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The Pivot, Part One: Crash and Burn

“Allahu akbar! Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah”

The morning call to prayer jostles me awake at the unholy hour of 3AM. As I roll over, the light body aches and night sweats of the fever I’m running add to the unpleasantness of the moment. It’s Ramadan, and the chanting over the loudspeaker serves a practical purpose for the Skardu locals: it’s their last chance to eat until sundown. At our northerly latitudes, people here will be fasting for 18 hours each day until we arrive in base camp next week. In any objective sense this is a strange time and place for me, but for some reason, I feel at home. More than ever, now I must go to the mountains as a process, a practice, a return to fundamentals.

Just a few months ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d be functional enough to make it here. To say last year crushed me would be an understatement. The short story is that my mom died. The long story is a circuitous inward journey to depths of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I moved home last March following my mom’s terminal breast cancer diagnosis. Showing the hallmark signs of Pierce family stubbornness, she furiously resisted my return home saying I should focus on work, but I could tell things were descending into chaos and everyone else urged me to apply for Santa Clara’s generous family medical leave. The first month and a half or so were filled with endless appointments, phone calls and meetings to get her things in order and streamline my grandfather’s affairs. We took time to fit in some of mom’s favorite activities: putting together puzzles, going to meditation groups and bossing me around in the garden 😉 During one last trip to the beach with friends in April, however, her condition worsened to where she went on oxygen 24/7 and even went so far as to take a quarter of an anti-nausea tablet. Despite constant and excruciating trouble breathing, she managed to resist medications even in her last hours. For her, my hunch is, the integrity of the process was more important to her than even the worst life had to offer.

Blowing bubbles with the neighbors

Over the next few months, her condition progressed and layers of her independence, personality and dignity faded. New and unforeseen problems abounded. For a while, patchwork solutions such as my teaching her the “rest step,” a high altitude technique to save energy, served as a temporary way for her to ascend the stairs to her bedroom. Negotiations over her move downstairs into a hospital bed produced some of the greatest anger and irritability one could experience. Then, one weekend in the beginning of August, fluid enveloped her heart and lungs drove her into constant and unmitigated torture.

The disease walked a tightrope between life and death, creating the sensation of drowning, vivid violent and paranoid hallucinations and profound nausea. The eerie parallels between her cancer and the symptoms of mountain sickness and the struggles to survive I’ve faced in the high mountains were not lost on me. Health crises manifested at all hours of the day and night, and multiple times we saw all the resources hospice had to offer. Finally, after six weeks of the worst suffering one can experience, she took her last breath, the trials of taking on cancer on her own terms over at last.

For a couple months I held my shit together. During September and October, I routinely logged 16 hour days settling her affairs, working on the house and getting ready for a move back west to return to Santa Clara full time for the winter quarter. Oh, and I quickly prepped for an expedition to Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley and Ama Dablam. In case you missed it, check out the trip reports linked in the previous sentence and the new expedition video.

Furtemba and I approach the summit of Ama Dablam, seen through telescope from base camp. Photo: Pasang Tenzing Sherpa

Then, during AGU, the largest earth science conference of the year (of course!), things changed. Instead of hopping on the train to San Francisco, I found myself shaking in the fetal position at home, my head racing. For the next few months, I was unable to focus on anything. Among other things, I became lost on the way to the grocery store, routinely sat in parking lots for hours on end trying to figure out if I needed to eat, drink or pee. Communication of all sorts was an enormous challenge. When people asked how things were going, I rarely knew how to respond. I tried to focus on the positives and use my time to work on things that made me happy like going for a walk, but often that was too daunting of an undertaking. Brewing with frustration, I routinely lost control and broke my things, often for reasons unknown to me even in the moment. I lost confidence in myself all of my abilities to work, be happy or contribute to my relationships. I wrote Mingma Gyalje and told him I might not be able to climb this summer. He told me he’d lost his father to intestine cancer and found himself slowly getting more hopeless and weaker. He told me he changed his routine, returned to trekking and climbing, shared moments with friends and gradually came back.

As a result of my mom’s death, I now care for my (103 year old!) grandpa

Slowly things began to change. Michelle got me a watch to track my activities. Old interests like biking and gear-fondling re-emerged. I bought a Pivot, a gorgeous mountain bike just begging to climb the steep fire roads and rip singletrack descents in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Michelle and I had recently moved. At first I was self conscious about the purchase, but soon the freedom opened me up. But the epic rains of this past winter quickly put the trails out of commission, so I did the only logical thing I could think of: splurging on a ridiculously capable BMC road disc bike ready to hit the rough pavement and gravel climbs. Soon, I felt my complete self returning to form. My legs rounded into shape and my aerobic fitness skyrocketed. I could finally focus long enough to send an email. I could do the dishes, make the bed and fold laundry. The house in Virginia sold, and I finally wasn’t getting caught by daily legal and financial surprises in the mail for my mom and grandpa. I started to feel new emotions: gratitude for my privileged and rich life, the support of those around me, the freedom from Santa Clara to focus on my health, and a desire to get on with things. I was on my way.

Redwoods from my back porch

Ohhh snap, I’m in northern Pakistan!

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The time is finally here…it’s been a hell of a year for me and this trip has been in the works for a few year. Way more on all of that later. For the time being, I’m just happy to soak it in and once again go along for the wild ride of a big expedition. Tomorrow, hopefully we’ll pack up into jeeps and head up to Askole, the last outpost of civilization before we march into the heart of the Karakoram.

Pakistan has the reputation of being the Golden State Warriors of big mountains. Ok, not really, but these are some of the “smaller” peaks on the flight from Islamabad to Skardu.

The time is finally here…it’s been a hell of a year for me and this trip has been in the works for a few year. More on all of that later. For the time being, I’m just happy to soak it in and once again go along for the wild ride of a big expedition.

Chiiring Pemba from Rolwaling and I after landing in Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, gateway to the Karakoram.

The Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain and the westernmost peak of the Himalaya.

Nanga Parbat soars over a sea of 6000m peaks

We had the privilege of flying on a Pakistan Air Force C-130, skipping a 35-hour bus ride through 100+ degree heat and Taliban country en route to Skardu

The first of many gear explosions in order to divide gear into 25 kg loads for the porters and pack animals

Great view of the Shigar River from the porch this morning.



Projection: Cylindrical (1) FOV: 122 x 19 Ev: 16.30

Panorama from the summit of Ama Dablam. Five of the world’s six highest peaks (Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kangchenjunga) shape the skyline.

Climbers and trekkers have long considered Ama Dablam to be among the world’s most beautiful mountains. You could disagree, but alas, you’d be wrong. It says a lot about a mountain that in a range filled with giants, a shorter, slender fin of rock and ice has captured the imagination of those who walk beneath it for centuries. Ama is the mother. The dablam, represented by the hanging serac below the summit, is her amulet. Ironically, for climbers, it has been a source of fear. A collapse in 2006 that killed six is a harsh reminder of the realities of climbing big mountains. It’s also why Furtemba and I made the decision to leverage our acclimatization and summit in a long push from camp 2. And needless to say, on a mountain this steep and technical, I wore the amulet Lama Geshe had blessed for me from start to finish.


Smeared with tsampa (barley flour) following our puja. A lama from Pangboche came up to base camp to bless us.


Looking back down into the Khumbu from above the clouds.


I wasn’t kidding myself thinking Ama would be easy, but I was definitely surprised by the amount of steep, technical traversing. Here, Furtemba negotiates somewhat typical terrain between camp 1 and 2.


Furtemba on the Yellow Tower. OK, this was hard with a pack on at nearly 20,000 ft.

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We’d delayed our summit bid due to high winds one day. Then the weather was looking like it could take a cold snap. At camp 1, Furtemba and I agreed to continue upwards even though our potential summit day was forecasted to be significantly colder.

Camp 2 on Ama Dablam. Outrageous location.

Camp 2 on Ama Dablam. Outrageous location.


I think I was smiling mostly because I could feel my toes again! Everest and Lhotse looked spectacular from our vantage point. It’s a bit of a tradition to have summit photos taken with Lama Geshe’s blessing card.



Furte starts down the face. Base camp, which we reached under 10 hours later, is at the confluence of creeks below.


Yours truly rapping the face. There are quite a few steep ice sections on summit day.

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Scattering mom's ashes, Everest and Lhotse behind.

Scattering mom’s ashes

Tashi Laptsa

I’m back in Kathmandu after a successful ascent of Ama Dablam. More on that later. Here’s the story of the four day journey from Rolwaling up and over Tashi Laptsa, one of the most challenging passes in the Himalaya, and down into the Khumbu. You know you’re in the Himalayas when the passes are 19,000 ft!


L to R: Buskar, Purna, Rajendra, Babu Ram and Furtemba devouring some good luck cake on our last night together in Na. The next morning, we said goodbye to Rajendra and Buskar and headed up the valley.


Two British women paraglide into Na on an acclimatization day


American guides Nik and Mark were awesome company in Na. They made three stylish ascents in Rolwaling, capped off by Chukimago.


With Furtemba and Mingma Gyalje, two of the finest high altitude climbers in the world

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Tsho Rolpa, a terminal lake, is one of many in the Himalayas prone to glacial outburst floods. One here in 1986 was very serious to my understanding, and increased glacial melting due to climate change is expected to make such flood events more frequent and severe in the future.


Babu Ram walks into Chukima camp, with Nachugo behind.



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Dust at the head of the Rolwaling valley is from a massive and active landslideimg_5940 img_5948

Furtemba crosses active landslide on the way to our high camp below Tashi Laptsa. We kinda ran:

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One of the finest places I’ve spent a night:img_5980 img_6084

Purna and Babu Ram ascend ever steepening glacial ice with outrageous loads:


Furte borrowed my axe to chop steps for the porters


We donned crampons for the final few hundred meters up Tashi Laptsa. I was glad to switch to mountain boots as my toes were violently cold.


Descending Tashi Laptsa was tricky and arduousimg_6108



Descending some of the coolest glacial polish I’ve seen:

Furte whipped up one of the best high altitude meals I’ve had. Super spicy potato curry with Tibetan fried bread:


Babu Ram’s basket was toastimg_6122 img_6124 img_6129 img_6135 img_6138 img_6139

Coming into Thengbo was spectacular


First view of Ama Dablam, our next objectiveimg_6146 img_6148

Thame:img_6151 img_6158 img_6161

The trails of the Khumbu are like highways!img_6166

Namche Bazaar, the largest settlement in the Khumbu valley:img_6168

Oh yeah, Mount Everest…img_6170 img_6172

Signs warn us of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). I think it would help if the sign explained what the hell GLOFs are.
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Everest (behind) and Lhotse (R), the world’s highest and 4th highest mountains. I made it about a thousand feet higher than the prominent Yellow Band without oxygen on Lhotse in 2013.img_6178

Pasang Tenzing, Furtemba and Leslie take a break on the way to Pangbocheimg_6183

Furtemba, brought to you by Ray Ban, Black Diamond, Mammut and Sportiva:img_6190 img_6206

Everest and Lhotse catch the last rays of sun from Pangbocheimg_6208 img_6211

Another privileged opportunity to meet with and receive blessings from Lama Geshe, the highest ranking Lama in the region. Once again he laughed at my “Nepali name”img_6214 img_6218

Ama Dablam. Our route was the right hand skyline:img_6219 img_6220 img_6221

Spinning the prayer wheels at Pangboche Monastery after our visit with Lama Gesheimg_6223 img_6226 img_6233 img_6235 img_6241 img_6242

Pasang walks to base campimg_6243

Ama Dablam base camp is so comfortable and beautiful. Nicest base camp ever!img_6249

Not to mention the outrageous comforts (welcome mat!) in our camp. Ascent Himalayas for the win!img_6250

Tawoche from base camp:

Resilience: A year and a half of recovery since the Great Earthquake

On April 25, 2015, Nepal was struck by a massive magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some quick facts and figures : This event and subsequent aftershocks left over half a million households homeless, 1.4 million in need of immediate food assistance, and 5.6 million in need of immediate medical services. Nearly 9000 died and the economic cost was about $10 billion, roughly 50% of Nepal’s GDP.

Below, I survey the science behind this event, summarize the consequences, and take a more personal look at its ramifications in just one region, the Rolwaling Valley.

Accumulation and Release 

Most who’ve been exposed to earth science concepts can tell you that the Himalayas are the product of a tectonic collision between the Indian Subcontinent and Asia. Far fewer, however, can describe how this process manifests. Earthquakes are the product of accumulated strain, or the deformation of rocks, which is then released suddenly. So in the case of the India-Asia collision, huge blocks of rock are deformed, storing elastic energy, which is then released suddenly through slip along a fault plane. The April 25 earthquake represented the release of a tremendous amount of energy along one of these main faults making up the structure of the Himalaya. It’s important to note that earthquakes aren’t like a bomb going off at a single point source, they occur along a plane which slips over a period of time. The point where the slip begins is called the focus…the point on the earth’s surface directly above the focus is called the epicenter.


These concepts aren’t just important to scientists. Rather, they have real, life or death consequences for humans inhabiting earthquake prone areas. Let’s explore a few of the factors that shaped this event:

  1. Depth. Earthquakes always happen at depth. The shallower they are, the more you feel shaking on the surface. Makes sense right? This event had a focus of just 8 km, extremely shallow for an event of its size. Many earthquakes off the coast of Japan, for example, are 80 – 100 km or even deeper. The recent Haiti quake was 10 km.
  1. Direction of slip. Slip starts at a point, in this case in the Gorkha region about 77 km west of Kathmandu. But the slip propagated to the east. Thus, the regions most heavily hit were just to the east such as Sindhupalchok and Dolakha where over 95% of structures were destroyed.

The 2015 earthquake focus was in the Gorkha region (red star) but the slip propagated to the east through time. The numbered contours are the number of seconds since the slip began. So the slip (not necessarily the shaking) took about 60 seconds to occur, and the maximum slip along the fault plane was up to 3 meters in the region north of Kathmandu!

  1. Rock type. It sounds counterintuitive, but the stronger the rock you’re on, the less the shaking. Unfortunately, in a country as mountainous as Nepal, the Kathmandu valley provides one of the few flat areas to build a large city. And flat areas surrounded by mountains are usually sedimentary basins, made of soft rock. Kathmandu itself is an ancient lake, so the shaking was amplified in this region…particularly heavily hit were historic buildings such as the Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Patan and Baktipur…UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Kathmandu is built on ancient lake sediment…soft and prone to amplified shaking

  1. Date and time. Hey, it’s not all geology. The earthquake happened at noon on a Saturday. In other words, absolutely ideal timing for minimizing human suffering. In a country with many stacked rock or brick structures that are prone to collapse, the fact that people were out and about instead of sleeping, at work or in school was a huge factor. A night or weekday could have made this event ten times more devastating.

While the April 25 event was the main shock, aftershocks up to magnitude 7.3 rocked Nepal.

Long road to recovery in Rolwaling


The Rolwaling Valley lies at the eastern end of Dolakha, just west of Solukhumbu, home to Mount Everest. People here are seminomadic (not sure if that’s a real term). A couple hundred inhabitants move up and down the valley with the seasons to tend to their farms and to let their livestock graze. In the photo essay below, I’ll show you a bit of my trip from Kathmandu to the end of the road and then the trek through Rolwaling. Heaviest hit was Simi Gaun, Furtemba’s home village, where he estimates over 95% of buildings collapsed. Some residents are still living in temporary housing (think: camping). People here are resilient, after all, they’ve been farming at over 15,000 feet for centuries, but they still need help. Everyone here has a story. I’ve been taken aback by how I’ve seen the houses of friends here like Angdu, Dawa Gyaljen, Mingma Gyalje destroyed. And our cook, Rajendra, showed me a huge scar on the center of his forehead, a tangible reminder of the massive icefall that killed 21 in Everest Base Camp.

The rebuilding effort is inspiring. People have come from all over the country to help build a new monastery in Beding. But it’s a tremendous effort: everything in this valley has to be carried by people for three days to reach Beding from the end of the road at a cost of 80 rupees (80 cents) per kilo. So these tremendously important community buildings like schools, health posts, and monasteries represent an enormous economic cost of about $200,000. Ultimately, this adds up to a long road to recovery for the people of Nepal.

The American Himalayan Foundation continues to take donations for earthquake relief.


We crossed many landslides like this on the road from Kathmandu. These made the initial relief efforts to villages extremely challenging, slow and dangerous.


Furtemba points to the remains of Simi Gaun’s community lodge


Remains of Simi Gaun’s health post


There’s something profoundly sad about seeing medicine and stretchers amongst the rubble


Remains of the gompa (monastery). While the school has been rebuilt with funding from 6 Japanese climbing organizations, the health post and monastery are far from even starting to be rebuilt.


People are still living under tarps


Furte shows damage to his house


The view from Furtemba’s house. What you’re not seeing is the two stories above this one that he had prior to the earthquake.


Danu (r) is a key figure in Simi Gaun. We stayed in his gorgeous new lodge. He and Furtemba’s father lobbied very hard to install micro hydropower…a huge accomplishment!


Look closely and you will see homes swallowed up by this landslide. This entire village, the winter homes below Beding, was wiped out. Luckily, everyone was in Beding or Na further up the valley for the spring season.


Truck-sized boulders came down during this landslide.


Construction of the new monastery in Beding. Keep in mind that everything is either sourced locally or carried here by people. Here, boards are chopped into shape by with handheld axes!


The new monastery is exquisite (and reinforced with concrete and rebar).


Hand woodworking


Alpine Exploration in the Ripimo Shar


Sometime earlier this year, I started taking a much closer look at the Rolwaling and which side valleys remained least explored. In particular, the Ripimo and Ripimo Shar (East) glaciers seemed like a gigantic hole, with few prior expeditions exploring their upper reaches. Those who did, the likes of Chris Bonington and Bruce Normand, reported giant peaks, natural beauty and wildness.

A week ago, I set off from Na with what felt like a huge amount of support: Furtemba as the guide and climbing partner, Rajendra as cook, and three porters: Babu Ram, Purna and Buskar. It became clear pretty early on, however, that given the ruggedness of the upper reaches of the valley, that the resources we had were definitely not excessive. Our first day, we established camp at Omi Tso, a gorgeous alpine lake at the base of Nachugo and Omi Tso Go, one of the peaks for which I had a permit. The next day, we carried gear up the moraine and around the corner to an elevation of ~17,200 ft, where unfortunately, we discovered an astonishing lack of water on the upper reaches of the glacier. This meant a heartbreaking and super tricky descent down some of the tippiest talus I’ve ever encountered. Now that I’ve covered this stretch six times, I’d be happy to put the upper Ripimo Shar up against anything in a “World’s Sketchiest Talus” competition. It’s not an understatement that in certain stretches up to half a mile long, roughly 80% of the rocks (all of which ranged in size from volleyball to sofa) would suddenly shift. Often this would trigger a chain reaction. Heinous!


What started as easy moraine (above) turned to this…

We ended up having to do two carries to establish our base camp at ~16,500 ft. The next day, Furtemba and I established a route to ~18,500 ft on our main objective, unclimbed 20,856 ft Langdung. The highlight of the lower route (after a tremendous amount of talus of course!) was a few hundred meters of 4th and low 5th class sparkly granite. We soloed the whole section but did establish two rappels to make descent with heavy packs easier.


Classic butt shot. The rock was pretty good!


Following a rest day, Furte and I returned to high camp on the summit push. We had a gorgeous bivy spot with spectacular views of the Ripimo Shar. Just after sunrise, we moved up on summit day, which involved a short glacier crossing, then ascent of a broad couloir and short traverse to the upper glacier. This was like entering a different world. A huge flat expanse extended to the Tibetan border, with the south face of Langdung, the highest objective around, towering over us on the right. We ascended this glacier to the base of the face, choosing a direct and fairly straightforward, if not monotonous, line up steep snow and alpine ice toward the summit. From the glacier, the face was ~600m (2000 ft). The face was in pretty good condition, allowing us to simul-solo nearly the entire route until it steepened to about 75 degrees for the last couple pitches. It was hard work, with little opportunity for rest or hydration. As we approached the last ridge, tantalizingly close to the true summit, things changed dramatically. Furtemba, usually steadily making upward progress, was now scraping his axes through horribly sketchy, unconsolidated snow in between bouts of profanity-laced outbursts. I took stock of my situation…one picket placed between us was the only thing keeping us on the mountain. After a lot of searching, Furte made an awkward move over a crevasse and onto the corniced ridge. I followed. It was there that we realized both how close and far we were from our objective. Probably 25 vertical meters and just 50-100 horizontal meters separated us from the snowcapped summit, yet the way was blocked by snow mushrooms on one side and overhanging, unconsolidated powder beneath the cornices on the other. Assuming this section were passable, we still had some mixed climbing of unknown difficulty to yet another cornice at the summit. It was just way too much risk for our liking. So I ascended the final couple meters of cornice and as I peeked my head over the edge I was met with thousands of meters of air down into Tibet. In the not-so-far distance, the world’s highest mountains stood before me: Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu made up just a small part of the spectacular skyline.


Everest, Lhotse and Makalu framed by peaks of the Ripimo Sharimg_5760

Langdung’s true summit just 25 or so meters higher

Returning to our measly picket, we backed it up with another, and Furte stood on them to add some additional psychological protection. I made the first of 8 or so rope-stretcher rappels off the face, mostly snow anchors but a few v-threads where we could find decent ice. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful…hard work into the frigid evening, but not the most tiring or epic descent I’ve made. A few hours later, after breaking down our high camp, we returned to the rocky Ripimo Shar. Soon, we spotted the headlamps of Purna and Buskar, who gave us some tea and juice and shouldered our heavy packs for the boulder-hop back to camp.

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Nachugo and Omi Tso Go from high on Langdung. Jagat, Charikot and Kathmandu are out in the distance on the right.img_5803

Our last look at Langdung’s south faceimg_5808


Some more photos to tell the story:

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Tidbits from the Trail

All we do is laugh our way up the trail. This is a sawmill by the way. Everything here has been carried up the valley by local people.


The waterfall situation in Rolwaling is ourtrageous. I think by the end of this post, you’ll agree.img_5098

We came up through the jungle from the valley floor. We’ve got close to 18,000 vertical feet to go!

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I think this is when Furtemba casually told me that people occasionally run into tigers here. Like actual tiger tigers.img_5129 img_5133 img_5134img_5144 img_5149

Furtemba’s cousin’s house is the close one. She cooked us the most amazing meal over a wood burning stove.img_5154 img_5158 img_5163 img_5164 img_5181

There are like people-sized holes in most of these bridges.


Remote, holy and unclimbed: the incomparable Gauri Shankar (Tseringma if you’re a Sherpa)
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So, so wobbly!


The view down the last three days of trekking


Beding, the largest village in Rolwaling. People here move up and down the valley with the seasons.img_5230

Tseringma…steep from this side too!

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The entrance to Na, the highest settlement in Rolwaling at just under 14,000 ft.img_5287 img_5288 img_5294

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Rajendra (orange jacket, our cook) and porters getting ready for a day of trekking


hmix is back

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. The past year has been a wild ride, filled with ups and downs in professional, climbing and personal life. I got an NSF grant to study the biggest storms in the American West. I attended a workshop in the Dolomites and topped the trip off with some mixed and alpine climbing in Chamonix. I built a lab and have three wonderful research assistants. I fell in love. And in March, I moved home to Virginia and took care of my mom until her death last month.

So now I write with mixed emotions from my tent at 15,500 ft or so in a remote, seldom-explored side glacier of the Rolwaling Valley, Nepal. Rolwaling is exquisite. The natural beauty and changing landscape along the way was remarkable.

You can follow my daily check-ins by clicking on the “Where’s Hari?” tab at the top right of the page. We’ll explore this valley and try up to two climbs over the next ten or so days. After that, we’ll head back down to Na, the last village below and embark on the next stage of the trip.

Over the next few days, I’ll release some photo essays from different portions of the trip. Below is a taste of what it took to get into the mountains…

Shiva looks over Coca Cola

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Our axle (or something that sounded similarly awful!) broke on the way up. The guys were laughing while fixing it. Mingma, the government representative for Simi Gaun is beneath the broken part as the guys rock vigorously

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The long, winding road to Charikot


You see the best paint jobs in Asiaimg_5027 img_5030

Hell yeah we drove through that waterfall!img_5035

The way down to Jagat from Simi Gaon. The zigzagging road is for the construction of the first major hydro project in Nepal. After a 12 hour drive from Kathmandu, we started in the dark up 2000 ft of stairs through terraced fields of millet.


Danu’s gorgeous new lodge in Simi Gaon. More on the people of SImi Gaon later.


Simi Gaun is Furtemba’s home, so I think we had to have tea with just about everyone in the village!


Pobeda: Elusive and Unrepentant, Part 2

Day 1

After breakfast, we took a slow and steady several hours to inspect each other’s gear, count GU packets, and weigh the pros and cons of couscous. After a few hours, in hot sunshine, we shouldered our monster packs and headed up the moraine. Soon, we traversed onto the ice of the Zvezdochka (Starry) Glacier. While beautiful, it was bright, hot, slushy and a maze of seracs and narrow river slots. Icy blue pools fed spectacular waterfalls. As we neared Camp 1, snow bridges became slushier and sketchier and we roped up. Just as we started to wonder where the Dutch tents would be, Bob led over a small rise and whooped out in joy…two beautiful tents were pitched in a broad, safe site just shy of camp one proper. We divvied up tasks and got to work re-anchoring tents and sorting gear. I fetched water from a nearby crevasse pond…we would use every trick in the book to save fuel.

Day 2

We wanted to get up through the serac band before sunrise, but when our alarm went of at 4 it was snowing and nasty out. We gladly took the extra hour or so of sleep before we brewed up, got dressed and marched up the glacier. Soon we could see an Iranian group working through the difficult sections above, and it was quite obvious why this portion of the route to Dikiy Pass was feared: a narrow and rotten gully was our only access to vertical/overhanging seracs fixed with lines. We romped up the gully as fast as we could, but the heat of the day was already softening things up and making the going tough. At the base of the seracs proper, Bob encountered a tricky overhang which took a few creative ideas and a ton of swearing to overcome. I ended up opting for my hands and knees on a dicey narrow ledge that we’d fixed with an additional ice screw. Just above, I popped through a snow bridge (protected by fixed line of course, but annoying nonetheless). The temperature was absurd. I’d say it felt like the upper 80s to 90s. All this with a monster pack and the inability to swap out 8000m boots for flip flops. After a mid day snack, I took the lead of the rope team as we entered the broad and gentle valley to Dikiy Pass. As we rounded a corner that gave our first views of camp 2 above, I saw a few climbers above moving slowly. Soon we reached two Iranians who were dealing with exhaustion. We didn’t feel much better and continued the last few meters to camp. A lone Russian wearing ski goggles and suffering from extraordinary sunburn plodded down at a snails pace. I stopped to say hi and learned that one climber had died on the summit ridge. No more details were exchanged as he continued to lumber down towards the glacier below. That evening, as we watched from our spectacular site we watched in awe as the entire Russian and Ukrainian contingents descended. They looked like hell. No fewer than twenty men, some collapsing every few meters slowly made their way down the ridge. It was an exodus. Soon, we were quite alone. The mountain felt different.

Day 3

We awoke to good conditions. The route to camp 3 looked beautiful and exciting, but once we wove out of camp 2 and got onto the lower buttress, things became challenging in hurry. The snow was deep and soft, and the hordes of climbers who had descended the previous day had turned the bootrack into sloppy ruts. The going got rougher when the wind and snow began to pick up. I donned my outerwear and our team regrouped to rope up at a small crevasse. Just a few meters later, things really deteriorated. In horizontal snow, we yelled over the wind for a bit before deciding to chop a platform and make camp. With the three of us working together, we stomped and shoveled a generous site, set up the tent and jumped in.


I felt a punch to my chest and lurched upright in the darkness. Bob was trying to wake me but I was already beyond alert. The roar of the wind started so suddenly, Bob had thought an avalanche was barreling down on us and was bracing for impact. So much for the weather. We spent the next five or so hours til dawn getting hammered by wind and spindrift out of the west so violent that it filled our vestibule with snow and was starting to crush us. Periodically I sat up to punch the consolidating snow to clear some space for sleeping. By the time the morning came, we knew we were pinned down for the day. Bob, always a team player, got out and started shoveling first. Our tent had been buried to the brim on the uphill side and our guy lines were coated in rime ice. We learned that those above us at 6400m had an ordeal in the night but were okay.

Day 4

Later in the morning, things cleared in a most spectacular fashion. Below, a sea of snowcapped peaks stretched in all directions. The magic of the Central Tien Shan was alive. All of our stuff luckily got dry and we spent the day resting and discussing the weather. What would we do? Later in the afternoon the winds picked up. Soon, we heard shouting voices and exited to see two figures in the whiteout probing for crevasses below. We briefly chatted with the two Russians as they came by, asking about the whereabouts of camp 3 as they slowly postholed higher. Later that evening, we met Juho as he rapidly descended to camp 2, his summit bid over.

Day 5

After a string of increasingly alarming weather forecasts for the coming days, we decided to pack up and descend to camp 2. At least camp 2 was in a safe (we weren’t so convinced that our spot on the buttress was out of avalanche danger) and comfortable location. After a short descent to camp 2, we again were able to stretch out, dry our clothing and sleeping bags and enjoy the mountain a bit. But the forecast continued to deteriorate. Now, winds were expected to be 90 mph for a couple days, and the pattern after the major wind storm seemed unsettled, with a substantial snowfall forecasted afterwards. Did we have enough food to sit out the weather and still make a summit attempt? Even in the best of circumstances, we’d have no margin for extra days as our reserves of food and fuel would be depleted by a 4-5 day wait. After much deliberation, we settled on returning to base camp in the morning. And that’s when the fun began. I tore into scrambled eggs, sliced cheese, blueberry granola and pasta. No sense lugging extra weight back down the mountain. Plus, in the previous couple days we’d been purposefully starving ourselves to keep as much extra food as possible. In the evening, a huge serac ripped off the summit ridge and produced undoubtedly the largest avalanche I’ve witnessed. Though we were miles away and several thousand feet higher than where it landed, the powder blast steadily marched up valley and swept over us and into the Dikiy Glacier valley. We were now quite alone on the mountain, as only the Russian pair were above us. I rested well knowing our mission was clearer though we still needed to return through some tricky terrain to base camp.

Day 6

We woke up to another spectacular day. With our systems and teamwork now dialed, we packed up and roped up for the glacier below. The route was spectacular in early morning light and the firm snow made for enjoyable cramponing. Soon we reached the top of the fixed lines as a few climbers ascended on their own summit bids. The glorious weather and the presence of others pushing higher made us openly question our decision. We remarked that while we certainly didn’t want anyone to get into trouble, we almost wanted the weather to get nasty to justify our bailing in such perfect conditions. By noon I reached the comfort of base camp, now more of a deserted tent city. Relaxed and happy, my journey into the unknown was over.


As predicted, the storm rolled through. Winds first started to roll over the ridge, then things got nasty in base camp. People were holding the dining tent down for dear life. Some tents were blown away in base camp. Reports from the Russian duo, now in a snow hole at 6900 were of 135 kph winds and being pinned down.

Pobeda: Route overview and considerations above our high point 

Camp 3 (5800m)

Simple, but somewhat avalanche-prone slopes from Dikiy Pass. There was a huge snow cave there, which could be used to escape extreme weather. But in the Russian/Ukrainian exodus following their assault, this had essentially been turned into a field hospital. We let our minds run wild as there were reports of trash, blood, vomit and discarded dexamethasone needles.

Camp 4 (6400m) 

Looked like fun and moderate climbing up the first rock band and in and out of couloirs to this airy perch. You know you’re getting close when you see the dead guy from last year. While somewhat sheltered, there’s space for just three tents. No snow cave option. Iranians were stuck here for six days. A tent collapsed here during our eventful night at 5600m.

Camp 5 (6700 or 6900m)

Sounded like there were snow cave options in either of these locations. West Pobeda (6900m) would be the only option for a one-day summit push that skipped the 7100m obelisk camp. Despite the simple climbing above 6400m, they both sounded like death traps. Go up there, get in a snow hole, and pray that the weather lets you get down.

Summit Ridge 

This thing simply gets hammered with insane winds, usually out of the west. Every. Day. During my several week stay here, I observed just two days that would have been good to be up there. Let’s say an average day is 40-50 mile per hour winds (gusts can knock you over!). At 23,000 ft, air temperature in the vicinity of 0 °F. During the bad times the ridge is obscured by a giant cloud and snow plume. Winds were as high as 90 miles per hour (72 is a hurricane). On several occasions, we observed wind driven over a kilometer off the summit into western China.