by Alex Taran
It was the most miserable I’d ever been in my life. Why did I feel such a calling to this mountain? We were just above 15,000 feet, and I was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet. The sun had not risen yet, it was hard to breathe, I was full of doubt.
I had tried to ski 17,815-foot El Plomo, a peak in the Chilean Andes outside of Santiago, three times before, and they had all been failures. Was I really capable of this? I turned to Manu and told him that I would probably have to head back. They should go on without me. He gave me a hug and asked me what was going on? He told me I was in my head, that I had logged plenty of time in the mountains and I was beyond capable. I walked up, one foot in front of the other, and cried to myself.
The first time I tried to ski El Plomo was with my friends Drew and Griffin. After several days of the road being closed due to mudslides, I was down in the city with 7 million people resupplying, and I did not expect a weather window for another few days. While down in Santiago the clouds started to clear, I looked toward the mountains and I saw the sun—this was our chance. I immediately called Rodrigo, who the boys were crashing with. He told me they were already on the mountain, planning to sleep in the top shack at La Parva Ski Area, and that they didn’t know how to get a hold of me.
I took whatever groceries I had in my pack, went to the hitchhiking spot and stuck my thumb out. After hitchhiking, skinning, and a cat ride from one of the groomers, I busted into the top shack at midnight only to find out that the plan was for a 24-hour push, starting in only three hours. After hiking 1,500 feet I realized that on only three hours of sleep, I was ill prepared for a trip most folks do in three days. Continuing for me would probably be dangerous. So at 4 a.m. I shoved my stiff boots back on my feet, wished the boys luck, and skied back down.
The second time I couldn’t find a partner, so I decided to go by myself. One of my Chilean friends begged me not to go. I ignored him and started the slog to the base camp. I arrived late, set up camp and went to sleep, hoping my pounding headache would dissipate by morning. Upon waking up I realized the weather window was quickly ending, two days early. As I watched the clouds creep up the valley bellow me I knew I had to turn back. The storm was to last four days, I didn’t have enough food to stick it out, nor did I want to be by myself for four days, alone in a tent, in the high Andes. I hiked out, hitchhiked back to Santiago, and my once concerned friend and I split a bottle of rum.
The third time was once again a story of being unprepared, I dragged my new boyfriend to the base of El Plomo. We had just come from a night of little sleep on overnight bus from the southern lakes district, an elevation of 2,000 feet. After gaining 13,000 feet on very little sleep, I got altitude sickness. Little tasks like melting water and pulling out my sleeping bag seemed extremely hard. I felt sluggish, not to mention the pounding headache. I was disoriented and developing a cough. So I did what I hate doing: I let someone else take care of me and bailed on my mission.
As I returned to the mountain after many failed attempts I saw my greatest weakness: poor planning, and a lack of respect to the mission, the mountain, and the altitude.
This year was going to be different. Months before the trip I looked for a partner. This mountain was to be my main objective for the trip to Chile. I would honor the elevation, and I would honor the nuances that came with winter travel. After asking many friends, Manu agreed to go with me. This time we would acclimatize and look for a sufficient weather window.
The day after I arrived in Chile, Manu traveled up from the south where he lived. We ski toured from the base of La Parva to Chiminea to acclimatize. At 9,000 feet it’s not that high, but coming from 3,000 feet it was good enough for me. Time to do something differently—play it conservatively.
The next day, we packed up our bags and headed out with the intention of stashing a tent and a bunch of gear at base camp at 14,500 feet. But it recently snowed 70 cm of snow, which made the trail-breaking more difficult than anticipated. Some 11 kilometers of undulating terrain later, the sun was setting and we had not reached our day’s objective. We found a relatively flat spot at 12,000 feet and set up camp for the night. Not achieving our goal for the day, we both pondered whether we were capable of reaching a peak close to 6,000 feet higher and significantly further. It was dark, and cold, but after a little Reggaeton and a warm dinner, our spirits were lifted, we laughed, and went to sleep.
We woke up to a sunny, -10 degree day. We stashed our gear, skinned out, then down to 8,000 feet to rest. There we would look for an appropriate weather window for our push to the top. The trip would be another three days and almost 10,000 feet.
A good friend whom I patrolled with at Snowbird joined us, Bremmer. He brought no less than 2 kilos of meat, 2 kilos of cheese, and 2 kilos of granola. We jumped on to our old skin track and made it to our gear stash mid-day. After some more tricky skinning, and a lovely rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” by Mr. Bremmer himself, we made it to Refugio Federación by sunset.
Typically, I never stay in the refugios because the Hanta Virus warning signs always freak me out, but this time with the prevailing winds I had no objections. None of us were hungry, probably attributed to the altitude. Nonetheless we took turns melting snow, cutting cheese off Bremmer’s massive block, and set the alarm for 5 a.m.
That brings us full circle, to the beginning of this story. One foot in front of the other, cold, wanting to give up, and realizing the momentary shelter of the Refugio was unavailable. The lingering doubt, caused by the drive to continue upward from an undefined source.
We sat for a minute and I put on my last layer, a giant puffy coat. I thought to myself hiking in all my layers was stupid, but I was so cold I could not think. I decided to keep going. Perhaps not knowing the source of the need to go up this mountain coupled with the intense discomfort created such inner doubt. I realized the reason I was freezing is because the Wasatch backcountry skier in me thought I would soon overheat. I was not wearing all my layers. Turns out in the dark at 16,000 feet it’s so hard to catch your breath, you can’t really move fast enough to sweat. I put on my largest down jacket and continued.
After watching the sun creep slowly across the valley below, it finally hit the scree-filled hillside we were walking on, and feeling returned to my toes.
We were ascending between two massive glaciers. The view on the way up was incredible, I had lived and worked in the shadow of this mountain for the past 10 years, but had never seen it from that angle. I started to gain a sense that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Glacier Iver was our planned descent but to our dismay the upper part was completely dry and snowless, a beautiful shade of blue, in which a ski edge could never hope to hold. Nonetheless we continued to the top. We passed the shoulder where an Incan mummy, a child sacrifice, had been discovered in 1954. This mountain was considered sacred to the Inca, and I would soon fully understand why. We crossed the top of Glacier Iver and crested the summit plateau 30 minutes behind our turnaround time. We were running late, but after a short discussion, we decided we would not stop until the summit.
From the top appeared larger mountains, steep black rock walls, valleys blanketed by glaciers, a seemingly endless gift of earth that only few get to see in the winter. I was stunned. It was one of those moments in which I drowned in a feeling of immensity, one I could not have previously conceived. I became insignificant, and simultaneously the luckiest person on earth. I felt completely present in the moment. I hugged Manu and we both cried.
At a certain point we could not stand and take it in any longer because it would get dark. We passed our turnaround time, and we had to get off the mountain. We walked down the plateau, crossed the glacier, and started making our way down the scree field. We would have to make it about half way down, to a little over 16,000 feet before we could put our skis on and hope to hold an edge.
Putting on our skis was a challenge in itself. The snow was so solid that I hesitated while taking off my last crampon in order to fully weight the edges of my skis. Each turn held a mix of controlled sliding and a breakable crust. I’d like to say I skied it fast and smooth, but I kick turned in several places and jump turned during the rest. Each turn held a variety of conditions, from icy and barely edgeable, to breakable crust, to soft, windblown snow.
It was getting dark as we skied past blue chunks of ice which had caved off Glacier Plomo that hung above. As we reached camp we looked back at the mountain as a pink hue washed over it. The next day we would skin back out.
Upon returning I was asked how it was. My response was simple: “It was most incredible moment of my life, and simultaneously the worst skiing of my life.”
El Plomo wasn’t just about achieving a goal. As with many mountains it becomes so much more. A drive for a reason which at first cannot really be explained, it can only be fully understood upon actually going there. And then in that moment, on the summit, it all makes sense. Perhaps that’s why we know to trust the calling when we feel it.
Perhaps that’s why through numb toes, self-doubt, three failures, and wanting to turn back we can’t stop. We feel a drive, an overwhelming pull to a seemingly meaningless goal. Only to realize upon arrival that knowing we are meaninglessness was the goal all along. It is one in which we have already arrived, one in which we could accomplish through being present at any given moment. Oddly enough it often takes multiple tries, misery, and 17,800 feet to remind us.
Flylow athlete Alex Taran is the founder of the South American Beacon Project.