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

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS: Sam Smoothy IMAGES: Mickey Ross LO­CA­TION: Bo­livia

Sam Smoothy

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

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