Off the Map: In Search of Mt. Saipal

Words: Forrest Coots

Photos: Jason Thompson

Stepping out of the relative comfort and safety of our bivy, under a cloudless starry night, it was time to put one foot in front of the other. Unlike the quiet and calm early morning, my mind was racing, running away with doubts, worries and frightening “what if” moments. I quieted the crazy thoughts by running over my mantra, “Climb a mountain, one step at a time; breath, and focus on solid foot work”.  I noticed how my crampons bit the hard snow as my axe deeply sunk into the snow. We slowly ascended higher and higher and I felt that uneasy restlessness recede back to its dark cave, deep in my mind.

As darkness slowly turned to dawn and the last stars of night began to fade, we made our way up, and soon the surrounding peaks were bathed in pink and orange.  Stopping all of us in our tracks, taking it in, we were stunned by the sunrise high in the Himalayas. I’ve dreamt of this moment for a lifetime, after spending countless hours reading the stories of other adventurers in these high and often unattainable mountains.

Sunrise on surrounding mountains as we climbed the SW face of Mount Saipal from 21,000ft.

Our journey started a little over three weeks earlier in the dusty, chaotic streets of Kathmandu where our team of Chad Sayers, Jason Thompson, Tyler Jones, myself, and filmmakers Will Lascelles and Ben Sturgulewski. We picked up our climbing permit from the department of tourism and got all of the last minute items, before departing for the unknown. We had come to Nepal to attempt to ski a wild and remote mountain, Saipal Himal, a 7,000m peak in the far west of the country. While tens of thousands of tourists come to Nepal each year to climb, trek and explore, less than a half a percent travel to the far west. This is largely due to the fact that it is one of the hardest to reach requiring a short flight, multiple hours in a car or bus and also laking the tourist infrastructure of the regions outside of Kathmandu. Days will turn to weeks and maybe weeks into months if one wasn’t careful.

In the early 2000s this region was closed to westerners due to a decade-long civil conflict between the Maoist and the government of Nepal. For those not fighting it was a no-go zone, closed to the outside world. To this day, outsiders even Nepali people from Kathmandu are looked at as outsiders and not true Nepalese. But, in 2006 the Maoist and the government put theirs guns down and came to the talk, achieving peace and opening the doors again for the possibility of tourism to the remote region. With a new road being constructed from Chainpur to the Chinese boarder, this region could see more economic development from trekking and climbing tourism, but as the new road is years from being complete it currently remains how it was before and during the conflict.

Our first views of Mount Saipal and its SE ridge.

To this day, the mountains remain just elevations hash’s on the map, where small tea houses along dusty trails lead to these peaks without names where few have ventured to explore. A golden mine for skiers, mountaineers and climbers looking for adventures free from the crowds around the capital.

Our second stop on our journey to Saipal was Dhangadhi, a large city on the Indian-Nepalese boarder.  Stepping off the plane, we were hit with a wall of muggy, humid heat. The sweat and the humidity caused our shirts to become soaked after only a few minutes.  It felt hard to believe that we’d come to this part of the world to climb and ski. The mountain peaks seemed like a world away, and as we would soon discover, we really were a world away.

Departing from the airport, we were jammed like sardines into a small jeep, nine deep, for a bumpy and windy thirteen hour drive. The jeep climbed higher and higher, arriving late at night in the last semi-civilized town that we would see for over a month. Chainpur, which sits on the banks of the Sedi River, is a dusty city of several thousand people acting as the regions capital seat. We spent the following day wandering its streets while standing out like aliens from a far off planet.

Following the Seti River from Chainpur to the end of the road – our starting point for a 6 day trek into BC.

The next day we set out from Chainpur. The rough pavement turned to dirt, and finally we reached the end of the road.  Here we left the jeeps for human power. Over the next six days we trekked higher and higher, traveling through villages cut from the mountain, through jungles and terraced rice paddies. We encountered leeches in are shoes, while the track was often lined with stinging nettles which left large welts on are arms and legs. We followed a path above the raging waters off the Sedi River, and hiked higher and higher.

Forres Coots shares art supplies to some stoked little groms in one of the remote villages that we visited.

Chad Sayers in one of the early villages that we walked through. That evening we camped in the town’s school play yard.

Two local kids examine new technology. The roads and villages in this area were around 2000m high, making for a very hot and humid conditions. Jungly feeling.

With each passing day, our path climbed in elevation. Eventually the lush, green jungle gave way to pine forests and high alpine meadows, where shepherds graze flocks of sheep and goats in the summer months.  We crossed the raging Seti River over an unattached handmade footbridge, where one small miss step would be the end of us all, giving us access to the narrow V-shaped Valley below Mt Saipal. Finally, on the morning of our sixth day we walked into what we would call home for the next three and half weeks,  Saipal Base Camp, beneath the gem of Bajhang, Mt Saipal. It had been a little over three weeks since we left our homes in North America. That morning, after traveling thousands of miles, we were seeing for the first time the South west face of Saipal.  Even then we were unsure if we could get around the ice fall, or if our skis would even touch the snow.

Tyler Jones and Forrest Coots crossing one of many sketchy log bridges. On the 2009 American expedition to Mount Saipal, they were stopped here because the bridge was out. Instead, they had to adjust and head up the valley seen in this photo to find skiing.

Over the next three weeks, we created an acclimation cycle, a plan that maximized time, to get our bodies ready for what would be the highest elevation any of us had ever climbed. To summit, we would still need a little luck from mother nature. We also needed to get our minds and bodies wrapped around the idea of climbing and skiing Saipal’s west face. A massive 1500 m (4500feet) face of 55 to 60 degree snow and ice topping out at 7000 m. Day after day we climbed high and slept low, returning to the comforts of base camp. We were slowly starting to establish camps higher and higher, figuring out how to unlock the ice fall section and getting a feel for the snow. Over those three weeks, we went up and down about 7000 m (23,000ft) of vertical up’s and then back down to an elevation of about 13,000 Ft. Always, in the back of our minds we asked, “Could this be skied?” From the comforts of base camp, and even Advanced Base Camp (ABC), it continued to look like a skiable snow surface.

One of our cache spots between BC and the upper mountain. A comfortable grassy area at 15,000ft.

On the twenty-first day in base camp, and five weeks after leaving home, we left ABC camp under a cloudless night sky with headlamps shining through the dark.  Walking towards the face, each of us we’re loaded down with 45 pounds of gear: tents, sleeping bags, cold weather layers, skis, boots, cookware and food. We were also weighed down with many unanswered questions about the snow quality and if we were forcing the issue of skiing this mountain. This didn’t rest well with any of us, we all had doubts that the snow was skiable in it’s current condition. Soon those doubts and fears rang like alarm bells in my head as I thought of my wife and kids back home and the chance of not returning to them. If there is anything I’ve learned in the mountains, it is that you need to trust and listen to your instincts. So in the first early rays of dawn we made the call, this was a far as our skis would go. We would continue up in our mountain boots, and make an alpine style attempt. Skiing was out. The conditions just didn’t allow for safe skiing. We would spend one night above the ice fall and then attempt a single push for the summit.  It’s funny, after 5 weeks of trekking, hiking and high mountain climbing, seven years of daydreams and three years of planning; we came to the conclusion that the risk wasn’t worth it. I had dreamt of climbing and skiing that face, but not at the expense of the possibility of not coming home. It was no longer an option.

Chad finally in the sun during a frigid climb on the SW face of Mount Saipal from 21,000ft. The intention was to use skis, but the snow forced plan B; climb in mountain boots.

As we climbed higher and higher that second morning, we soon learned that the snow quality wasn’t safe to ski and we had made the right call. Skiing on 55 degree breakable crust on top of facets at 20,000 feet and higher was not an option. My mind remained sharp and focused on the task at hand: summiting the mountain. I was harnessing those feeling of doubt and fear, and using them to my advantage. I once read that fear is like a fire, it can heat our home or it can burn it to the ground. It’s all about how you approach your fears, using it to sharpen your focus. But I soon learned, if you’re not mindful, all that harnessing can disappear in a moment. Stopping to put on some warmer layers, I watched as the others continued up. It looked like they were climbing a vertical white wall, all the while chunks of snow and ice whizzed by me. My mind began to race, I was losing my edge and all that fear and doubt was beginning to take control. The house was beginning to burn. Feeling that happening, I slowed everything down by taking several big deep breaths and thinking back to my mantra of “one step at a time”.  I began to climb again and gradually started to grab the reins to regain control of my thoughts and fears. We were all thinking that once the morning sun began to warm us, it would give us our second wind. It had the opposite effect. We all had cold feet. A few of us possibly had frostbite and were experiencing the effects of altitude. Doubts spread like wild fire amongst us. We all had concerns of uncertainty. Like a house of cards, once one card fails, the whole house falls. With the possibility of frostbite and hours and hours of climbing and descending in the bitter cold, we made the call to pull the cord. Loosing toes to frostbite was not an option for even one of us, so we started to down climb back to the bivy.

Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots descend in the miles of rocky talus slopes towards base camp after being shutdown at nearly 22,000ft. Frigid winds, cold digits and increasing weather forced us down.

Arriving back to the safety of the bivy, the mood of the group seemed quiet and introspective with all those “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” thoughts. Did we try hard enough? Could we have gone on? Was it the right call to turn around? Like a small cloud floating over us, we felt a sense of failure. We had all made sacrifices for a total of eight weeks of our lives away from home. We had endured an unquantifiable amount of bug bites, nettles stings, and other hardships to come away without summiting or even putting our skis on our feet.

Once I was back in Base Camp, I came to a different conclusion. If it’s about the journey and not the destination, then yes, we did make the right call. The mountains don’t care that you have dreamed of climbing and skiing this or that. It’s only our ego that cares. When I started daydreaming of going to Saipal all those years back, it was because it offered a truly wild adventure. An expedition into the unknown, where only few westerners have gone before and where the probability of success would be low. In the end it was successful, fulfilling the dream I’ve had for so many years.

Chad Sayers descending into the light in Far Western Nepal.

Watch the world premiere of Saipal, the film, at this year’s Arc’teryx Alpine Academy in Chamonix – Mont Blanc, on July 5 at 9:15pm. Learn more HERE