The Shangri-La Expedition: Part III

By | November 5th, 2013

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In the last chronicle of the Shangri-La Expedition, we followed the crew as they ascended the well-worn path to Everest base camp, taking in the customs and scenery of the Himalaya. We now follow the TGR crew, including Jeremy Jones and Luca Pandolfi, as they leave civilization, set up base camp at 16,500 feet in the shadow of Ama Dablam, and get their first taste of Himalaya snow. The trailer for Jeremy Jones' HIGHER drops tomorrow on tetongravity.com.

Up to this point, the trek had been surprisingly fluid and fun. The ascent along the valleys using the main Everest route had been manageable and the interactions with all kinds of locals and international visitors in the various tea houses and on the trail provided an added cultural bonus. From the warm safety of the valley and low ridges, the crew had had multiple chances to take in the wild vista that contained three of the world's most dramatic peaks – Ama Dablam, Everest, and Lhotse. But slowly the trip took on a more serious aura and the focus steadily narrowed towards the objective - the Shangri-La spine wall. Acclimating in Pangboche, the last outpost of civilization before the trek into the mountains at 13,074 feet, they feasted on a giant meal of spring rolls, chow mein, and the Sherpa power food, dal bhat - a carb-heavy curry loaded with the high-altitude potatoes grown in the region. Most ate thinking it would be the last solid meal before base camp in the high peaks.

 On one of the final days in Pengboche, the crew went to visit the local llama, Llama Geshe, who had offered to bless the expedition. In the cold cluttered darkness, the ceremony demanded quiet, and the wide-eyed Westerners obliged as the llama placed a khata, a ceremonial Tibetan scarf symbolizing purity and compassion, and orange string around each of their necks, chanting again as he blessed their prayer flags. In that ceremony, the attitude of the mission pivoted. Now it was a game-on, fully serious mission to ride the Shangri-La spine wall.

 Loading up the yaks for the six hour trek to base camp was nothing like throwing the duffels in the back of the pickup to go ride for the weekend. Nema Tashi, the head Sherpa, got bucked by one of the yaks as he was loading it, throwing him six feet in the air before crashing onto the ground. Nema Tashi, furious, threw a rock at the yak. It barely made a noise when it hit it in the side, and the animal seemed not to notice. 

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Midway through the trek, they happened upon the base camp for mountaineers attempting the daring ascent of Ama Dablam. Still empty due to the monsoon season, the turn past the empty camp meant the expedition was now fully self-supported in its mission. As the clouds breathed up and down the valley walls, the crew saw for the first time snow to which they could actually hike. Small smiles crept onto faces. 

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Shangri-La base camp - 16,500 feet.

The situation at base camp, which the sherpas had already set up several hours prior to the crew's arrival, was entirely different than anything Jeremy or anyone else from TGR had experienced while snow camping in Alaska, Greenland, or Austria. Instead of a messy communal tent with dirty cooking equipment strewn among improved chairs and equipment, the Sherpas had set up separate cooking and dining tents, a separate communal tent, a tent for communications and camera equipment, and individual tents for both athletes and each cinematographer. The Goal Zero solar panels were already set out to charge camera batteries and laptops, and upon arrival the crew was served hot tea and hot food on a fold-out table. At 16,500 feet, the Sherpa team had set up the most first-class base camp the TGR crew had ever seen.

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The crew firing away on the cameras as a brief window of clear skies reveals the Shangri-La spines for the first time.

But there was only one problem. The Sherpas, still entirely doubtful of the crew's mission to climb and snowboard a face that had never to their knowledge seen any traffic, set up base camp in a location convenient to the climb up Mingbo La Pass, a traditional trekking route the Sherpas continued to push for as the main mission. But on the first three-hour hike towards the advanced camp, about a thousand feet above base camp, the crew caught its first view of the Shangri-La spine wall, gleaming white underneath a growing cloud base. For ten minutes while the visibility to the distant peak held, everyone dropped packs and unsheathed cameras, hammering away at the shutter to capture as many photos of the mystery face as possible.  

The Sherpas had laughed when Chris Figenshau and Jeremy had shown them what photos they had of the face, and even now the Sherpas still doubted them, pointing instead towards Mingbo La. “Mingbo La maybe the practice,” said Jeremy to Nema Tashi, the lead sherpa, as he followed his finger towards the pass on the left. “But the main objective is over there,” he said while drawing his own finger towards the Shangri-La spines. Even with their own doubt about the mission lingering in their minds, the crew force optimism about what still seemed impossible. "I mean, when I first saw that wall, I didn’t think we were going to do it either," said cinematographer Chris Figenshau.  "But we just kept pointing at that face.” Still, the crew was relieved to see that the bergschrund at the base of the mountain - the crevasse that forms when the glacier below pulls away from the mountain above - was manageable, and most importantly that the face, this 1,500 vertical foot series of sinewy spines that this crew had staked its hopes, dreams, and budget on, actually had snow on it.

Back in Kathmandu, Todd Jones was ingesting reams of data on weather moving in and out of the region and suffering through connectivity issues with the base camp in the shadow of Ama Dablam. Half the time he would call and no one would pick up, but one spotty communication with Jeremy was all that was needed to assure the crew back in the city, which was ready to fly a helicopter to some of the highest altitudes possible in order to capture the action. “More things are lining up in our favor than not,” came one clear sentence from the world-renowned veteran of mountain ranges. 

Up at base camp, Jeremy and Luca were itching to get on their snowboards, and made an attempt for the top of Mingbo La Pass in order to get a better vantage point over the glacier, a better sense of the conditions on the Shangri-La spines, and to finally strap in and test the snow and terrain. The three to four hour rock scramble and hike to the top was slowed by the Sherpas’ insistence on fixing climbing lines along the traditional trekking route, and once on top of the 19,000 foot pass, the clouds again filled in, reducing visibility to less than one hundred feet. Through the SONY Action Cam affixed to Jeremy’s helmet, you could barely see past his snowboard.

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Jeremy's signature smile creeping up after he and Luca's first descent on snow in Nepal.

Cinematographers Nick Kalisz and Matty Heringer were waiting at the base of the pass on the glacier, socked in fog and watching the filming potential go to shit. All of a sudden, Jeremy and Luca came riding across the flats of the glacier, emerging from the soup with beaming grins. Despite the complete lack of visibility, the pair had ridden good, manageable snow on the couloir they descended, which also had a comparable aspect, elevation, and slope to the objective. “We were worried that the Shangri-La spines would be 70 degrees and white, but rock solid,” said Figenshau. “That spine wall looked like a peak, even from base camp, that looked like it could be completely vertical. But once we stepped in and actually rode something, we felt we could do it - we felt it was rideable for the first time.”

For Jeremy, that first descent on snow provided invaluable confidence for the final objective. “Once I get my toe edge engaged,” he said, “It’s a very familiar feeling again.” While the main Sherpa still doubted the possibility of actually accomplishing this wild mission to snowboard a near-vertical peak deep in the Himalayas, Jeremy had jumped past that doubt in just one descent on his snowboard. “We took our first step today, and it was really good. It was a good, confident, positive first step that got us a long way towards the objective that we came here for, which is the most beautiful spine wall you’ve ever seen.”

The trailer for Jeremy Jones' HIGHER drops tomorrow on tetongravity.com.

The Shangri-La Expedition & TGR would like to thank their sponsors – O'Neill, SONY, Clif Bar, Patagonia, Swatch, and Jones Snowboards – for supporting this once-in-a-lifetime expedition.  

Want to catch up on the other two films in the trilogy? Check out Jeremy Jones' other two movies, Deeper & Further.

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