(We now return to our regularly scheduled broadcast)
“No, we have the rip that off, it’s not going to get any better.”
“Wait, no really – can’t we just wrap it with band aid and then…” I pleaded.
“Nope, on three look at the view,” he said. (He being, Juan, my guide, double certified by the IFMGA (International Federation Mountain Guide Association).
“1, 2, 3…” I looked away as he tore off what was left of my big toe nail along with the chunks of skin falling off my heels. On the bright side, the view was amazing; we were sitting in the middle of a glacier in Argentina, Patagonia, and though my feet had seen far better days, I’d say it was well worth it! It was just Juan and I, and my restrained scream echoed on and then dissipated quickly into the cold, sporadic wind. The disinfectant spray brought on another yelp, to which Juan replied, “Well I was wondering when you were going to start saying something.” He mostly joked. “I don’t know why you are so strong…” It was either a statement or a question but I took that as a compliment coming from a 20 year, all-things-mountain veteran who had once seen three of his fingers cut off with a small saw after getting caught in a terrible storm while ice climbing a less explored side of Aconcagua, one of the Seven tallest summits in the world.
He expertly taped everything up (clearly this was a part of his norm) and I slid my socks back over my cold, bloody feet and squeezed them back into my ski boots that were one size too small. We still had at least an hour of skiing left before the warming hut and at least half a dozen more crevasses for me to try and not fall into. Encouraging. Far less encouraging was the fact that I hadn’t skied in 10 years. I felt a wash of doubt and that “oh sh-t” feeling set in as I looked down the 45 degree glacier we had just spent hours climbing up; the skins were off and I was no longer connected to the snow through the science of friction. I would now be reintroduced to physics, after all, what goes up, must come down. I wasn’t leaving my guide in the dark though, he knew I hadn’t skied in ten years as well. “Esta Bien?” He asked, his eyes… concerned. “Todo Bien!” I was lying to myself but I didn’t have a choice, it all needed to be OK. My eyes got big and I threw two thumbs up and put a reassuring smile on my face as I turned my skis down the mountain.
A few minutes later my childhood ski school lessons were coming back to me. My pie turns were just as awkward as when I was 8 years old but at least I was stronger and the relief I saw on my guides face was reassuring as he realized that he wasn’t going to have to carry me down the mountain.
“Good! Now, you are going to have to turn more because there is a crevasse there and… you don’t want to fall into that.”
To which I replied, “Well that’s one way to learn how to ski again, learn to turn or… die.”
The higher you go, the thinner the air, the greater the danger, the more important it that you try your absolute hardest not to fuck up. It’s a fantastic way to learn.
He carefully schooled me down the mountain, creating wide and sweeping turns for me to follow and used himself as a barrier for my mental as well as my physical stability when our paths came too close to cliffs and crevasses. I felt like a little kid again, arms wide and forward, skis tuned out like a pie, but the thought of what I probably looked like gave me enough of a sense of humor to find the situation more comical than scary, and humbling, so incredibly humbling.
I saw the hut getting closer, he kept reassuring me we were almost there and that I was doing great, and I believed him. When we finally reached our destination I collapsed in the snow, letting my twitching muscles and swollen feet rest in the cold. I laughed and I smiled and for the first time in a long time, I was really proud of myself. Juan looked at me and said, “So now you fall?!” He was giving me a hard time. We still had the other half of the mountain to go down the next morning and I knew that, but I had confidence in myself that I would get through it; that I would learn how; that he would help, and I felt nothing but incredible relief and pure joy as I let the sun wash over my wind blown face and fully alive body.
By that point, I had lost a toe nail, most of the skin on my heels and my right and more dominant leg was cramping and burning. On the other hand, the snow was softening and making it easier to turn and stop, my heart beat was slowing, the giant cloud we were coming down from was clearing and the majestic and beautiful Andes were glowing in the mid-morning sun, with gentle clouds dancing above them like long hair drifting in the ocean. Needless to say, a giant smile was now permanently slapped on my red and sweaty face.
It’s a feeling that keeps bringing me back to the mountains, that feeling of being alive; of being scared sometimes but pushing through and conquering mental doubt and physical strain. It’s not necessarily the feeling of reaching the summit, it’s everything you go through to get there. The journey. You must be strong, humble, steadfast, willing to accept change and also have a pretty good sense of humor! You must be open to being a kid again and to learn and trust those whom are willing to support and help you. It’s the recipe most of us need for life and the mountains seem to have all the right ingredients.
So, now that winter is in full force in the Pacific Northwest, get out there and try something new, be prepared to fail, to succeed, to have a great time, and to gain a little confidence and happiness along the way. Chao!