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

May 03, 1985|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

BISHOP — 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.

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