As we walk, our two little headlamps light our way, pushing us further into the sea of darkness. Further and further from the safety of our cozy base camp at the toe of the glacier, our home for the last 4 days. My mind is in a dreamlike state. The only sound in the darkness is the monotonous crunching of our ski boots on the hard glacier ice. We are climbing towards a peak I’ve had dreams of climbing and skiing for years. We’ve been staring at it for days as we continue to acclimatize and watch the weather, but the waiting is over, and tonight is the night we launch for the summit.
Two weeks ago we arrived in the faraway and exotic country of Peru. My climbing partner and photographer, Jason Thompson, and I plan to attempt to climb and ski in the Cordillera Blanca mountains, which are famous for their alpine climbing but not so famous for skiing.
We’ve quickly learned over the past two weeks that a ski trip to Peru really isn’t about skiing. It’s a test in the art of persistence and patience, and it doesn’t come easy, you have to earn it. Initially, (after the long flight to Lima) we had an eight hour bus ride up and over a windy mountain pass from the coast to the Catholic city of Huarez, home to 120,000 who live at elevation of over 10,000 feet.
After a few days of acclimatization hikes around the town, and a week camped out at 14,000 feet and hiked and skied off a smaller peak to help with the acclimation. Finally, it was time to head towards our goal of the trip. The majestic peak know was Artisonraju, commonly knows was Paramount Peak (it’s the Paramount picture’s logo). Ever since Patrick Vallencant did the first descent over thirty years ago, is has become one of the true ski mountaineering gems in the range, and the southwest face has been skied quite a few time before.
It was a relatively easy hike up the Paron Valley where we set up our camp at the toe of the glacier at around 4800m. With an unfavorable weather forecast for the coming week we made the call to try and climb Artison the following day. Waking at midnight JT and I left for the summit under a night sky full of stars. But soon into the climb, while crossing an old, flat glacier, JT broke through some ice and soaked his leg up to mid thigh. As JT drained the water from the boot, we chatted and chose to continue on.
We soon learned that we had left too early. It was still dark when we arrived at the base of the face, so we bundled up and waited for the sun. To our dismay, along with the sun, came the wind. As we climbed past the bergschrund and onto the face, our feelings changed from excitement to trepidation because the snow conditions had turned to unconsolidated sugar beneath breakable crust. Unable to get any protection to prevent a slide in case of a fall, in we choose to spin and head back to camp. We were hoping that we would get another window of opportunity.
Over the next two days, we watched storms come and go, and then our window arrived and we made the call to make a second attempt. This time we left at 3 a.m., so we would arrive at the face at sunrise. Crossing the bergschrund for a second time we found that the snow had locked up and it made for good climbing conditions. But as the sun began to rise, we started to see clouds forming on the surrounding peaks and lenticulars forming on Artison. By 8 a.m. we were around 5600 m with less than 2 hours to go and the snow was getting better. I could imagine what it would feel like to stand on the snow in my skis make those first few turns. But reality was starting to show its ugly face, and sometimes the hardest decision is not to let emotions to ski override the reality of what the conditions are and what the mountain gods are saying. We watched as a lenticular cloud formed on the summit and mother nature slammed the door shut to the mountain. We weighed our options and both agreed that skiing a 50 degree face in a whiteout didn’t sound all that fun. We chose to spin.
Dropping into my first few turns, I was blown away by how good the snow was, soft and sugary below the hard surface. As JT and I skied to the bottom of the glacier, we high fived each other and headed back to camp. But I kept looking back thinking, could have, would have, should have? Did we make the right call? If we had waited longer would it have cleared? But, at the end of the day we realized we had made the right decision, it just wasn’t the right day. It’s important to never turn a blind eye to what the mountains are telling you.