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Down Time

Once you've made a name for yourself in the burly world of ski mountaineering, astonished your buds, bagged a few sponsors, shot some sick footage that had Banff buzzing—in short, once you're at the top of your game, can you actually take a vacation? The author investigates in Peru's Cordillera Blanca, where six adventurers scramble to beat "poachers" to first descents, contend with one another's egos, and, finally, try to make history

By Rob Buchanan Photographed by Kristoffer Erickson

Kristoffer Erickson
Saari scales Huandoy

THE COLLECTIVO SPED down the valley, flicking past cornfields and eucalyptus groves and little adobe villages where tomato-cheeked women in bowler hats and Day-Glo skirts squatted in the dust, waiting for a ride to the market in Huaraz. It was early June. The hillsides were aflame with yellow broom, and the tributaries rushing down the quebradas from the high glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca were running clear and full. Every few miles another giant, fantastically fluted peak would swing into view and someone in the van would call out for a photo stop, but by the time the driver got the message and took his foot off the gas, the moment was gone and we'd wave him on. Then, just outside the grimy hamlet of Mancos, we came around a corner and it was right there, filling the windshield, too big to believe. Everyone yelled at once, the driver laughed and pulled over, and the five of us tumbled out onto the side of the road.

Nevado Huascarán. At 6,768 meters (22,205 feet), it's the highest mountain in Peru, and the loftiest peak in the tropics. (Argentina's Aconcagua, at 22,834 feet, is the highest in South America.) Huascarán is two peaks, actually: Huascarán Norte and the slightly taller Huascarán Sur, both massive snow domes connected by a vast snow field called the Garganta; you could land a space shuttle up there.

Squinting into the morning sun, Kristoffer Erickson, our de facto expedition leader, pointed out the ruta normale, the standard climbing route to the summit of Huascarán Sur. Established by a German-Austrian expedition in 1932, it goes up the south side of the lower glacier, angles through a serac-studded icefall to the Garganta, then straight up the north shoulder of Huascarán Sur to the broad summit plateau. In 1978, French extremiste Patrick Vallençant made the first ski descent via the ruta normale. Since then it's been skied and snowboarded many, many times.

Now Erickson traced another line. It was breathtakingly direct, cutting from the icefall onto a great chevron-shaped snow face and then back along a sharp ridge—the West Rib—to the summit of Huascarán Sur. The face was the crux. Erickson estimated it at about 1,500 vertical feet and 55 to 60 degrees. It was oddly smooth and unbroken, as if it had been hacked out of the mountainside by a giant cleaver. El Escudo, the Peruvians call it. The Shield. As far as anyone knew, it had never been skied.

Hans Saari, one of the key players of this article, died Tuesday May 8 while skiing on Mont Blanc, before this piece about his unbelievable ski-mountaineering even hit the stands. For more pictures from this expedition—one of Saari’s last—pick up the June issue of Outside, on sale May 22.
For more details about this tragedy, click here
Erickson, 27, is an affable and self-assured former high-school swimmer who was born and raised on the plains of north-central Montana. In 1993 he enrolled at Montana State University, in Bozeman, where he planned to major in landscape architecture. He took up photography instead, and he soon fell in with the boisterous local climbing crowd. Along with an ice-climbing buddy named Hans Saari, a sober, quietly competitive housepainter with a humanities degree from Yale, Erickson developed a passion for ski mountaineering, the once-obscure sport that involves carving turns down "slopes" previously considered to be climbing routes.

In 1998, after a series of noteworthy first descents in Montana's Beartooths and Wyoming's Tetons, the duo talked The North Face into sending them and four friends to Peru to shoot a ski flick on an absurdly steep, Matterhorn-like peak called Artesonraju, a few quebradas, or deep valleys, north of Huascarán. (Their footage became the lead segment of the DesLauriers brothers' 1999 film Altitude.) Now Erickson and Saari, who is 30, were back, with a new crew of Peru first-timers: Chris Trimble, 32, a voluble, redheaded snowboarder from Basalt, Colorado; Nat Patridge, a laconic, 30-year-old ski guide from Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and me. A sixth member of the expedition, 32-year-old Stephen Koch, a Jackson-based snowboarder, would join us a few days later.

On their way to Artesonraju two years earlier, Erickson and Saari had scoped the Shield, and found it blue and sheeny—far too icy to hold a ski's edge. But because the past winter had been more severe than usual, it now looked as if the left side of the Shield might be covered in snow. Skiable snow.

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