Return to Evil: Hilaree Nelson revisits oblivion to ski India’s 21,252-foot Papsura

In March 2013 Hilaree Nelson set out to climb and ski a towering 6,000-meter monster in a remote corner of India. Papsura—or The Peak of Evil by its endearing sobriquet—commands a proud, west-facing couloir that plummets more than 2,500 feet from its 21,252-foot summit. Alongside a half-dozen teammates, filmers and a photographer, Nelson made her way deep into the Tosh (pronounced Tose) Valley to lay tracks off the summit. Long story short, they didn’t make it. Copious snowfall and high winds carved deep runnels, polished snowfields into blue ice and created objective hazards that thwarted any common sense attempts on the monolith. 

Nevertheless, Nelson returned in May 2017 with Truckee-based mountaineer Jim Morrison, photographer Chris Figenshau and loads of intel from their past expedition. With a new plan, smaller group and a change in seasons, they would find some good in the world of Evil. This is her story in her own words.

Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson take in Papsura’s dramatic west-facing ramp. [Photo] Chris Figenshau

I first laid eyes on Papsura in 1999—ages ago. The friend who pointed it out to me was a heli pilot. He gave me a photo of the peak. It stayed with me for so long because, at the time, it was the most beautiful line I’d ever seen. It also seemed way beyond anything I was capable of, and so as years went by and my skills and knowledge grew, I saw it as a more attainable goal—sort of a culmination of all I’d learned since my first ski expedition.

Like the years before my first attempt in 2013, I just couldn’t get the mountain out of my head. I kept dreaming about it and was often thinking about how I could do it differently. 

For the second attempt, we went later in the season: May versus March. Instead of getting dropped at a base camp at 14,000 feet and traversing from point A to point B, we did an out and back and walked the entire approach over three days to get to 14,000 feet. By doing that, we could keep a base camp and not be moving our whole show every single day. This let us be a bit more rested and gave us way more of a safety net.

Both Figenshau and I roped off the top 30 meters due to whiteout and crevasses. Jim was able to ski that section and then sorted out a way to pick through the cliffs to get us back on the proper face that we had climbed up. I put my skis on for the rocky traverse. Once we were on the face, it was super steep and the fog made it impossible to discern ice from snow. We moved super slow and talked to each other a bunch. I was worried about vertigo. It was the most committing “no fall” zone I’d ever been in. 

We started a system where we’d put in an ice screw and drop 30 meters of rope. This helped us see the slope. The first person would sideslip using the rope with an arm wrap and check for ice. The second person would then drop the rope and pull the screw, sideslipping the section while the lower person set up another screw and dropped the rope for the next section. 

After a couple hours the fog lifted, and we were able to put the rope away and ski/sideslip the remaining 2,000-plus feet of the slope. For that section we could finally see, but it was equally intense staring down this relentless exposure that seemed to want to eat us up. We all continued with one ski pole tucked away and had an ice axe in hand instead. We did this for another two hours before we reached the bottom in the dark.

The feeling on Papsura was that we were so remote that no one was going to come give us a rescue or offer support in any way above base camp. For me, that really affects the way I climb and ski and interact with my partners. 

It was intensely stressful in many ways: altitude, exposure, whiteout, onset of darkness, minimal food and water, etc. With all of those things, you have to have a lot of trust in the people you’re with—in their skill set, their ability to stay calm, to communicate and to be committed. Fortunately for me, for all of us, the technicality of it helps keep you super focused. By the time we got to the bottom, I was totally unaware of how much time had passed. We were all able to finally breathe and laugh.

Editors’ Note: This story first appeared in the 2018 Spring Issue, in which Hilaree Nelson was referred to by her former last name, O’Neill.

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