After an easy hike up to moraine camp at 4800 meters we took one day of rest to really get the feel for the mountains and the conditions. At arrival the mountain looked pristine and perfect after a few days of wet snowfall. But on our rest day gusty storm winds were totally devastating for the ski conditions and plumes of snow were permanent on several places of the face. The result for my freeride dreams of the face was quiet obvious, but I always want to go up there and really give dreams a chance to unfold. You never know, maybe there would be an untouched corner of the face where the snow would be at least consistent and grippy.
We started at midnight that following day for the summit bid, skipping the high camps but giving myself time to really walk slow if I would need to. I really downgraded myself with the timing. In the middle of the night we reached the bergschrund and before six o’clock I was at 5700m, high up on the face and maybe one or two hours from the top. Above the bergschrund my feelings for the conditions were not good, but I still reasoned I wanted to go as far as I could until I could see what the wind had done with our objective. Bjarne followed me up to the schrund, and waited there together with our newfound Ecuadorian guide friends who had abandoned their try already there.
It was a beautiful sunrise, and it was a devastating view to see the face: perfect steep skiing powder destroyed by warm winds and then refrozen through the cold night. The result: ice-topped sastrugi as far as the eye could see.
This is a face that has been skied quite a few times. Ever since Patrick VallenÃ§ant did the first descent more than 30 years ago people have come to ski this beauty. It’s arguable what skiing means, but I realized I could not do anything more than sideslip and hop turn this face at best. My dreams of steepness were set up on GS turns and smiles, not doing my best to kick in my edges into the ice.
The ethics of skiing need to catch up with those of climbing.
Later, after I left the mountain, I was surprised to hear comments saying that I gave up too easily, that I should have finished the project no matter what. For me, though, that’s totally ignoring the process of why I do things. And skiing, I think, needs a bit more of ideology and style than we have right now. We’re where climbing was 30 or 40 years ago, when getting up by any means possible was the only thing that mattered. Success was counted by reaching the summit, and the means, whether they included using oxygen, aid, or drilling bolt ladders, was forgotten in the process.
Now we’re in the same situation in mountain skiing as climbing was back then: It’s all about just getting down things and no one usually ask how we did it. Any decent skier can technically get down any classic ski run. And that might be great for them, but no one usually asks how (style, technique, reading conditions, avoiding risk), and the mainstream focuses instead on what (the name of the run) we did.
Of course, skiing the hardest and steepest things out there will never look pretty, but skiing classic lines by the high standards of the skiers of today should look amazing – if the timing of the right skiers are at the right place at the right time in the right conditions. It’s just a personal opinion, but I think the ethics of skiing need to catch up with those of climbing to preserve some of the aesthetics mountain skiing deserves to have. But don’t be afraid of going out there and try. With trying comes defeats, but it’s the only way of reaching for our dreams.
So this is all that went through my head on the higher slopes of Artesonraju, one of the most beautiful ski mountains I have ever seen. I knew I would reach the summit in an hour or two, but I also knew I would only sideslip the upper 400 meters with an ice axe. It would be a mountaineering micro success, reaching the summit and then getting back down alive. Down climbing was, at least for my ability, a no-go with the soft unreliable sugar snow below the ice topped surface. It would have been a nightmare. But with skis on, it felt okay, but it was for sure not pretty.
If I had a dream line in climbing that I really do free and was almost at the top when it started raining, I wouldn’t try to go up by any means. I would be there for the experience of climbing those pitches, not for getting to the summit. I would smile with the wind and rain in my face with equal joy and disappointment. I would just turn around and if the dream was strong enough, then I would come back one day. But I would definitely take a defeat for a defeat, knowing that it’s part of life and the only ingredient in life that creates the room for the sweetness of success.
On Artesonraju, I made a platform, clicked in to my skis, and effectively lost vertical meters quickly by making a turn here, a turn there. I side slipped where I felt like I had to.
I got down to Bjarne, Estalin and Pablo – we high-fived and returned back down to camp.
There wasn’t much to be said. Everyone there knew the ways of the mountains, and we were already onto the next one to be tried, the food, the drinks, and the friends down in town.
Swedish ski mountaineer Andreas Fransson lives in Chamonix. You can see more of his photos and read more of his exploits and thoughts at andreasfransson.se and follow him on Twitter, @ndreasfransson. Photo of Frendo route by Ben Briggs