EXCERPTS FROM THE BOLIVIAN DIARY
Following in his father's footsteps, Sam Smoothy and his assemblage managed to climb and ski Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi and made potential first-ski descents on the west face of Aguja Negra and the southeast face of Ala D. Sur in the Condoriri area o
GENEVA. MILAN. MADRID. Miami. La Paz. How long it took is a mystery, but whatever it was – it seemed longer. We are carting 65.8 kilograms of different devices for ascending, descending, cooking, sleeping and all the other various activities we've come to find in the Bolivian Andes. I am cosily sandwiched between two big Taco Bell-loving Yankees en route to their unnamed daughter who apparently prefers the Missionary vocation she now so devoutly fills. It is strangely gratifying to witness people still so committed to converting the natives to God, Capitalism and all things West, regardless of how ancient the culture may be.
Though it is very possible I dreamt all of this; that potent mix of tiny bottles of red chased with the Johnny that Walks guarantees the most vivid dreams. I bid the Yanks farewell with an earnest promise to find Jesus – and in a way I do, promptly stumbling into a pile of The North Face duffel bags that have managed to chase Johnny Collinson south of the border. A hazy cab ride through the dead streets of a sleeping La Paz dumps us into hostel bunk beds. It is 6am, May the 13th in the age of over-saturation that is 2015 and my eyes have ceased to function. I have come to Bolivia to retrace the climbing steps of my father, Ronald M. Smoothy, and hopefully, lay fresh ski tracks on the descents. Armed with his notes, vague stories retold deep into the night, I endeavour to discover how my father's previous life of travel and mountains has influenced my own. And perhaps come to understand him – a man of few words but many stories – a little better.
I have assembled a crack team; enlisting the prodigal talents of Johnny Collinson as Head Altitude Gnar Expert. My hometown adventure buddy and full-time mountain strong-man, Senior Aeronautical Advisor Fraser McDougall also joins the adventure team. Capturing our escapades are Will Lascelles and Jason Hancox, the former newly and the latter long-time brother of mine, who turned my blurry Bolivian visions into an actual expedition. They, of CoLab Creative production fame, have the risky task of creating a moving picture film of our ensuing adventures. The final member of our motley unit is an ex-Olympian and beloved man of international disrepute Mickey Ross, in charge of herding us into crisp still images amongst the general disarray. We spend the first few days shuffling around the city, getting used to the altitude of around 4,000 metres, and picking up such necessities as fuel and food. Will hands out ritualistic cigarettes and we challenge our lungs even further, trying to comprehend the whirling mayhem that is City in a Ravine, La Paz. We six staring out over this suitably chaotic city, are reassuringly joined by a family sedan, carefully wedged deep in a cliff face crevice, a hundred metres below the road. A perfect holeshot, its shattered
headlights are relit by the fading sun as the red brick shanties flame up before shadows engulf us.
“That kid sure can take a good kick in the face.” Strange words brought on by stranger scenes. Woman on woman. Man on woman on woman. We somehow find ourselves witnesses to Cholita wrestling in El Alto, where locals in swirling traditional garb take part in faked poor-man's wrestling in a rusted ring – the referees may count you out or just kick your ribs. I am well short of the cerveza needed for such a spectacle, but it rages on into the night regardless. A five-year-old clutches on to the ring, ready to jump into the centre to aid and abet his fierce mother, with little kicks to the torso of some allegedly entrapped opponent. A mistimed kick lands square on his bewildered face but while his lip quivers, the tears stay inside. What a way to make a buck.
I can't imagine my father, sitting popcorn in fist, watching two cholitas theatrically beat each other. Would these fights even exist without the alltravelling Lonely Planet sect to fund this crazy circus? Is it all shiny-signtourist-agency-couch-adventures now? Or are the adventures my father came looking for still out there in the hills? Back on the bus, few words pierce the dusty air as we drive downhill, the road plunging us deeper into the city as I sink into a moral hangover.
“This is a burning neighbourhood” explains Greg, our Kiwi contact in La Paz. Any crime against the community is often met with an angry lynch mob, who restrain the perpetrator with a few old car tyres stuffed over the head, pinning arms to sides. After a short gasoline-marinating period, in which said crimes are read, all it takes is a little spark. Bolivian a la Flambé. Cocaine production has moved into Greg's neighbourhood but is managed in a uniquely Bolivian manner. The cocaine production line is careful not to anger the local community, which is wise, considering the locals' penchant for human BBQ. In return, the Bolivian Cocaine Barons are mostly left alone – free to do business as they see fit – as long as any violence stays in-house; an arrangement that isolates the uniformly-hated police, drying up opportunities for those ‘protectors of the people' to extort and blackmail. We leave for the Condoriri base camp, and my heart is glad to get out of the city. I have loved our wanders through La Paz but for the constant shrieks of car horns and the claustrophobic overcrowding all wreathed in clawing smog; these are not for me and I long for fresh air, though it may be thinner still. A lack of oxygen in conjunction with over-stimulation of the optical nerve sends the mind wandering in unexpected directions.
Dust timidly billows from the irregularly spinning back tyre of Ernesto's drunkenly hand-welded bicycle. Clanks evaporate in the eerie still of The Lonesome Alto Plano gravel road, winding its way across the
barren, golden tussock badlands. A quiet family man, Señor Ernesto has ridden day and night to plead Coke Baron Jefe for the lives of his family. Not, as the villagers suspect, with his old guitar and quavering smoke-cracked voice but with long forgotten but punctual friends Smith and Wesson. I can almost see the awkward overacting of Tarantino's pained cameo in the broken words of a down-andout roadside fruit vendor as we motor through this celluloid fantasyland. Dramatic vistas unfurl as the majestic peaks in the background lord over the brittle mud huts strewn throughout the plains. The media honchos among us are so excited I fear we may never reach base camp, often stopping to unleash our arsenal of cameras. The approach, over the barren and up to the glorious, is so much like the mountain plains I abandoned in New Zealand seven months ago that homesickness briefly tugs at my shirtsleeves. The comforting quiet, velvet drapes of tussock hillocks smoothly slide off the base of the great Andean Peaks behind. But this notion is tossed into the dust by the large horde of llama, who nonchalantly remind me just how physically far from home we are.
First objective: Pequeno Alpamayo. A miserable slog on skis. Father was on foot. Why? Can't breathe. Anger at my weakness. John drags us higher. Gain 5,000 metres. Cloud comes in. Summit vanishes. Abort. Home. Eat. Sleep. Far away girlfriend waves. Jack Nicholson steals Sharon Stone off some suit. Confusion. Awake. Frozen beard. Hate altitude.
Pequeno Alpamayo, take two. A brisk morning stroll places us on the tongue of the glacier with our gear cache from the previous day's attempt. My father Ron was once robbed here, so we had tempted fate in bold style and stashed roughly 35 grand in gear. But Bolivian thieves sift at low-altitude nowadays it seems. I smile at the echo of Ron's notorious curses ringing around these crumbled giants, and we skin up in silence, finally feeling secure. Celebratory ice axes clink on top of a stunning peak with friends I have sweated, swore and slogged uphill with, together staring out across a landscape that is simultaneously foreign and home.
Hours later we are back at camp, stretched out in the sun staring at our peak in the distance. Eyes aglow having lain turns down this aesthetic pyramid my father wandered up so long ago.
The success all the sweeter for the struggle, it is the first peak climbed and skied over 4,000 metres for Fraser and me, with Pequeno Alpamayo a not-so pequeno (small) 5,370 metres. Much has changed in the years since my father's ascent; the gear, the style, but the core – the root of it all – is still the same.
Quiet contentment resonates around a burning stove, chomping away on something hot, a feeling not for sale in a department store, one that sits fierce in your soul. In these moments, he is here, those quiet times during the inbetweens. Ron was never an aggressive mountaineer, more interested in camp-fire camaraderie than dangerous summits, in creating stories for future campsites. He opened the tent fly to this environment for me, and I made a competition of it, seeking to outstrip him and take victories, a trait common to young sons. But now I realise there is so much more to this, that this could be a place where even defeat feels sweet. On Piramide Blanca, I begin to think the rope may have been a wise choice. We didn't forget it but had deemed it excessive. Standing tall on three-anda-half toenails with my nose scraping ice, formed with all the strength and consistency of pork crackling, is making me revise this decision. Rope retrieved from our sunbathing photographer, we push through the nastiest and steepest ice-bulge of my infantile ice climbing ‘career' and despairingly find decaying ice. Perfect for sliding head first off the behemoth cliff that cuts across the route midway and impossible to place protection. “Home time Johnny and don't spare the buried anchors, ‘tis time for a cuppa at camp me thinks!” Turning around halfway is always hard, those hours spent can feel like hours wasted, but John and I agree that to push higher in these conditions is far beyond our acceptable level of risk. As a reward, the sheltered snow we get to ski after the rappel is the closest thing we have found to dry white powder in these mountains.
Another day, the radio crackles and Fraser shakily reaches out to us across the valley, “That was the most exposed skiing I have ever done. Johnny and I would be OK with going home now.” The Lads have just climbed and skied a slanting ramp above terminal exposure, slicing through a rock pyramid called Aguja Negra situated right above our camp; a bold line finishing in a close out cliff requiring a gutsy down climb, all in the fading light. His comment resonates within. It is almost June, and we have been gladly putting ourselves in the firing line for six months straight, a strain that's starting to show. My thoughts have been turning – wheeling in the dark hours huddled in the tent – over the usual risk-versus-reward clause, ever present in mountains like these. We're a long way from help; a feeling similarly expressed in my father's notes. Out here, as close as we are to La Paz, we are still very isolated. We have no guides, no helicopters, no stern medics astride donkeys who will come charging to our rescue; out here the hard decisions rest solely on our heads. Maybe I should have just gone surfing. But there is that other side, that half of me that hesitates to leave. I turn back and stare even longer at the line un-skied on Piramide Blanca, all the more glorious to behold knowing its virgin status. A line that asks you “What if you had just climbed 50 more metres? What if that hollow ice curved toward the sun and became skiable snow.” What if?
Maybe another year, maybe another crew, maybe not in this lifetime.
Who's that stumbling around in the dark? A sleepy Señor Smoothy Junior lurching around somewhere on the border between night and morning, trying to find the gear stashed the day just gone. I rendezvous with Johnny and Fraser, and we push onto a new glacier, west of the prior one and pick two lines, both snaking through a hanging bowl above sobering exposure. As the sun rises the pitch jacks into crampon territory, but on we rise, up through the looking glass that is the dog-leg onto the upper Hanging Bowl of Death.
Staring between my heels, I can see there lurks a beast snapping for my soul. The abyss, a personal apocalypse of a cliff resides at the end of the slip and slides beneath my boots. I have skied above such terrors before, but this is a different beast, drawn out as my pace slows. For reasons unknown I have parted ways with the boys, striding out on my own, a decision I now regret as I see them happily chatting their way up the guts of the bowl. Meanwhile, I solo up the steepening face, which in the calm and distance of base camp had been a barely clear second-fiddle to the dogleg. But upon arriving, it is markedly different, as the sewing machine-shake in my knees loudly testifies. My axes are my world; my rock of Gibraltar, my anchor to the centre of the Earth and my grip tightens around them as the rhythm solemnly grinds me on up.
That mountaineer readily suffers this drawn out terror on the way up, as well as the way down, currently seems excessively masochistic. I love the fact that in freeride I can ski lines faster than my brain can process the fear impulse, which, in hindsight, may not be a positive reflection of my skiing or a negative one on my neglected head. A head that is running rampant, galloping through all possible and improbable ways this little jaunt could end awfully. Maybe this is not the place for me, these giddy heights, these crucial grey decisions, these little doubts creeping in. I am no Mallory, no Messner, I am a mortal man. Solo, metres from the top standing on what seems a hollow slab, I turn and click in.
These long hours of extreme exposure shine so brightly and are all the more vivid in memory for the ski descent that follows. A gripped, ice-skidding affair where omnipotent gravity slowly overcomes pride, the sole food my engine is left to run on. Slippery speed floods my dome and I barely hold it under the line of control before finally I allow myself to collapse in a soggy heap of exultant exhaustion at the bottom. Six hours up, two minutes down. Never has a feeling so ill felt so good. The sky pulses at its edges, flat out on my back I stare up into everything in that big blue nothing, as one of the gnarliest lines of my life sits, unmoved by my actions, in quiet contemplation. What a way to get your kicks.
But it is not over, oh no buddy boy.
Now I have the equally nerve-jangling experience of witnessing Fraser and Johnny descend their lines. Similarly exposed but more technical, they lace graceful turns through the serac section and down to the crux, a small rappel but more exposed than Tommy Lee's piece. Why, oh why did I want to lead an expedition. I have no desires ever to call anyone's parents and be the bearer of bad news. The lads reign in my fear stallion as they studiously tag-team the line – piece by hanging puzzle piece – before airing out the final cliff without the planned rope, riding away hooting in fine style. Though there are no judges, no finish line, the borderline manic look in their eyes reflect our shared inner victories. Out in the wild, in the here and now experiencing this together, this is winning. Our stoke carries us all the way back to camp, smiles content on our face though we accidentally take the longest way home. But in the end, isn't that the point? Sweet cerveza lifts our voices louder, bouncing off the stained walls of some back-street bar as the stories turn south quicker than the cans are emptied. We terrible six are cruising the Gran Poder festival mayhem, devouring everything in our path, a last, twisted supper as we cram in every piece of Bolivia we can before those steel birds in the sky scatter us across the globe. A learning curve steep as the faces we climbed, this expedition has moved me, pushed me a little way away from the bright lights of competition and a little closer to the campfire, toward my brothers around the flame, eyes wild with the retelling of the day's adventures.
It is June, and the winter in the north has finally broken for the year. The great mountains and faces of the world have been conquered, blank spots on the map charted and claimed, but exploration is not dead. Whether finding a new line in a distant corner of the globe or understanding a little more of those who pushed you out the door of adventure in the first place, the mountains have many more secrets to be sniffed out. As much as I love the mountains, it is the people you are with, those who share the beautiful adventure found there, that matter most. Just don't tell my father he was right, I would never hear the end of it. To understand what went on during this expedition outside of Sam's head, check out the CoLab Creative video by The North Face. www.thenorthfacejournal.com/lostgringos