Leisure Class

The immigration card, handed to me moments earlier by the flight attendant, demands to know my purpose of travel. International flights come with complimentary booze, so I sip my whiskey, order another, and scan my choices. There it is: Leisure. Check.

Friends had taken to calling me the Leisure Baron because of my low-budget, high-slack lifestyle and the well-known fact that at either end of the social spectrum there lies a leisure class. This was the final stop of my three-continents-in-five-months tour. My climbing partner sat in the seat behind me and ordered yet more whiskey.

Ol’ Early Times (not his real name), a barely reformed climbing bum poorly posing as a respectable member of the workforce—a self-taught computer geek—had himself a new job, a real job, complete with health care and a miserable two weeks off a year. But we had Peru plans. We’d made them over beers months ago and had already bought airline tickets. “C’mon man, what about priorities,” I said. “No problema amigo, es muy bien,” he insisted.


Early Times running late for work, near the summit of Nevado Ulta.

After considerable haggling he finagled an extra week off. Without pay, of course. OK, work told him, but they needed him back by the 21st. OK, he said, but just before trip time he sorta explained alpine climbing and warned that if we should epic—highly unlikely, of course—there’s the outside possibility it’d be just a day or two longer. You know, if we miss our flight ’cause we’re stuck in a storm or something. Well, OK, they said, but let’s avoid that. Absolutely.

Our tickets were booked to return on the 28th, so we were sure to epic.

Early morning on the 20th, we hung from a single wired nut at 19,000 feet on the side of Nevado Ulta. Early Times slumped in exhaustion beside me but jerked upright at the distinct sound that all climbers hate. Immeasurable tons of snow roared, from somewhere off to our right, down into the face where we were descending, wiping clean the spot where we’d be in a couple more rappels. “Glad that didn’t happen 30 minutes from now,” he mumbled. It’d been something like 30 hours since we’d left our bivy at the base of the mountain, and we’d barely pulled off a new route with desperate climbing, gone over the summit, fallen onto the first rap anchor in the sugar-snow cornice—it held—and now our vacation neared its end. After all, Early Times needed to be at work the next morning. But now his lungs gurgled—he had developed high-altitude pulmonary edema—so he might be a little late.

Sipping pisco sours at the Vagamundo bar in Huaraz two days later, it was clear that we weren’t yet recovered. We needed more rest, rehydration. Early Times put down his pisco and dug into his wallet. He pulled out a tattered business card to remind him of his office number and leisurely strolled toward the nearest phone booth.

—Kelly Cordes