Finding Answers about Life and Love in the Mountain Death Zone

Sunset over Nuptse and Lhotse summits. Solu Khumbu. Nepal. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

He lost his wife and children in a plane crash. Her marriage had crumbled. James Morrison and Hilaree Nelson were brought together by death and loss but united in love — for each other, for self challenge, and for the mountains — in their attempt to become the first adventurers to summit Lhotse and ski down. As Chris Ballard reports at Sports Illustrated, little did the pair know they’d be plagued by equipment delays, as well as adverse weather and avalanches as they made their historic attempt in the death zone.

Above them loomed the jagged outline of Lhotse, rising 27,940 feet, and, to the north, the shadow of Everest. Below stretched a vast expanse of white—ravines and gullies, frozen rivers of ice—and beyond that Nepal. Somewhere over the horizon lay everything the pair often tried to escape: the cities and highways, the clatter, the dark memories.

They communicated without words, conserving energy, James Morrison in front and Hilaree Nelson a few steps behind. Alpine ski blades framed their packs. They’d need to move fast at the summit; according to Morrison’s calculations, they had 12 hours before weather arrived. If they made it, though—if the chute was passable, if they maintained an elevated pace, if the winds held—they’d have a shot at doing something no human had: summiting and then skiing the Dream Line, a track of snow down the western side of the peak. Among mountaineers, it had become a Holy Grail.

Morrison and Nelson wanted to be the first to descend it, of course, but that was only one of the reasons they had traveled to the other side of the world, assuming risks some peers felt too great.

Their other motives were more elemental. And more complicated.

Though the fourth-highest peak in the world, Lhotse bears little of the cachet of its neighbor, Everest. Movies are not made about Lhotse. Thrill seekers do not crowd it. Swiss climbers first summited it in 1956, but its middle peak remained the highest unclimbed spot on the planet until 2001. Lhotse holds particular appeal for skiers due to its unusual architecture. Under the right conditions, a thin ribbon of snow traces a jagged line off the peak, curving through a narrow rock chute for 1,500 vertical feet before emptying out onto the 5,000-foot Lhotse Face.

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