by KTNA Staff ~ April 27th, 2014
Mountain guide Willi Prittie remembers an exhilarating descent on Peru’s highest peak.
Audio is 9:30
Skis chatter. . .steel edges fight to carve a path across wind-hammered rime ice and sastrugi. My breath comes ragged and painful, and increasingly short as I fight for control to link my next turn. Unfamiliar skis and boots are uncooperative, as uncooperative as this thin air is in filling lungs and powering muscles! Fear taints my cold sweat as I stare down into dark, cold, eternity flashing by to each side of me. The first snow bridge is cleared, but deep icy glacial crevasses are heedless and aloof from my struggle. This thing is begun. But what will be the finish of it? For it not to be the finish of me, it will be a long and harsh path down from 22,000 feet! Can I do this? How can I possibly do this? I can always take off skis and walk down, but my skier’s soul rebels at this absurd notion. . .
Seemingly long ago and in another dimension, this journey was begun, in the warm sub-tropical valley far below me. In the warmth of a comfortable apartment in a different country, it seemed like such a simple idea! Charlie, a friend and co-guide needed some additional gear to join another guide friend on a proposed climb they wanted to do in Bolivia’s nearby Cordillera Vilcabamba. I was fresh off of guiding an expedition up neighboring Peru’s highest peak, Huascarán. There was time before my next expedition and I was eager to get back into the mountains on my own terms. Charlie had a friend who had skiing gear near our apartment in La Paz, and we quickly engineered a gear exchange! What a perfect idea, thought I! I was acclimatized, I was over my cold or whatever creeping crud I’d had, I knew the route and the conditions, so why not go back and ski the mountain?
One turn at a time! One turn at a time! Pick your line! Concentrate! Concentrate on ski edges! Don’t forget to breathe! (My internal councilor had kicked into overdrive, but is it enough? Will it be enough?) Two linked turns, maybe three—can I do four, can I manage four turns without stopping? No! Most emphatically no! Ski edges in hard, come to a stop, lean over ski poles and pant until breath comes back. . . until full sight returns. . .ah the magic of oxygen working its wonder! Now, do it again!
The three-day bus trip across the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplaño proved a mini adventure all on its own. Puno on Lago Titicaca went by in a kaleidoscope of indigenous Ayamara dress and people. In that era of Latin American military dictatorships, getting through the heavily armed Peruvian border was an eye-opener. The storied towns of the Peruvian highlands rolled by, each with its own unique and lengthy history: Cuzco the capital and last stronghold of the Inca empire during the Spanish invasion and conquest; Ayacucho, Huancayo, and on to Lima. Ah, yes, Lima that seething, huge urban blight on the Atacama Desert along the Pacific Ocean shoreline. What a fight to get through the city to my next bus station across town. To get through 3ith my pack and skis still with me and intact!
Such memories fade into insignificance as I stop yet again to catch my breath and I look out over the sweep of fluted ice faces on the high peaks of the Coldillera Blanca. Such beauty stirs the mountain-lover’s soul, especially as the weather gods have seemingly smiled down upon my folly today! Windless, cloudless, sunny skies have held, and the afternoon sun is working its magic softening the snow on my westerly-facing route down, greatly easing my ski descent. As the crevasses and snow bridges pass safely under my skis, I drop altitude quickly, the air becomes thicker and my breathing becomes easier. Fear and trepidation are replaced with the sheer joy of movement. Telemark turn after turn are linked and left behind in near perfect sun-softened snow, my signature of today on this incomprehensibly huge mountainside as the ice and sastrugi of higher altitude are left behind.
Physical rhythm becomes a mantra and my mind flows into and out of a near-meditative state. Six turns linked, seven, eight before I must stop to breathe. Such pauses now stretch on beyond what is necessary physiologically. I must stop frequently anyway, pause to take in the view, the ambiance, to indelibly imprint on my memory this day, this view, this experience.
Lengthening shadows and golden light put me on notice that this very long day is slipping away. Far to the west, beyond the mountains known as the Cordillera Negra, the sun sinks on its inexorable path into the Pacific Ocean. As I glide down the last of the snow, the dying sunlight paints all around me, even the air, with pure neon color! Such an intense alpenglow I think one is privileged to experience on only a few occasions in a lifetime—even if much of that life is spent in the mountains in anticipation of just these events! I dally and gawk—much like a blind man might who is suddenly given sight. All too soon, nature’s light-show fades, and I must shoulder my skis and descend the rest of the way to my camp on crampons on bare glacier ice.
Night falls quickly in equatorial regions, and without much twilight. I finish my return to camp by headlamp, stumbling with the fatigue of a long day, but with an inner glow of accomplishment. I’ve done something important . . . but only to me. I have not changed the world in any way, or done something or anything wonderful for humanity or the planet. I have simply challenged myself, and won—always a momentous internal event. Some, in their hubris, speak grandiosely of “conquest” of mountains or routes. What a ludicrous concept! The only conquest is of self, of overcoming our puny, frail, human reality and somehow sneaking up on the mountain and escaping successfully afterwards! This is accomplished through no small measure of skill, and if we are honest about it, a whole measure of good luck as well. The mountain doesn’t even grant us passage; it simply goes about its business of responding to weather and gravity, to geologic time and to seasons without regard to humans at all, to paraphrase that famous French climber Gaston Rebufat.
As I drift off to a sleep so deep it could only be achieved from a state of complete exhaustion, I remember other long days, other sunsets, and other vistas in a montage of overlapping memories of great times in the mountains and on skis. There are so many wonderful places to visit, to explore, to discover . . . there are so many amazing things to learn and to do in life that I sometimes feel that there is only one true cardinal sin in living: Namely succumbing to boredom!