A Real Downer
Karnicar, 38, was understandably preoccupied, since summiting was only the start of his amazing adventure. Four hours and 40 minutes after donning his equipment, he became the first person to ski uninterrupted from the 29,028-ft. peak of the world's highest mountain to a base camp at 17,515 ft. The descent, broadcast live on the Internet via a camera on his helmet as well as by remote cameras placed along the route, took Karnicar under huge blocks of ice poised to collapse and over the frozen body of a climber who died on Everest in 1996. So fraught with danger was the adventure that the Darwin Awards, a U.S. Web site that reports on daredevils and others who seem to gamble with death—and sometimes lose—held an online vigil tracking Karnicar's progress. "What this guy did is really incredible," says Doug Coombs, one of the U.S.'s best-known extreme skiers. "He kept his skis on the whole way, and people have been asking for years, 'How can you do that, with so many rocks and crevices?' But he hit it lucky, and he hit it right, and that's what it's all about."
The wiry 5'8" Slovenian resists suggestions that his descent was a reckless one. "I feel that I was born to do this," says Karnicar, a hero in his native country, a part of Yugoslavia until 1991. "I've been working 18 years to prepare for Everest. This goal seems so logical to me."
Driven by a deep affinity for mountaineering, he also has a healthy respect for the power of nature: His older brother Luka died in a mountaineering accident in their hometown of Jezersko in 1997, and younger brother Drejc lost eight toes to frostbite after skiing with Karnicar down the treacherous Himalayan peak Annapurna in 1995. Karnicar himself narrowly escaped death—and lost two fingers to frostbite—in an aborted Everest ski trip during the infamous 1996 storm that killed 12 climbers and was chronicled in Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air. "I'd be very happy if he stopped at any time, but I know that I can't change him," says Karnicar's wife, Carmen, 37, a homemaker and the mother of their daughters Anja, 17, and Doroteja, 9, and son Aljaz, 15. "Because Davo takes such risks, our family appreciates life much more than we would otherwise."
The allure of the mountains has long been a part of Karnicar's life. His parents in the tiny Alpine village of Jezersko were both avid climbers and skiers and in summers ran a mountain cabin for hikers. "In Jezersko every little boy and girl learns to walk and then to ski," says Karnicar. "But even when I was little, I wanted to be the best." As motivated as he was highly gifted as a skier, he took lessons and "would wake up at 4 in the morning and train until he had to leave for school," remembers Vinko Tepida, his onetime ski instructor. "He always knew exactly what he wanted to do."
Karnicar went on to work as a coach for the Slovenian Alpine ski team while studying in the sports department at the University of Ljubljana. But he skipped his thesis to focus on his adventures, including the 1995 trek down the 26,504-ft. Annapurna with Drejc. "Davo is willing to make sacrifices to follow his dreams," says Drejc, who teaches mountaineering in Jezersko despite the loss of his toes. "He simply can't live a normal life—a life without challenges."
The biggest challenge of them all—Everest—brought Karnicar to the brink of disaster in 1996 during the deadly Into Thin Air storm. Pushing up the mountain's rugged north face on the Tibetan route despite worsening weather, Karnicar took off a glove to radio base camp and noticed that the fingers on his left hand were completely white. "I didn't realize how bad the conditions were," he says. "I should have turned back two or three hours earlier." Instead he had to abandon the climb and descend for seven hours through a blinding blizzard. "You can't hurry because you can't risk falling, and you can't stay still because you fall asleep and die," he says. "I knew that one wrong decision would cost me my life."
Karnicar managed to straggle into base camp and decided then and there to try Everest again. Not even the death of Luka—a mountaineering instructor who, along with four other members of his rescue team, was killed when a safety line attached to a helicopter broke during a training mission—could change his mind. "That was very shocking," he says of his brother's death. "But I had talked with Luka about Everest, and he supported me. I felt I owed it to him." With financing from a ski-maker and a public relations agency, among others, and accompanied by climbing partner Franc Oderlap and two Sherpa assistants, Karnicar began the ascent from base camp on Oct. 4. In Jezersko, where the Karnicars live in a two-bedroom apartment above the post office, his son monitored the trip on Karnicar's own Web site, while his wife tried to hide her fears from the children. Still, says Carmen, "I would have images of his funeral and what it would be like."
Luckily her prayers to Nepal's mountain gods seem to have been answered: Weather conditions during the excursion were ideal. After spending only a few minutes at the summit, Karnicar began his descent down Everest's south face, and for the first 2,000 ft., "there were no problems," he says. "I was having a great time." The normally jagged Hillary Step—named for Sir Edmund, the famed adventurer first known to summit Everest—was pillowed by dense snow, while a notoriously avalanche-prone stretch proved serene and stable. At around 27,000 ft. Karnicar noticed two legs sticking out of the snow; he later learned that the body belonged to one of the victims of the 1996 storm. "I realized I had stopped directly on the chest," he says. "That made me even more focused to get down safely." At 12:45 p.m. on Oct. 7, Karnicar glided into base camp, too exhausted to celebrate but eager to call his family. "Davo said, 'I am back down, don't worry,' " recalls Carmen. "We all screamed and exchanged high fives."
Back in Jezersko, Karnicar has resumed his job running a mountaineering and skiing school. But he already knows what his next few adventures will be: He plans to ski down the highest peaks on every continent. There is one mountain, though, he won't go near—Kashmir's K2, the world's second-highest peak. Not because he doesn't want to, but because he promised his family he'd skip it to spend more time with them. "Now is the time to do other things in my life," he says. "And K2 would be really tough." Then, at the mere mention of the challenge, he breaks into a grin. "I hope," he says, "that I can keep my promise."
Eileen Finan in Jezersko