of the airstrip, we start to wonder if you can even make it the next day. Later that day, we have the confirmation of what we feared, no plane can come to pick us up. It’s getting tense! On the next morning, the owner of the hotel starts to complain about his stock of food going down. We guess that the stock are going down everywhere in the village. Is that why there is more militaries people breakig the ice? Everything goes faster and even the temperatures is going a bit higher. We should be good for the next day. That is a good news because we are way behind our schedule now.19th February – The Annapurnas
We get to the airstrip at 8 AM to board on a small propelled aircarft. We all feel a little something when we leave the valley of Jomson. We land in Pokhara, jump on a bus to go back to the hotel grab our snowboard gear. The warmth and humidity in the aire are quite stunning after our days of trekking in the moutains., specially because we are still in trekking gear when it’s is way over 20 C. The feeling is quite cosy after all these last cold night. Unfortunately, this break is not long. We go back on he bus for a three hours drive in the Nepal country side. We steadily gain altitude and the temperatures drop. We finally enter a military settlement where stand a Russian heli MI 17. Several militaries surround us when we get off the bus, which is not the best feeling of the world. A bit uneasy by al the guns around us, we pretend to be cool. After a good hour of talk between our guides and the pilotes for a problem of weight in the heli that is supposed to take us to Hunde, we spilt the group in two. An other smaller heli B3 coming down from the next village. It feels to be in a kind of Rambo movie with all these Nepaleses and their guns and the green choppers. When everything is cool, we fly to Humde where our guides wait for us. It was these two well known guides from Chamonix Jérôme Ruby and Stéphane Dan who sent that B3 to us, anticipating the problem of weight. The flight is breathtaking, between enormous peaks and sheer walls. We understand why the pilots were worrying about the weight. The altimeter goes up fast until 3500 meters, then we reach a flat land over which we hover a few more minutes before landing. We stay in a small village on a plain surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world. Our new hotel-refue is very nice and owned by a family. The news from the guides are not the best. It has snowed a bit but the wind took it away. Anyway, we are tired by this long day and go early to sleep in the best sleeping bag we have ever seen that keep us so wamr even when the temperatures drop way below zero.20th February – The Annapurnas
We get up when the sun rises. We take a quik breakfast and split the crew to fill up the helicopter. A first group flies to scoup for the best spots to build our highest kicker in the world. One more time the figures on the altimeters get crazy and increase dramaticaly. In a few minutes they reach the stunning altitude of 5600 meters. The pilot and co-pilot wear oxigen masks which emphazises the “extrem” feeling already floating in the air. The heli circles up, getting close to the 6000 meters, still surrounded by peak 2000 meters higher. Some spot are to be seen, especially a nice dome that could be perfect. It is located at 5400 meters.
The crew goes down at 3900 meters to establish a base camp. Then they the heli flies back to the village to bring the rest of the people. While the first crew waits, two huge avalanches starts from the gigantic ice field and transform into a huge powder spray. Seems like it’s a call from the mountain. We are nothing in here. No doubts, the Himalaya is seriously the next level. Once everybody reunited we all fly for a freerun at around 5000 meters. The snow has been snowpacked and there is little powder left. It lacks cohesion. We spend the rest of the morning trying to shoot like this, on these slopes coming down from the Annapurnas. Early afternoon a cold wind starts to blow. The pilot rush us a little. At this altitude the weather can change dramatically in a very short time. We experience it live ! The wind blows stronger and stronger. When the second crew lives the base camp, the third crew knows that the heli might not coming back at all. Once the heli in the valley, the pilot shuts down the engine. Bad sign fir the people still up there in the mountain. The pilot and co-pilot go eat, waiting for the wind to weaken a bit. They keep an eye on the ridges and stay in contact with the guides at the base camp. One hour later, they decide to give it a try. One hour later, everybody is back at the village, happy enough to be there. We have a debriefing later in the evening. Our situation is not very good. We have only two days left, mainly because our acclimatisation trip put us way behind schedule. We have one day to build the kicker and one day to jump it. From the two things, it is the construction that worries us the more. At 5400 meters you don’t build a kicker like in your local ski resort. Moreover the very sugary snow won’t make things really easy.21st February – The Annapurnas
We reach base camp as early as we can. The air is still but the wind of the night made the snow is even worse than the previous day. Once we are all together we start to talk about the options of the day. Then, suddently, a loud noise comes to our hear. A massive avalanche has started from high up on one of the Annapurnas. It goes straight down along the sheer wall in a monstruous spray from 8000 meters to 3000 meters and then bounces in the air and hits the “moraine” where our base camp is located. The guides scream at us in a single voice : “cover your face !” The spray fill up the air around us and we can feel the wind of it. It snows on us Luckily we were not directly on its way but some 300 meters above the valley on our “moraine”. The power of the avalanche of extraordinary, the spray even if it has lost much of his power against the wall of our “moraine” on its right side, continues it’s way down the main valley on its left side. A potential kicker spot we saw the previous day is washed out and we see the bushes and small trees dissapearing under the flakes of snow. Then the spray slow down, turn left again and stay out of sight. The distance and the power involved were enormous. We stay quite. Still protecting our faces. No one dare to speak. It seemed that the mountain remembered us once more to be carefull and that we were only guests here. Not to mention that we understood clearly its message. We give up the idea to build anything lower than our higher ground “moraine”, give up the idea to get to close to the walls of the peaks. Unfortunately, wind slabs make it dangerous for us to go to high on the part between the Annapurnas which form half a circle. We get ready to ride, a bit uneasy. Then, our pilot-colonel from the Nepalese army calls for a fall back. The wind is increasing at the village. He wants to avoid to leave someone up here. We don’t argue this decision and fly back quickly to the village. During our daily evening debrief, the situation is clear and not good. We failed the mission. Tomorrow is our last day and we won’t be able to build a kicker anywhere, it is way to dangerous. The next mission, if the wind and the avalanches allow us, will be to get the most of the small area safe enough to work with.22nd February – Last Day
As soon as there is enough light for the heli too fly, we are on board. Everything goes quick. The air is warmer than the day before, and still. We have a very small zone to play with and where the snow is not the best. We find ourselves playing miniglf in the biggest 18 holes on earth. We all feel frustrated but still want to get work done. We spilt the crews and ride any features possible. The riders hike at more than 5000 meters to jump cliff and ride ice walls when we don’t use the heli to hop them up a few hundred meters higher. The snow is terrible. Unlike the other days, the mountains give us a break and there is no avalanches starting around us. It’s perfect for the motivation. Later in the day, we find a rock that becomes quickly the highest jib in the world. The landscape is amazing, the sun warms up the atmosphere and for the first time up here we don’t feel too much ijn danger. These mountains are so appealing that it becomes crazy even for the less alpinist of us. When you see their peaks, you want to coonquer them. We fly back later. Frustrated but happy to had the opportunity to get so close to these giants.
It is clear that the mission has been a total failure. We could not build any kicker and we couldn’t have stuck a shovel in that packed snow. Weather, snow condition and timing were against us. All of these plus the massives avanlanches around us was like a lesson friom the nature on us, western people to often use to get what we want when we put the money for it. It’s a classic moral for a failed mission to say that the nature was stronger. In our case, the nature not only said that, it made it clear and added that our lives were worth nothing and that it was all mighty. A bit of a lesson for what awaits us if we don’t care enough about the nature. Regarding our frustration, Doa, our main sherpa confort us with :
“Sometimes summit, sometimes no summit, but a good lesson for your life.”
The goal is not the most important. What matters is the way you take to reach it and how it can affect you. We will keep this wise advice deep in us the rest of our lives.