Maturity Matters in the High Peaks
Condensed from the author’s book, Natural Progression, which will release in May 2020
The year after our first Everest expedition, Steve, Jim, and I found ourselves back in Bolivia, licking our wounds after a difficult expedition that left us with a need for resolution after not reaching a summit. We were checking out a massive 21,500-foot peak we had viewed from every Bolivian peak we had climbed, Sajama. Sajama is a volcano that sits alone, well away from the Cordillera Real where we had concentrated our Bolivian adventures previously, and the white pyramid had always been a magnet for our eyes and a stimulant for our curiosity. We were not aware of anyone having skied the peak and didn’t know if it was even possible. So we loaded our haul bags and headed to the mountain on a quick 10-day jaunt.
We learned that we needed to head to the opposite side from the standard southwest ridge route for skiing, but we could find no beta. We were flying blind. We managed to set up a basecamp a short trek from the bottom of the mountain, and headed out to explore. We had no idea what to expect and subsequently took all our gear, including ice climbing equipment and other kit we weren’t sure we’d even use. We didn’t want to risk not having something if we needed it; our packs were enormous.
As I shouldered my pack, the weight crushed my excitement for a magnificent peak with total discomfort. Bluntly, all the expeditions to that point had burned me out. Our enthusiasm waned, but we were there and we reasoned we should give it a go. As we reached what seemed a feasible route from afar, we were disappointed to see that it was comprised of endless and steep water ice. This further squelched my desire to climb because I seriously doubted there would be any skiing. I didn’t have it in me to take on treacherous climbing and subsequent down-climbing of thousands of feet of no-fall ice considering the full loads, including ski gear, which I doubted we would be able to use. Ironically, 13 years later I would be attempting a peak close to Sajama, and gazing at the route we climbed and skied, my fears came rushing back; looking at Sajama with the years of experience since then left Steve, Jim, and I wondering how the hell we managed to climb and ski what we did back then.
I sat on a rock depressed. Jim and Steve had geared up and started climbing the 45 degree complete sheet of water ice. They had no need to listen to me complain and later told me that they thought if they just headed up, I would follow. I was angry and tired, and yelled up: “Trip done, this is stupid, I am out of here.” I started to walk back to basecamp, fully expecting Steve and Jim to encourage me to join them, but they remained silent. This pissed me off even more and didn’t know what to do.
I had a choice of two evils: sitting it out at basecamp and wondering what the climbing—and subsequent skiing—might be like, or testing the waters, frozen as they were, and heading up. I also worried about them running into trouble. Given the slopes, it wasn’t an unreasonable concern. I begrudgingly sat back down, strapped on my crampons, and proceeded carefully up the slippery and difficult ice using my two ice axes. As I climbed, my confidence was restored and something came over me.
My greatest fear was that we would have to down-climb all that ice. Sure, we could belay each other if we had to, but I dreaded the process given that it seemed like it would be endless. I had not climbed much ice since Broad Peak several years before, and my skills were a question mark. We had become accustomed to skiing and ice had become an anomaly with the exception of short sections we ran into on the high peaks. On Sajama, however, there were endless slopes of scary, pure water ice, the result of the daily freeze-thaw cycle. At one point I tried my skills and actually down-climbed a hundred feet just to assure myself I could still do it. Like riding a bike, my skills came back and I was excited.
My mental state changed 180 degrees, and adrenaline rushed through my veins. I was going to climb this wretched peak no matter what. I had to control my excitement, and any notion of turning around faded behind a perfect day doing what I realized I was born to do. I still didn’t anticipate there would be any skiing, but nothing mattered. I was a climber and I was climbing. Later, I reached our camp situated on a small rock ledge with drop-offs on both sides, but enough room to set up a tent and relax. But things got even better. Just beyond camp, we were greeted with a super-steep headwall that offered a mixture of the same dreaded ice peppered with snow patches. The prospects of skiing were looking much better. We spent the afternoon fixing ropes up the headwall. We were camped at just under 19,000 feet, but the views were spectacular, the weather perfect, and we all felt invigorated and strong. We decided that we would get up early the next morning and go for it, covering the nearly 9,000 feet to nearly 22,000 feet in 2 quick days.
The usual sequence of beeping watch alarms aroused us around 3 am. We boiled a pot of water, choked down some oatmeal, and hydrated with a few cups of tea and coffee. We hit the trail under a star-filled sky with the Southern Cross giving us direction. We were glad we had fixed the route, and after a half hour the route rolled off onto a broad ridge. We couldn’t see much as the sun wasn’t up, but the climbing was on a moderate slope, and as we gained altitude, the ice gave way to snow-covered slopes. It was by no means smooth, and there were sastrugi lips and edges carved into the wind-blasted boiler plate snow, but it was not unskiable ice and it was reasonable enough to validate carrying the skis. We were excited. After another hour, the sun started to brighten the sky, and we could look out over the Atacama Desert towards Chile, the view broken only by a couple of smaller snow-capped volcanoes to the side of Sajama.
The skyline took on the magenta hue we had become accustomed to seeing at altitude, and the dry air and lack of particulates combined with mild hypoxia created an experience that was nearly spiritual. The ridge rolled on, hiding the summit, so we plodded upward enjoying a climber’s trance and anticipating a very long ski run. All was cool. After a few hours, we found ourselves on the summit looking across the Altiplano towards La Paz, with the Cordillera Real gracing the skyline from left to right.
The air at the summit was cold and crisp, and thin panes of ice formed in our water bottles. Drinking the water felt good. The shards melted in our throats, cooling them after hours of heavy breathing. There was not a cloud in any direction, and the air was so calm the quiet seemed loud. After a bite to eat and some more water, we readied our skis and clicked in. The summit was flat so the normal nervousness of kicking a ski down the slopes was not an issue. We looked ahead at the rough snow and cautioned ourselves to not dig a tip into the sides of the uneven ridges on the rough surface. There were smooth patches between the rough parts, and after the normal re-entry of the first few turns, the slope steepened and we
justified the normally harsh ski conditions with the excitement of skiing at nearly 22,000 feet in the middle of nowhere.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst snow in the world. In the high peaks, once you click into your skis and make turns, everything is good, the effort is justified, and there are no problems. We made our way down the ridge, shouldered our skis at the fixed headwall, and rappelled the last bit down to camp. I went last, and worked my way down the slope, carefully retrieving the ice screws in an effort to leave the slope as we found it. I also enjoyed testing my down-climbing skills on the long, steep and icy retreat to the bottom.
We pulled our camp and headed down, enjoying the challenge of the down-climbing and basking in the sense of accomplishment. For me, the trip had been cathartic. I experienced the awful dread of burn out leading up to a big climb, the sheer enjoyment of success with a summit and ski, and everything in between. Later, we would realize that one skier had beaten us to a first descent, and although the same line had also been snowboarded by American John Griber the year before, no other American had skied the peak to our knowledge.
It’s not that the stats are terribly important or that we perceived ourselves as extraordinary ski mountaineers, but rather the process we experienced on that peak was a great example of a progression. I am not referring to a physical progression, but rather the mental progression. As I walked to that peak, I was thinking that all the expeditions to that point had brought me to a crossroads. There is no question that after Broad Peak, Shishapangma, the difficult-at-best attempt at Everest, and the other accomplishments we achieved gave us significantly more satisfaction then we ever dreamed we would experience. We had taken a zillion small steps to progress to what pop culture considered the ultimate. That’s not to say we had become arrogant or complacent, but the reality was, the progression did lead us to a place where we knew we could take on the highest peaks in the world. And, contrary to what everything suggested outside of our experience of what was possible with skis, we were barraged with “it’s not possible for you guys.” This notion added to my initial hesitation at the base of Sajama. Not only was I burned out from a decade of difficult climbing and skiing, all that that entails, but I suffered from a general feeling that skiing those high peaks was a somewhat futile endeavor. And there is nothing like actual experience to substantiate these things. It was incredibly difficult stuff, bluntly miserable at times, coupled with the reality that statistically even though few were climbing and skiing in the 6,000 to 8,000 meter arena, summit rates for skiers were almost nonexistent for the few that were trying with the added weight and hassle factor of carrying and climbing in ski gear. This contributed to a nearly impossible mental hurdle in my mind as I pouted at the base.
But what I slowly realized, and what was confirmed on Sajama, was that, sure, you bet, ski mountaineering in the high peaks is difficult at best with minimal chances for defined success, “the summit”; but until you slap skis on a full pack, and climb into the thin air wearing heavy AT ski boots, despite everything, you really have no idea how satisfying it is, too. By reaching my patience limit on that peak, but then persevering despite it, and then, experiencing the pure joy of the sport and the satisfaction of overcoming my frustrations, Sajama was a crossroads and I knew we’d taken the right turn. I had summited the greatest peak of our life, and it wasn’t Sajama. Rather, it was a point where I literally became ski mountaineer. I had climbed the personal and public slopes of self-doubt, and reached a maturity that allowed me for the first time to understand that the difficulties were what made the sport worth doing.