This post is contributed by Justin Lozier, Powderbird guide and PatagoniaSkiTours.com Owner & Head Guide. Patagonia Ski Tours offer full service guided ski tours of the beautiful Patagonian Region of Southern Argentina. Tours include guided backcountry hut skiing and hut-to-hut ski touring adventures, volcano ski tours, wine tours, and city tours of Argentina’s captivating capital, Buenos Aires.
PATAGONIA 2011 SEASON WRAP
By the time the snow finally began to melt out in the Wasatch, sometime in late-July, I was already preparing for another adventure in South America, where the snow was just beginning to pile up. This year, along with my wife, I was joined by Snowbird ski patroller and local photojournalist, Sean Zimmerman-Wall.
Our trip began at the Salt Lake City International Airport, carrying our massive ski bags and other luggage through the terminal. After checking our bags and clearing security, it was onto Houston, where we had time for a quick dinner before boarding our flight to the southern continent. Ten hours and five thousand miles later, we were landing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We spent one night in the capital to celebrate my birthday with all of our friends and family, and they all wished us luck on our journey further south.
The following morning, Sean and I boarded a bus bound for San Carlos de Bariloche, located in the lake district of northern Patagonia. The city lights faded away as we left the outer limits of Buenos Aires, and we were soon traveling over the vast pampas of central Argentina. We were wined and dined while we watched the sun set on the Patagonian steppe, and we went over our plans for the first days of the trip. As we drifted off to sleep, we knew that we would be waking up to beautiful sights of snow-covered peaks.
Just as we had hoped for, we were greeted with a fresh white blanket of snow, covering everything but the road as we arrived in the lake district. Some friends of ours met us at the bus terminal, and we headed straight up to the Cerro Catedral ski resort to sample the offerings of the latest storm. We spent the afternoon carving big lines on alpine faces covered in deep powder. At the end of the day, Sean and I headed up to Punta Princesa, the southern peak of the resort, to dig a snow profile and study the snow. To our delight, we discovered a stable snowpack with a total depth of 2.5 meters (8+ feet). The group reconvened in the parking lot to celebrate a great first day and kick-off of our 2011 ski season. Our friends left us at our lodging, near the coast of Lago Nahuel Huapi, and we bid them farewell.
The next three days were spent guiding our first guests of the season, two Italian skiers from Milan, Edoardo and Filippo. We took them to the best lift-accessed backcountry terrain at Cerro Catedral, including some big alpine bowls with spine features and cliffs, steep couloirs, and even a bit of low-angle powder skiing in the glades. Their last day was supposed to have been spent heliskiing with us, as part of Powderbird International’s Argentina program, but at the last minute, they had to cancel. They were in the middle of a month-long ski trip, from northern Chile to Southern Argentina, and they just could not fit it in their budget. Nonetheless, we had an excellent time with them, and we are hoping they will join us for some heliskiing in the Wasatch this winter.
As we bid farewell to one pair of guests, two more showed up from the United States. John, a Utah local sent to us by Powderbird International, was looking to join us for some heliskiing in the Andes and to experience the wonders of Patagonia during his week-long stay in the region. While meeting him at his lodging, we met another fellow yankee who was in search of the same. We took the two of them out for a tour around town and stopped for lunch to enjoy a local beer and some delicious empanadas – basically a meal in a pocket of dough. The following day’s weather was less than desirable, and all of the upper-elevation chair lifts were closed, so we just skied the piste and got the two of them acquainted with the area. John ended up having some logistical problems on his trip, so he had to return home earlier than expected. Nonetheless, we carried on with our new guest, also named Jon. The storm passed, leaving us with a bit of fresh snow, and we had a two day weather window to work with. We decided to use this opportunity to bring Jon out to one of our favorite places in the world, Refugio Frey, a European-style stone hut located in the Andean wilderness behind the ski resort. The morning was spent dialing in all of our gear and preparing for up to three days out in the mountains. One of the great things about this particular mountain hut is that it is manned year-round by friendly caretakers, serving up warm food, cold drinks and good vibes. Not needing to carry three days’ worth of food made our packs much lighter.
We embarked on our adventure that afternoon, heading up the Sextuple Express chair at Cerro Catedral loaded with gear. After hiking out of the resort, behind Punta Princesa, we descended into the beautiful Van Titter Valley down an excellent run in which we found some great cold snow. Celebration ensued as we each reached the valley bottom, and we were immediately hit by its silent serenity. We switched to uphill mode and skinned up through the ‘spooky forest’, pushing us further into the backcountry. We arrived at the hut just as the sun was setting on the iconic granite spires. Our hosts met us at the door, and we ordered up a round of pizza and beer to warm our souls. We got settled into our sleeping arrangements on the upper level and changed into our more relaxed hut-roaming attire. After dinner, we spent the evening enjoying some whiskey on snow while we gazed into the starry southern sky. The stars out at Refugio Frey are the most beautiful I have ever seen.
The clouds had already moved in by the time we had finished breakfast, and they were beginning to lower, obscuring visibility in the peaks. We had two choices: return to Bariloche immediately by skiing down valley and traversing around the cordillera to the ski resort, or spend the next two days hunkered down in the hut, waiting for the storm to pass. While the latter was surely a better choice from a powder skiing perspective, giving us the ability to ski the steep cirque surrounding the hut in complete solitude, we chose the former option and left the hut in the afternoon and made our way down to the end of the Van Titter Valley. It was clearly the safer and wiser choice, so we weren’t too bummed out about having to leave the hut earlier than expected.
Traversing around the cordillera to return to the Cerro Catedral parking lot is quite an adventure, to say the least. This was my second time doing it, even after vowing to never repeat it after the first. This journey is filled with several primitive bridge crossings and undulating terrain through thick forest, at times full of bamboo canes ready to whack you at any time. After many hours of trekking, we reached the parking lot and headed straight to a local bar to enjoy an ice-cold Quilmes beer while we waited for our driver to pick us up.
Since we had returned from Refugio Frey earlier than expected, we now had some extra time on our hands. Sean and I had previously planned on heading further south to the town of Esquel to ski at the La Hoya ski area, and Jon was keen on joining us on our journey. That night, we arranged for a three-day rental of a new Volkswagen Amarok Turbo Diesel double cab pickup truck, and we threw all of our equipment in the payload. After a quick breakfast, we left our lodging early in the morning, just before sunrise. Passing shimmering lakes and soaring peaks, we arrived in the town of El Bolson two hours later. While passing through El Bolson, we were joined on the road by a brand-new Pisten Bully snowcat being pulled on a trailer, and we wondered where it was going. Continuing south, we were once again traveling over the Patagonian steppe, a sharp contrast from the lush mountain environment we had been in previously. We were welcomed to Esquel by a large snowman with skis on his back, and we all felt the good vibe of this small mountain town.
Since we had arrived so quickly, completing the whole drive in about 3 ½ hours, we decided to head straight up to La Hoya to ski for the remainder of the afternoon. A half-day pass at La Hoya was only about $22 USD, so it was easy to get our money’s worth. We hiked around the huge alpine bowls in search of good, wind-buffed snow, and we found some excellent skiing conditions in the steep, protected couloirs. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the spa at our accommodations, the Plaza Esquel, relaxing us into a nice evening siesta. We went out for dinner and ended up going out on the town afterward. After some bad luck at the casino, we found a cool little blues club that was featuring a great blues guitarist from San Francisco. How he got there, I have no idea, but I guess he could have asked us the same question.
Our second and final day at La Hoya was full of hiking to ski steep lines, exploring more of its lift-accessed backcountry terrain, and enjoying the mellow atmosphere of the place. While buying some topographical maps in Bariloche before leaving, we had heard of an unknown ski area in El Bolson called Cerro Perito Moreno. It sounded intriguing, so we headed up there after our final night in Esquel. It had snowed about 8” overnight, making the dirt road up to the ski area pretty difficult to manage. We made it up to the vacant parking lot and were surprised to see the new Pisten Bully that we had seen on the road earlier being assembled out in the middle of the lot. Our excitement for skiing powder easily overpowered our curiosity of the snowcat, and we immediately loaded the fixed double chair at the base. This ski area currently has only one chair lift, one poma lift, and two beginner rope tows at mid mountain. If you’ve got skins, the rest of the mountain is ripe for the picking. It’s like lift-accessed ski touring! We enjoyed some great skiing through untouched pine forests, and even on the piste, before skinning up for laps in the upper alpine terrain. The top of the mountain is not currently serviced by any lifts, and it terminates on a massive plateau, facing several glaciated peaks towering above. The ski touring opportunities at this place are incredible. After a few powder laps, we continued down to the lot and headed back to Bariloche.
Bariloche had received 16” of snow by the time we got back, and the storm was looking to lift in the morning. Sean and I were scheduled to be on the 3 pm bus to Buenos Aires, so we put together a carefully crafted plan to make the most of the bonus day we had been blessed with. Jon had to leave that morning, so he was not able to enjoy this final day with us. Trying to hide our excitement for skiing 16” of fresh snow on a nearly empty Cerro Catedral, we said our goodbyes to Jon and headed up to the mountain. Sean and I arrived at the Sextuple Express right as it started spinning, and we got on one of the first chairs of the day. As we neared the top, we noticed that the Nubes chair was not running. This was good news for us, as that is exactly where we had planned to go. We jumped onto the Punta Nevada quad, and headed toward the summit. After asking permission from ski patrol, we crossed the closure ropes and skinned up to the top of Punta Nevada (aka, ‘Nubes’). The morning views were absolutely incredible, with fresh white snow all around, beautiful blue skies above, and Lago Nahuel Huapi in the distance.
We were the first to reach the summit, but not by far. We noticed a few other people making their way up the peak, so we made haste. Our first run was right down the gut of the main face, marking our signatures on the pristine blankets of powder. Needless to say, stoke levels were high, and we promptly returned to the Punta Nevada chair to make another lap. By this time, a few others had also skied the face, and a bootpack had been established. We followed the bootpack up to the summit once again and set our targets on the slightly lower-angled wide face near the Nubes lift line, as it was still untouched. This turned out to be an excellent choice. One at a time, we made high-speed GS turns all the way down the face, on perfectly spongy powder snow. We felt like condors soaring through the Andes, and wondered for a moment if we might take flight. This turned out to be the best run of the day… Zen.
The two of us decided that we had just enough time for one more quick lap on Punta Nevada, before we had to meet our driver, Hugo, in the parking lot at noon. After charging one more hot lap from the summit, we skied down to the parking lot and loaded our gear into Hugo’s vehicle. We packed our bags and enjoyed a farewell beer with our host, Javier, atop our mountain of gear. Shortly thereafter, we were on the bus heading back to Buenos Aires. We bid farewell to the town we love, as we watched it fade into the distance. Before we knew it, we were sipping wine on the bus, cruising across the Patagonian steppe, just as we had begun this adventure. Reclining in our Super Cama seats, sleep came easily, and we were in Buenos Aires by 10:00 the following morning.
As it turned out, we had arrived to the capital the same day as our Italian friends, Edoardo and Filippo, so we took them on a tour of the city. Joined by my wife, a Buenos Aires native, we took them on an adventure through La Boca, the heart and birthplace of Argentine tango culture. Amidst the passionate and romantic energy of the art, music and dance of this colorful culture, we enjoyed an excellent meal, consisting of lomito completo sandwiches – thin cut steak, ham, cheese, fried egg, lettuce, tomato… perfection between two pieces of bread. Upon returning to our home neighborhood of Recoleta, we all enjoyed a much needed siesta, before heading out for our final night on the town.
The destination for the night was a formerly secret party, not-so-secret anymore, located at the horse track in San Isidro, a large suburb on the northern outskirts of downtown Buenos Aires. It is called Darwin. This event is known to host as many as 5,000 people, and it has been a weekly favorite of ours for years. Luckily for us, we gained VIP access and entered immediately, thanks to our local connections, avoiding us the hour wait in line. Before we knew it, we were in the crowd of young Porteños, dancing to the booming beats of world DJs. The scene is huge, with a lot going on, people moving all around, several bars scattered throughout the venue with lights flashing, music bumping and dancing… lots of dancing. When it gets to be too much, one needs to only step outside onto the grandstand of the horse track and enjoy the cool late night air and the quiet serenity of the track. As always, we had a great time at Darwin, and we then returned to the city center to finish the night with a late night meal. So ended another night in the ‘Paris of the Americas’, and we gave our last farewells to our departing guests. It was the perfect end to the perfect trip.