Words by Brian Mayfield, FOW // Photos by Andy Cochrane (@andrewfitts)
What a backdrop for a high altitude sufferfest. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
It was mid-afternoon and we’d made it about halfway up our objective – a northwest facing, unnamed glacier on the shoulder of Nevado Ausangate – when I started entertaining thoughts of calling the whole thing off. The idea of laying down on the glacial ice, pulling my hoodie over my eyes, and taking a nap felt more appealing by the second.
With my brain running on limited oxygen, I saw this as a win – I could get some food and water down, still get turns in at the highest elevation I’d ever toured at, possibly stave off another violent coughing fit, and save energy for the long hike back to camp.
Right as I started to give into the fever dream, I was interrupted by Andy, beaming ear to ear.
“Can you believe it?” he nearly screamed in my face, “We’re doing it man. It’s happening. It’s finally happening.”
I shook off the temptation to stop and genuinely laughed for the first time in several hours, instantly realizing that something had fundamentally shifted. We all need that friend who snaps us out of the dark moments and pushes us to keep going. In that moment, Andy’s quip and his earnest look convinced me that not only was it possible to keep moving, but inevitable.
The push from my fantasy napping spot to the saddle was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and not because it was some herculean feat of mountaineering. The mysterious illness that had sidelined most of our group for the past week made dealing with the altitude exponentially worse. My murmured obscenities at coughing thousands of times that day were often accompanied by a bit of respiratory blood, painting the snow below me as if to ask, “What the hell am I doing this for?”
Why the Peruvian Andes?
I first visited the Cordillera Vilcanota in 2009 while in college. My dad, a geography professor at Appalachian State University, found an academic niche in fluvial geomorphology that allowed him to pursue his obsession of whitewater kayaking all over the planet, ostensibly for research. Early on he’d pack fifteen students into a couple vans, drive out to Colorado or Idaho for a paddling trip, and give lectures on glaciology and the nuances of the water cycle. From the time I was 7 years old I started tagging along on these field courses, spending time on rambling rivers in the summer and snowboarding with him in the winter.
Assessing the fluvial geomorphology. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
He started leading trips to South America about the time I entered high school, and a few years later I joined him on a trip to Peru, experiencing the Vilcanota for the first time. We spent a week trekking across the remote range, having class each night in a group tent on topics like glacial retreat and ethno-climatology in the Andes. It was the best academic experience I had in college, but what truly grabbed my attention was the terrain. All I could think about was returning one day with friends and a snowboard.
Fast-forward nearly fifteen years later, and to be back in the Vilcanota Range felt like a dream come true. We had a small but capable crew - me, Andy, and our life partners, Dani and Jenny. When the dream started to come alive earlier in the year, we met up on Zoom calls, giddily planning every detail of our trek. From the chaos of loading llamas with snowboards to the slow meander through the range to Rainbow Mountain, we obsessed over it all. We poured over every detail we could find for potential ski routes, doing our best to integrate sparse information from contacts on the ground with satellite imagery to see what might go.
Our fuzzy chairlift. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
The first crux, getting deep into the range with all of our ski and snowboard gear, meant enlisting the help of local porters and a team of llamas and horses. With a basecamp at 16,000 feet, not much would come easy. Having a support crew would allow us to focus on skiing. Our plan was to poke into the high alpine each day to snow surf, returning to a fairly robust camp kitchen and a relatively comfortable camp setup.
Fantasy and Reality
As fate would have it, things didn’t go to plan. Three of us caught a nasty bug on the first day of the trip and once we got up into the mountains, things went south in a hurry. Sleepless nights oscillating between bouts of violent shivering and sweat-soaked fever dreams quickly changed our plans. Things got so bad that we made the decision to leave the mountains to rest all the way back in Cusco. For three days we hunkered in a hotel room, trying to ward off the physical sickness and mental heartache of an adventure half off the rails.
With no snow in sight we organized, packed, and reorganized our gear in hopes of finding elusive Peruvian corn. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
Still, there was a glimmer of hope. We had one last shot at skiing our dream line, but it hinged on a bit of luck and tossing aside our egos. With just three days before our flight home, we collectively agreed to stack the deck in our favor by saddling up on horses instead of hiking back into the range. This would save us precious energy before getting to the glacier. Thanks to a nimble support crew, we were able to collect all of the necessary gear and food, then drive back to the trailhead before dark.
No caption needed. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
The next morning, we loaded up our ski bags on the llamas and rode horses into the mountains as far as we could reasonably get, a half-mile from the glacier. After meandering through boulders and scree fields, we made it to the terminus of the glacier, only to be rewarded with a minefield of crevasses in front of us. We were fortunate to have local mountaineering legend Flavio Mandura with us, who skillfully navigated us through the maze. It’s pretty likely we couldn’t have done it without him. Once he delivered us to the promised land, we just had to put one foot in front of the other– and of course, fight off the urge to lay down and take an afternoon nap.
One Last Push
That rallying moment on the glacier serves as a pretty decent encapsulation of our entire trip. Nothing came easy, even skinning, which we do almost every day all winter. Our adventure in Peru was a rollercoaster of emotions, teetering between the crushing lows of lung infections and the soaring highs of summiting hanging glaciers above the Amazon jungle.
A hard earned opportunity to skin. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
Choclo dulce! Vilcanota Range, Peru.
As we all know, it’s all fun from here. The pain was over and it was finally time to reap what we’d sown. Settling into a rhythm, we cautiously navigated the upper minefield, then were able to truly open it up and party ski the rest of the glacier in its entirety. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two on the way down, overcome with gratitude and awe of the entire situation. It wasn’t blower pow, but it was possibly the line of my life. We cackled our way down and high five’d at every meetup point. The turns were buttery and smooth, a serendipitous combination of sun, wind and maybe a little bit of magic.
Can you feel the magic? Vilcanota Range, Puru.
We were greeted at the end of the glacier by our exuberant porters who were whooping and hollering as we made our last turns. I assumed there must have been something more exciting happening as I approached them, but quickly learned that the stoke was for us. Turns out, they’d never seen anyone snowboarding before and they just thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. We had coca leaf tea together as we basked in the last moments of daylight fading behind us. We knew we had hours of hiking in the dark to get back to camp, but frankly no one could have cared less. These moments in life are sparse, so we soak them up when they come.
In The Mirror
Returning home, I’ve had time to put the trip into perspective. We planned down to the most meticulous details, buffered some leeway into the margins, and at the end of the day, still found ourselves left to the whims of Pachamama (Earth Mother in Inca mythology). I spent the last 15 years dreaming of this very expedition, imagining that we’d explore the entire range, snow surfing with reckless abandon. Instead, we were pushed to our limits, severely humbled and asked to look in the mirror to see what our true motivations were. After a visit to Urgent Care, we learned that we’d been harboring a viral lung infection that needed to be treated with rest and a lot of steroids.
The doctor looked at me with a half grin. “That’s really cool to hear about your trip, but honestly that’s the worst thing you could have done with a bug like this. I hope it was worth it.”
For our motley crew, the answer was personal. We saw the mission through, just to ski a single line. The effort wasn’t for this story or Instagram likes or alpine glory, but simply for each other. We had dreamed this thing up collectively, and we all agreed that we’d give it our best to salvage one big line in the Andes. With the help of our support crew, some ornery llamas, and a shared goal, we were able to accomplish something we can all be proud of. Lying in our tents, shivering through sleepless nights, the feelings of doubt of course crept in, but we chose not to give into the darkness. Too many nights had already been spent dreaming of these very moments.
Snowked. Vilcanota Range, Peru.
Sometimes sleeping with a high fever can induce a state known as fever dreams -- bizarre, vivid, and usually unpleasant visions that blend with reality -- and we did experience those on this trip. In a larger way, I've been living a fever dream since first encountering the Vilcanota range and having my imagination running vivid scenarios at the most random moments for the last fifteen years.
As I reflect on this particular fever dream, I see a journey that was nothing like what we expected, but ultimately brought out the best in us. Our thirst for the Vilcanota has not been satiated, merely whetted. It will pop up in our dreams through the years as we reminisce on what could have been – and what might still be – if we are willing to approach the uncertainty together once more. Personally, I’m willing to keep the dream alive and sweat through some sleepless nights if it means getting back into the promised land one more time.