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Down the Lhotse Couloir with Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison

By Gian Luca Gasca

Photo Nick Kalisz

If we were to label it, 2018 could be remembered as the year of skiing at very high altitudes thanks to two unique expeditions.

On July 22nd, the first descent of K2 by the Polish Andrzej Bargiel, a challenge deemed almost impossible. On September 30th, then, the first full descent of the Lhotse (8516m, Himalaya), the fourth highest mountain on earth, by the Americans Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison.

They descended from the top following the Lhotse Couloir (about 800 meters long), which perfectly divides the wall in two, and then continued along the mountain to reach the base camp. Many extreme skiers have tried to face the Couloir over the years, including Nelson herself in 2012, but no one had ever accomplished it before.

Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison. Two strong and determined climbers, who are partners not only where the air becomes thinner but also in real life. They’ve already conquered several 8000m peaks and extreme trails, even at very high altitudes. They chose to leave in September, immediately after the end of the monsoon, to enjoy some excellent snow before the cold winter winds blow it all away from the mountain. A careful but yet difficult decision.

In autumn the expeditions on Lhotse and on the nearby Everest, that shares with the first one the base camp and a part of the ascent route, are definitely less. There is therefore greater peace of mind and freedom of movement, but this also means having to work harder to prepare the climb. There are no icefall doctors to manage the difficult seracs that separates the base camp from the first camp with ladders and ropes.

On their side, however, they had an exceptional team of Sherpas to support them and help them preparing the climb: people who already reached several eight-thousanders peaks in the past. Tashi Sherpa stands out among them, in fact he has reached 9 times the 8848 meters of Everest.

The first part of the expedition therefore went by quickly between mountain preparation and altitude acclimatization. After about a month it was finally time to attempt the climb.

“I have read about this mountain since I was a child and I have dreamed of it for years” commented Morrison recalling those moments.

On the day of the climb the sky was clear and there was practically no wind. They climbed quietly reaching 8300 meters high where they chose to wear masks and use oxygen cylinders. There were still about two hundred meters to the top, which they reached in broad daylight. But that was not the end, but just the beginning.

After celebrating the climb and a short rest, it was time to put the skis on and start the descent, the most delicate part of the whole expedition. They began to trace the first corners by jumping between crust and inconsistent snow until they were exhausted. The high altitude consumes energy and lucidity, but they knew that they cannot lose control. They continued to go down along the Couloir, which became increasingly narrow and hanging, but they felt great, as if they were in the right place at the right time.

“I will never have again such an opportunity and I want to enjoy the moment” Morrison thought while turning on that perfect snow that you rarely have on the Himalayas. The descent took about 17 hours from the summit to camp 2 (6400 m). “What have we done?” Hilaree asked. “We skied down the Couloir and the Lhotse wall” Jim replied. “A dream I’ve worked on my whole life.” “The best moment of my ski mountaineering career” said Hilaree.

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