The snail track

Steep hunter native of the Dolomites, the black crows Mose – Enrico Mosetti – experienced a solo adventure among some of the most beautiful summits of Peru. He walked, carried, sweated and finally skied with grace and lightness some highflying itineraries.

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“I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail.”

For a month straight in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca Peru I hummed this verse. The two animals embody a way of moving in the mountains. In Europe we move light and fast, like a sparrow. But there the idea is unthinkable. In the Cordillera Blanca you must move like a snail, not out of choice but out of necessity. The approaches are long and remote. The altitude adding ardour to each step. And, like a snail, you must carry your home on your back: tent, skis, boots, food and supplies.

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The Cordillera Blanca is home to some of the most beautiful mountains you can imagine, mountains more like meringues than clusters of rock and ice. Among these is the Artesonraju, otherwise known throughout the world as the Paramount Pictures logo. It is one of the first mountains outside of the Alps to capture the interest of extreme skiers, the first being Patrick Vallencant in 1978. Before leaving for the trip I talked to several people who have attempted to ski the south-east face of this beautiful pyramid of ice and snow just over six thousand meters. Most of them had failed, either for the weather or the snow, or for some other turn of fate. Then there are some who did not make it back down to the valley.

I had a list of objectives in the Cordillera Blanca but this one, Artesonraju, was at the top.

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I left enough time in my trip to make two attempts at it. Fortunately, I didn’t need it. I’m not sure if I would have had the desire to do it again. On reaching 5500 meters on the approach I started counting steps. It started in spurts of 200 until I made a stop on the Brenva spur, where it went down to 75. Below the summit it went to 30. Once I put had skis on it was time to stop counting, time to stop being a snail, and to be a sparrow.

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The next goal was the the Tocllaraju, it’s southwest ridge had been in my dreams since Marco Siffredi surfed it fifteen years ago. On arrival I learned that three Estonians had been swallowed by a crevasse partially hidden by snow. This made me doubtful. Glacier travel isn’t something I like to do, doing it on the other side of the world with no chance of rescue, even less so. And then there was the serac interrupting the south west ridge – my desired route. It was still skiable without any doubt, but only with the use of a rope, something which I did not want to resort to except in an emergency. Aiming for a clean descent I thus directed my skis to the west face, a slope made of spines and flutes, usually just a wall of blue ice, but the good (bad) weather had allowed the snow to stick on black ice, creating a rare chance of the descent captured in 2004 by Jaime Laidlow.

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Despite the hard snow and increased exposure, I made it down in just over half an hour, even dropping the open and rather high bergshrund. Once again a Sparrow. And yet I soon returned to the life of a snail, returning to basecamp charged with all my belongings.

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The Cordillera Blanca is a place for snails, but for a moment, a turn even, it can also be a place for sparrows.

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