“Todo comienza con amor.”
The words of the shaman rise softly in the frigid mountain air as he lays coca leaves across the brightly coloured Quechua blanket. Chente, one of our Peruvian bike guides translates for us,
“It all starts with love”.
Barefoot in a semi-circle we stand, still adorned with remnants of dirt and sweat from our first day of mountain biking in the Andes. The brisk breeze bites at my cheeks and goosebumps run across my arms as the shaman speaks of freeing the spirit by letting go of sadness and grief. From beneath the vivid colours of his ceremonial Chullo hat, his dark eyes sparkle as he recites the names of the stars above followed by the names of the Peruvian mountains. He continues to sprinkle and spread more coca leaves, seeds, flowers, herbs and the small bones of a condor across the vibrant blanket, each offering representing different realms.
There are 10 of us. In our hands, we each hold the final addition to this Pachamama (Mother Earth) offering: the ashes of our friend Lisa Korthals.
This trip, a group of 11 mountain bike obsessed friends unleashed in the Peruvian Andes for 10 days, was proposed a year prior by Lisa Korthals and Lisa Ankeny to celebrate Korthals reaching the half century mark and Ankeny’s 40th milestone. Our posse was to be an all-female crew from Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton: Korthals, Ankeny, Wendy Brookbank, Laura Ogden, Robin O’Neill, Hillary Harrison, Maria Campos, Gloria Addario, Ulla Clark, Sylvie Allen and me. It was a trip designed to bring together busy friends to celebrate life, love and friendship on an unforgettable mountain bike adventure. That the trip was organized and tailored to our needs by Sea to Sky local and long-time friend Chris Winter through his company Big Mountain Adventures (see Sidebar) made it all seem even more meant to be.
But in March of 2018, our beautiful friend Lisa Korthals was taken from our world in a freak avalanche. An accomplished ski mountaineer and guide, Lisa touched many people with her positive energy and spirit. A loving mother and wife, she called her friends “babe” and frequently threw out adjectives like “amazeballs”.
After Lisa’s passing, we unanimously decided to continue with the trip and to bring her spirit with us through memories and stories. We also brought along some of her ashes, to ride with across this beautiful country, and to release at the perfect moment— here on a sacred, ancient pre-Inca spot hidden in a eucalyptus forest high above Cusco in a traditional Pachamama offering ceremony. In the Indigenous Andean culture, Q’ero Inca Paqos (Quechua Mountain shamans) perform these ceremonies as a system of reciprocity between our earthly realm and the spiritual world. It is believed that if you hang on to sorrow after loved ones have passed, their spirit cannot be truly free. These traditional ceremonies are meant to restore balance with Mother Earth as well as within our own lives. It sounded like exactly what we needed.
We arrived in Peru’s sea-level capital and planned to transfer to the high-altitude city of Cusco (3,399m/11,152ft). But although we all landed safely in Lima, our mountain bikes did not.
Banking on Lisa’s spirit and positivity we decided things would all work out and what mattered most was that our 10-friend posse intact (despite a few close-call flight delays and an untimely case of strep throat). So we flew from Lima to Cusco and, almost immediately, experienced the usual mild side effects of high altitude, including headaches and shortness of breath. This provided the perfect excuse to spend sometime acclimatizing to the elevation and the culture: we drank coca tea and explored the city’s seemingly lawless roads, beautiful textiles and amazing restaurants. Then, after some calling and tracking, our bikes finally arrived. It was time to ride!
The next morning we met our guides, Peruvian brothers Vincente (Chente) and Nicolas (Nico) Chirnos Pastor, and pedalled up into the Llaullipata Forest at 3850m/12,631ft. Despite the gentle terrain, it was a breathless pedal up and we all ascended at a slower pace than usual. My energy was instantly recharged, however, when we dropped into a super fun, fast downhill trail winding tightly through a forest of eucalyptus trees. We were riding in Peru and our posse was ripping!
The excitement carried over into the following morning. Driving several hours up winding exposed dirt roads high into the mountains above Cusco, we passed small villages, squeezed through herds of sheep, and honked donkeys off the road. We drove past women dressed in brightly coloured traditional skirts and bowler hats carrying babies wrapped in intricately patterned blankets on their backs. The village kids would stop in their tracks to watch us drive by, then smile and wave enthusiastically.
Venturing higher and deeper into the mountains, the landscape became vast with nothing but spectacular views and fields full of llamas and alpacas. We stopped to unload the bikes at Lake Quoricocha at 4,100m/12,265ft to continue pedalling up to the summit of an 1830m/6003ft descent.
In the distance between fluffy white alpacas we saw the bright colours approaching. Two young girls made their way over to us as we unloaded the bikes. Through translation from several fluent Spanish speakers in our group as well as our guides, we were able to chat with them. Between shy smiles they explained they were sisters, 10 and 11 years old. On their backs wrapped in blankets, they carried all the food their animals needed for the day.
In the cultures of the Peruvian mountains, girls are taught to be submissive and reserved and our two new friends were interested in what a group of 10 grown chicas with full suspension bikes were doing out there. We gave them some fruit and invited them to try out our bikes. They eagerly jumped on and we helped support them as they figured out how to balance and turn the pedals, beaming with smiles and giggles the whole time.
I’m sure encountering our female mountain bike posse made an impression on these young ladies just as it did for us seeing these two strong, brave girls out in the mountains, carrying heavy loads on their backs, approaching strangers and riding bikes for the first time. We felt drawn to them and could see and feel the love and connection that runs between all mountain hearts.
The top of the ride was marked by car-sized stones—ancient Inca ruins, explained Chente and Nico. Already captivated by the arresting views, the sweet local girls, and now the intrigue of ancient Inca history seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I gulped a breath of thin air as best I could and dropped into my first big descent of the trip.
The riding started with a high-speed smooth section down an animal trail with a sequence of small ditches to pop over and a few small natural side hits. It was like a wild and free-riding Peruvian bike park. The trail then fed us through the remains of an Inca village and down a series of steep stairs made from centuries-smooth stones. Finishing that run felt like any ride back home, with carefree laughter and high fives all round, but each smile shone a bit brighter, each hug held a bit longer. The day had been nothing short of amazeballs.
The following days riding in the mountains of the Sacred Valley of the Incas were equally mind-blowing with more rides through ancient ruins, wide open fields and along narrow ridges with high mountain views. Taking turns carrying Lisa’s ashes for one final rip with our friend, we biked through remote villages that offered quick glimpses into the hardworking rural mountain lifestyle and culture of the Quechua communities. After conversing with the friendly locals we continued onto huge, fast, smooth and sometimes exposed rocky technical descents. There were many moments of pure glory flying through the hills passing llamas, alpacas and burros.
There were also a few crashes and a variety of health ailments that made their way through our group but the strength of friendship made the sour moments as sweet and delicious as the Pisco Sours.
Suddenly, 10 days were gone and it was time to say “chao” to Chente and Nico and head back to our families, jobs, businesses, and busy lives.
In less than two weeks in Peru, we had laughed, cried, howled in joy and puked on the sides of trails. Pedalling high into the Andes was literally breathtaking, and we had found and felt the magic deep in the mountains, people and culture. There’s a strong bond that runs among the hearts of mountain men and women. This bond makes us all stronger and it certainly stays with us after our friends leave this world. We were reminded many times how lucky we are to be a part of this truly wonderful mountain culture and mountain woman tribe. Whichever side of the world we live on.
* * *
Back at the Pachamama ceremony, just before the Quechua Mountain shaman had wrapped up the offering in the vibrant blanket, each of us added our handful of ashes. By letting those ashes fall through our fingers we let the sadness and grief fall away. But we kept the love.
Our amazeballs friend Lisa Korthals was there with us in Peru—not as grief and sadness within us, but as the love and care that we shared with each other.
As he buried the Pachamama offering, the shaman spoke his final words:
“Todo comienza, y termina, con amor”
It all starts, and ends, with love. —ML