Everest — On Edge
by Greer Hitch
Adrenalin pumped through Kit DesLauriers' body as she stared down Mt. Everest's Lhotse Face—a 3,700-foot wall of disconcertingly steep glacial blue ice. The nearly vertical slope seemed to paralyze her already exhausted body—she had summited Everest just a few hours before. The thin air robbed her hungry lungs of oxygen, and her nutrient-deprived body had already begun to consume itself, eating away at the muscle tissue she desperately needed. She slowly lifted her heavy legs and clicked into her bindings, attaching herself to her skis—a lifeline she would depend on as she battled down one of the toughest mountains she had ever encountered. After successfully climbing and skiing six of world's highest summits, the final number seven—Everest—was within her grasp. She took a deep breath of what oxygen she could glean, clenched her jaw, and steeled her mind to the first few turns down the final challenge between Kit and her Seven Summit quest.
In the beginning of it all, Kit hadn't meant to save Everest for the last challenge, but logistical issues always made the other summits more readily attainable. When she reached the top of her sixth highest summit, 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro, in May of 2006, only Everest stood between Kit and her goal.
Kit enlisted the help of Wally Berg of Berg Adventures to take on the 29,017-foot Himalayan giant. Berg has four Everest summits under his belt and is a well-renowned presence in the alpine climbing community. "You really want someone to support what you're doing," says DesLauriers. "Wally believed in me." Along with Berg, DesLauriers' team consisted of her husband Rob DesLauriers, her longtime friend and photographer Jimmy Chin, and Everest veteran Dave Hahn. All of her teammates were experienced alpine climbers, some with a few Everest summits under their belts as well. And all were there to support Kit in her final quest to claim her Seven Summit title. The North Face primarily sponsored the trip and provided these athletes with loads of bombproof gear.
The expedition team arrived in Katmandu, Nepal in late August 2006 and spent a few weeks trekking to base camp. DesLauriers saw Everest for the first time during this trek. "It looked so far away and so huge," says DesLauriers. As she contemplated her impending climb ascent and ski descent of this giant piece of ice and rock, DesLauriers "made a quiet asking to walk upon the mountain," in keeping with the Buddhist tradition that surrounded her.
The team established base camp on September 9th and spent the following two months at this 17,500ft location, acclimatizing, planning their route, and making small trips to and from Camps I, II, and III. On October 16th, after weeks of acclimatizing, many games of Scrabble, and months of anticipating, the group reached Camp III, with hopes to summit the mountain within the next few days. The deadliness of Everest was more tangible than ever, and Camp III's desolated grimness didn't help. "I really had to chill out and stay in the moment," says DesLauriers. "If you let your mind run, you go home."
DesLauriers and the team continued past Camp III on October 17th. They reached Camp IV on the South Col in four and a half hours. Arriving at 1:17PM, the team stole a few critical hours to rest and refuel before making their bid to the summit after midnight. DesLauriers had never been that high before. She began to look at the looming peak before her, not only wondering how the climb up would be but how in the world she could ski down. She drew on advice a Buddhist monk had given the group on their trek to base camp. "The prayer flags are moving too fast." Kit slowed her thoughts and forced herself to stay in the moment.
In the early morning hours of October 18th, the group left the South Col and began their bid for the summit. Pausing at the south summit while Sherpas fixed more ropes, the team had a chance to study the Hillary Step (28,750ft)—an extremely technical portion of the climb that's only 270 vertical feet from the summit. No matter which way they thought about it, they knew it wasn't skiable. "It was full of red flags," DesLauriers says. "There just wasn't enough snow. We still had to get up there though, so we didn't make any decisions right then. All you can do is process the information and file it away until you get there."
At 10:54AM on October 18th, the entire group reached the summit of Everest. Dave Hahn phoned down to base camp to say they had made it and couldn't hide the emotion in his voice when he said, "My God, my God this is beautiful." Moments later, everyone in the communications tent at base camp could hear excited chatter from the Sherpas as someone said, "Kit is putting her skis on." A tangible mix of emotion, anticipation, and fear buzzed in the air as the first woman to ever ski from "the top of the world" dropped in from the summit of Mt. Everest.
As they had expected, there was no way DesLauriers could ski down the Hillary Step due to the conditions, and she strapped on crampons to repel down this steep section. She made it back to Camp IV at the South Col at 3:30 PM. After continuously moving above an elevation of 26,000 feet for 15 hours, she collapsed in her tent. And while the challenge of the summit no longer loomed above the team, celebration was hours away as the anticipation of the Lhotse Face began to rise in their throats.
After a night at Camp IV, the following morning proved more difficult than Kit could have ever imagined. The Lhotse Face's shimmering, bulletproof, blue ice tried to repel the edge her Volkl T Rocks held through each turn. One mistake, one caught edge, and DesLauriers knew she would tumble down the face into an unrecognizable heap. From DesLauriers' depths rose a mantra that, in the end, kept her oxygen-depleted body and mind focused on the task at hand. Before each turn she would say, "Like your life depends on it." Turn. "Like your life depends on it." Turn. DesLauriers repeated her mantra till her last turn, stopping only at the end of the Lhotse Face to look up at the hardest slope she'd ever endured.
Only when the group reached base camp, did they celebrate. Champagne flowed as the weight of Kit DesLauriers' accomplishment settled into history. She would now be known as the first woman to ski Everest and the first person to ski each of the highest summits on all seven continents. Two amazing achievements now fully realized in one incredible adventure.
And for all you gear heads out there, while DesLauriers was thrilled with her skis and Dynafit Boots, she can't praise her Smith Turbo Fan Goggles enough. "Even with the oxygen system, they didn't fog up a bit," says DesLauriers. The North Face also provided bombproof 4 VE-25 expedition tents, which sheltered the team at Camps I, II, III, and IV.
With her clear vision and clear head, DesLauriers did something that people had been trying for years. And while some critics razz DesLauriers about repelling down the Hillary Step, and thus technically not skiing all of Everest, she stays resolute in her decision to repel this section. "Who knows what would have happened had I [skied] it," DesLauriers says. "It would have been a selfish thing to put everyone else's lives in danger. I'm still the first woman to ski from the summit of Everest." Kit, we're with you on that one.