Mountaineering & Expeditions

Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson Interview | We Talk To The Pair About Their Lhotse Ski Descent

How do you go about managing risk when skiing 2100m down the fourth highest mountain in the world?

With a summit sitting at the lofty height of 8,516 metres (27,940 ft), just under the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner – the task of climbing to the summit of Lhotse is no small task.

A 12 hour, 1,260 vertical metre climb from Camp Three and a total of 3,216 vertical meters climbed from Basecamp gives access to to the summit of Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. By adding a pair of skis, boots and ski touring equipment to their respective packs, Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison gave themselves the chance to ski the most sought after line in the world.

Jim and Hilaree ascend up the towards the maze that is the Khumbu Icefall. Credit: Nick Kalisz

The huge 2,100 metre ’Dream Line’ on Lhotse – The Lhotse Couloir – savagely splits through the rocky walls found on the north-west face of Lhotse, offering the only ‘safe’ ski passage down directly from the summit.

“Summers in the Himalaya equal the monsoon season, dumping unstable amounts of snow onto the high mountains”

The couloir proper stretches 770 metres down towards the Khumbu Glacier which sprawls its way into the Khumbu Icefall – a mind-boggling mess of icy walls and crevasses that are all tentatively linked together by snow bridges which are shifting and moving year-on-year.

Not only is the couloir a huge climb and ski descent in itself, but it also requires something short of a miracle to get it in stable (safe) snow conditions. It’s basically a gamble as to what conditions you’ll find the couloir in, a real roll of the dice, due to the inaccessibility of the face.

I managed to pin Hilaree and Jim down during a manic ISPO trip. Here’s Jim and Hilaree’s Lhotse story, in their own words.

Jim: “When you look at Lhotse from the Western Cwm of Everest, it just looks like a big face… The only place you see the Lhotse Couloir is from the South Col of Everest at around 26,000ft (7924m) and there’s few people who actually turn around whilst climbing at altitude to take a photo for you.”

Everest watches over Jim as he ascends the 770m Lhotse Couloir. Credit: Nick Kalisz
I couldn't think of a more stunning place to attach my skis. Credit: Nick Kalisz
Jim scores himself some nice turns above 8,000m, this time with Nuptse watching over him. Credit: Nick Kalisz

Summers in the Himalaya equal the monsoon season, dumping unstable amounts of snow onto the high mountains, whilst winters bring bitingly cold winds that rip off every flake of snow that tries to cling to this sheer face. Therefore, spring is usually the chosen time for ascents of Lhotse. Jim and Hilaree were breaking new ground skiing from the summit, so an entirely different approach was taken.

Hilaree: “This is the second time I’ve climbed Lhotse… the first time was in spring, but there was no snow, just rock and there were so many people. The real danger of the couloir was that it’s so direct – that’s the beauty of it.”

“I was really afraid that the top funnel might release on us whilst we were climbing up”

The direct nature of the couloir made Jim and Hilaree choose the off-season of autumn as the time to go for the first full descent, given the larger snow depths and the fact that fewer climbers would be in the way.

Hilaree: “It’s a fine line because if there’s too much snow then the Lhotse Face is massive, so it’s really hard to manage avalanche risk.”

Hilaree: “But the other part of it was not having people in the couloir. So with the route filled in [following the monsoon snow season], the theory was that you’d be covering all the old ropes and everything else on the route, which would usually make it impossible to ski and then just also not having people in the firing line.”

Tentative turns from Hilaree as she begins to approach the bottleneck of the hourglass shaped Lhotse Couloir. Credit: Nick Kalisz

Hilaree: “As you descend on skis, you kick chunks of snow down, along with rocks and the possibility of avalanches. All of this happened on the descent, so if there had been teams climbing on the Lhotse face or even in the couloir itself, then we wouldn’t have been able to reduce the danger.”

Jim: “The way I like to describe it is that it’s really a difference between black and white. In the spring, the mountains are really black, it’s really rocky as the winds have been blasting all winter, it’s been really cold, with nothing sticking up high.”

Jim: “And in fall, it’s all white, there’s a lot of snow up there. In this particular fall, we had a really strong monsoon last summer and we had a really good snowpack which creates this perfect balance of enough snow.”

“It’s akin to performing 100 bodyweight squats at the gym whilst sipping air through a kids-sized straw”

After clipping into their skis on the precariously situated summit, a steep initial pitch enticed them into the top section of the couloir. This roll-over quickly drops away into an average angle of 45 to 50 degrees for the length of the hourglass shaped couloir.

Hilaree: “I was really afraid that the top funnel might release [avalanche] on us whilst we were climbing up or at the very least fracture when we were trying to ski through the couloir. There was a pretty scary windslab above the choke in the couloir itself. Quite hollow but it held, which is good.”

Jim: “We skied the whole couloir in pieces. I skied off the summit and Hilaree skied down to me. We navigated this windslab at the top together where one of us would ski down and talk to the other about where we were going and then Hilaree would ski down and get into a safe zone under some rocks and then I would ski down and we would be leapfrogging one another all the way down.”

Jim: “Typically it was the person below who was at risk because whoever was going down second was starting a slide [of snow and ice] from their feet. Sometimes I was skiing above Hilaree and I was worried about knocking snow down above her, but then she would get tucked in behind some rocks.”

For reference purposes, the steepest section of European ‘black’ graded pistes or ‘black-diamond’ in the States is usually around 30 – 35 degrees. The Lhotse Couloir gave a consistent average angle of 45 – 50 degrees for 770 vertical metres. That’s two of London’s The Shard stacked on top of each other with Big Ben added on for good measure.

Now imagine skiing this length whilst performing jump turns in a tight corridor at high altitude. As activities go, it’s akin to performing 100 bodyweight squats at the gym whilst sipping air through a kids-sized straw.

“45 – 50 degrees for 770 vertical metres. That’s two of London’s The Shard stacked on top of each other with Big Ben added on”

In all seriousness, only the most negatively-minded cynic would refuse to take their hats off to Hilaree and Jim for this stunning descent that ticks off one of the most sought-after prizes in steep skiing and is, whichever way you look at it, a real beauty of a line. The pair are currently on a whirlwind tour with The North Face as the clothing giant ramps up the hype around its brand new fabric – FutureLight.

It’s going to be exciting to see what comes next out of the world of steep skiing with this gem ticked off. Hint: Jim and Hilaree are looking to keep things focused in the Greater Ranges, once they’ve got over this breathtaking descent.

Hilaree: “I know that three of the top five 8,000m peaks have been skied, Everest, K2 and Lhotse have been skied, Makalu and Kangchenjunga have not. There’s still great lines on Everest that still haven’t been skied. So that’s sort of a vague way of saying some of the things I’d like to ski! We’re not targeting things straight away. 2020 though…”

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