Weekend Warm-Up: Freeride the Death Zone, 8000m+

To ski an 8,000’er requires more than the skill to handle big drops, icy windslab and steep, unstable slopes. Every sharp turn and split-second judgment must overcome the physical and mental deterioration that comes from time spent in the so-called Death Zone. Aside from gasping for breath with every step, and potentially fatal altitude sickness, climbers risk permanently altering their blood and brain chemistry. Still, they continue on. The Russian short film, Freeride the Death Zone, 8000m+, explores Vitaly Lazo’s and Anton Pugovkin’s expedition to the summit of Manaslu. They became the first Russians to ski one of these giants without oxygen.

Screenshot from the film. Photo: Mountain Territory

The name Manaslu comes from the Sanskrit word ‘manasa’, meaning spirit or intellect. Indeed, the mountain’s unpredictable weather and slope stability call for special measures, including spiritual ones. Foreigners who pass through Nepalese villages at the base of Manaslu participate in a poodja ceremony — a ritual respected by every climber, religious or otherwise, and which connects them with the mountain to ensure safe passage.

Anton Pugovkin (left) and Vitaly Lazo (right). Photo: Gripped Magazine

And climbers wholeheartedly accept all the prayers they can get. None can afford to venture onto an 8,000’er lightly. As civilization ends in the small village of Samagaon, one leaves behind everything that one has come to know. The plunge into this alien realm goes beyond equipment checks and obsessive care with every step. One must be mentally and emotionally equipped to deal with the lack of air and the half-controlled panic that comes with it. The body works much harder than necessary at these heights, leading to such symptoms as a wracking cough, headaches and the inability to eat and sleep.

Yet most mountaineers would agree that looking down from above the clouds makes some of those symptoms diminish into irrelevance. Lazo’s and Pugovkin’s discomfort immediately evaporated into childlike wonder at their achievement and at the sight before them. Therefore, the death zone does not have to be a place of limitations. On the contrary, it is also a zone where the possibilities are infinite.

This year Pugovkin and Lazo attempted to ski Annapurna as part of their Death Zone Freeride project.