Skiing Sand in the Desert of Peru // Part 2: Cerro Blanco
I can honestly say I never thought I’d have to worry about scorpions in ski boots in my life. But, life is weird and I’ve learned it can lead you to magical places if you let it.
The only reason I ended up at Cerro Blanco while in Peru was a quintessential moment in travel, a gamble on little sleep and even less information. A gamble that had me with skis on my back, standing in the middle of Peru’s largest sand dune within twelve hours.
Cerro Blanco was the final puzzle piece in one of the craziest four day stretches of my life - the first three building to a final pinnacle moment. A true testament to the beautiful way simply saying “yes” can unlock a door to worlds unknown even seconds prior, I found myself joining the guys from Dito’s Sandboard Shop desert skiing, partying, and out for a full shoot day. The final development, in this insane journey I was about to go on, came after the day of shooting outside Huacachina. Peru’s desert “oasis”.
We came back late in the afternoon, riding high. We'd killed the day and I knew the shots would be there, life simply does not get better. After battling to rid ourselves of the 20 pounds of sand we brought back with us, I went to talk to Dito. He saw four drone shots and dropped the bomb, “You need to go to Cerro Blanco.”
He had alluded to the idea of Cerro Blanco to me before, rather off the cuff, but now the tone had changed. He simply stated, if I liked skiing and proper adventure as much as he saw I did, this was not to be missed. The challenge would be big, the reward even bigger. Hiking four hours before sunrise to a massive sand dune on top of a mountain outside of Nazca, and laying down the line of a lifetime. You can’t pass that up and still call yourself a skier. One phone call to see if his “Cerro Blanco “Guy” was available and we were locked in.
From the moment Dito gave me the thumbs up, the clock started ticking. It was now close to 7 p.m., the next bus left at 9 p.m. Huacachina to Nazca would be a three hour trip at best (South America time is quite variable). From there I’d have to catch a taxi to find my accommodation, and then be up again at 3 a.m. to meet Dito’s guy, the legend himself, Juan Carlos. Pressure fully on, I took off from the shop. Gathering all of my gear from the hostel, dumping footage and clearing memory cards, cramming ski and camera gear into a small tricycle taxi to take off to the bus station, and inhaling cheap burgers throughout all of it I looked like I was in a bit of a state to many of the newly arriving backpackers to Huacachina. Time was not a friend. But you better believe I made it to that Bus station with just enough time to buy a couple of packs of Oreos for the journey.
When I’m boarding a bus while traveling, I tend to get a few stares. Being 6’2, bearded, and having green eyes there is absolutely zero chance of me blending wherever I am unless it's Scandinavia. But this time, every single eye was on me. The entire bus stared as I’m sure an incredibly confusing sight came out of the darkness. I had skis over one shoulder, ski boots over the other, and a big backpacker bag.
The fact that all of this is happening in the middle of the desert cannot be forgotten.
I tossed the skis and bag under the bus before wearily climbing the stairs to be greeted by every single sleepy eyed Peruvian I was joining on the bus that night. Ski boots on my shoulder, perpetually ducking my head, I gave my sheepish “Buenos noches” through a laugh, and proceeded to stuff my large frame into the nearest worn out seat.
By the time I found my way to the hostel, it was 1 a.m. We were going bare bones, I was going to be in the room for maybe two and a half hours at best. The only reason I booked the room in the first place was to have a place to charge my batteries and leave my other bags for the day. So “cozy” or “nice” or “welcoming” will not be the adjectives I will be using to describe the room. It was effective for what I needed. Batteries plugged and charging, I jumped onto the bunk and within seconds was dead to the world.
One would think that a collective seven hours sleep over three days would make getting out of bed that final morning an almost insurmountable challenge, but the second that alarm went off sleepiness vanished from my eyes. There is no dragging feet on a day with as much potential for epic as this.
I opened the door of the hostel to be graced with Juan Carlos’ beaming grin piercing the night, finally meeting the lone desert shredder of Nazca. His calm demeanor was evident from the start. Eyes tell a lot about a person, and everything else about him was pretty unassuming except for the two sparks that hid behind his pupils. The thing that hides in the eyes of someone who chases things that are crazy to most. They lit off the second he asked if I was ready, and I shot back with, “you bet your ass”. From that moment on the day would continue to build into a memory I will hold dear for a lifetime.
Juan Carlos and I jumped into the car of the only driver in all of Nazca willing to risk his tires for this trip. As I learned, JC lost a few acquaintances over the state of their vehicles when they have returned from this trip. Now only one wild man and his beat up station wagon answer JC’s call to head into the desert. With a deep hinge creak the doors slammed, and we took off into the still night. Steadily making our way to the bottom of the mountain to the tune of faint Salsa music.
From there, we strapped up our packs, lit up the headlamps, and charged off into the black of night. We hiked for the last 4 hours of dark, making sure we were at the top before the sun. The sun is the nemesis of sand skiing, since “hot sand grips and cool sand slips.”
Backpacks secured and headlamps on, we said goodbye to our fearless driver and watched the taillights fade into the valley. So it began. Slowly we climbed, higher and higher into the night. Feeling like a high stakes stairmaster, there was no way to gauge progress except for the heaviness of breath.
Every so often I received some cautionary briefings, briefings that are far from familiar with skis strapped to your back. Avalanche risk assessment was replaced by tips on spotting snakes and scorpions. Tree wells had been replaced by poisonous plants - all of which I quickly learned I could not differentiate, making all of them poisonous.
During our one rest we threw down the bags and just enjoyed the quiet. The world we had found ourselves in felt totally empty, a giant black void that sat in silence, quietly hiding an immense jewel somewhere in the void.
Small moments can cause giant shifts in perspective, little keys to realizations that otherwise would've been missed. As I stood up after our small break and began to muscle my pack back into place, Juan Carlos said something that gave me enough pause that the true uniqueness of our mission set in.
At first I couldn't make out what he was saying, a few of his words slipping through my grasp on Spanish. But after a few attempts it clicked, “Check your ski boots for scorpions.” A merging of worlds my brain could barely compute in English, never mind Spanish.
From here on out the remainder of the hike would fly by. I had to check my ski boots for scorpions. I had skis on my back in a desert. We were about to ski a mountain of a sand dune. I am so lucky to live this life.
As the black of the night became the blue of the morning, big rock scrambles had turned into hard packed sand. My gaze was finally able to leave its constant place on the small light of my headlamp to look out into the mountains. Up until this point I didn't know much of what to expect. A sand dune sitting in the mountains isn't something my mind's eye could comprehend, it was just too far from anything I'd seen.
The landscape that was slowly being revealed to me did not feel like it belonged anywhere on this planet. Layers and layers of barren mountains surrounded us. Seemingly lifeless, no trees, no bushes, no grass. All I could see was light washing over exposed rock, awakening its deep red/purple hew.
There were no marks of human touch. Without people to intrude, nature's artwork is on full display. The desert sand can have the same gratifying feel as a blanket of new snow on a mountain. The wind had cleansed the dune. The sand had been sculpted by the storm and what was left behind were millions of ripples, the kind you would see on the top of a small pond when a light breeze comes through, now frozen. Each ripple seemed to catch the sun as it began to rise, not a single ray wasted.
We had reached the final ridge line, the peak of the day, and the reward was beyond worth the effort. The last hour had left me puffing, muscling perhaps the heaviest pack I've carried (perks of being a one man shoot crew) up steep loose sand. But no amount of fatigue could pull my attention away, and all I could mutter to myself was a muffled, “no way” over and over between belated breaths. I could not believe it, the ridiculous mission to ski in a place one never should be able to had elevated into one of the most spectacular natural displays I have seen in the world.
This is when it is the most fun to take photos. I was immersed in the moment, basking in every detail. The light gently rolling over every ripple would pull my focus to a new spot every few minutes as this world was revealed to me. I sat in awe at one point as JC came over the lip of the dune. Sand pouring off his shoes after every step. Backlit by the low sun, it almost looked like gold running over the tops of his worn out sneakers.
Every small detail was magnified in its grandeur by the background in which it sat. Layer upon layers of barren rock as far as the eye could see. The drone let all the big lines of this world come together. The parallels between small and large made evident by the wind ripples. The small ripples that looked like they belonged on a pond, now looked like rolling waves on the ocean as they crept up the side of the mountain. Years of wind storms rolling off the desert having sculpted the face.
But now it was time to finish our objective. It was time to ski.
Skiing on sand is as odd as one would expect. First of all, the bottoms of the skis are stripped and replaced by a very thin and slick top sheet of wood - the closest thing I can think of would be the top layer on skate ramps. The critical element is wax, lots of it. I wish I could say I was some high end sponsored professional and this is where I would pitch the incredible ski wax that made this all possible, but I can’t. We had candle sticks. Ones that you would expect to see in the middle of the table at a family dinner, snapped in half, and vigorously rubbed over every inch of ski. Again, cold sand is crucial, cold sand doesn't melt the wax as fast and allows for better slide. Everything comes down to slide.
The crystallizing moment, as it usually is when skis are involved, was standing at the top of the run. I was there, skis on and perched on the edge of the drop with disbelief still running wild in my mind. Everything had come together in a way it rarely does. A merging of two worlds, travel and skiing, that I could never have dreamed of.
There were low hanging clouds sitting over the low desert in the background, mountains and sand in every direction, a beautiful sunrise getting better by the minute, and a wide open wall of sand waiting to be ridden Then, as simply as it can be put, we dropped in.
It happened, one run to rule them all: a sand mountain run. Turn after turn, my eyes continuously drawn up from the tips of my skis to try and absorb as much of the moment as I could. I had an opportunity dropped into my lap, and on a massive gamble I had landed in a memory that refuses to fade.