When I started my trip around Latin America I knew many unpredictable things would happen, but I never imagined I would lose a friend in a tragic accident.
It was a pure coincidence that brought me to ski-patrol course in Chile. At the beginning the only foreigner there was our French instructor. After first few lessons a new guy joined. His name was Miguel Angel. He was from Venezuela and you could never fail to notice him – among other things because he was about 2 meters tall.
We understood each other quite well. It helped he spoke clear Spanish and not Chilean as the rest of the people. Also we were both foreigners and we were older than most of the people who took the course. As we got to know each other, we learnt we had more things in common: beside the love for the mountains (for both of us our highest climb was Chimborazo at 6 thousand meters) we both traveled quite a bit, loved adventure and adrenaline sports. Miguel already traveled around Southern Cone in 2007 and I planed to go few months later. We both looked for a place to live in Santiago and since Miguel stayed in Chile before, he knew more about how things worked.
There were a lot of fantastic people trying to become patrolers but I quickly realized Migue was different. Maybe it was his Venezuelan warmth, his optimism and his enthusiasm for every possible outdoor sport. From the first day he talked about something called speedflying. I never even heard of this sport but I quickly got an idea. He wanted everyone to try it and he could not wait to fly himself . Almost every class break he would look at the mountain a tried to figure out from where he could jump and fly. However our ski patrolling course was demanding and besides that he had to organize his new life in Chile and find a job. So it would take him a few weeks before he finally jumped for the first time.
My main motivation to join the ski patrolling course was to meet local people that love mountains and go exploring with them and maybe later that winter ski and snowboard together. So I was very happy when Migue organized few people and we hiked above Santiago. I had a great time on the hike. As we hiked he would think about flying a lot. “Ok, that would be a great place to jump”, he pointed one way and “that place would be even better to start a flight”, he pointed another direction.
Few weeks later we celebrated Migue’s birthday. He turned 31. I was surprised how many people showed up and I had to admit to him that the Venezuelan rum he supplied was as good as he claimed it to be. The party lasted till early morning hours. He knew how to have a good time and I admired how someone who is about 2 meters tall can dance and not like a fool.
At the end of the month all of us – the ski patrol wannabees – had to go on an overnight trip. Miguel was in my tent group. We left Santiago and drove to the mountains where the first snow had fallen. I realized that he still quite did not get used to the cold of the southern hemisphere. In the evening as the temperature dropped and he was humorless and overall pretty miserable. As a Caribeño however he had a good reason to complain about negative temperatures. We cooked him a warm soup, some simple pasta meal and a tea. Even with that he was still not thrilled about being there in the mountains and freezing. He could not wait for this mini expedition to be over. Miguel barely slept that night. In the morning the sun came out. Now we were finally heading back. With every step towards the valley the temperature rose, with that his Caribbean blood started circulating again and back was his usual spirit. Half way down to the mountain he was the happy man again.
The last week of May the good amount of snow finally arrived to the mountains above Santiago. And Miguel Angel was not gonna waste the opportunity to fly this season for the first time. This is him on his third and last flight of that day.
Next weekend we were heading up to the mountains to ski. We were just a small group while most of the people wanted to study for our ski-patrol test. Felipe, Migue and I end up going. It was a wonderful sunny day with nice powder on the mountains. During the ride up Mique told us that he found a job and we talked about other things but flying was the main thing on his mind.
It was supposed to be perfect day. When we got to the mountain base, thing happened pretty quickly. We got out of the car. I needed to rent skis and get a lift ticket. Migue was not gonna ski with us and just fly. We did not really think about it. Ok, we said. He got his things from the car and we set time and place for us to meet for lunch in couple hours. Mique walked away. He needed to check flying permission with the ski resort I believe. Me and Felipe had general idea where he was walking but that was all. He was sure about what he was doing. At least that is what I thought. Only later have I realized how idiotic this thinking was on my part.
Our day on the mountain started great. The sun was shining, the snow was great. Although the base of my skies quickly discovered that there were a lot of sharp rocks under the not so deep layer of fresh powder. This was super early season after all.
Around noon I got a call from our friend Cristina. Migue called her just before his first flight and said if he was not gonna call back in 15 minutes, she should call. I called Migue’s phone and there was no answer. We talked to ski patrol but it seemed there was nothing they could do at that moment.
We went back to the car and drove around the mountain to start looking for Migue. At this point I realize how colossally idiotic it was to have him leave without knowing where exactly he went. On the way up he showed us approximate place where he was gonna go, but that now seemed like that kilometers wide stretch of cliffs. We drove towards the place where he should have landed. I hoped to see him walking on a road. “Sure his phone fell out or something. That’s why he is not answering.” I tried to convince myself. We drove under the mountain back a forth but saw nothing. We asked the Santiagenos on a day trip playing in a snow, but nobody saw anyone fly that day down the mountain. We had no idea how far he could have flown. We run up and down under the cliffs where we thought he could have landed. I screamed his name, but the silence of the mountain was the only answer. I wanted to be really mad at him for not answering his phone. “Maybe his phone really fell out and he is already waiting for us at the lunch place”, I hoped. We drove back to check if he does not wait for us at the lunch spot already. He was not there. In my head I had about 20 scenarios of what could have happened. None of that really mattered. All I wished was to find him. We were now running again up and down under the cliffs. As I got higher on the mountain I realized how dangerous the terrain that from afar seems smooth really was. Besides that there was not as much snow as it seemed and definitely less than couple days ago that I saw in the video Miguel made.
After about one hour it was clear our search led nowhere and we called the police. We convinced them that something is really up. We wanted them to triangulate the phone, but for some reason they could not do that. It did not take long and there was a police helicopter hovering over the mountain trying to locate Migue. Then they spotted something that looked like a parachute. It lied about halfway down the mountain. Rescuers got to it quite quickly and yes it was Mique. There was nothing that could be done. As it got dark his body was taken down from the mountain. I cried and so did a lot of other people that made it to the mountain during the afternoon.
Late at night me and Felipe drove down the mountain. That morning the three of us came on the mountain and now only two of us are leaving. This must be one of the worst feelings one has to live through. I questioned if there is anything I could have done.
In a few days a mass was organized in Santiago. In a city that was not even home for Miguel Angel at least 100 people showed up. Migue’s dad came to fly him home. I talked to him. I know, I should have not leave Mique go fly alone. Later that week Miguel Angel was buried in Venezuela.
I never thought I would come in touch with speed flying again after that. It was only after Migue’s accident that I learned how dangerous it
really can be and I was never gonna try it or be part of it. But…mere two months later I was in a shuttle to the mountain called Las Lenas in Argentina. As we got out of the car a new friend I met put a speed riding parachute on his back and wanted to go to the remote side of the mountain. He was from Australia and was carrying the speedriding parachute for months on his South America travels and did not get any use out of it. I felt I dreamed a bad dream…. “Wherever you are going, I am going with you”, I told him.
We arrived to the spot from where he wanted to take off. There was a bit of snow and tons of rocks below where he wanted to fly and land. It was one of the last day of the season. The wind blew from all directions. He was determined to fly, I could not stop him. The wind messed up his parachute once and then the second time. After two failed starts he gave up. We skied all day – it was a perfect ski day. I wish this happened two months earlier.
Migue left doing what he loved, but for weeks I could not stop thinking about how unfair it is that a great guy like him had to leave so soon. Now two years later I still think often about Miguel Angel. I wish I could have seen him thrive in his new life, I wish I could have gotten to know him better, I wish we could have shared our adventures….
I will forever be sad that he is not here, but I will always be glad that for about a month our lives have crossed. Thanks for that Migue!