Immediately getting off the plane in Kathmandu it was clear I was in a different world. Monkeys hanging from power lines, families weaving through 6-lane traffic on scooters, yaks in the middle of the street and people everywhere. Here we are at the Monkey Temple harnessing as much positive juju as we can for the mission ahead, filming for Higher with Teton Gravity Research.
Swayambhu Maha Chaitya / Monkey Temple
Shree Pashupatinath Temple
What I love about travel is you never know what you are going to see. Meeting different people along the way and seeing how they live gives me great perspective on life. I was talking to these medicine men on the bank of a river watching cremation ceremonies being performed in the middle of a bustling town.
“It’s pretty shocking when you arrive in Kathmandu and it’s such a big mess,” Luca says. “In one square-meter you have all types of vehicles you can imagine and they are all moving in different directions. You know you just wonder how they don’t crash. There are motorbikes, like three people on a bike, everyone is beeping, it’s so noisy—it’s pure anarchy. But there are some rules because somehow they don’t crash.” The ritual to just about any trip to Nepal starts in the streets of Kathmandu. The colors, the smells, the vibes, the religion, it’s all pummeled into your senses.
“It’s this cool transformation of color,” Andrew remembers. “You go from Kathmandu, everything is so bright and colorful from, you know, the different holy dudes that are down by the river smoking hash and you have monkey temples and prayer flags and just all this chaos, then you go to the start of the Khumbu Valley, which is this lush, green place, then you head up to the higher hills and once you get past Pangboche things start turning into this weird tundra and muted color tones and rock and blue sky, and then you get all the way up to the glacier.” The chain of transport dumped the crew out at Lukla airport, regarded by many as the world’s most dangerous. Videos of the flights are mental. The group arrived without a glitch, but were struck again with further doubt after arrival.
The challenges posed by climbing the world’s most colossal mountains are the definition of daunting. This region of Asia is the pinnacle of mountaineering. Elements of mountain exploration here—landform, elevation, weather, cost, logistics, and the physical and mental demands—are the most intense on the planet. For a film named Higher, and a series built on progression through the uncharted, it seemed only par for the course that Jones and crew would some day end up here.
“It’s weird, halfway through last winter I just felt this itch to go ride there and this call of the Himalayas,” Jeremy says. Initial thoughts were leaning towards Bhutan, at the eastern end of the Himalayas. “So we started doing some research to figure out this part of the world.” We, meaning Jeremy and Chris Figenshau of Teton Gravity Research. Chris eventually uncovered a dreamy image of an AK-style spine wall in Nepal, which soon became the catalyst for the entire expedition.
The photo Chris Figenshau found in an old climbing book, was of a beautifully fluted face less than a mile south of the once popular climbing and former trade route of Mingbo La pass in northeastern Nepal. It was northwest facing, somewhere in the 20,000-foot range, 50 plus degrees in pitch, and sat in plain view of beasts like Ama Dablam, Lhotse, and Mt. Everest.
To embark on such a foreign excursion, with little to no beta on weather, snow conditions, “It was definitely the greatest gamble I’ve ever taken in snowboarding in the sense of launching a five-week mission to a face that no one’s ever been to, at a time when no one’s ever been there, to a place where most people I talked to were like, ‘It doesn’t snow there, there’s no soft snow, you’re gonna be ice climbing,’ and not having a back-up plan,” Jeremy sums up. Admittedly he’d never been above 14,000 feet, until a shotgun trip to Denali a few months prior to the expedition.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport (LUA)
Flying in was trip. We were stuffed into this small plane that was put to retirement long ago in the first world. We all had our expedition backpacks on our laps. For the duration of the 40 minutes we were weaving in and out of clouds through the mountains when the shortest airstrip I have ever seen appeared. It was tacked on to the side of the mountain and was actually up hill. It was a relief to walk off that plane.
Before coming to the Nepal I thought I lived in the mountains. But once here I realized I lived in the foothills of the mountains. These people live in the mountains. For days we trekked our way up the Khumbu valley. Hours would go by with out seeing anything. I would feel we were getting out of civilization only to come around a corner and see a town stapled to the side of the mountain. I could never get my head around their way of life and how almost all supplies came in on foot. They live a simple, rustic life and are some of the happiest people on earth. Ironically most of them really wanted to come to the US.
When it came to stretching a budget and assembling a crew capable of taking on the task, TGR was an obvious choice, along with photographer Andrew Miller, and none other than Italy’s Luca Pandolfi. “It’s my second expedition [to the Himalayas] and I have a lot of friends here and there going on expeditions and I think that it’s pretty much impossible to do some things—even smaller than this trip—without support because of carrying stuff, because of the permits, so many things,” Luca says. Aside from the Sherpas and guides, Luca was the only snowboarder in the crew with hands-on experience at elevations this high and these peaks. He’d done some trekking in Nepal in the past, bagged some peaks in Pakistan. “You can’t carry two weeks of food on your back, your tent, your board—there’s no way,” Luca points out. “To give you an idea, this time last year we were three people in Pakistan and we had 54 porters. And food, imagine food for one month? Imagine food for six people on our trip?”
For this trip the crew had lined up porters, Sherpas, yaks, and a helicopter to haul in the goods. “When I was 24 I wanted to do everything on my own,” Luca recalls. “It’s a lot of suffering, man. I’m not attracted to 8,000 meters [roughly 26,000 feet]. First, because the snow is terrible. Then it’s suffering, above the level we were looking at it’s really suffering, like you have a constant headache. There are so many other things involved. You need such a big motivation. Like you’re going there with a snowboard, but it’s really about a different experience, you know?”
Supplies to Base Camp
Further up the trail on the way to Base Camp. The porters are a physical anomaly. A normal load was a 100 pounds attached to them with some twine and a piece of tarp that goes around their forehead. Some of the guys were carrying double loads, 200 pounds. At 5'8" I would be considered big there. I have no idea how they do it. Someone should study them.
Leaving civilization and heading into Base Camp with Everest and Lhotse in the background. Excitement is at an all time high. It is time to get off the trail and into the hart of the Himalayas.
Loads to High Camp
Carrying a load to High Camp for the first time up around 17k. Sir Edmund Hillary set up a camp here in the 50’s. My eyes are glued to the direction of the face in hopes of getting a glimpse of it. Is it rideable? Am I crazy for traveling to the other side of the world to try and snowboard in Nepal?
Sunrise mountain view
Early morning break in the clouds after an evening snowstorm. I could never really wrap my head around these mountains. The size, magnitude, and vastness are on a level I have never seen before.
From here the crew pushed on into the Khumbu valley. “In Kathmandu, in the lower part of Nepal, the peoples are Hindus,” Luca says. “So with Hindus there are so many guts and manifestations of guts. It’s pretty intense, especially when there are festivals when they gorge animals, because blood is considered holy and they spread it everywhere. But the valleys are people coming from Tibet and they are Buddhist, and I love that because the sense of peace you experience in the valleys. They have these praying, healing wheels you pass and there are the prayer flags moving by the wind so you have this sensation of movement. So everything is movements, you know? It’s like water. If the water flows it keeps itself clean. If it stops then it becomes rotten. The philosophy is pretty much the same. You can feel this.” The feeling of motion and the act itself became one in the same as the group trekked their way upward towards the glacier and their soon-to-be basecamps, “two weeks of hiking just to get to snow,” as Jeremy says.
Getting over the fear of failure was one of the biggest hurdles the crew faced. Although calmed by the pure spirituality of the place, the group’s compilation of time, money and sacrifice all pooled into the electrified unknown. The time stirring in the tents, enduring the weather, the acclimatizing, the physical strain, the mundane laps on the glacier.
"Each time we rode we had to go from base camp to high camp, spend the night, go snowboard, come back to high camp, stay the night then go back to base camp and repeat the process."
And this was just to stay active, to prep the body for the real riding that may or may not lay ahead. And then it popped.
“The first day we rode spines like Alaska, it was like bottomless sugar powder,” Luca says. “We had like one week of bad weather and so the first day we went to the wall and I was looking up like, this is so steep with consistent snow, bottomless sugar snow. Jeremy was completely swimming on the ride down; he was disappearing in the snow.”
“I could have easily walked in there and the thing could have been an ice climb—like well, ‘I guess we’re not snowboarding,’” Jeremy says. “I don’t know if we were super lucky or not, but I feel fortunate. I thought there was a good chance that things would be unrideable.” The crew scored one solid day of epic riding, and with the taste of the goods still lingering in their mouths, they gorged on food and drink and pushed for another. But within a day solar radiation had turned the bottomless, bubbly sugar—a type of snow that neither Jeremy nor Luca had ever ridden—to crud. Then it was back to more waiting, more cyclical laps and more weather reports from the satellite phone.
Going into this trip I got very little encouragement from most climbers about the chance for good snow. But all the climbers come in the dry season and focus on higher mountains. We focused on the end of the Monsoon season in hopes of getting fresh snow on peaks below 23k. Conrad Anker and Jon Krakauer where the two people that thought we had a chance of getting good snow. They were right. There was a lot of potential for significant descents in the 18k to 23k zone. I saw a lot of dream lines off of these lower unnamed peaks. I have no idea if we got lucky with conditions, these where average, or if it is was a bad year. But it felt to me that there are a lot of unclimbed and unridden dream lines waiting for an ambitious taker to tackle them.
Minbo La Glacier
Working on the last two films (Deeper and Further) with Teton Gravity Research have been a huge learning experience both in how I climb the mountains and how we document it. The cameramen are the true unsung heroes of the films. They have to carry tons of weight, sleep with batteries and keep their lenses from fogging during multi day storms. For Higher TGR wanted to step it up and shoot it in 4K. I was not sure if this was possible due to the added weight of the cameras but the cameramen embraced the challenge. Here Matt Herriger dials in the long lens while Nick Kalisz looks on. These guys are the best in the world at what they do.
No one has camping more dialed than the Nepali people. I left all the logistics to our local handler in Nepal, Jiban Ghimire. We never talked about our base camp setup, food or any other details. I could not believe my eyes when I came over the ridge and saw base camp for the first time. We had a dining tent, cook tent, media tent, shower tent and bathroom tent. They said this was their basic level of camp accommodations.
The day before I sat on the top of Shangri La (white peak on the right sky line) for 3 hours at 21,400 ft waiting for a cloud to move off the face. At 3:30pm I aborted the mission and down climbed the ridge in a white out to the saddle where I could ride from. It was the hardest day of the trip and spirits where at an all time low as we walked back into camp at 9pm that night. We were all spent and planned to head back to base camp for a much needed rest day at lower altitude but word of a huge monsoon approaching in 36 hours changed our plans. We stayed put and made one more attempt for the peak. As forecasted, a 10-day storm came in the day after we rode the face and dropped 8 to 10 feet of snow in the mountains.
The gamble had paid out, at least a small share. The unknown had now become a cache of experience logged into the gray matter of everyone’s brains. Whether they rode more or not, it didn’t matter. They tried, but weather shut them out for good, in fact, they were lucky to leave before a massive storm system struck the place and an avalanche around Everest killed three climbers and one Sherpa. Their encounter with these peaks could not be erased, nor could the people.
Like gravity, mountains have a power unto themselves. “It hurt me a lot to go away on the mountains,” Luca says. His mother had passed away three days before the departure of this trip. The option to bow out was there, but he continued along with the plan. “When I had time to think about my mom it put me in a different point of view,” he continues. “A couple of days I was going into the high alone, just behind or ahead of the guys, and I felt the presence of my mom. I was thinking about my life like flashbacks and stuff like that. I think it was the perfect place to heal myself, heal my soul, to heal the pain and everything because there’s nothing like the mountains—if you love them—they can give you this power, this energy and at the same time absorb the bad vibrations, the bad energy you have.”
In light of the loss, the spiritual aura buzzing through the terrain, and the aptly named guiding agency they employed, Shangri-La Treks & Expeditions, the group named this expedition and the first descents on the wall they rode—Shangri-La. “Shangri-la is a metaphor, no?” Luca says. “Especially in the mountains and the sherpa valleys, we’d been there more than one month, and we didn’t see a single bad look or feel a single bad vibe or hear a single bad word, even between the valleys. Everyone is welcoming you, they’re smiling, there’s no children crying. That’s probably really Shangri-la, man. It’s like they live in paradise. They look poor compared to our parameters of living, but their life is pretty much basic, it is a happy people. I don’t know who are the richers, them or us? Shangri-La describes this kind of magical place, like a beautiful inner place. I think looking at the world nowadays, like what’s happening and how we live, you feel the warmth of the people here. Like no one fighting, it’s such a pleasure. Someone could say ‘Yeah, you bring money to them,’ but you bring money to all the places you travel and people treat you like shit."
Luca Pandolfi first line
Luca Pandolfi enjoying good snow on our first lap on Shangri La. Picking a riding partner for this trip was tricky. I was looking for someone with Himalayan experience, could handle really steep terrain and had been on long expeditions before. These criteria quickly whittled it down to Luca Pandolfi from Chamonix. He had been to Pakistan before and had racked up some of the most impressive big mountain descents in the Alps the last few years.
Dropping the line
Dropping in off the top of the line, the snow was a little firm for the steepness of the face. At 45 degrees it would have ridden really well. But at 60 degrees I was having a hard time holding an edge on the face. At this point I am just off rope descending with my axe in the snow. The line was relentless. Normally halfway down a face the slope starts to flatten out but with this face it got a few degrees steeper.
Past the crux
I have made it past the crux and into better snow. I am no longer in a "no fall" zone but I am physically spent. I was really surprised how hard the snowboarding was at altitude. A few months prior to this trip I snowboarded off Denali and felt pretty good. But this was much more demanding snowboarding and every turn required an explosive movement. It felt like snowboarding underwater. All I can compare it to is my worst hold-downs I have ever had surfing where I would come up seeing black spots. Never have I maxed out my lungs like that.
A moment over four weeks in the making. On the last possible weather window Jeremy Jones and Chris Figenshau made one last attempt at the main line off the top of the 21,000ft Shangri-La Spine wall. Right on cue the clouds lifted, sun came out and allowed Jeremy just enough time to make his 45 minute hair raising descent.