CRACK! I heard the gut wrenching pain before I felt it. In a moment of panic, fueled by denial and adrenaline I managed to get my skis back on. I attempted to make a turn using my left foot and the pain hit me all at once. It felt like a heroine junky, high as a kite, had decided to use my left ankle as target practice for his dirty needle. The stabbing pain shot from my left ankle up through my entire leg as the invisible junky stabbed me over and over again. I tried shifting my weight to a different part of the foot. "Maybe it's just a very bad sprain" I thought to myself. I tried to make another turn on my left leg. This time the pain hit me like a brick wall. I fell down and nearly vomited. I feared standing back up again. I knew I couldn't survive another real fall on my ankle, I would surely pass out from the pain. The message from my body was clear; "This skiing thing is over. Your summer adventure has been trashed by a slow speed accident at the easiest resort in Chile".
In the hours and days leading up to my six week ski adventure in Chile and Argentina, I enjoyed a whirlwind of incredible life experiences. I had just turned thirty and summer was in full swing. I spent four days at the most amazing music festival I had been to in years. I learned things about myself and how to move through the world that had eluded me for most of my 20's. Fueled by positivity I landed in New York City, picked up my seventeen year old cousin Max and beelined for the southern hemisphere. As soon as we landed we hit the ground running. My Spanish was coming back to me with every stride and as I moved through the world I also made the world move.
When the first day of skiing dawned, my cousin and I hitch hiked up a crazy mountain road to one of the local ski areas, El Colorado. In typical Chilean fashion we rode in the back of a pickup truck, feeling the wind on our faces and the freedom of the Earth spinning beneath us. We were gods among men, truly free in a world full of rigidity and regularity. When the cars in front of us blocked the icy road, we hopped out and pushed them off to the side. When we arrived at the resort, I stopped, looked around and took it all in. On three sides we were surrounded by the towering peaks of the Andes rising up to heights of 18,000 feet. I knew that in a few days time I would be among them, rising high above the Earth, fulfilling a lifetime of dreams by scaling enormous peaks and skiing down them. All that remained were a few simple warm up days so I could get acclimated and back into skiing shape.
To my pleasant surprise the early season conditions in Chile were really good. The snow was creamy and better than most of the skiing I had done all year in the United States. I took it easy for the first couple of hours, spending it with my Cousin Max who was learning to snowboard for the first time. We split-up around 11:30 AM. I went to the top of the mountain, and Max remained lower down on the beginner slope. I chose a run that would barely register a 3 out of 10 on my adrenaline meter back in the US. Half way down I had a decision to make. To my left there were a few small rocks poking through the snow. To my right, the trail remained smooth down to a cat track below. I chose to go left and stopped about 10 feet before the end of the run. At that point I could either side step over a few small rocks or I could ski straight between them. I chose to ski between them. The next thing I knew the tip of my left ski caught a rock and I was falling forward onto the cat track while both skis pre-released. It was a slow speed accident that I would typically laugh off, but not this time. I felt my entire left ankle twist more than 90 degrees off axis from the rest of my left leg as the ski released. I knew before I even picked my head up that the summer adventure I had been planning and looking forward to for years was over.
In terms of physical damage, the accident was relatively minor. I fractured the talus bone in my left ankle which is easily mended by a good orthopedic surgeon. Mentally, this was the most traumatic injury I've ever sustained. It was difficult because it brought into question some very fundamental parts of my identity. One of my purposes in life is to explore the mountains of the world on skis. I have injured myself two times in the past three years while on this quest. The first injury was from an avalanche that I am lucky to have survived. The second is from the incident I described above. Both accidents occurred while skiing in South America during the summer. I have had no major accidents like this in the Northern Hemisphere while skiing there for over twenty-eight years! So as I laid in my bed recovering for the next few days I couldn't help but think: What is the universe trying to tell me?
Nine days and two doctor's visits later I could walk with a heavy limp, but the question still plagued me. Max had returned to the US and I had booked an early flight home for July 22 which gave me ten days to do whatever I wanted in South America. Feeling like a completely lost soul I decided to throw everything to the wind and see what the universe had in store. I booked a bus ticket to Mendoza, Argentina hoping the answer to my question would present itself somewhere along the way.
In Mendoza I met up with my friend Shanti. He's a very spiritual person and I hoped he would help me find some answers. When I arrived I discovered he was as hopelessly lost as I was. So we hatched a plan. We would spend three days meditating in the desert completely cut off from civilization. The two of us would meditate, read and discuss revelations about life. That plan quickly fell to pieces as we tried to pull the logistics together. With no car and a bad leg, our chances of even getting out to a remote spot in the Argentinian desert were small. So we pulled the plug and decided to high tail it for the City of Cordoba.
Cordoba is the most unlikely place on the planet to find an answer to an existential question. It is the second largest city in Argentina and has a reputation for great wine, cheap food, beautiful women and parties that rage until 8AM. But in the words of the Grateful Dead "Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right".
From the moment I arrived in Cordoba to the moment I left, I met inspirational people from all around the world who completely altered my reality. I met three Aussies who were traveling in South America for six months and an American guy who had been to Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. I also met a street musician named Gonzalo who played music two days a week with his girlfriend Sofi so they could travel around the world. They had plans to travel to the far east coast of Brazil to hitch hike on a boat for a ten day sail to Senegal in Africa! Weren't they worried they might run out of money? Nope. Were they worried they might be missing out on other opportunities? What like a real job? Weren't they scared of being poor forever? As long as we have money to eat, drink, breathe and play music, we are happy. What if they died out there? Well then at least we die while living. I had the sneaking suspicion these people were onto something that would change my world forever, but I wasn't quite ready to grasp what they were saying.
It wasn't until three days later after 72 hours of partying, meeting wonderful people and beautiful women, that it finally hit me on a 24 hour bus ride to Santiago. As I slumped into window seat 15D I realized the answer had been sitting next to me all along. Skiing was my way to prove to the world that I was worth something. That the person I had become was more than the sum of my paycheck. I felt that somewhere along the road of life I had made a wrong turn. I was on the road to greatness in my early 20's and now all I had to show for it were a bunch of war stories of working with students in the inner city. Skiing was my way out of that. But as with all other endeavors that are driven by ego, the universe will remind us again and again of what is truly important. And once I let go of my ego the universe gave me the lesson I had been looking for. Just like Gonzalo who could let go of the fear of what would happen on his journey to Senegal, I could let go of the need to control every little thing in my life and just let things be. Mid thought I was startled to see my own reflection in the window. It had been days since I had looked at myself, and what surprised me most was the fact that I looked happy. Truly happy. Happier than I had remembered being in a long long time.