April 21, 2013
El Gringo Eskiador
In 1979, Patrick Vallencant skied the west face of Peru's 21,768' Yerupaja. Lou Dawson describes the route as "Possibly the continuously steepest mountain ski descent ever done." Incredibly, Vallencant's descent was filmed, and that footage was made into a documentary called "El Gringo Eskiador." Unfortunately, copies of the film are almost impossible to find.
However, it appears there was a screening at a film festival in Peru, and they've put an excerpt on their YouTube channel. Go watch it! In fact, watch it and then rip it, because if this disappears, you may never see it again. You may also wish to Google "Yerupaja" from within Google Earth to get a richer sense of place.
Among the skiers and mountaineers who've heard of its existence but never seen it, "Gringo" has achieved a sort of legendary status, a mythical lost record of Vallencant's 1979 descent. What does it actually look like? Steep. Unbelievably, impossibly, terrifyingly steep. The steepness of the pitch and the continuity of that steepness is simply difficult to process.
There is an honesty to the footage that grips me. I don't think I've ever seen as much fear in Vallencant's body language. His technique here is desperate and determined, stripped of all vanity. He appears to be operating at the very edge of his physical and mental limits—indeed, at the very edge of possibility itself.
Ultimately, these grainy images evoke as much mystery as they reveal. Could it really be so, I find myself asking? My brain recoils at the thought of perching atop that slope on skis. Perhaps someday, someone with a clean original print will produce an HD transfer of the entire film, so that we can better see the details. Or perhaps not. Maybe it's better this way.