Written by Luke Smithwich, Mountain Hardwear ski-mountaineer. Follow along with Luke’s Himalaya 500 Project on his YouTube channel.
What inspires me is seeking out blank spots on the map for skiing and pursuing bigger exploratory ski lines in the Himalayas. Perhaps what’s most interesting about finding blank spots for skiing is the process of doing so. The endless thought pattern: “Look at this area… Storms track through the region all winter… It’s a beautiful and massive ski terrain… Look, an approach through this gorge… Let’s go see what exists there for skiing—but how is that done?”
When I watch old ski films from Alaska, I’m tuning in to the entire frame. I may not be watching the subject yet but scanning the horizon, trying to figure out what’s out further, asking myself: What can I glean from the way something is described? How has the progression of skiing changed since that time period? Whose shoulders are we standing on today as we look at the bigger faces and peaks in the Himalayas and go forward?
There is a lot of information to be gleaned from the American Alpine Club archives. A single sentence in a trip report leads me to explore a region further for potential. Or, there are clues left in nature. Maybe we see snow continue to fall throughout the winter, broken trees from avalanches during summer climbing trips, or the way storms track on climate sites… One bit leads to another to investigate more: what is above, how can it be accessed, what does the process and experience bring?
The Himalaya 500 is a personal project I started in 2010 in a quest for 500 aesthetic ski lines that highlight the specific areas of the greater Himalayan range as a whole. But this project isn’t about me; this is about a mountain range that keeps me awake at night.
The catalyst for the project was my simple fascination with the range, spreading across Nepal, India, Bhutan, China’s Tibet, and Pakistan. There is a lot of variety to experience all throughout it, yet when you mention the Himalayas to many people, they say, “I would love to go to Nepal,” or, “I would love to see Everest.” The Khumbu region of Nepal (where Everest is located) is a tiny valley of the massive, 1,500-mile stretch. I really want to show more of it.
Historically, Himalayan ski mountaineering was something more focused on skiing 8000m peaks. I don’t think that we can necessarily split hairs about my pursuits being unique—we live and thrive in an era of a strong desire for originality. I have skied an 8000m peak for the project and will be pursuing more in the future, however, there is a lot to be explored in the 4000m-8000m elevation range in the Himalayas. This story is about skiing at its core with a focus on the unknown territory that conjures the essence of life for an exploratory big mountain skier.
The first question is always how do I choose a ski line. While first and foremost comes the skiing, as that is the focus of the project, my background in cultural anthropology and environmental biology continues to influence my choice of where the project goes from month to month and year to year, and so I tend to pick regions through people, climate, geology, and orography.
I want to see species I haven’t seen before, meet people living lifestyles that are different from my own, get to know the weather patterns. As humans, we are constantly trying to find familiarity in daily life: this view reminds me of this; this sound reminds me of that—the process of “discovering” to me is a great gift, and that can come in the simplest of ways on an expedition: the way a troop of langur monkeys move through the canopy, the first sight of a peak you’ve only seen on Google Earth, and how wildly different things can be from the preconceived notions of what the experience can be like.
The best conversations I have are in backstreet coffee shops in Kathmandu, in noodle soup stalls in old town Leh. I think as skiers we reach out to skiers to glean information, however, I don’t spend my days talking about skiing or the butt end of an ice axe with others. Skiing and climbing are what I love to do, but I’d prefer to chat about where the snow leopard was in the valley and why, the reason that the wind always comes from the south in the evening, and why there is more than one butter lamp burning on a full moon after dark. These conversations refuel me for when I go into the mountains alone and continue to pursue this goal of 500 skied lines.
While these experiences are beautiful, it’s not all as picturesque and dreamlike as it all sounds. Glaciers are retreating, ice lakes are releasing, weather is becoming more sporadic and unpredictable. Here in the Himalayas, one of the youngest mountain ranges on Earth, people learn to live with life in constant flux. The mountains are still growing, and occasionally the ground shakes, sometimes causing massive landslides and avalanches. Couple that with storms, flooding, drought, and cloudburst and you have a truly dynamic environment. In an environment of constant change, I have to proceed with caution with this ski project, choose terrain wisely, and listen to the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ as I go.
Going to these places, you see the fragility of the natural world and consequently want to do your best to preserve it. My ski style is a natural progression after developing an interest for wild places on the planet. I think that small-group, foot-powered ski exploration is a sustainable way to experience the mountains. We all want to preserve these natural resources in order for future generations to enjoy, and I think that means minimizing our impact on the landscape, the people thriving there, and how we introduce and nurture mountain sports in developing regions of Earth.
Throughout this process, my questions continue to stack up. As I think when we produce a body of work, be it written or film, we have a certain message we’re trying to convey. But I don’t think that we are truly aware of how certain moments and aspects of a piece can affect that vision, let alone how individuals in an audience interpret it. We all have our own life experiences and unique perspective. The Himalaya 500 is constantly evolving; it’s a discovery as I go.
I venture to say that when I’m not in the Himalayas, I certainly feel like I’m missing out. I wonder how a single storm may affect the next season’s ice and dream about the following winter snowpack and the chance of finally catching that line. Some elusive lines come into shape once in a decade, and you must be present to have that opportunity. It is my hope that others will see the power of living close to the land.