Into the great white open

Jon Maletz

Fantasy finally became reality.As the airplane reached 26,000 feet on its flight from Bangkok, Thailand, to Katmandu, Nepal, Bob Bogner stared intently out the small, oval window. The sight was among the most compelling of his life; there, protruding from the clouds, stood the jagged outline of Mount Everest. “I’m just glad I was sitting on the right side of the plane,” Bogner said recently.At long last Bogner, 64, had made it to the Himalayas. For more than 50 years he and his late mother, Sylvia, regaled each other with stories of mountaineering exploits on the world’s grandest peaks. Sylvia followed Ed Viesturs’ and others’ adventures on Everest religiously; a stone from the world’s tallest peak rests inside her casket.For more than 50 years the size and majesty of the Himalayas captivated them. Now Bogner was experiencing it all firsthand.His journey – and that of three other Roaring Fork Valley residents – was just beginning. More than a year in the making, their one-of-a-kind expedition would take them heli-skiing on Annapurna I. The group would become the first Americans to make tracks on the world’s least-climbed, and arguably most-feared, 8,000-meter peak.Their early March trip was a far cry from Maurice Herzog’s in June 1950. Herzog and fellow Frenchman Louis Lachenal were the first to reach the summit of an 8,000-meter peak. But for Bogner, his daughter Sarah, her boyfriend, Riley Gessele, and 51-year-old Highlands ski instructor Didi Lawrence, Annapurna represented something equally personal and profound.It afforded them the chance to pay tribute to inspirational lives lost. It afforded one the chance to celebrate a recovery from addiction, alcoholism and devastating injury. And it provided the ideal occasion for one 25-year-old to ask for his longtime girlfriend’s hand in marriage.”It was incredible. I have a hard time putting the experience into words,” Sarah said after returning. “It feels like it was all a dream.”

When Herzog’s personal account of his experiences on Annapurna was first published in 1952 – the feat amassed international acclaim, but cost Herzog and Lachenal all of their toes and Herzog most of his fingers – Sylvia Bogner was quick to pick up a copy.”It was an adventure book,” said Bob Bogner, who has worked for Aspen Skiing Co. for 42 years as a patroller and instructor. “It was one of the most fantastic climbing adventures ever written about. My mother lived vicariously through those climbers.”If it wasn’t for her, I would have never heard about Annapurna.”When Sylvia Bogner succumbed to cancer two years ago, her final moments weren’t spent pondering what lay ahead. Instead, she and her son shared the stories of remote locales that had enchanted them for much of their lives. They talked about Bob Bogner’s skiing experiences in Argentina, Chile and the Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia. They talked about Annapurna, a menacing peak with a deadly reputation. According to multiple reports, just as many climbers perish on the slopes of the world’s 10th tallest mountain as reach the summit. Bogner never disclosed his intentions to his mother, but soon after her death he began planning his first trip to the Himalayas.”I never really knew this was a goal in my life,” he said. “I guess it was something I was striving for without fully realizing it.”

In his haste to find others interested in traveling to Nepal, Bogner first disclosed his plans to friend Lawrence nearly two years ago. When he approached her again this past fall, with details becoming more concrete, her interest was piqued.”I knew I had to go,” Lawrence said. “This was the culmination of my whole life and my journey.”Four years ago Lawrence, the daughter of two-time Olympic gold medalist Andrea Mead Lawrence, hit rock bottom. Years of alcohol abuse and a cocaine addiction culminated in an event that forever changed the course of her life. Lawrence was horseback riding on a friend’s ranch on the Crystal River in Carbondale when her horse abruptly reared up and fell back onto Lawrence, crushing her pelvis in four places.She was airlifted to Denver where doctors delivered a grim diagnosis: Because of the severity of her injury, she’d never again be able to run, ride a horse or ski. Lawrence was undaunted.”In a sense I did want to prove them wrong,” Lawrence said. “I wanted to tell them ‘you don’t know me well enough to tell me I can’t do something.’ “The riding accident was why I decided to get sober. I felt like I was given a second chance at life. Going to Nepal was part of my spiritual journey.”Family members and equipment sponsors helped Lawrence raise close to $11,000 for the trip. Bogner donated mileage points to offset the cost of airfare. And Lawrence was with the group when they departed from Denver on Feb. 28.

Sarah vividly remembers her grandmother’s passion for adventure. She can still picture Sylvia’s books piling up on surfaces throughout her house.”She loved following the climbers and watching them conquer such massive mountains,” the 25-year-old said. “Everybody knew that she was so into the mountains.”Sarah never expected to experience the Himalayas firsthand. But shortly after she graduated from the University of Colorado, her father announced his attention to take her to Nepal one day. The plan slowly developed over years, then finally came to fruition.”I love to travel and it’s exciting to think we’d get to go somewhere so far away and so different than our area,” she said. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I had heard about people taking treks, and they said there weren’t words to describe the experience. That’s exactly how it was. I think we all went into shock the moment we walked outside [in Katmandu] with our bags.”That feeling grew during lunch at one of the city’s rooftop restaurants. Immense mountains commanded the skyline despite being hundreds of miles away. “It was so unreal. I really thought they were painted in the sky,” Sarah remembered. “I know Riley and I were both thinking, ‘Just get us there. ‘”The anticipation would build as unforeseen circumstances forced the group to stay in Kathmandu for two more days than planned. The Russian helicopter the elder Bogner had worked so tirelessly to charter had blown its engine one week prior; no others were readily available.”I was definitely going nuts,” he said. “I had a hard time relaxing before we got to Pokhara.”The prospect of making turns on one of the world’s most notorious peaks wasn’t the only thought that consumed Gessele. He had a surprise in store. Tucked unassumingly in his luggage was his mother’s wedding ring, which Gessele was preparing to give to Sarah. He had planned to propose at the top of Highland Bowl earlier this winter, but opted instead to save the moment for an even more idyllic setting.The anticipation was overwhelming, he remembered. He was relieved when the group was finally flown to Pokhara, 124 miles west of Kathmandu and a 15-minute helicopter flight from Annapurna I’s base village. The city of 170,000 left an immediate impression on its newest guests.”There was so much powerful energy there and the people were incredibly generous,” Lawrence said. “Everything there is in constant motion.” Yaks, ducks, dogs, rickshaws and people crowded the streets. Vendors sold roasted corn and toys. Children played pingpong on a concrete table with a “net” of bricks, smacking a ball back and forth with homemade paddles. Others amused themselves with cardboard boxes and bicycle tires.Lawrence, Gessele and Sarah took a boat across Phewa Lake and visited a temple. The locale provided unobstructed views of 22,943-foot Machapuchare, which sits due south of the main backbone of the vast Annapurna range.”It looked like Machapuchare was touching heaven,” Lawrence said. “We felt like we were at the top of the world.”

The next morning, Bogner’s 50-plus years of wonderment and painstaking planning reached its climax; the group boarded one helicopter bound for base camp at 12,300 feet on the south side of Annapurna I. From there, they took another chopper to a previously unskied glacial basin known as Annapurna Sanctuary at an altitude approaching 16,000 feet. Sarah snapped pictures on her digital camera. Gessele periodically reached for the ring, stuffed in a zippered pocket near his chest, to calm his nerves. Elation covered every inch of Bogner’s face.

“I don’t think we said many words on that flight in,” Sarah said. “We were all looking out and thinking, ‘This can’t be real.'”My dad never lost his smile. He was so happy to be up there, where his mother had always imagined and pictured in her mind. He was pleased to finally be seeing things for himself.”Soon the group was dropped in amongst the giants – six peaks in the 55-kilometer-long Annapurna massif exceed 7,200 meters in height. The scale was overwhelming.The bellowing helicopter engines slowly faded into the distance, then disappeared altogether. Those much-anticipated first turns on the vast south side of Annapurna I were about to become a reality.”It made me feel very small – and very grateful,” Lawrence said. “We were at 16,000 feet and we looked up and could see 10,000 more feet,” Bogner said. “It was mind-boggling.”And the snow was nearly perfect. Buried under a thin layer of sun-baked crust was abundant powder – the most snow the area had seen in almost 15 years, one Sherpa told Lawrence. Bogner was admittedly tentative on his first handful of turns in the deep snow as he struggled to find his rhythm and balance. Then, all was bliss.When the group, which included four guides – three from Chamonix, France, and one from Austria – came over a ridge near the bottom, they passed Annapurna I base camp; a group of enthusiastic Sherpas cheered them on.

Bogner let his skis rest as he gazed upward to watch his daughter. Gessele soon approached him with an all-important question; Bogner quickly delivered an affirmative response.Bogner and Lawrence boarded a helicopter to head back up to 16,000 feet; Gessele stayed behind to greet Sarah. He had planned on popping the question at the top, but couldn’t wait any longer. “It happened 3,000 feet lower than I had hoped, but it was still higher than Highland Bowl,” Gessele said. “I had to ask her if crying meant ‘yes.'”It was, and the group would later name the run “Proposal.””No other man will be able to match that,” Sarah added.The two were then whisked to the top for what proved to be the day’s final run. Low light made conditions difficult on the descent. And, upon reaching the bottom, fog engulfed them and snow began to fall. Bogner and Lawrence had already been flown back to Pokhara, and it didn’t look like the helicopter would return for Sarah, Gessele, three guides and an accompanying Sherpa – a fact that became increasingly clear as two hours passed and snowflakes, not propellers, filled the sky. The decision was made to ski to Machapuchare base camp, a 30-minute trek that proved difficult under such adverse conditions. Sarah traversed carefully on the hard snow, following a trail Sherpas had blazed earlier that day.When the skiers, who were expected to spend the night in Pokhara, finally arrived at the base camp, they were met with curious stares from the camp’s Sherpas. The experience did, however, turn out to be among the most memorable of the trip, Sarah remembered.”It was fun watching all the Sherpas intermingle and, despite being in the middle of nowhere, they served us a wonderful dinner,” said Sarah, who dined on high-altitude soup, a concoction that included Top Ramen, spinach, carrots and garlic. “All we did was watch the Sherpas play dominoes and cards, but I think we were just in shock. Look where we were, sitting at Machapuchare base camp in our ski boots with two sleeping bags and French guides.”The group was reunited early the next morning; they spent much of the day skiing in T-shirts under brilliant blue skies; Lawrence’s “Everest-proof” down jacket was of little use. The group negotiated narrow, rock-strewn chutes, bowls and hanging snowfields more than 2 miles wide. Bogner, who has skied all over the world, from Alaska to New Zealand, Europe and South America, called the day his best-ever on skis. It would prove to be his last of the trip. Bob Bogner came down with bronchitis and decided to sit out the final day. He had little, if any, regret. “I took seven runs on Annapurna,” he said, “and they were seven of the most incredible runs I’ve ever skied.”

Without Bogner in tow for the final day, the other three carried on. After all, they had unfinished business. At the top of one run, they buried five Nepalese prayer flags to commemorate Lawrence’s mother, Sylvia Bogner, the guides, the group and Sarah and Gessele’s friend, Harry, who committed suicide last fall. Gessele paid further tribute to Harry, a former co-worker at Gene Taylor’s in Snowmass Village, by spreading his friend’s ashes in a rock-strewn chute.”I wanted to do something special for a special guy and a good partner who always pushed me to go higher, faster and harder,” Gessele said. “I stopped at the top of a pitch, picked out a line and poured them out. I went and dropped that first cliff, planted it and ran out as far as I could, just like he would’ve done.”

They named the run “Balls,” in homage to their good friend, and laid claim to other lines that only they had skied. Lawrence named one “Mom’s,” another “Convict’s Couloir,” inspired by a sponsor. And the last was called “Sylvia,” in recognition of the woman who inspired the whole expedition.Sarah buried one last memento for her grandmother – a small wooden box with a Buddha figurine, which an Aspen ski patroller gave Bogner for good luck. “It was a good but sad feeling,” Sarah said. “I was so happy to be able to be there and put a piece of my grandmother and her life up there, and to know she’s up in the sky with the birds and the mountains where she always wanted to be.”While the group left their marks on Annapurna, they also took part of the mountain with them. Rocks from “Balls” now adorn a koi pond at Sarah and Gessele’s El Jebel home. Bogner also took a stone, one that will soon be placed on his mother’s grave in upstate New York. It’s been nearly two weeks since the four returned home. Still, no one can quite find the words to describe the journey. There is, however, something all four can agree on: The expedition was about much more than first descents or vertical feet attained.It was an experience that changed their lives forever.”Unlike Maurice Herzog’s expedition which came to conquer Annapurna, we came to see, feel and be part of the mountain,” Bogner said. “To be one with it for at least a brief moment of our lives, but a moment that will last forever.””I’m still in tears when I think about it,” Lawrence said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a defining moment. The meaning of my life is now set in stone.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is


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