Access Denied

Cold Front

By all accounts, it was a banner climbing season last spring on Everest, where records fell like wounded ducks: Fastest ascent, first ascent by a 70-year-old, first ascent by an amputee, first ascent by a naked blind man singing “Climb Every Mountain (okay, kidding on that last one). Nonetheless, the milestones were little consolation for two ski expeditions that got smacked around the Big E last May.

“We logged a lot of ass time, says Aspen’s Mike Marolt, who, along with his twin brother Steve, led six skiers up the north side of Everest in a bid to be the first to ski the 29,035-foot peak without supplemental oxygen. Relentless, 100- to 200-mile-per-hour winds and low temperatures thwarted their effort to put in a camp IV at 26,000 feet, and none of the team members summited. But they did make some turns. “The snow was mostly Coke-bottle ice, says Marolt of the three 42-degree, 500-foot pitches the group laid tracks on at 25,000 feet, “but it was better than sitting in our tent.

The Americans’ experience was a cushy spring break in comparison to the ordeal of 27-year-old French freeskier Brice Lequertier, who was making an oxygen-aided attempt from Everest’s south side. Lequertier contracted a cholera-like virus at Base Camp. Ten days later, during his summit bid, he discovered that wind had scoured off all but an inch of snow at the top. Not that it mattered. Lequertier ran out of oxygen a few hundred yards from the summit and blacked out. A passing Sherpa woke him up and helped him down to camp IV. The next day, he traversed 200 yards from camp IV and skied a 4,500-foot couloir. “I would ski about four turns before having to stop and gulp some oxygen, he says.

Judging from these field reports, the skiing on Everest sounds far from idyllic, yet there are plenty of people lining up for their own shot. In September Maegan Carney, a former World Extreme Skiing champion, heads to Nepal to attempt a first American ski descent, while at press time, Wyoming’s Stephen Koch was targeting a late-August snowboard attempt. “Everest is a circus, concedes Marolt, “But it’s Everest, and people are always going to want to ski it. We’re going back in 2005.