PORTILLO, Chile — With every step I kick in, another 7 inches of elevation is gained. In 14,000 inches, I will reach my final destination somewhere above 12,000 feet. Eventually, the rhythm of kicking my ski boots into the side of the mountain will become almost hypnotic, and I will find myself daydreaming about events of the past.
Every so often, I will break from the dream, turn around, and check on my group climbing single-file up the same boot path behind me. Below them by a couple thousand feet is the Hotel Portillo. The famous yellow structure stands out on the valley floor surrounded by the Andes and next to Portillo Lake. Across from me and standing tall on the horizon to the south is the 22,835-foot peak Aconcagua, dwarfing the smaller mountains around it.
The group looks good but I'm a little worried about everyone's fitness. It's not every day that they are hiking at this elevation in the Andes. This week is extra credit to their lives already well lived, and in most cases at much lower elevations. They all have the skills to ski the pitches surrounding us but would like to take their skiing and life memories to the next level, and that is why they are here for our annual ski camp in Portillo, Chile.
The camp is the vision of host Chris Davenport, who is joined by Mike Douglas, Wendy Fisher, Ingrid Backstrom and me as coaches. We are watched over by another founder of the camp, Shane McConkey. The group has gathered in Portillo, Chile, at this same time for the last seven years to entertain those that are willing to sign up for the week-long program. And that is one of the ways I get this group of one-time strangers to follow me up a mountain.
When I turn back to hiking towards our goal, an untouched powder field above, I'm constantly observing the environment surrounding us and assessing as much as I can while predicting as many variables as possible. This is a big environment and with it brings a tremendous amount of thrills. The reason we host these camps is to hopefully share those exciting moments with others while utilizing the lessons from our past experiences. With this going through my head, I often look at something in the snow or on the mountain that flashes me back to a teachable moment I can pass on. Some I have learned from my own encounters while others I have learned through the observation of others.
It seems like every year I gain several of these teachable moments; the kind that take life to another level, the kind I can pass on. The battle is that each one of them makes me a bit more cautious. The phrase “ignorance is bliss” can be beneficial. It can also be detrimental. Those that walk into situations blind and allow luck or reaction to get them through often come back with an amazing story. This makes me a little envious; they still have the innocence or lack of experience to remain oblivious to the danger, and just fly by the seat of their pants. Doing that sometimes allows them a greater thrill than those that have put the brakes on.
Have I become too restrained through too much experience? I'm really not sure at this point. I realize taking chances can opens doors. But taking chances can also close them. There must be a balance. We know that survival is enhanced by knowledge and knowledge is obtained from experience. What is the proper equation between the two? This is my personal feat: to find that balance.
Some of life's greatest lessons are learned the hardest way and some of those hard lessons are recalled if something should spark it. A smell, a word, a familiar mannerism or an action will unlock a memory that taught me something. Today, it was a small stone rolling by me while hiking with my group towards our goal. It caused a recall that woke me up and caused me to immediately take note. Past experiences flooded my mind. Then, like a computer, I started taking in data from everything around me. The snow conditions, the temperature, the exposure of each slope, the overhanging snowfields, the slide paths ... the list goes on and on. And with each one a memory came rushing back and a teachable moment came to be.
The stone rolling by on this hike transported me back to the Mount of the Holy Cross several years ago when I was with Chris Davenport as part of his fourteener project. Chris stepped into the center of the steep Cross Couloir to take a photo of the rest of the group, myself included, putting on our crampons. We had another thousand feet to climb before we reached the summit, and we were going to do it straight up the center of the couloir. Everything was perfect until one solo rock broke loose from somewhere above and was now free falling down the couloir on a collision course with Davenport. Luckily, one of the group had eyes upslope and yelled in time for Chris to react. The boulder missed him by inches.
Now as this one little stone rolled by, I reminded myself to look up on a more regular basis. This also made me think of what else I should be paying attention to. The temperature, for example, was increasing. A large snowfield located above was something I should perhaps be concerned about. Where are our safe zones? Are they really safe?
A year prior while heli skiing I witnessed the result of an over hanging cornice collapse under its own weight as temperatures rose. It started a secondary slide that ran deep onto the valley floor and covered an area many might have considered a safe zone; an area that was now under 30 feet of snow.
But what has been the hardest for me to deal with is watching out for others skiing with me. The balance between having fun and trying to explain to them what will happen if things go wrong is not easy. Even worse is trying to explain to them over and over that if they don't stop repeating a bad habit, something will eventually go wrong and that this will affect the dynamics of the entire group. It is hard to do this without bringing the vibe down or seeming to be negative. But I have seen too many people be their own worst enemy and take falls or get into situations that were preventable. Including myself.
Most of them come from basic fundamental flaws like over rotating or twisting their upper body. Skiing too fast for their ability, leaning back or just not paying attention to the environment around them are further examples. I have seen so many mistakes, I can actually see the end result before the action begins. I experienced this again this winter while heli guiding as I witnessed two major falls. One was a skier being taken out by his own slough and carried over a 100-foot cliff, and the other was a skier skiing too fast for his ability, overrotating and then falling for 1,000 feet. One lucked out while the other spent the next 18 days in the hospital. One of the worst happened a few years ago when one of the people in a group overrotated while hitting some wind-slab and then failed to self arrest himself when he flipped over onto his back. The result was one of the longest falls I have ever seen. He fell from an elevation of over 13,000 feet to below 10,000. He lived and his mind blocked out most of it. But mine didn't. Another teachable moment.
I need to write those experiences off as lessons learned, as one of the many reasons people sign up and are willing to hike with Chris, Ingrid, Wendy, Mike and me up the slopes surrounding Portillo in August. They join us in hopes that we can show them the best snow and give them points on how to best enjoy it. In the end, we will have spent seven days eating, hiking, skiing and partying with one another. A bond of friendships that can only be built on a purity of trust only the mountains and a pair of skis can give us.
When I flashback to those memories it is truly what drives me to continue to put one boot in front of the other until the last steps are made and I have met our goal of standing on top of a line to ski. I take my pack off, secure it, catch my breath and turn around to cheer the group up their final steps. I take in the views surrounding me and realize how lucky I am to be part of this amazing sport.
Eagle County's Chris Anthony will appear in his 21st Warren Miller ski film, “Wintervention,” this fall. He will again host the Colorado leg of the movie's tour, which will be at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek on Nov. 26 and 27 and at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards on Nov. 28.