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All Downhill From Here
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All Downhill From Here

Two world-class mountain skiers set out to do the impossible. And to do it, they would need a material that was unprecedented.

Photo: Nick Kalisz

Extreme expeditions are, for the most part, an exercise in planning. A summit of Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain in the world, for example, would likely be the product of years of dreaming and plotting and strategizing.

But Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison wanted to do more than just make it to the 27,940-foot Himalayan summit, which climbers have been doing since the 1950s. The mountain skiers, both members of The North Face’s global team of athletes, wanted to do something that no one had ever done: ski the entire descent, down the Lhotse Couloir. It’s a stunning, aspirational descent visible from Mount Everest, but it’s also challenging enough that no skier had ever made it all the way down.

Until Nelson and Morrison came along.

Photo: Nick Kalisz

Lhotse had been on Nelson’s mind for years, she says, starting when she learned of Jaime Laidlaw’s partial descent in 2007. “This particular ski descent, off this 8,000-meter peak, is incredibly aesthetic and challenging and had all the ingredients that drew me in. It was a dream realized in the long term.”

But back to the planning. It was September of 2018—the off-season for climbing in the Himalayas, but the right season for snow—and Nelson and Morrison were spending weeks acclimatizing and breaking trail at various camps up and down the summit. They were being surprised by logistical problems, even after they landed: The delivery of much of their equipment was delayed, and their skis didn’t even arrive until they had already been acclimatizing at their second camp for days.

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In other words, there was only so much the two could plan for, and that included the climbing conditions. “One of our harshest days was our second pass through the icefall,” Nelson says, referring to a portion of glacier composed of dangerously unstable, moving ice. “It had been storming and really snowy, so we failed that day.” And because the team was on the mountain during the off-season, it was up to them to break trail the whole way up the summit. “It was scary because we were under the most dangerous part of the icefall for quite a few hours. In fact, a week after our summit, the entire thing avalanched and erased all our ropes.”

Photo: Nick Kalisz

So how does an athlete prepare for conditions like that, where a single misplaced step might be fatal not only for them, but for their entire team? Or prepare to do something that has quite literally never been done?

Part of the answer: Eliminate every possible variable. Extreme athletes know that their gear and equipment can be either a best friend or worst enemy. “When you enjoy total confidence in your gear, you are free to just focus on the climb,” says Scott Mellin, Global General Manager of Performance Sports at The North Face. Mellin is also speaking as a skier himself, and as a main collaborator and point of contact at The North Face for Nelson and Morrison. “There are so many variables in the mountains, from the weather, to snow conditions, to your partner, your team, your food: If I can do my job and strip that distraction of gear so they can focus, there’s a likelihood of a more successful outcome.”

In a place like the Himalayas, gear that isn’t a distraction means gear that protects and holds up in every environment imaginable. “When you’re on the glacier, surrounded by white snow and ice, it’s like a solar oven,” Morrison says. “But once you got out of the sun, it was really windy and cold. There was a cloud layer blowing over, and enough wind that it was like it was precipitating.”

Heat, wind, cold, rain, snow: Dealing with such varied conditions would typically mean frequent delayering and relayering stops, which eats up precious time, particularly if you’re saddled with the heavy down one-piece suits extreme alpinists usually wear.

Photo: Nick Kalisz

That’s why Mellin sent Nelson and Morrison to Lhotse with prototypes of something completely new: a groundbreaking, highly confidential project known as FUTURELIGHT. The project was a result of a casual conversation Mellin had the previous year with another athlete. Ski missions would be so much easier and safer, the athlete mentioned, if he didn’t have to keep changing his outer layer.

From Mellin’s perspective, athletes at The North Face and beyond are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible—and their gear should do the same. “I wanted a super-breathable, highly waterproof shell fabric: Technology that didn’t exist,” Mellin remembers. “We kept asking, why couldn’t we make it? It was tied up in supply chain constraints…. So we said, we’ll just build a new supply chain.”

After identifying the material that would serve the myriad needs of extreme athletes—a polymer mesh composed of incredibly small nanofibers—it took five months to build the machinery required to start prototyping functional gear. Then Mellin’s team narrowed 54 trial fabrics down to five viable ones—including the fabric that Nelson and Morrison wore to Lhotse.

“I was like, ‘Holy shit, this stuff really works,’” Morrison says. He’d been so accustomed to switching between jackets and outer layers that the versatility offered by FUTURELIGHT resulted in an entirely different climbing experience.

“We were really conscious of the fact that we were going to leave our down suits at base camp and just commit to this light and fast style, and trust this new fabric,” Nelson adds. “We wanted to really ski, and a down suit is so big and cumbersome that it makes it impossible. We just committed to [FUTURELIGHT] and it really worked.”

Photo: Nick Kalisz

At the end of the day, it’s still up to the athlete to get up the mountain, which is no easy task, even with the best gear. “Even a hundred feet below the top, I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Nelson says. “But I have a trick that I’ve always used: As I start to feel that sense of being overwhelmed, I try to cut it off by breaking the rest of the climb down into little parts. I start counting out the ages of everyone in my family. I start with my dad because he’s 80, and I focus. Then I start with my mom, then I go to my sister, then my brother, then Jim, and then my kids. And by doing that, it breaks each section up, so I’m only focused on that person’s age and making it through until I finish.”

Pushing through that boundary and coming out on the other side took some help from back home: the emotional grounding that comes from family, as well as the practical empowerment that comes with great gear. And after that last push, it really is all downhill.

When the two clipped into their skis and pushed off, they didn’t have to think about any of the things that were preoccupying on the way up: the gear, the plans, breaking trail. They were free to bask in a moment that made history. “It’s so hard to put into words,” Nelson says. “I put my skis on while looking at the tallest peak in the world. There’s not a soul on it…it’s airy and beautiful and intimidating and scary all at the same time.”

For Morrison, the best part about pushing out into uncharted territory is that he and Nelson don’t have to do it in a way that changes the landscape they admire so much. “There’s something that really strikes a chord in my heart about skiing in the mountains,” Morrison says. “Mother Earth is your canvas. You make your painting on it and the next day it blows away.”