(Ed’s note: See earlier “Ptor’s Spacebook” installments HERE ».)
By Ptor Spricenieks
As the bus wound its way up the 4,000-meter vertical of switchbacks from Pativilca on the coast to Conococha Pass, I wondered whether something was wrong: There were no potholes! In fact, to my astonishment, the road was freshly paved. As such, I couldn’t help but fantasize longboarding this ultimate road descent in perfect conditions. Riding up on a road bike would have been pretty sweet too. The skiing I was in Peru to do was still a long ways off, and quite a fantasy in itself. Since none of the above was possible at the moment, my mind turned to a more accessible reality—pollo a la brasa and papas fritas for dinner, in Huaraz.
Arriving in Huaraz I began to grok that Peru had changed a lot in the ten years since my last visit. Mining especially has instilled change in both the physical and fiscal face of the mountainous Ancash region. Huaraz was bigger and more bustling than ever. But, I too had changed. Now married with a son and another kid "in the oven," and in the middle of building a house in La Grave, France, it was only my new connection to the adventurous and artistic spirits of Nick Waggoner and Zac Ramras of Sweetgrass Productions that had rousted a return to Peru and to expedition-mode. And now, after a series of unsuccessful expeditions culminating with losing most of my gear in a rescue in Zanskar in 2007 and a catastrophic leg injury in 2008, the incredible Cordillera Huayhuash was once again to be a way-point in my life.
While acclimatizing at La Casa de Zarela, reconnecting with old friends and even getting out for a sweet mountain bike ride, I was still in disbelief that the Sweetgrass boys were actually taking me up on my crazy idea. It would be totally out on a limb to go explore my theoretical lines in the remote eastern side of the Cordillera Huayhuash. They were total fantasies on the magnificent mountains of Yerupaja and Siula Grande that I had caught glimpses of on two previous missions there. Even with additional angles from some Carlos Buhler climbing photographs, I didn’t know if these lines even went or if they could even be accessed. I did know, however, that there were enough options in the area (mostly known for the Joe Simpson epic), and that it would be worth it just to go there. It is definitely one of the most spectacular and beautiful mountain places I have ever seen.
Sweetgrass’ vision of film making and approaching adventure was right up my alley. They were 100-percent receptive to the terms that I communicated as vital to such an effort; choosing my ski partner/third cameraman was one of those things. Thankfully it didn’t have to be some meaningless sponsored dude. My buddy Trevor Hunt and I hadn’t skied together since our epic session in Kluane National Park back in 2005. And he too was just returning to form after injuries, illnesses and other complications in life. His stoke to be back in the big mountains and join our team was high and I was stoked to have him along. Although this would be his first time in South America, Trevor has plenty of high-altitude ski experience in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and Pakistan.
The other crucial element was another old friend, Koky Castaneda, a Peruvian mountain guide and one of the few Peruvians that skis. I had first met Koky in ’98 with Kris Ericson, Hans Saari, John Griber, Jason Schutz and Rob Deslauriers when we skied Artesonraju in the Cordillera Blanca. Koky was so inspired by us that he immediately headed to Chamonix the next winter to begin his skiing apprenticeship. In ’99, I returned to Peru and we skied a beautiful first descent in the Huayhuash, Pumarinri, together with Colin Samuels. The following winter he would join me in La Grave and we even did some surfing together while I was on a paragliding mission in Peru in 2001.
Koky’s presence was essential not only to help Zac and Nick but to remind us of all of the important subtle details that can make-or-break an expedition at high altitude in the Andes. A tight, organized team was crucial. The remote and difficult zones we would be entering have seen only a handfull of alpinists. The glaciers can only be described as gnarly and there must be no f*ck ups. A rescue would take a very long time to mount and be difficult to execute. The final part of our team was our cook Juan, who would keep us healthy, strong and, with his unrelenting smile, be a constant reminder of the joy of just being in the mountains.
A day of driving from Huaraz to Queropalca (home of the largest concrete cowboy hat I’ve ever seen) and another day of hiking with a caravan of 15 donkeys and we were at our 4,200-meter basecamp. Another 2,400 meters straight above us loomed the daunting summit of Yerupaja, the highest water source of the Amazon. All along the steep sides of the valley, glaciers caved away all day long, thundering into blue lakes. This side of the mountains bore the brunt of moisture forced up from the jungles below and these glaciers have resisted retreat more than in other parts of the Andes. Mornings were pleasant as trekkers on the Huayhuash circuit passed in the distance, but with the afternoons came clouds, wind and cold.
A hundred meters above our tent city were the grass huts of a lone shepherd woman named Gloria who lived alone with her two dogs and animals. There weren’t many people up here in this lonely place. With time to think around basecamp during rainy days or while on the long approach hikes to high camps, missing my family was the most difficult thing. The patience one requires here is hard to temper with that kind of influence, but I had committed with my wife Karin’s blessing. And so there I was. From the outset, I had decided that my only glory was to return home safe and healthy, in spite of my undying passion for skiing my aesthetic urges.
I did ask myself, "What the hell am I doing in such a zone to begin with?" I thought about other skiers and alpinists who have kids and still go on expeditions. Then again, I’ve always thought that life is dangerous, period, and one can die in the most benign of scenarios. Complacency when one’s awareness is not sharp because the situation is not new or demanding is the worst killer. It’s already been a while since I figured that endeavours must be "worth it" and necessarily need to follow a natural flow to their fulfillment. Also, that flexibility of objectives is crucial, which in turn entails an acceptance of reality, i.e; conditions and therefore going for the best option instead of being ego-blinded and stuck to the original objective.
Here amongst the most crazy glaciers I have ever skied on, I had confidence in my skills, judgement, fitness and partners. All the right elements had come together. This felt like the right time for me to return to the "sharp end," not to prove anything or push limits, but just for the joy of it. I think I can say that we all felt successful just by immersing ourselves in these mountains and returning safely. Ultimately there was no pressure for anything and as such my intuition was able to lead us to successful filming in far from ideal and rather challenging conditions.
As for the skiing and stuff, well, you’ll just have to check out Sweetgrass Productions’ Solitaire when it comes out in September. Ha, ha! Also, a massive thank you to Black Diamond Equipment and Haglofs for their support in making this dream trip a reality.