The man who skied down Everest

Slovenian Davo Karnicar dodged past cracking ice, bare rock and a climber's corpse to become the first skier to conquer Everest. He talks about what drove him to the limit of sane activity
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For most of us on the slopes, the greatest challenge is to avoid hitting the nearest fir tree. For Davo Karnicar from Slovenia, who on Saturday became the first man to ski down Mount Everest, it was a job to avoid one of the 120-odd corpses that litter the mountain.

For most of us on the slopes, the greatest challenge is to avoid hitting the nearest fir tree. For Davo Karnicar from Slovenia, who on Saturday became the first man to ski down Mount Everest, it was a job to avoid one of the 120-odd corpses that litter the mountain.

"It was several feet away," says Karnicar, speaking on a satellite phone from base camp, who came across the gruesome obstacle only an hour into his descent. "I was concentrating so hard, that I can't say I felt anything at seeing it. I was lucky that the mountains had allowed me this adventure: that poor guy didn't have the luck of good weather. The situation on the mountain can be 100 per cent different if there is bad weather."

While many skiers moan at the time spent standing in queues for the chairlift, their wait is nothing compared to that endured by Karnicar. It took the 38-year-old extreme sportsman and father of four a month to climb to the 29,028-ft summit. After just a few minutes at the top, he put on his skis and whizzed down to base camp 12,000ft below in little over five hours, at times reaching speeds of 75mph.

Karnicar not only had to dodge a corpse, but he also battled against a lack of oxygen - he had to carry his own supply - and the prospect of losing parts of his body to frostbite. Had he taken much longer to descend, he may well have lost his toes, as his boots were standard ski wear. He is already a couple of digits short, having lost two fingers to frostbite during his failed attempt on Everest in 1996.

Karnivar, who has skied down Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Eiger and Annapurna, has been working towards this insane feat for years: he is one of that breed of extreme sportsmen who live for the next near-death experience. "Extreme skiing is my sport, my thinking and life itself," he has said.

One particularly dangerous obstacle was Hillary's Step - named after Sir Edmund - a rocky section which juts out below the summit of the mountain with a 300ft fall to rocks below. Karnicar negotiated a path down the left-hand, snow-covered side of the outcrop. He also had to contend with ice breaking under his feet. "A big problem was snow accumulated by wind. It's dangerous if you go on to it with skis, because you can start an avalanche. The last part was also dangerous - skiing on the sides of accumulated masses of ice. There are shelves of snow hanging over you, so you have to be quick.

"Skiing down is sometimes more difficult than going up," he adds, in something of a classic understatement. "Skiing on ridges is like being on a knife's edge. Many times part of my skis were hanging over into Tibet, and sometimes into Nepal. So you can imagine I didn't have full contact with the surface."

How does he feel about his achievement? "I'm very happy, and tired also. I have realised my life's dream. I've been trying to do this since 1996. I feel accomplished, full. I felt it was my life's calling. Skiing down mountains is what I'm good at - so why not ski down the highest one in the world? I feel I was born with this talent and felt a duty to use it. It was personal. What the world thinks is their business."

Karnicar, a ski instructor, plans to stay at base camp for another week, and will stay in the Kathmandu area until November. He will no doubt receive a hero's welcome when he returns to his home village of Jezersko, a small mountain resort close to the Austrian border. Not that the thought of being a local celebrity particularly excites him.

"I don't feel that burden at all," he says. "My motivation was personal, what people make out of it is not that important. I feel that I am one of the rare earthlings who have had a dream and the possibility to achieve it."

It appears that Everest is only the beginning. Since arriving at base camp, Karnicar has cooked up an idea for another recording-breaking feat. "Seamen and skiers never lack challenging adventures, and I'm looking forward to new adventures. I am thinking about skiing the highest peaks of every continent, which hasn't been done up until now."

Many will have certainly questioned his state of mind for wanting to take on the insanely dangerous feat in the first place. 161 people have lost their lives on the peak. The heaviest death toll was just four years ago when 15 people died. The last year when Everest didn't claim a life was 1977. The Darwin Awards website, which documents and applauds foolhardy deaths, called the descent "madness", and joyfully urged people to log on to internet broadcasts of the event, saying: "Keep your eyes peeled for a live Darwin Award." Almost four million people logged on to watch footage from a camera mounted on his head. Unfortunately for fans of the Darwin Awards, Karnicar failed even to fall over.

The Slovene is not the first to attempt to descend the world's high peak on two planks of carbon-coated wood. The most successful attempt, until Saturday, was by Pierre Tardivel, who eight years ago reached the summit, but could only ski from 300ft below it because of a lack of snow. Most people tackle the peak in May, but Karnicar chose autumn when most of the rocky ledges are covered in snow due to monsoon weather.

An Italian once made it half-way down, but found himself skiing towards a rocky ledge and was forced to abandon his skis and climb down. The most notorious unsuccessful bid was that of Japan's Yuichiro Miura who, in 1970, tried to slow down his descent using a parachute. It failed to unfold, and video footage of the decent shows Sherpa spectators covering their eyes in horror. He fell instantly, sliding down the mountain on his backside for 800m at high speed, with the parachute flapping lamely behind him. He injured himself so severely that it took him about nine years to recover completely. He went on to write a book with the exaggerated title of The Man Who Skied Down Everest, and became a national celebrity, much like Britain's Eddie the Eagle.

Karnicar cannot, however, claim credit for the fastest descent - a paraglider jumped off the top in 1988 and made it down in 11 minutes.

Slovenes are not known for their mountaineering feats - at least, not on Everest. It was first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay in 1953; but it took until 1979 for the first Slovenes to arrive on the summit. The first ascent without oxygen took place in 1978, and so far only one Slovene has managed an oxygen-free ascent, just three years ago.

But whether Karnicar will become a national hero is in question. Janez Vouk, a spokesman for the Slovenian Government's PR office, simply remarked rather sniffily: "We are pleased, of course, but we are already used to those accomplishments by Slovenes in the alpine world. I can't say that people in Slovenia would be surprised."

Yet Slovenia would appear to need as many national heroes as it can possibly muster. When I asked who the country's most famous citizen might be, the press office was stumped. "Ha! Now you've got me," he admitted.