Travel & Adventure

The Mountains Have Minds of Their Own

Our goal was Chopicalqui, a 6354 meter peak in the Peruvian Andes. It was early in the season and the weather wasn’t as pleasant as we had hoped, but we decided to take our chances. Our motorcycles were parked at the trailhead, miles and thousands of feet below us by now. The last 36 hours had been spent in our tent, trapped by a storm and listening to the snow ping against the tent. At 18,300 feet, the air is thin and the temperature low. The weather was supposed to clear up a day or two ago, but the forecast never really holds too much weight and we take it with a grain of salt. We had one day of food provisions left, and crossed our fingers in hopes of clear skies for the morrow.

Jeremy and I left at 2:00 a.m., a time climbers refer to as an “alpine start” since the coldest part of the day is always the safest to climb. We navigated the beautiful frozen landscape by the light of our headlamps, dodging crevasses and frozen obstacles on the glacier. It was a cold morning, and I clapped my hands together to warm them up and wiggled my toes in an attempt to bring some feeling back into them. With the presence of fresh snow, the heat of the sun can cause conditions to become extremely avalanche prone, as well as lead to excessive ice and/or rock fall. Although there are hundreds of variables that are outside our control, we do our best to make the wisest and most calculated decisions based on our experience and research. If there’s one thing that the mountains have taught me, it’s that they, not you, are in control.

The altitude stole the oxygen out of the air. Though, I’d grown used to it. I learned to take longer, deeper breaths. I paced myself accordingly, and tried to take my mind off the nauseating effect of the elevation. The snow was deep, up to my waist, and the slope was steep. I plunged my ice axe into the snow and attempted to fight gravity and fresh powder, a frustrating combination. As Jeremy broke trail above me, wading through knee to waist deep snow, I heard a soft “woosh” and my heart instantly sank. I knew exactly what was happening. Avalanche. Despite its slight whisper in the silence of the morning, the noise of the slide was deafening. I looked up and snow poured down like a waterfall, illuminated by the beam from my headlight. 

Then, seconds later, it stopped. Knowing Jeremy didn’t have much time left to live, I did my best to keep track of the minutes that were passing. I’ve been apart of a number of death-defying adventures, but had never encountered something quite like this; realizing my friend’s life depended on my ability to find and dig him out. It was a terrifying and strangely paralyzing responsibility. We were alone at 19,500 feet, my friend was buried somewhere in the snow in front of me, and there was no cavalry that was coming to the rescue. I cursed, and I prayed. I feverishly started digging in the soft, loose powder with my hands.

I found Jeremy’s hand first, then his head. He was about five feet under the powdery surface, purple-tinged and not breathing. There was no way to tell how long he had been unconscious, but it was long enough. I gave him mouth-to-mouth, slapped his face and beat his chest in an effort to resuscitate him. Nothing. I kept on with the mouth-to-mouth, yelling in his ear at the top of my lungs.

Finally, a faint breath erupted into the frigid air and in a few minutes, he gasped and came to. It took us almost 20 minutes to dig his body out, trapped by the crushing weight of snow. This was no time nor place for us to process it all, and after exchanging a few exclamations of relief we got the hell out of there. Although we were painfully close to the summit, we brushed off the snow and headed straight back down to our camp.

When it comes to mountaineering, avalanches are a significant threat that consistently claim lives. It’s a reality that I recognize, but one I try to keep buried in the back of my mind. While I’ve read heard stories about tragic accidents, it was completely surreal to be caught in one myself. In life, there are so many unknown variables, be it on a mountain or just walking down the street. Driving to work, unhealthy diets, excessive habits or something as simple as stressful living conditions can all prove themselves hazardous or even deadly. Nothing is guaranteed, and no matter the preventative maintenance, life is unpredictable and eventual tragedy is inevitable. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that many of those I know who are actively involved in “at risk” sports, take care not to fill their lives with things that distract them from truly examining the harder questions of life, but rather, the nature of their sport forces them to those questions head on. Perhaps that helps them live healthier, more intentional lives, and subsequently safer ones. I left the mountain feeling a good bit smaller than I had on the way up, imparted with a healthier fear and respect than before on top of a pile of thoughts to process.

I remembered one year before that ill-fated trip to that Peruvian peak. I recall tightening my motorcycle chain and finished up with the last few upgrades. I started my 1996 DR650, and with a sigh of relief and anticipation, pointed my bike toward Alaska. The trip had officially started, and I couldn’t determine if I felt more excitement or fear. It was the start of a journey unlike any I had made in my life, and quite possibly ever would. My friends and I had spent so much time anticipating and planning for this moment, and now that it was here, it was nothing short of otherworldly. For the better part of the last year, we had worked hard day and night in preparation, sacrificing so much of our time and finances even before we had gone one mile.

Each of us had questions and doubts running inside our heads. What if we broke down? What if we got in a bad accident? What if we were horribly unprepared, or ran out of money? The list was endless, and honestly, committing to something for this length of time isn’t comfortable. I’m in my early twenties, a time when ideas are limitless and opportunity is abundant. Many of my friends were making choices that had them well on their way to successful careers, and I couldn’t help but wonder, was I making wise, or foolish choices? There is so much pressure to be or do what is expected of you, and it’s only getting stronger.

Mountains have minds of their own. Every climb I attempt there is a chance that is taken with the weather, my physical capabilities, the ever-changing conditions of the route—and it is completely addicting. I’ve never been a gambler, but I think I can understand the pull. The presence of danger and the thrill of the unknown are irresistible, and leave me wanting more each and every time. Risking life and limb for something that doesn’t technically accomplish anything other than a mere personal victory (and perhaps a status among fellow climbers) is hard for most people to understand. Sometimes I struggle to understand it myself. Still, for those who have experienced the thrill of the climb, there is merit and intrinsic value to things that are not necessarily tangible. Spending time in the mountains has a way of convincing you to come face-to-face with your values, beliefs and self. In my opinion, there are few other things that lead to the same psychological and mental space: meditative, beautiful, revealing. It is both extremely physically and emotionally challenging. There’s gold in them there hills, alright.

I’ve always considered myself to be a risk taker. I’d rather take a chance at something and fail miserably, than play it “better safe than sorry”. Each of us needs to decide for ourselves what we are going to pour our time, resources, and energy into. Essentially, we are all investing in something, the question is, will it be worth it? There’s no formula or guide book to this thing we call life, and I don’t want to one day look back and wonder how things could have been different if I had taken the step of faith. I suppose after all, there’s only one way to find out.

I steeled myself for the thousands of miles ahead of me, merged onto Highway 1 North, and gripped the throttle.

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