Photography by Rene Robert and JM Portes
[This feature was originally published in Volume 19 of TransWorld SNOWboarding, February, 2006. Subscribe to the World’s No 1 Snowboarding Magazine right here]
A rider’s quest for snowboarding’s Holy Grail—Everest’s Hornbein Couloir.
By Trey Cook
If you’re going to make a name for yourself as a big-mountain rider, there could be few better places to begin your journey than Chamonix, France. Nestled in a valley 3,810 meters below the highest summit in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, Chamonix is known as the birthplace of Alpinism. It also developed a name for itself as one of the early cradles of skiing when it hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Combine these two pursuits and you’re sure to find a crew of nutcases who insist on skiing faster and steeper than whatever mentalists came before them. And it’s also not too hard to imagine that wherever world-class Alpinists and world-class skiers congregate, over the course of a cold, dark winter, the two are inevitably bound to congregate and procreate. And every so often the gentle people of the valley are blessed with a child who just happens to be dialed straight into Gnarl Factor 11.
Philippe and Michelle Siffredi celebrated the birth of their fourth child, Marco, on the 22nd of May 1979. And it was during Marco’s early childhood that the mountains in his backyard developed their reputation as a hotbed of extreme skiing-not the X Games type of extreme, but O.G. extreme skiing: if you fall, you die.
As a kid in Chamonix, Marco didn’t need to look to comic books or movies for heroes when local skiers like the emblematic Jean-Marc Boivin were already larger than life with their outrageous first descents of impossibly steep lines. One of the first to make the same kind of impact on a snowboard was the legendary Bruno Gouvy who became famous in 1986 for parachuting from a helicopter onto the fin-like summit of a 1,000-meter, near-vertical tower called the Petit Dru. He then rappelled approximately two-thirds of the way down the face, where he strapped in and made turns down a 250-meter, 50-degree, hanging glacier, below which was nothing but 500 meters of crisp Alpine air. He finished the day’s activities by parapenting from the bottom of the snowpatch back to Chamonix.
When Gouvy died on the Aiguille Verte in 1990, two young Chamonix mountain guides soon became the heirs apparent to the extreme snowboarding crown. Jerome Ruby and Dede Rhem scored first descents of some of the sickest lines in the valley, including the coveted first descent, ski or snowboard, of the North Face of the Aiguille du Triolet.
Marco, inspired by these feats, soon began ticking some of the valley’s steeper routes. In May of 1996, only a year after learning to ride, Marco knocked off one of the valley’s test pieces: the Mallory on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, a 1,000-meter, wildly exposed rock garden with passages close to 55 degrees. To end the season, he stuck the first snowboard descent of the Chardonnet (sustained 55 degrees) with his friend Philippe Forte, who would later die in an avalanche on Chamonix’s Grands Montets ski area.
Big Peaks, Massive Cojones
Marco went from strength to strength, racking up more first descents in the valley before extending his horizons to bigger peaks. Before he left for Peru’s Tocllaraju (6,032 m) during Fall 1998 with Philippe Forte and photographer Rene Robert, a friend’s mother gave him a cross pendant. The team successfully summited and descended the peak, and from that point on, the cross became a good-luck charm that accompanied Marco on all his future attempts.
Back in Chamonix in June of 1999, he snaked the first snowboard descent and second-ever descent of the highly coveted Nant Blanc on the Aiguille Verte. The Nant Blanc is a 1,000-meter line averaging 55 degrees with sections of 60 degrees. It had never been repeated following Jean-Marc Boivin’s epic ski descent in 1989. Good conditions on lines like that are rare, and it was certainly one of the cherries that many of the hard guys in the valley talked about picking, but very few of them were actually capable of doing so. Rene Robert’s photos of the descent are awe-inspiring, and for those few who still thought of Marco as just another snowboard punk, the descent solidified his place among the world’s best extreme skiers/snowboarders.
Marco followed the Nant Blanc performance by going higher. In the fall of that same year, he added the first descent of Dorje Lhakpa (6,988 meters) in Nepal to his resume. From the summit, he had a clear view of two of the world’s highest peaks-Shishapangma and Mount Everest. The seed was planted, and on his return to Chamonix, Marco contacted the best in the business, Russell Brice of Himalayan Expeditions, a commercial guiding operation specializing in fully equipped expeditions to 8,000-meter peaks. Brice wisely advised the young rider to try his hand at other 8,000-meter peaks (eight of the world’s fourteen are in Nepal) before attempting Everest to see if his body could even adapt to the extreme altitude, and the two began making plans for another Himalayan giant, Cho Oyu. But first, Marco returned to South America in June 2000 to summit Huayna Potosi, a 6,088-meter summit in Bolivia. During that fall, Marco summited and rode the sixth-highest peak on Earth, 8,201-meter Cho Oyu. High on these successes, Marco was ready for Everest.
Mt Everest – Part 1
In spring of 2001, Marco left with Himalayan Expeditions for Everest. A few days ahead of him was Dr. Stefan Gatt from Austria, an experienced rider/Alpinist with his own successful snowboard descent of Cho Oyu. Although Gatt chose to climb without the assistance of Sherpas or supplemental oxygen (making the outrageous attempt infinitely more difficult), the two riders shared the same goal, and it would be a race to see who would become the first person to score a snowboard descent of Everest.
Marco’s hope was to summit and descend by the Hornbein Couloir, but when he got to the mountain, there was hardly any snow on the windswept summit. By leaving in spring, he had a better chance of summiting due to the lighter snow conditions, but those same conditions made it impossible for him to realize his original plan. As the climbers moved up the mountain, enough snow accumulated to enable the descent via plan B, the Norton Couloir.
Marco summited on May 23, the day after his 22nd birthday. He dropped in and started making turns past the long line of exhausted climbers. Not far from the summit his binding broke in the extreme high-altitude cold. Luckily, one of the Sherpas was able to fix it with bailing wire, and Marco entered the couloir, shredding 1,800 meters on slopes of 40 to 45 degrees. He stopped at the North Col to rest for an hour before finishing off the last 1,000 meters and arrived at Advanced Base Camp less than four hours after leaving the summit.
Back at Base Camp, the team was already on the satellite phone, and it was only a matter of minutes before the amazing news spread to every corner of the snowboarding universe. Although Gatt had summited less than 24 hours ahead of Marco, he had taken his board off and down-climbed past 100 meters of the steepest terrain. Because he rode all the way from the summit back to Advanced Base Camp, Marco’s historic descent was recorded as the first continuous snowboard descent of the world’s highest mountain.
Never Say “Last Run”
Shishpangma, another giant of the Himalayas, was the next stop along Marco’s road to the Hornbein Couloir—the true North Face of Everest and his ultimate goal. He summited Shishpangma—the 14th highest peak in the world—during the fall of 2001 without his snowbaord (because of high winds).
Marco and his Sherpa friend Phurba, along with Russell Brice and Loppasang Temba Sherpa spent the following summer in Chamonix. It was during this time that the plan for a second Everest attemp was drawn up. The dangers, the logistics, and the funding could have delayed and deterred any team, but Marco would not be held back.
Thursday, 8 August, 2002
Marco leaves Chamonix, forgetting the good-luck cross he’s always taken with him in the past. He arrives in Katmandu and makes his way to the Hotel Tibet, where he hooks up with Phurba, Pa Nuru, and Da Tenzing, three Sherpas who will play an essential role in getting Marco and his equipment to the summit of Everest.
Saturday, 10 August, 2002
The team leaves Katmandu and drives north toward Tibet. As part of Marco’s acclimatization, he will spend a night at Kodari on the Nepal/Tibet border, then Nyalam, a town in the middle of nowhere that would seem to exist solely as a way station for climbers and trekkers if it weren’t for the massive building projects undertaken by the Chinese government. The town’s newly imported Chinese transplants have already relegated the local Tibetans with their dirt floors, bare feet, and primitive hygiene to second-class citizens-advanced stages of China’s strategy to systematically bury the colorful, centuries-old Tibetan culture with the gray generics of the Communist ideal.
The crew picks up the last of their supplies at the next wide spot in the road, Tingri, before kissing so-called civilization good-bye.
Wednesday, 14 August, 2002
One week after leaving Chamonix, Marco swings into the jeep that will take him to Base Camp at 5,000 meters (16,404 feet). The next morning, the Sherpas organize a puja, a Buddhist custom of offering food, drink, incense, and prayers to the deities in exchange for a safe expedition. As the puja draws to an end, the clouds part and the team’s energy is renewed by their first view of Everest. Marco studies the North Face through a telescope and is happy to find plenty of snow-so much in fact that large slab avalanches are cutting loose all over the face. The Hornbein looks “in,” but the snow will need to stabilize.
The team spends the next few days at Base Camp to acclimatize, and Marco kills time by taking a recon mission to the base of the North Face.
Tuesday, 20 August, 2002
Yak teams arrive at BC, and the gear is loaded on their backs for the trip to Advance Base Camp (ABC).
Thursday, 22 August, 2002
The team arrives at ABC at the foot of the North Col. Marco’s previous trip to Everest was made in the spring, before the monsoon season. It’s at this time, when there’s less snow on the mountain, that the majority of Everest ascents are made. But 99.99 percent of Everest climbers do not come to Everest to shred. Marco has come in the fall, after the monsoons, when he can take advantage of the deeper snow. When he arrives at ABC, he hardly recognizes it as the same place where he was two years ago in the spring, when ABC looked like an overcrowded campground.
Friday, 23 August, 2002
Thirty centimeters of fresh snow has fallen overnight. Checking the mountain, Marco sees that the entire North Face has ripped clean, exposing the rock below. He describes the face as “a festival of avalanches.” The weather falls into a regular pattern of nice weather during the day followed by snow in the afternoon. Avalanches ravage the face daily, and the bottom of the route seems icy.
Yann Giezendanner is Marco’s trusted meteorologist back in Chamonix. Like the Surfline of the mountains, climbers have pinned the success of their expeditions on Yann’s expertise for years. The team’s two-way radio is malfunctioning and using a satellite telephone, Marco not only calls Yann on a daily basis, but also his girlfriend Stà‡phanie and his family and friends. With no one other than Marco and his team on the mountain, loneliness and boredom are setting in. By the end of the trip, he will rack up a 2,000-dollar phone bill.
Over the next few days, the Sherpas begin fixing ropes and carrying gear to Camp 1, climbing ever closer to the Death Zone above 8,000 meters. Even here, at just over 6,000 meters, Marco is experiencing frequent headaches. At this altitude, everything from putting on your boots to trying to eat and sleep becomes a major pain in the ass. From here on, the only thing to look forward to is more suffering.
Wednesday, 28 August, 2002
The team takes a preliminary run to the North Col and bivouacs. Overnight a storm rolls in, and they descend the next day in bad weather. Marco straps in and rides down next to the fixed ropes with the Sherpas shooting video.
Saturday, 31 August, 2002
Marco and the Sherpas are back at the North Col and the next day struggle through waist-deep snow to Camp 2 at 7,500 meters (24,606 feet).
Monday, 2 September, 2002
The team wakes to falling snow. Hoping the weather will break, the Sherpas shoulder their massive packs and make a push for Camp 3. There is less snow the higher they go, but the deteriorating weather forces them to stash the gear at 7,700 meters (26,262 feet) and turn back. The daily call to Yann, however, forecasts better weather ahead, and Marco considers initial plans for a summit push. He decides to send the Sherpas to establish Camp 3 at 8,300 meters (27,230 feet) and come back down.
Wednesday, September 4, 2002
Yann announces an approaching weather window-small flurries for the next few days, but Sunday, September 8 should be bluebird. Sunday will be his summit day. Marco finds it hard to control his excitement and tells the camera, “The hardest is yet to come, little man. Don’t be too happy just yet.”
Somewhere far below, Olivier Besson, a mountain guide from Megà¤ve, France (near Chamonix), is hurrying to catch up to Marco. Phurba Sherpa urges Marco to wait for Olivier, who will bring a repaired radio with him. The radio will provide a communication link between Marco and the descending Sherpas, as well as with the valley below. But in the mountains, when an opportunity presents itself you take it, and Marco is convinced the time is now.
Friday, 6 September, 2002
The summit push begins. Marco leaves Camp 2 and makes it to 7,900 meters (25,918 feet) while the Sherpas continue to 8,300 meters to establish High Camp. The day is full-on bluebird; the sun is strong. Marco stands outside in his shirtsleeves at almost 8,000 meters as he makes the day’s phone calls. Although he fills his friends in on his true progress, he tells his parents he’s still down at ABC. Marco doesn’t want to cause them any additional grief and will hold back stories about hanging out in a place where your mind and body are rapidly deteriorating until he is safely back in Base Camp.
Saturday, 7 September, 2002
Marco makes his way to Camp 3, officially entering the Death Zone. Above 8,000 meters, the human body can no longer regenerate and will eventually die. The altitude is taking its toll, and Marco’s starting to feel worked. He calls Yann Giezendanner in Chamonix for the forecast: clear Saturday night and Sunday, some clouds with possible snowfall but mostly under 8,000 meters. Yann tells Marco not to stay too late-the wind will kick up in the afternoon, and the next day is uncertain. “You won’t have many chances.”
“Okay, merci. Adieu, Yann.”
“Yeah, we’ll talk tomorrow, Marco. Call me when you’re down.”
“Yes, but adieu, Yann. Adieu.”
The conversation above may seem fairly normal, but you Canadians out there will know that au revoir is the typical peace out between friends, not adieu. Adieu is used only when a person never expects to see the other again except in the Haute Savoie region where adieu is a colloquialism used between friends. Yet Yann is kind of freaked out by Marco’s sign-off. To him, Marco’s adieu doesn’t sound like the Chamonix “see you later.”
Marco’s satellite phone batteries are running low when he makes the next call to his friend and riding buddy, Bertrand Delapierre. “Bertrand, I’m so close to the Hornbein I could touch it. It’s right here. The snow is great. I feel strong.” Contrary to Yann, Bertrand thinks Marco sounds confident.
Soon after, the phone’s battery dies. Marco and the Sherpas are now totally alone in one of the world’s most hostile environments.
Sunday, September 8, 2002
Summit day is going to be a long day of extraordinary effort. By 1:30 a.m., the crew has left Camp 3, and the Sherpas begin the unimaginable task of breaking trail through chest-deep snow at 8,000 meters. At 2:10 p.m., after twelve-and-a-half hours in the Death Zone, the team reaches 8,848 meters (29,028 feet), the highest point on Earth, the summit of Chomolungma, The Mother Goddess, Mount Everest. The ascent has taken three times longer than Marco’s first Everest ascent in Spring 2001. It’s a feat, alone, that Himalayan veteran Russell Brice calls “a remarkable achievement.”
The euphoria is unlike any other. Phurba Sherpa is first on the summit, and when Marco arrives, Phurba smiles and greets him:
"Where are we?"
"At the summit, but tired," replies Marco.
Phurba does a little dance. "Summit! Summit!"
"Tired. Tired. Too much snow. Too much climbing," says Marco, clearly not sharing the revelry.
For those not near death, reaching the summit of the highest mountain in the world is a time of unequaled euphoria. It's the achievement of a lifetime, the realization of a magnificent dream. But for Marco, the dream is just beginning and the summit is nothing more than a hurdle. His goal-3,000 meters of first tracks down the Hornbein-still lies before him.
By this time, clouds have begun to build from below. The Sherpas are concerned about the conditions as well as the late hour. They urge Marco not to go. But everything he's worked for over the past year and a half has led to this, and he may never have the chance again. At 3:00 p.m., Marco replaces the empty bottle of oxygen in his pack with a fresh one and straps in. Phurba Sherpa helps him with his pack, which in addition to the oxygen canister also contains rappel gear, and a three-liter bottle of water. Considering that Marco is about to make one of the most dangerous descents in history, the pack holds precious little, but it should be sufficient if everything goes accordingly to plan.
"Take care, Marco," wishes Phurba.
"Okay, Phurba. See you tomorrow."
Marco drops in to shred the world's highest freshies, makes a few turns, and waits on the ridge for the Sherpas to catch up. He's breathing hard, shattered by the effort of making turns with a pack at 8,800 meters after more than twelve thigh-burning hours of some of the most exhausting climbing on the planet. He lets them pass in front, tells them to watch their rope, and then, tellingly, rides over it as he makes his way left toward the Hornbein Couloir. The clouds billow up around him, and at 3:15 p.m., his Sherpa friends watch as Marco morphs into the soft mountain light of imagination and memory.
The Sherpas waste no time getting down from the summit. As they are packing up the gear from Camp 3, they look below to the North Col, nearly 1,300 meters below them, where they are shocked to see what looks like a man stand up, then slide silently down the mountain. But how can this be? The highly experienced Sherpas are 100-percent certain there's no one else on the mountain with them, yet each of them are sure they have seen a mystifying apparition. Sketch time. When they soon arrive at the North Col where they saw the mysterious figure, there are no snowboard tracks. It is at this point that they know Marco is dead.
A memorial was held for Marco at Everest Base Camp almost a month later. Marco's family was there, along with his girlfriend Stephanie, his good friends Simon Favier, Rene Robert, Russel Brice, Ludo Collet and an extraordinary number of Sherpas. The service was an emotional one. The clouds hung low, reflecting the somber mood of the service. But as the monotone chanting of the Buddhist priests began to fade, the clouds lifted, and there, clearly visible at the summit, were Marco's tracks-still visible one month later, over 3,800 meters above them.
Marco's body has never been recovered, and no trace of him has ever been found beyond his initial tracks descending from the summit. Without any clues, it's hard to guess at what could have happened. One scenario is that he could have made the traverse across the top of the North Face into the couloir where an avalanche could have swept him off the mountain and buried him at the bottom. Another theory is that he lost an edge and plummeted into the kilometers-long bergschrund at the base of the face. However, there are others, like Marco's sister Shooty, who are certain that Marco is still alive somewhere in Tibet, living with yak herders, climbing unexplored peaks and dropping new lines, forever chasing the Holy Grail of the ultimate descent.
Special thanks to Rene Robert, Russell Brice, and Bertrand Delapierre for their invaluable assistance in researching this story. Edited by Kurt Hoy.
Marco Siffredi (22 May 1979 – September 8, 2002)
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