Laila…Laila…Laila…its name and its provocative image has been bouncing around my head for several years now, constantly catching my imagination and monopolizing my dreams.
It is probably the best looking mountain I have ever seen and without a doubt it is one of the most appealing peaks to big mountains skiers and snowboarders.
Its northwest face is a giant ramp that drops down for 1500 m to the Gondogoro glacier with an almost constant gradient.
Laila has been climbed for the first time in 1987 by four men british team.
Simon Yates dedicated to it a chapter in his beautiful book “Flames of adventures”.
I believe that when we are ready for something things just simply happen.
I was ready to test myself in a biggest and more committing environment than the Alps and when I heard that a friend of friend was trying to organize an expedition to that remote and magic corner of Pakistan, I thought that it might have been the occasion I was waiting for.
Once, a couple of friends of mine, bad ass climbers and Himalayan expeditions veterans, told me : “when you go over there, trying to climb a first committing ascent, you have between 20% and 40% of possibilities of success; if you try to ski something steep, the chances go down to 10% to 20% …but…do you want to carry on feeling a big fish in a small bowl…or do you want to feel what it means to be a small fish in a big bowl? “
I had no doubts, I was ready to go for the most challenging experience of my life on a big mountain!
I always have been thirsty for big adventures in remote areas on our beautiful planet and although I was perfectly aware about the enormity and huge ambition of our plan, I definitely didn’t want to lose the possibility to go travelling and exploring the Northern areas of Pakistan. It is one of the most powerful and wild places on Earth, with the most friendly people I ever met, in disagreement with what the media is constantly telling us.
Although the peak has been climbed few times, above the rockband is still unknown terrain for skiers and snowboarders nevertheless.
Laila Peak saw in history only a couple of ski attempts by the visionary and talented Swedish big mountains skier Fredrik Eriksson, both time ended a few hundreds meters below the summit.
the way to basecamp in red, the way to Gondogoro pass and Concordia in green
Photo Credits : http://www.himalaya-info.org/
After a 26 hours flight trip (16 hours waiting in Doha where I met my friends Ed, Paul and Brendan, coming from USA, Oslo and Paris) , 28 hours car trip along the mythical but highly scary karakoram highway, 6 hours of 4×4 and 2 days of trekking up the beautiful Hushe valley, I found myself with my buddies at the feet of this beautiful and intimidating piece of rock, standing arrogant above us, like a needle in the sky.
We were the first party in the upper Hushe valley this year, everything looked dramatically wild, no signs of human presence, not a footprint, not a sound apart from the constant and scary noise of avalanches.
We quickly realized something was wrong.
According to the few pieces of information we had from our friend Trey Cook, Fredrik ‘s climbing partner during their expedition in the 2010, they had snow all the way down to the base camp at 4200 m.
This year the snow limit was 500 m above the BC and only a couple of couloirs and snowy tongues were reaching it.
The conditions on the mountains looked pretty dry.
There are lines in Chamonix we are looking at almost every day from several years, waiting for the good conditions, that we haven t been able to ski yet and coming here, all the way on the other side of the world, pretending to ski a huge line like that, on a 6000 m peak, in 25 days, it requires a big stroke of luck.
Laila is a woman’s name and like a beautiful woman aware about her seducing power, the mountain played with us for almost 10 days, hiding in clouds and storms and only briefly showing us her beauty and charm.
At the beginning we were a bit intimidated.
The scale of everything is 2 or 3 times bigger than everything I am used too, the glaciers are huge, the constant avalanches and serac falls are massive, weather is changing fast, going from snowing at the base camp to 30° celtius as soon as the sun comes out, there is no rescue, the nearest town is at 2 days trekking + 6 hours of 4×4, you arrive here and you don’t know anything about the snowpack history ; all the choices you make here are pretty stressing and every little mistake can easily be fatal.
Mountains around here seem to not show any compassion.
I quickly realized why there is no one coming skiing or boarding over here.
On top of that the line was not exactly as we were expecting and like everyone could imagine looking at it from the classic angle all the pics are taken and we find on the net.
The upper face is a huge, smooth table top exposed on 500 m cliffs, every fracture in the snowpack will end up in releasing the entire face.
We built up our confidence little by little.
Weather was constantly changing and one of the most stressing part of the expedition has been the constant change of tactics to adapt to the different conditions.
The base camp is under the south west face and it takes 2 hours walking to go around to be able to see the line on the northwest face.
We quickly spotted a couple of steep lines from the shoulders and on the glacier that we could have skied getting acclimatized.
Our plan was to reach the col at 5400 m from behind, cross into the face and climb the last ramp.
The approach to the col is more complicated and technical than I thought, especially in bad weather and with no topos.
Has been pure exploration.
We went up one of the two parallel couloirs above the base camp, trying to find the definitely not obvious way, between the several ridges and spurs, to reach the col.
We ended up to a notch at 5100 m stuck in an heavy storm.
We were at the top of a nice couloir dropping into the northwest basin.
5 am, climbing up the couloir above BC
We waited a couple of hours in the storm while was heavily dumping.
Soon we started to hear avalanches roaring all around and sadly we had to abandon the original idea of riding the northeast couloir.
The ride down into the southwest couloir has been much more fun than we expected, with some nice powder turns at the top and corn snow lower down.
And after all it was a first descent.
Talking with our guide and cook Munna, I discovered it might have been another easiest way to reach our col from a couloir lower down in the valley, behind the main ridge coming down the southwest face.
Next sunny day me and Paul went up half way the couloir and we were pretty sure to be on the right way.
The way was right but the col we saw was not the right one.
The day after Brendan and Ed started to bring up some food and gear to 4900 m and they found the right way to the col, which required a super exposed traverse, constantly sluffing above a huge rock band.
The morning after I went up on my own to stash some gear and had a great fun ride down on perfect corn; Paul did the same in the afternoon.
We carried on like that for 3 days until Ed and Brendan managed to stash most of the gear at camp 1 at the col.
We were feeling pretty good and acclimatized and pulled on by a supermotivated Brendan we were ready for the last assault.
We went around to have a last look at the face before attacking the last ramp and I didn’t like what I saw.
The upper face was sluffing a lot, little tunnels and strange tonalities of white were appearing here and there.
I stayed alone a couple of hours looking at the face, smelling it, talking to it and trying to get signs and feelings.
I was not feeling comfortable with what I was seeing, asking myself which were my priorities in life at that point of my path.
Probably I am losing some balls but I am making more wise choices.
“There are old climbers and bold climbers, but there are not old bold climbers!” said someone.
At 38 years old I m able to manage my ego better and I realized there is no mountain in the world is worth to die for.
Ed and Paul were feeling the same, Brendan was still pretty keen to try.
We considered the possibility to climb and ski the line on the lookers right of the rocks.
Our gear was stashed at the col, we had to go back up there anyway so I decided to go and take the final choice at the last moment once I would have put my feet on the face.
After another great dinner cooked by Munna we left the base camp at midnight and at 5,30 we were at the Col.
The view from there was breathtaking and priceless !
Only few times in my life I felt like that.
1000 meters below us the huge Gondogoro glacier was snaking surrounded by majestics 6000 m mountains.
For miles all around, nasty and sharp looking peaks were powerfully standing ; we couldn’t see one single “relaxing” and “friendly” line to ski.
Behind this impressive mountains chain, three big monsters were monopolizing the scene : Left to right the K2, Broad Peak and G IV.
I already have been twice in Himalaya, in India and Nepal but I never saw such a dramatic landscape.
Few minutes after, just the time to absorb the adrenaline produced by the view , our attention has been caught by something even more shocking.
Our line has disappeared.
All the top face of Laila slid (the day before, probably few hours after we looked at the face for the last time, on our descent to basecamp) in the biggest avalanche I ever have seen on a steep face.
400 m long, 100 m wide, 2-3 m thick, on grey ice, probably triggered out by a rock fall; all the winter snowpack went.
One day before and we would have been all dead.
Three of us felt pretty relieved !
My feelings were right, trusting our instinct when we move in this kind of environment can make a big difference between life and death.
The lookers right line did not look good at all neither and its much steeper than the other one; definitely not a ski line.
We set up the tents for the bivy but at 5 pm bad weather was coming in.
We decided to go down.
Brendan and Ed skied the exposed traverse and we rode down together the couloir at night with the headlamps on a smooth creamy snow.
At this point the expedition was officially over.
At home we considered some other options but we were not aware about the difficulty of moving with porters on these huge and tricky glaciers.
It takes at least two days to change basecamps and the mountains all around, due to the increasing heat, were literally collapsing.
Summer suddenly arrived, snow started melting quickly and in within few days. flowers were appearing and life started to wake up on the moraines along the glaciers.
3 days after Paul and Ed went back to skardu, down the Hushe valley, following the same way in.
Me and Brendan, with 4 porters and our snowboards, headed up the valley with the intention of crossing the Gondogoro La, find some others lines to ride, go down to Concordia and K2 base camp and come back on the neverending Baltoro glacier back to Skardu, via Askole.
After that I went alone north for 2 weeks, exploring the beautiful Hunza valley.
Full story about all my trip in Pakistan is coming soon.
It has been my first expedition, if I consider the money and the time spent to organize this trip, the hundreds of mails written, the efforts, the calories burnt, I can say we officially failed in our purpose, but if I consider the emotions, the feelings and the experience I got and the things I learnt, it has been simply fantastic, rich and filling.
The way is the reward, not the target.
The last week at the base camp we had neighbours.
4 Spanish climbers, 2 of which professional big wall climbers that were attempting the Laila Peak for the forth time.
Even this time they did not reach the summit, witnessing the difficulty of this mountain.
Just the idea to come here, in the climbers land, snowboarding, has been sick.
Craziness is just the courage of being yourself and live your dreams.
The edge between dreams and nightmares is really thin when it we are talking about mountains.
Has been a completely different experience compared to what I am used to.
Living almost one month in a tent, at the feet of a mountain, trying to clmb it and ski it, put my mind in a sort of trance, a sort of chess game mental statement.
You put all your mental and physical energies into something that daily builds up and I suppose if all the elements get together into a perfect moment and you have the possibility to ride a huge line like that, top to bottom, you probably experiment one of the highest moments possible to a human being.
I wanna kindly thank our Agency, the Karakoram Magic Mountains, my sponsors, especially JONESSNOWBOARDS, CAMP, FITWELL, VERTICAL ATTITUDE, MYSTICFREERIDE, ZERO G CHAMONIX and all the people I met along the way that with their smiles and their cups of tea, warmed up my heart and my body, making this trip unforgettable !!