Ski-mountaineering 7K's!

Story by Martin Vorel

I love ski-mountaineering and on my trips to the mountains, I’m always considering the possibility of the mountain being ‘skiable’, and so I try to incorporate skis whenever possible. Our expedition to Tien Shan mountain range was different. While Khan Tengri has a rocky ridge from Camp 3 towards the summit. Pik Pobeda is very steep, icy and has a snowy ridge beyond Camp 2 all the way to Camp 5. The summit ridge which starts in Camp 5 is more or less flat and about four kilometers long - all above 7.000 meters.  It just didn’t seem that attractive to me to consider skiing.

The extreme cold temperatures on these northernmost 7K mountains was another reason to take proper high-end heavy-insulated mountaineering boots rather than thin ski skeleton boots. We took the Manaslu GV from our partner Asolo. During the packing and “home testing” of our equipment, I spotted my girlfriend’s split board in our hall which was just inactively waiting for next season. Suddenly I realized that my new Manaslu’s have pretty nice and high side support around ankle and I started thinking.

They’re obviously not that stiff in back-front direction, to allow easy walking and climbing. This is partly solved by heel support on snowboard binding which can be improved by power strap above front ankle for better stiffness of the complete set. I tried the compatibility between the boot and Linda’s binding and it worked well as Linda uses quite large snowboarding boot as well…I immediately got the idea that I could possibly take the board with me to fill some spare days around base camp. This extra 5 kilo won’t add that much to my 80+ kg luggage which I was packing.

While I spent dozens of days skiing during 2017 season, I was riding my snowboard just day or two – it’s not my prime sport. This didn’t really give me too much confidence for anything steeper but normal slope around 30 or 35 degrees would be fine. Of course, transportation was not that easy especially due to size of one of my luggage containing the splitboard. Lots of questions from my team mates, fellow climbers or expedition company were also risen.

Upon arrival to base camp I realized there are not many nice slopes around BC in close distance and I was a bit disappointed in my decision to bring the splitboard all the way from Prague. However, while climbing up, I learnt that the slopes between Camp 1 and Camp 3 on Khan Tengri could be skiable with some fresh snow on the decent slope!

So I decided to take the snowboard up there and see what the mountain can offer. On my way up the going got though, I could surely feel the extra weight of the backpack which was pushing me at my limits. After Camp 1, we made a cache just under icefall to ~4.700m to split the weight on our move from Camp 1 to Camp 2 (4.300m to 5.300m). I left my splitboard there.

A few days later we took the cache and passed the ice fall. We were at around 5.000m when I finally realized, YES! – this is the right terrain to do some snowboarding on this mountain. I could put the skins on, lighten my backpack and move up to Camp 2 using the split board in walk mode. During next days we did some moves between Camp 2 and Camp 3 so I could skin up and enjoy riding on quite hard surface. It was so nice to blast past my teammates – freedom!

For me Camp 3 at 5.900 metres was my limit altitude for the snowboarding on this mountain. However I think it is possible to take the skis even higher to about 6.300m where Camp 4 (which is not normally used) is located. One can find quite some lines to ski down the southwestern slope of Khan Tengri in slope averaging 45 degrees. I would be comfortable on skis, however, not on snowboard where my skills are indeed recreational. The southwestern slope ends between Camp 2 and Camp 3 and the only obstacle is a long crevasse located between the slope and quite flat area between the camps.

On our summitpush the snowboard then stayed behind in Camp 3. We made it to the summit and after that we got stuck due to bad weather. A few days later the snow storm passed and allowed us to get down from the mountain. There was plenty of powder snow so the riding and sunrise was very absolutely amazing. In a few minutes I got from Camp 3 to Camp 2, I packed some trash we left there and continued to the complex ice fall under Camp 2 at around 4.900 meters. Here I waited for Allert and Gijs, we roped up and crossed the icefall safe and sound.   

The glacier bellow was covered with the fresh snow from the storm so this made it possible to ski all the way to Camp 1. All in all Khan Tengri offers the possibility to enjoy almost two vertical kilometers of skiing from approximately 6.300 metres to 4.300 meters which may be interrupted for approximately 100 vertical meters in complex part of icefall at around 4.900 meters.

High altitude skiing is complex, but you should go out there and get some!

Gijs Schuurhuis