National Geographic Adventure magazine
It was a cold, clear afternoon on September 9 when French snowboarder Marco Siffredi stood 29,035 feet (8,849 meters) above sea level atop the summit of Mount Everest, marking his second successful ascent of the mountain in just over a year. Last May, the 23-year-old had made the first-ever snowboard descent from the world's highest summit along the Great, or Norton Couloir, a corridor above the North Col, in the middle of the North face. He rode roughly 17,500 feet (5,300 meters) down before reaching Base Camp.
This year, Siffredi returned to the mountain to descend an even more challenging route: the Hornbein Couloir, further west on the North Face. The corridor is the steepest of all potential lines on Everest, with 45- to 55-degree slopes the entire way. Friends say he reached the summit early and called a friend from the top, where he rested for an hour. The Sherpas on the expedition had already descended, but one waited 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) below, where he could see about 90 percent of Siffredi's intended route.
Also on the Hornbein expedition was Frenchman Olivier Besson, a high-altitude guide from Mont Blanc, who watched Siffredi from Base Camp. Besson peered through binoculars as his friend began the first thousand meters of his descent, but as Siffredi dropped further into the couloir, Besson lost sight of him.
It should have taken Siffredi only a few hours to reach one of the Sherpas at the bottom of the Hornbein Couloir. The two would have slept there that night and headed for base camp the next day. But two weeks later the young boarder has yet to reappear. A visual search of the Rongbuck glacier and efforts by the French government have found no sign of Siffredi other than tracks that fade just 1,200 feet (350 meters) below the summit. Mike van Westering, a longtime friend of Siffredi's who lives in Spain, said that the Hornbein is very inaccessible, especially at this time of year, after monsoon season.
"There really is no hope now, barring a miracle," van Westering told Adventure. "And miracles don't really happen."
When van Westering looks at the facts emerging from his friend's disappearance, he thinks Siffredi must have fallen asleep and never woken up. A couple of friends from Siffredi's hometown of Chamonix say he might have fallen, but van Westering points out that the risk of falling was minimal in the area where Siffredi's tracks disappear.
His family has also given up hope of finding their son alive. "We should not delude ourselves. He is dead," his mother, Michele, told reporters last week. The family was familiar with the risks of mountaineering. Siffredi's father is a mountain guide, and the family lost another son in an avalanche in Chamonix years ago.
Siffredi's friends agree that he was highly aware of the danger in extreme snowboarding. "He took risks but calculated every move," said van Westering. "If anyone was going to pull this off, it would have been him."
Even at such a young age, Siffredi was already an experienced high-altitude snowboarder. He had previously snowboarded down three Himalayan peaks over 8,000 metersCho Oyu (8,201 meters), Shishapangma (8,046 meters), and Everest (8,848 meters). Siffredi also made his way around the Alps, making many first snowboard descents, often solo.
He wasn't the first, however, to glide down Everest. In 2000, Davo Karnicar of Slovenia became the first person to ski nonstop down the mountain. The day before Siffredi's 2001 descent, Austrian Stefan Gatt descended most of the mountain on a snowboard without oxygen, but ended up walking one section. And at present, according to www.mounteverest.net, there are two snowboarding teams currently in the Himalaya, both of which plan to snowboard down Cho Oyo.
While some mountaineers cast those who ski or ride high-altitude peaks as reckless, Chris Warner, an experienced, Maryland-based mountaineering guide who was on Everest in 2001 with Siffredi, finds the extreme riders inspiring. "It is all about testing individual limits and understanding ourselves," he said. "We need people who are out there on the edge to impress upon us that our own limits are farther than we imagine."
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