Three Bishop Men Learn How to . . . : SKI THE ROOF : They Survive Storms and Avalanches in Harrowing Trip Across Himalayas

Times Staff Writer

It started out as a boondoggle. An editor of a ski magazine asked Gordon Wiltsie, a photo-journalist from Bishop, to go to India and write about a ski resort there.

It ended up as a great adventure, a cross-country ski trip up, over and across the Himalayas--a ski trip over the roof of the world. They stared at certain death in the form of a roaring avalanche in a mountain pass, and lived.

"Gordon called me up one day last February and said: 'How'd you like to ski across the Himalayas?' " Allan Pietrasanta of Bishop recalled.

"I said, 'Sure I would,' then we talked to another cross-country ski friend here in Bishop, Jay Jensen, and we sat down one evening and planned the whole thing."

Pietrasanta, 29, and his father own a contracting business in Bishop. Wiltsie, 33, is a free-lance outdoor photo-journalist. Jensen, 33, is also a contractor. All three are skilled Nordic skiers who teach cross-country skiing in the Eastern Sierra. Together, they have crossed the Sierra in winter, a feat they'll tell you today pales by comparison to the Himalayas.

"The difference is that the Himalayas are much higher, twice as wide and subject to longer storms," Pietrasanta said.

That meant, of course, considerable misadventure, as well as adventure, for the trio. Here's how it was, as Alan Pietrasanta remembers it:

"Gordon had been to the Himalayas three times before, in the summers. He'd backpacked most of the route we crossed, so we weren't going into terrain none of us knew anything about.

"I'm sure other teams have skied across the Himalayas before, but we're pretty sure we're the first to take the route we chose.

"Once we decided what we wanted to do, the route we wanted to take and when we wanted to do it, (last March) we contacted the Indian government, and they were instantly responsive. They even gave us airline tickets.

"When we got to India, we went first to Gulmarg, a downhill ski resort in Kashmir. It's sort of like being in Mammoth Lakes in the 1950s. We spent four days there so Gordon could gather material for an article. The Indian government tourism agency is making a big push for Gulmarg.

"Then we went to the town of Srinagar, in Kashmir, and flew over the Himalayas to Ladach, a small town in the remotest part of India, near the China-Pakistan-Tibet borders.

"From there we flew to the little town of Leh, which sits in the middle of an 11,000-foot-high valley. There was literally no vegetation--the place made the Nevada desert look lush.

"From Leh, it was a two-day trip by vehicle ride to our trailhead. The first day, we rode a taxi and we went over 13,000- and 14,000-foot passes. It was a fantastic ride; we went up some of the steepest grades you can imagine. On the second day, we rode on the back of a flatbed truck with Balti laborers, who would be our porters.

"One reason we're sure no one had ever skied this route before is because the Baltis had never seen skis before. They told us they'd seen German and French backpackers in the summer, but never skis.

"We reached a village called Dras, which is supposed to be the second-coldest inhabited place on earth, second only to some place in Siberia. It was about 11,000 feet and windy. We actually started skiing from a village called Pannikhar. About 300 people live there. We spent a night there, and hired a half-dozen men as porters, to help us over the first pass.

"You have to understand how remote this area is. The first road to Pannikhar was built in the mid-1960s. I was talking to one of the men who helped us, who spoke a little English. He was amazed when I informed him California is part of the United States.

"The porters lasted a half-day. First of all, they thought we were insane.

"They couldn't figure out what we were trying to do or why. The snow was hip-deep, and in an hour we were 'way ahead of them because we had skis on and they were sinking to their hips. They went on strike two hours into the trip, wanting much more money.

"We told them we couldn't afford to pay them more, so we put all the stuff they were carrying on our backs, about 65 pounds for each of us. Now they really thought we were insane. They stood there watching us, as we went up and over the first pass.

"On the second day, at the top of our second pass, a huge storm blew in on us. It lasted three days, and the only time we left our tent the whole time was to take the shovel outside and get snow off the tent.

"The avalanches were always on our minds. We kept hearing tremendous avalanches, somewhere in the darkness. We didn't know if they were close to us or far away. The avalanches were always on our minds.

"On the third night, we started to worry. We knew if the storm lasted much longer, we'd be too deep into our supplies to have a sufficient margin of error for the rest of the trip. We planned for about eight days' crossing time and had supplies for about 12 days.

"On the fourth day, we woke up to find the storm had gone. The weather was clear.

"For the next three or four days, we were skiing down a long valley. It was the coldest part of the trip, it got down to 10-below and was windy a lot of the time. We had state-of-the-art gear, though, and had no equipment problems the whole trip. We wore polypropylene underwear, foul-weather ski suits and nylon outer wind-shell garments, wool hats and gloves.

"It took us three days to get down this valley, and it was three days of great skiing. Conditions were very good, and we covered 10 to 15 miles a day.

"But the valley, at the bottom, turned into a river gorge, and then we were having to cover the most stressful terrain of the trip. We were on the bottom of a rocky river gorge, the sides of which were covered with sheet ice. There was avalanche debris all over the place, and we were worried all the time.

"In the valley, we would've covered that gorge in an hour. But the gorge was so tough, we needed three-quarters of a day to get out of it, and we needed all of our mountaineering skills. For part of the way, we were using ice axes to make steps.

"By the time we reached the end of the gorge, we saw we had to climb another drainage, and from this point on, Gordon was unfamiliar with the route.

"Part way up the drainage, we rounded a bend and came upon a big red bear. He was 50 yards away. We startled him, because he stared at us for a few seconds, then ran up the side of a hill at a speed none of us would've guessed was possible.

"Later that day, we reached the top of the drainage and found ourselves in a broad, flat meadow. The weather was good; we weren't too far from the end of the trip, and frankly, at that point, we were upbeat because we felt we had the trip in the bag.

"The next morning, we awoke to another big storm. We figured we'd be safer at the top of the pass, where we were headed, than where we were, so we packed up and moved out.

"Our route up was up a narrow, rocky gully that had been scoured clean by avalanches. It was a tough climb. The snow was coming down hard, visibility was 15 feet, it was cold, and we were getting wet.

"We got to the top of the pass, dug out a campsite in the snow, and waited it out for two days. On the third day, when the storm broke, we saw we had the most spectacular view of the entire trip. We could see for a hundred miles, in every direction of the Himalayas. We could see China, Tibet and Pakistan.

"We could also see the end of our trip, a valley in the distance, near where the town of Pahalgam was. But for now, we had to get down from this ridge, and it was a long way down. If you can imagine three Mammoth Mountains stacked on top of each other, that's about what the distance was. It was powdery snow, great skiing, but it had a high avalanche danger.

"At this point, we double-checked our radio beacons. We all wore emergency beacons around our necks, that emitted a signal. If any of us were to become buried, at least the others would know where to start digging.

"Part way down, we came to an exceptionally steep area--almost a cliff, really--that we had to get down. We looked for a gully, or some kind of route, and I found one. It was rocky, cliff-like terrain, and I went down first, sidestepping with my skis, trying to start an avalanche ahead of us, to clear it all out. We started some slides, and there was a lot of ice under the snow.

"We started using ropes at this point, anchoring them above us to two extra skis we'd driven into the ice. We were about half way down when we heard the avalanche coming.

"We'd stopped, and Gordon was taking a picture of Jay and me. Then we heard a roaring above us, and it was very quickly getting louder. We looked up and saw what looked like a giant ocean wave of white, coming right at us. It had started about a thousand feet above the point where we'd started down, well above where we'd driven the skis in the ground.

"There was nothing we could do, and in that instant I was sure we were all dead. Gordon was near a rock ledge, and he was smashed into it and knocked out. The next thing I remember is tumbling down, head over heels. It was a feeling like being caught in a big wave while bodysurfing, and you don't know if you're facing up or down.

"I was in the slide maybe 10 seconds. There were quick periods of light, where I was near the surface, and periods of blackness, when I was near the bottom of the slide. Suddenly, it started to slow down, and I started 'swimming' furiously, toward the light. It was very quiet, and I thought: 'Well, I'm alive. But I'm buried, and this is where I'll die.'

"But I opened my eyes and I was buried only to my waist. Gordon and Jay were only 10 feet from me, and they were both screaming. I couldn't believe it. It was a miracle. Gordon, we later learned, had two compressed vertebrae and a concussion, Jay had injured his elbow, and I had a lot of bruises and sore spots on my left side. We'd lost some equipment--three skis, two poles, an ax and one of Gordon's cameras.

"But all things considered, we were really lucky. We knew Gordon had taken a whack on the head when he asked us: 'What happened? Was there an avalanche?' Jay and I got up and dragged Gordon out of the slide area, up against a rock ledge.

"We were in no shape to keep going, so we got under the ledge where we were, put up the two-man tent and made some hot tea. We also had a one-man tent, but we were so beat up and flamed out, we just didn't have the strength to set it up. We spent a very uncomfortable night in a two-man tent.

"That night, Jay developed a sore lump the size of a golf ball on his elbow. Gordon's amnesia was receding, but his back was in bad shape. He was basically immobile and in great pain, so we gave him some codeine. We weren't certain that night if we were going to be able to get him out of there.

"The next morning was clear. Our first task was to get those two skis at the top of the gully if at all possible. We could see them, about 600 feet above us, but it was too technical a climb to go up for them. They're probably still there.

"We dressed Gordon and put him on one pair of skis. Then Gordon and I rearranged the packs. We carried much of what was left. But to lighten loads, we left stuff there, like books, extra cooking fuel bottles and some clothes. With my Swiss Army knife, I cut one ski in two and tied a pack on them.

"We were down to four usable skis, so with two skiers in front, the person who took turns walking behind us walked on the ski tracks, but still sank in, up to his hips.

"We heard more avalanches all the way down, some of them very loud, so it was a rough trip down psychologically, as well.

"The next day, we reached a mountain summer village called Shesnag. No one lived there in the winter, and it was only a few stone huts. We spent the night in one of them. We turned in that night figuring we were only a day from getting out, to a hotel.

"We woke up early the next day to see another big storm pounding us, and now we were really depressed. We were all sore and hurting from the avalanche, and weak because we'd had such a rough time after the avalanche, on two pairs of skis.

"Then we discovered the storm was a blessing in disguise. It was extremely cold, and the snow was frozen hard. We could walk on it, easily. We set out, and after six hours of hiking, made it to a village in the Chandanwari Valley.

"Five miles beyond that was the end of the trip, the town of Pahalgam. We knew there was a hotel there, but we weren't expecting much. But--get this--they had not only a sauna, but a masseur, a French-Afghani guy named Michael Ceiston. He even spoke English.

"I can't adequately describe in words how good that all felt, being warm for the first time in 14 days in that sauna . . . the aroma of the cedar wood in the sauna, drinking cold Kingfisher beers, and how good that massage felt.

"It turned out to be a very nice hotel, and our bill for rooms, three meals and a massage was $20 each."

Bishop's three mountain crossers are now considering new ranges to cross, provided that Wiltsie makes a complete recovery from his back injuries. He is undergoing therapy.

Pietrasanta said: "We've got the bug. We're looking at maybe the Andes. Or the Alps, in France or Switzerland. We're looking at some interesting routes."

But for the beginning cross-country skier, Pietrasanta points out, there's no place like home.

"There are a lot of beautiful cross-country ski trips in the Eastern Sierra for beginner or intermediate-level skiers," he said. "The road from Bishop Creek Lodge to South Lake, above Bishop, is a delightful, easy ski trek in the winter. It's about three miles up, where you can have lunch, and three miles back down, all on an easy grade. And from the old Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth Lakes, you can ski on those roads all day.

"A lot of people think of cross-country skiing as an arduous, back-breaking sport for only the super-fit. Well, it's not. I've taught more classes composed of beginners who carry picnic lunches on their backs than I have advanced skiers."

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