Obviously, I was hugely disappointed with the way things turned out. I had dreamed of that day for so long, had spent a lot of money and time to get there, and had no foreseeable chance of coming back. Not to mention the humiliation of having to retell the story to so many people who were excited to hear about our Chile adventure.
If you haven’t read the book “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales, I highly recommend it. He describes how the brain creates “mental models” based on life experience and then uses those models to decide how to react to new situations. This works well most of the time, but can lead to erroneous or even disastrous actions when a situation outside the scope of the model arises but the brain remains trapped in the model response. In our case, we were never in any real danger, but I think there’s much more for me to learn than just to be careful taking off my skis. Decisions made long before set in motion the events that happened on the mountain. And I hope that by analyzing them, I can use this information to make better decisions in the future, and maybe EIOP readers can learn something about their own decision-making processes.
For starters, I thought we lucked out by getting buddy passes from a friend who works for Delta. We saved a ton of money, and my friend made the standby travel sound like no big deal. Oh no, it’s a big deal. We originally planned to arrive in Chile 2 or 3 days earlier and have basically a week long window in which to choose the best day to ski. A week before leaving, my friend called to say those flights were no good. We had to reschedule and lose a couple days. No big deal, we thought, we still have several optional days. Because of the uncertainty of our flight schedule, we had no option of flying south from Santiago, but had to take an overnight bus. Cheaper, but added travel time. Then there’s the weather factor that affects ski plans everywhere. Add it all up, and we really had only two days available to ski, the first of those was forecasted to rain, so we had to make the one day we had available work. When we got to the mountain and saw conditions weren’t good, our mental model was that we were going up, no matter what.
From the beginning, skiing a Chilean volcano was my dream, not Jennie’s. She’s happy skiing at the resort, but she’s not super confident in her abilities. With no first-hand experience in Chile, she didn’t want to spend a day alone waiting for me to ski. So we made plans that she would ski too. I mean, this is a mountain that literally thousands of complete novices are guided up en masse every year, how hard could it be? In trying to boost Jennie’s confidence (and my own chances of skiing), I seriously underestimated the potential difficulty of the mountain under bad conditions, which is exactly what we got. Once we got to Pucón and she saw how small and safe the town was, how comfortable she was walking around, how many people spoke English, how cozy the hostel was, our mental model should’ve shifted to include the possibility of her not skiing. It didn’t shift, and Jennie got a baptism by fire into the world of ski mountaineering for which she wasn’t prepared.
I think we’d all like to think that our decision making abilities are not affected by some of these external considerations, that we can tune out the noise and make good judgments based on the facts of the moment. I just don’t think that I can. As soon as we left Jennie in her safe zone (and she happily volunteered to stay and let me finish the climb), I was thinking about getting back as soon as possible. A part of my mind was distracted by my need to be there for her, and I think that more than anything was the factor that led to me dropping my ski. I know that if I’d been standing there watching myself take off that ski, I would’ve been saying “Careful with those skis!!” But at that point my brain was already planning to put the skis on the pack, put on crampons, climb the mountain, ski back down, OK go! It would be easy to say that dropping the ski was a simple blunder, but I think that misses the bigger picture. Dropping the ski was the result of many factors that led up to that point. I’m just thankful that a missing ski was the worst thing that happened. Yes, it’s a huge disappointment to have spent the time and money and dragged ski gear through Chile for “nothing”, but at least nothing worse happened.
And, to end this story on a happy note, I got an email from Donny a couple days later. He’d gone up under sunny and calm conditions and skied the mountain twice.
He didn’t find my ski. But packing up in the parking lot, he heard another group of skiers laughing about finding one ski on the mountain. He went over, and sure enough, a guy had found my ski. We had to come back to Pucón to drop off our rental car and I swung by his house to pick it up. He found it stuck tail first, halfway into a snowbank, frozen in and completely intact. The brakes were down.
The lost ski saga was only one part of the Chilean adventure. From there till the flight home, we had a blast. We put almost 1000 miles on the rental car, saw some fantastic scenery, ran some incredibly scenic trails, ate some of the best food of our lives, and kindled a real desire to travel back to this wonderful country. After all, I’ve got some unfinished business…