Exploring the Family Legacy in Bolivia
Tom Hill // Photography by Mickey Ross
Where did you find inspiration for your last adventure? In a book, a magazine, a photograph? That spark of an idea can come from any number of sources. Sometimes though, we find deeper reasons to visit somewhere, a connection that goes beyond the simple desire to travel, and to experience the world. Lost Gringos tells the story of one of those cases.
Sam Smoothy, has been part of the freeride circuit since 2004. He skies back to back seasons, leaving behind the competitive atmosphere of the Freeride World Tour, moving from the northern hemisphere back to his home of New Zealand to explore and seek fresh experiences.
The spirit of adventure runs strong in the Smoothy family. On one serendipitous occasion, Sam discovered that his father, Ronald, was an accomplished climber, and in the past led expeditions to the remote and beautiful Bolivian Andes. This was the seed of inspiration that Sam needed, and he set off with fellow riders Johnny Collinson and Fraser McDougall to follow in Ron’s footsteps.
Lost Gringos follows their journey to climb and ski Pequeño Alpamayo and Huayna Potosí, making potential first ski descents on the west face of Aguja Negra and the southeast face of Ala D. Sur in the Condoriri area of the Cordillera. However, this adventure wasn’t just about epic lines and high fives, it was about finding a connection to the past. Sam discovered how Ron’s footsteps determined his own path, and the trip also helped him understand his father – a man of few words – a little better. In doing so, the team created their own footsteps, discover a new world for themselves, and built friendships founded on their mutual love of exploration. Sam had his father’s slides to look through – glimpses into the past. Decades on, we are able to record our adventures through photography and film, share them more widely than ever, even though the resulting stories are can bear many similarities.
The team created their own footsteps, discover a new world for themselves, and built friendships founded on their mutual love of exploration.
Sam and the team became immersed in the experience, dizzied by the crowds, noise and sights of La Paz and El Alto – new cultures, friendly people, beer and excess.
Sam wanted to paint the full picture of the trip, illustrating the massive contrasts that they experienced in Bolivia – from empty mountains to bustling cities and all female wrestling…
‘I talked at length with Will and Jase, the movie producers from CoLab Creative, and we were all adamant that we wanted to create as culturally rounded movie as possible. We wanted to submerge people into the entire world we found in Bolivia and not just one or two aspects. It actually was really hard not to make the movie super long as there was so much that could have been included.’
Sam and the team became immersed in the experience, dizzied by the crowds, noise and sights of La Paz and El Alto – new cultures, friendly people, beer and excess. They sought to break free from the suffocation of the tightly packed city, escaping to the high plains, and finding a different kind of immersion in the mountains that were visible from their urban apartment block.
The intensity created and strengthened bonds between the team, new friends being made quickly. Trust and kinship was built over backstreet cervezas, and carried into the mountains. This was an adventure enhanced through their shared experiences, where even the solitude of the mountains was enjoyed shoulder-to-shoulder. In the end though, the resulting bond of friendship was far greater than the sum of those individual sights and sounds.
Given that Sam’s father was the inspiration for the trip, how might those experiences be different to those that Ron had? Time moves faster in some places than others, and it feels as though it moves slowly in Bolivia.
‘It seems like a number of things have stayed the same,’ recalls Sam, ‘like the spirit of the people, the stunning landscape and the country struggles with poverty and police corruption. But some have changed, there’s a lot more tourists now and infrastructure for that. The locals seem more interested in climbing and skiing now than before which is super positive.
There’s not much of a ski mountaineering scene over there, but we had a kiwi connection over there – a guide called Greg, and he introduced us to his local crew of young climbers from the poor city of El Alto. It was a really unique angle on Bolivia, these young guys who loved talking climbing also really love their country, even though they recognise the issues Bolivia faces.’
In undertaking this trip a collection of memories and stories can now be shared and retold, as his father did with him. ‘I think this trip has brought us closer together,’ says Sam. ‘He loved checking out our photos and swapping tales from Bolivia. He hasn’t seen the movie yet though so I really hope he likes it.’
The spirit of adventure might be what drives us to find new lines to ski, or our own forms of deep play, but long after photographs and keepsakes end up in dusty boxes, the more important things endure. Even after the immediate memories have faded, we carry our adventures with us – in stories, friendship, and the bonds that these bring.
Growing up in Treble Cone, Southern New Zealand, Sam Smoothy has been skiing since he could walk and has since been inspired by the mountains. He has been competing on the freeride circuit since 2004.