We were going to get a body without a name. The van pulled out of Huaraz, Peru, without any idea of the what, or who, or why. Just that one of our friends had passed. The guide shop told us about the fall, but surely the man across the table was talking about the wrong Americans. We’d already heard of another crew from Jackson Hole, and our minds wanted to believe it was the other foreign crew. Only 12 hours into a 4 month film trip, we stuffed our packs, now headed to 15,000 ft to help. It was hard not to focus on the friends, the mom, the dad, and the brothers and sisters left behind as the sun set on the valley.
After hiking into the morning hours, the sun now on the rise, I found myself at the foot of our friends’ tent, hesitating to open the zipper, to discover the name, the who. In that first moment, looking at the face of Kip and Dave, it was in their eyes, and their face, and their hands: the weight of the past day and sleepless night. It was Arne.
In an amphitheater of 5000m peaks, Arne hit a patch of ice while descending the south face of Pisco, pitching him off balance and into a fall too steep to arrest. Over the next three days, Kip, Dave, and seven local porters carried Arne down from the glacier at 17,000ft to the valley below, en route to his family in the US. Many of us will wither away in a chair or bed, but Arne left with skis under his feet in a place with beauty that few will ever engage. There is beauty in a picture, but infinitely more in action, and, for Arne, in connection, where the metal edges of his skis met the snow.
For most, the other connection is easier to grasp– that Arne Backstrom, Kip Garre, David Rosenbarger, and Jamie Laidlaw were here to make a film with Sweetgrass. Arne was a skier first and a film star second, and the same is true for the rest of the posse. Long before sponsorship contracts and freeski trophies, Arne found his place in the mountains, staring up at falling flakes as a young kid at Crystal Mountain. He found his stride in a 10 foot cliff, and then a 20 footer, then Chamonix, and then Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Like so many of us, he found energy in progression, in pushing himself towards bigger challenges to learn about himself and his friends. Artesonraju, Pisco, and steep skiing were about sharing his sport with people he had grown to trust underneath the Aguille du Midi and KT-22:
Another great teaching that I had came from some older men, all of whom were practitioners of a little-known esoteric indigenous Occidental school of mystical practice called mountaineering. It has its own rituals and initiations, which can be very severe. The intention of mountaineering is very detached – it’s not necessarily to get to the top of a mountain or to be a solitary star. Mountaineering is done with teamwork. Part of it’s joy and delight is in working with two other people on a rope, maybe several ropes together, in great harmony and with great care for each other, your motions related to what everyone else has to do and can do to the point of ascending. The real mysticism of mountaineering is the body/mind practice of moving on a vertical plane in a realm that is totally inhospitable to human beings. Gary Snyder, THE REAL WORK
With Dave, Kip, and Jamie now back in the US, we send our warmth and love to the Backstrom family, anyone who called Arne a friend, and the bigger family of those who live and love what they do. We will honor his life with our work, continuing to push on with our film down here in South Am.
For more details on the accident, read Dave and Kip’s account below:
June 6, 2010 – At 9:45 am on June 3rd Arne Backstrom was killed while skiing Pisco (5752 m) in the Llanganuco Valley of the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. With him were Kip Garre and Dave Rosenbarger. The team arrived in Peru on the 28th of May for a month-long ski mountaineering expedition. On June 1st the team established a base camp at 4650 m in the Llanganuco Valley with intentions of climbing and skiing Pisco as apart of their acclimatization process. At 4:45 am on June 3rd Arne, Kip, and Dave started their climb from base camp under clear skies and calm winds. They ascended the Standard Route via the Huandoy/Pisco Col and SW Slopes with no difficulties. The team made the summit at 9:00 am and began their descent at 9:25.
Snow conditions off of the summit were consistent and ideal for skiing. An inch of warmed, soft snow overlay a firm base. Approximately 150 m below the summit the team stopped at a ramp leading to Pisco’s S Face, a 400m 50-55 degree slope of snow and rock. The S Face was a feature that the team had observed and discussed during the two days prior to their climb. At 9:45 am, after some discussion, Arne decided to descend the ramp to assess the snow conditions of the face. He made a few turns down the 40-degree ramp in soft conditions before encountering hard snow or ice. Arne attempted to traverse onto the S Face to what appeared to be softer snow. Conditions on the face remained firm and the team noticed Arne accelerate. His downhill ski released causing Arne to fall out of Kip and Dave’s sight.
Not able to see Arne or the entire S Face, Kip and Dave tried to make verbal contact with no success. Realizing self-arrest was highly unlikely, Kip and Dave descended the route of their ascent knowing it would be the safest, fastest way to reach Arne. At 9:55 Kip and Dave encountered a guide and client just below the Huandoy/Pisco Col and informed them of the accident. At this point Kip and Dave roped up and began to traverse/skin, maintaining a high route under Pisco’s S Face through heavily glaciated and crevassed terrain. At approximately 10:55 am they found Arne beneath the face. Upon thorough examination Arne had sustained head trauma despite wearing a helmet.