by Richard Sandomir
On Oct. 7, 2000, Davo Karnicar’s fervor for extreme skiing took him to the summit of Mount Everest. His goal: ski nonstop to base camp, 12,000 feet down — a feat no one had yet achieved.
A skier since his childhood in Slovenia, Karnicar had long ago set his sights on Everest. He had made ski descents from several high peaks around the world; in 1995, he was the first skier to make a successful descent from the summit of Annapurna in Nepal.
“Everyone has a gift,” he told The Times of London shortly before the expedition. “I know how to ski. Someone else might know how to drive a Formula One car.”
Karnicar and his team had spent a month climbing the south face of Everest, and after a few hours’ rest he began his descent in the early morning from just more than 29,000 feet. As he went, he managed to escape the dangers of collapsing ice walls, strong winds and deep crevasses. At one point, he glimpsed the frozen body of a climber from an expedition years earlier.
Four hours and 40 minutes later, the descent was complete. Karnicar arrived at base camp, drained and unable to sleep, his fingers numb. “It was as if I was light years from this world,” he recalled in an interview with the Planet Mountain website in 2002. “I couldn’t even manage to feel happy.”
Karnicar — who after Everest made similarly uninterrupted ski descents from the highest peaks on the other six continents — died on Sept. 16 in a tree-cutting accident on his property in Jezersko, Slovenia. He was 56. His death was reported in Slovenian media and confirmed by Elan Skis, one of his sponsors.
“Davo Karnicar flirted with challenges in some of the most dangerous parts of our planet,” the company said on its website. “And he always found his way back safe and sound. It seems unreal that he met his destiny a stone’s throw from his doorstep.”
Karnicar was born in Jezersko on Oct. 26, 1962. His parents skied and climbed mountains, inspiring his passion for both pursuits. As a boy, he awakened early to ski before going to school and would eventually compete for Yugoslavia’s national Alpine skiing team.
Since 1980, he made an estimated 1,700 climbs and descents. Before descending Everest, he had skied down Eiger and the Matterhorn, among many other mountains.
He understood the dangers that his adventures presented but was undeterred.
His brother Andrej lost eight toes to frostbite during their descent on Annapurna in 1995. A year later, Davo lost two fingers to frostbite during a storm that killed eight climbers — a disaster detailed by Jon Krakauer in his book “Into Thin Air.”
And in 1997, Karnicar’s brother Luka and four other members of his rescue team died when a safety line connected to a helicopter broke during a training exercise.
“Somebody who is content to think, ‘Why would he do these things? It is not normal,’” Davo Karnicar said in “Unstoppable,” a recent documentary about him. “Usually, these people do not venture very far from the safety of the couch.”
Lou Dawson, a ski mountaineer who founded and writes for the website Wild Snow, said it was not recklessness that drove people like Karnicar to ski down 8,000-meter mountains.
“It’s a combination of physical ability, mental fortitude and intelligence,” he said by phone. “There’s an aspect of mountain spirituality to it. A reckless person would do it more for a thrill or to impress someone; a person doing these extreme sports does it more as a craft.”
During his descent of Everest, Karnicar avoided danger on the Hillary Step, a nearly vertical rock outcropping, and the Khumbu Icefall, where ice blocks can break and fall without warning.
“Skiing on ridges is like being on a knife’s edge,” he told The Independent soon after the descent. “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.”
Over the next six years, Karnicar skied down the highest peaks on six other continents: Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa; Mount Elbrus in Europe; Aconcagua in South America; Mount Kosciuszko in Australia; Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in North America and Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
He had planned to ski down K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, for years.
In 2009, his fellow climber Franc Oderlap, who had accompanied Karnicar to Everest in 2000, was killed by falling ice while they were testing equipment on Manaslu, in the Nepali Himalayans. Karnicar was uninjured. In 2017, Karnicar climbed as far as base camp at K2 but abandoned his quest when he hurt his back.
Information about his survivors was not immediately available.
Karnicar said in “Unstoppable” that the support of his family validated the immense risks he had taken.
“When they look into my eyes and say sincerely, ‘Daddy, we trust you,’ that is what really counts,” he said. “It is nice to hear when they say, ‘Davo is unstoppable.’”