In September, North Face athletes Ingrid Backstrom, Kasha Rigby, Giulia Monego, and Jimmy Chin ventured to China for a month-long expedition to summit and ski Redommain, a 20,000-foot peak in the Minya Konka Range. In the process, they tuna canned four people in a three-person tent and learned how to not sip out of each other’s urine bottles. Pro big-mountain freeskier Ingrid Backstrom talks to us about the highlights of the trip.
Is Redommain the highest peak you’ve ever climbed?
This is the highest summit I've reached, although we made it to about 24,500 feet on Gasherbrum II in 2008 during a different North Face expedition. I had more trouble with the altitude down lower on Reddomaine than up high—I went too hard too early when we were down at 15,000 feet and didn't feel so good for a few days. But we got to rest and after that I felt fine—I learned my lesson, though, and tried to really pace myself.
You traveled for 10 days before being dropped off in western Sichaun. Any stand out moments?
Probably when we crested a pass at 16,000 feet and emerged out of the fog into the sun—there was a circular rainbow (the Specter of the Brocken) and a group of beautiful Tibetan women and girls praying while they were witnessing what to them was a Buddhist miracle.
Your base camp sounds surreal…14,500 feet next to an alpine lake and below Redommain, right?
The view was the best part about base camp! But it was conveniently located next to a lake and stream; you could stare at the peak while pumping water or washing dishes.
At both base camp and high camp all four of you slept in a three-person tent? Sounds cozy.
I thought it was going to be a terrible night of sleep—17,000 feet and crammed in a tent head-to-foot. But we all just conked out, no one hardly moved, and we all slept great. Cooking and melting water was funny—you just get used to lounging on everyone's stuff, sharing spoons and cups. You quickly learn which is everyone's pee bottle and which is their water bottle.
At one point it sounds like the group decided to turn around, but after descending a few hundred feet, decided to keep going. What changed?
It just seemed like the weather was getting worse and that the sensible thing to do would be to turn around. But then we were like, "Well, the weather's bad, but the route-finding isn't hard—you just follow the ridge." Everyone had energy and felt good, and we sort of realized that just because turning around seemed like what you're supposed to do in that type of weather didn't mean that we necessarily had to.
On the descent you were put on belay to check out a section and determine whether or not it went, right?
I have skied on belay before—I was actually really stoked about this part because the snow looked good and I had a really good feeling that the ski route went and that we would be able to ski pow right to the tent. The snow was really good—my only concern was having a slab rip out, so I was happy to have the belay.
Sounds like there were times of massive exposure. How did you concentrate on making your moves more deliberate and careful?
Basically, during those times I felt so focused there wasn’t an option to freak out. I just concentrated on looking exactly where I wanted to go. No one expressed any negative thoughts out loud. Everyone was really positive outwardly, and I think we were all individually positive in our own heads. We all confessed later about times when we had felt nervous or had considered that we might have to do an open bivy. Your brain is so concentrated on what you are doing, there's no room for hypothetical concerns. Time flies by when you're focused like that.