I am standing by the side of the road just outside of San Martin de los Andes with my backpack and over stuffed ski bag, trying to hitchhike because the next bus to Villa la Angostura doesn’t leave for another six hours.
The second car which passes by is a red pick-up, it travels 200 yards up the road before slamming the brakes on and reversing back to me. A lady pokes her head out the window, all smiles and I can see at once that a good portion of her life has been spent outside. Sunburned creases on the face which speak of wisdom and vitality. It’s a healthy sort of weathered look, which some people say makes a person appear older than they really are, but which I think suggests youth more than age.
After a half hour boat trip, and two hours of thrashing through bamboo and walking up a slippery creekbed we reached some steeper scrambling and started wondering if the efforts would pay off...
The woman’s name is Gemma and sitting beside her in the drivers seat is a fellow, equally weathered, called Pablo. They aren’t travelling the whole way to Angostura Gemma says, but are happy to drive me to their home by Lago Villarino about half way there. I eagerly accept and as I lift my gear onto the bed of the truck I notice two pairs of lightweight randoneé skis and some trashed Scarpa boots. Just as Gemma´s face hints at a life spent outdoors, the gear in the back of the truck makes it obvious that my ride was to be with some ski mountaineers.
I climbed into the cramped cab and squeezed on to the bench seat. We set off rattling down the road and started a conversation which would change my plans for the next few days and lead to one of the most memorable experiences of my two month ski touring trip in Patagonia. It became apparent before we had even reached max speed (60km/h in this case) that this couple not only knew the local mountains intimately but also that they were prepared to endure all sorts of horrendous weather and atrocious conditions to get the chance to get outside and play in them. Their drive and passion were at once exciting and inspirational.
As we drove along the famous seven lakes route I heard fragments of stories about their explorations of the area over the past few years: of 10 day ski traverses that passed through valleys which were never before visited in winter, of spring trips when Pablo had fallen into a frigid river and having all of his gear saturated and the subsequent 10 hour bail out in a snow storm and of extended outings into the wilderness where a food bag was replaced by a handgun, some salt and a spool of fishing line. We talked about my own trip too: how the snow conditions were in the couloirs around Refugio Frey; the strength of the winds on Tierra del Fuego and how no one else had been on Volcan Lanin when I had skied it the previous day.
Once the topic changed from trips past to those of the future they had a wealth of local knowledge to share and with an eagerness showing in their eyes, told me that my plans of heading towards Chile’s volcanoes was a great one and sure to be oodles off fun. But before I headed over the border, they insisted that I should stay the night at Lago Villarino and go skiing with them the following day. I needed no convincing.
We were up before dawn, sipping mugs of tea and munching hard biscuits. Then it was down to the lake and the waiting boat. After a quick fumble in the dark, dumping skis and packs on the deck and clambering onboard, we got the outboard started and were soon chugging out into the open water: still as a pond at this early hour. Gemma opened the throttle up and we cruised across the dark lake with Pablo precariously straddling the bow, with one leg dangling out over the water.
A rotten snow bridge collapsed whilst Pablo was making his way across it, sending Pablo two metres down on to the rocky creek bed below (thankfully there wasn't much water flowing in it!)
The boat ride only took 30 minutes, but in that time the sun began poking its head over the horizon enough to make out the awesome peaks towering above us. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself over what a stunning and novel way this was to start a ski trip and how at this point one day ago I’d been fast asleep with a vague plan of hitchhiking to Chile. By the time we reached the small rocky beach where we would leave the boat, there was enough light to see the old forest bordering the lake. The scene reminded me of my favourite book as a child: “Where the Wild Things Are”. We tied the boat up with some frayed old rope to a giant and gnarly old tree.
At this early hour the weather still looked good, the sky was clear overhead and there wasn’t a breath of wind down in the valley. However with the forecast in mind, which was calling for rain and wind by late afternoon, we set off quickly. Hiking through the forest was easy at first, the old growth trees providing such a thick canopy that not enough light must pass through for there to be much undergrowth. We walked upwards calculating that we should have the skis on and be setting skin tracks within two hours.
We enjoyed a stunning view over Lago Villarino which we had crossed earlier in the day
Our rapid progress was halted soon enough by that most infuriating of backcountry obstacles, a plant which is deceptively pleasing to the eye but requires the utmost patience to travel through, a plant which I used to admire and appreciate before a few bushwhack approaches to ski descents in Patagonia: bamboo. Thickly clustered stands of it, the stalks as thin as a thumb but spaced only a hand width apart. Squeezing a path big enough for one’s body through such a maze is difficult and time consuming enough, add a pack laden with skis and clunky boots into the equation and bamboo stands like these become a real pain in the arse. We helped each other through the maze, holding stalks back for one another when our skis became entangled in the mess of vegetation. Without this help from my companions I’m not entirely sure that I ever would have made it out from the bamboo grove
A short distance and long while later we were clear of the bamboo and continued tramping slowly up the drainage. Given the lack of any trail in this seldom visited area, the steep canyon like terrain, and the low water levels we opted to do most of the approach hike in the creek itself. Hopping from boulder to wet, slick boulder. Gradually gaining altitude. (The sour thing about approach hikes is that unlike skinning uphill, when you know that each upward step is giving you another micro-second of a joyous descent, each awkward step on the next boulder is just promising a longer hike out at the day’s end).
In sections where the route became too steep to climb, and there were numerous waterfalls, we were forced to find a route along the banks. Usually this entailed a laborious effort up slopes too steep to allow any decent sized plants to take root. We grabbed handfuls of grass and wrapped our fingers around the thin stems of heather to give some balance as we scrambled up the slope. Sometimes, when we were lucky, the plants didn’t rip out when we pulled on them.
Eventually, after two hours of hiking, we reached snow, but it was fragmented and interspersed with steep rock sections, so we continued on foot. The warm spring temperatures meant the snow hadn’t frozen properly overnight and was infact quite rotten in places. Pablo discovered just how rotten the snow was as he made his way across one snow bridge. He trudged across the short span, post-holing to his knees. Just as he neared the other side of the bridge it collapsed underneath him and he plummeted two metres to the rocky riverbed below.
As I’d been trailing by about 20 yards I didn’t realize at first what had happened. I glanced around, trying to figure out where Pablo had disappeared to. The first suggestion I had of anything having happened was Pablo’s pack with skis attached resting on the snow beside a hole about the size and shape of Pablo’s body. The roar of the snow buried creek seemed louder all of a sudden and it dawned on me that there was enough force in the water to knock a man off his feet and pull him under the snow pack down along the creek.
Finally above the snow line, we made rapid process compared to the struggles on the approach hike.
“SHIT!” Our remote location and the difficulty of performing any sort of evacuation if Pablo had hurt himself suddenly hit home and I rushed up to check if he was alright. Gemma was trailing even further behind and did yet realize Pablo‘s predicament. I moved as quickly as I could over to the hole, prepared for the worst and trying to figure out the safest way of lifting Pablo back out of the hole, if the current of the stream below hadn’t already washed him further under the snow pack. A grunting sound was the first indication that Pablo was still conscious, by from the sound of it not in the most comfortable position. I neared the hole and approached the last few metres with caution so as not to fall through myself. Then a grinning face poked above the rim for a moment and Pablo chuckled “the snow’s a little thin here”.
After an awkward mantle move to get back on to the surface he crawled over to the edge of the creek, stood up and emptied the snow from his trousers and was marching upwards before Gemma even arrived on the scene.
Stopping to admire the view of Falkner's north face
The approach seemed to last forever and I can safely say it was the most heinous one I’ve ever had. The combination of bamboo mazes, slippery stones in the creek bed, rotten snow and steep muddy slopes: the sort of thing I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. After these four hours of uphill battle we reached a point where skinning would be possible and eagerly fastened boot buckles, slapped skins on and clipped into bindings.
With the 2x4s underfoot progress was suddenly both faster and easier. As we gained altitude stunning views opened up, we stopped to gaze back over the lake we had been skimming across earlier that morning and admired the seemingly endless ocean of skiable peaks in every direction: inspiring passion and promising fun adventure to anyone willing to put in the work of exploring them. Gemma succinctly summed up the moment with a cheerful “Buen Honda!”. Good times indeed! As we looked to the east though, we were reminded of the ominous weather prognosis: thick dark clouds were on the horizon and looked to be coming in our direction. No more time for idle staring if we wanted to ski the line we were hoping to.
Switchbacking up the face: this snow felt nice even to be skinning on. Goodness knows how stunning it would feel on the way down.
We made our way up on to the ridge and traversed its length before dropping in to the next drainage system and skirting around the base of a grey cliff. Gemma was having trouble with her skins, which weren’t sticking to her skis properly, so she opted to sit down and enjoy the view whilst Pablo and I continued on to the day’s objective: the small glacier on the south east face of Cerro Falkner which Pablo said had never been skied before. At this point it is probably important for me to clarify, when I say "first descent" it might bring to mind images of tight couloirs with 60º sections and cliff bands which ensure a "fall and die" status, or crevasse ridden mazes with names like "The glacier of certain death". The SE face of Cerro Falkner is none of these, it doesn’t inspire fear or require a once in a decade combination of the right conditions to make it skiable. No this is a face which simply looks fun to ski down.
Maxing out at about 35-40º, with no rock bands or crevasses to worry about, this is not something you will ever see in the ski porn videos, it is too mellow. This is not a line for the sponsored superstars, it is one for the people. "People" that is, who aren’t turned off by an approach which involves boat travel, four hours of heinous bushwhacking and then two hours of skinning. As a testament to this it is worth noting that Pablo only mentioned the fact that we would be the first to ski the face once it was actually within our sight.
More switchbacks. The snow was different here, not the same stable corn as there was lower down, but instead a layer of windblown powder which made skinning difficult. Every step would inevitably slide back a little: stretching the final section of the climb on for longer than anticipated.
By the time we reached the summit the dark clouds which had earlier been seen on the horizon had made their way to a position more or less around us. The beautiful view was being replaced by a white out, and the calm air was beginning to show its Antarctic origin, as a stiff wind picked up. But it was literally "all downhill" from here. Skins were peeled off and placed in the rucksack and an alfajore was unwrapped and placed n the mouth. Binding settings were changed from "tour mode" to "shred mode", and the tips of our skis pointed down the fall line.
Pleasure ensued. A gratifying pleasure, made all the sweeter by the long approach. There’s a popular consumerist idiom which I think applies well to backcountry skiing; "You get what you pay for." It seems obvious, and every backcountry skier knows exactly what I’m talking about. Just as a run through the woods, accessed by a ten minute hike from a lift at the local resort gives a deeper satisfaction than the piste below the lift, so it was with this run. The price of admission was enough to turn many folk off, but I didn’t doubt for a second the pay off far exceeded the investment in effort which we hade made.
The lower we got the more fun the snow was, and I found myself unconsciously yelping and yahooing in delight as turns were made in the fine spring corn. The descent was a long one, but still over far too soon. The snow gave way to rock bands, a kind of snowy maze which we picked a line through: trying to squeeze every last turn out of the descent, until we were faced with no more.
Another lap was tempting, but given the late hour and worsening weather we decided it wiser to begin the march back down the stream bed. As we chewed on bread rolls with salami it began raining. This was the point in the trip when thoughts turned, momentarily at least, to the end of the trip and the comforts that awaited back in civilization (or in this case the cabin without running water or electricity which Pablo and Gemma called home for the summer months). Pablo announced matter of factly as specks of hail stung his face: "tonight’s activities will be drinking red wine and smoking marijuana"
Down climbing in the ski boots was a precarious task indeed
To no one’s surprise the rocks that were difficult scrambling up in the morning proved even more demanding to down climb with ski boots in the afternoon. The rocks were slick with rain and the embankments were becoming slippery with mud. We trudged onwards, growing wet with the now steady rain and cursing as our skis got entangle in the bamboo shoots. But a glance at the grins on each others faces told the truth- we were happy and content.
The weather continued to worsen and by the time we reached the lake, 11 hours after having left it, we were all dripping wet and bracing ourselves against a wind which had reached a proper Patagonian scale. The sort of wind which might blow a person off their feet or send a shoddily pitched tent sailing down the valley like a kite. Indeed the boat ride felt more like a crossing of the Drake passage that a small inland lake. Pablo jokingly recalled the weather forecast as rain dripped down his face and the boat jerked violently in the waves: “It might rain today.”
By the time we had hiked back down the creek to the lake it was 17.30 (12 hours after we´d set out) and we were all cold, wet, tired and extremely happy.
Back in the cabin a fire was lit and wet clothes hung out to dry, as I sat there in my festering, hole ridden long johns I glanced across at Gemma who was making herself busy uncorking a bottle of wine and Pablo rolling a joint. Out of out little band of three it occurred to me that I was the only one who thought that today’s outing was a little out of the ordinary. Sure a boat ride was a fun way to start a day of skiing, they agreed but their decision to use the boat was also based on matters of practicality. Sure the approach was heavy going in places, but from the behaviour of Pablo and Gemma I got the impression that today’s was by no means harder than others they’ve had. Sure we had skied a first descent, but then again how many first descents did these two have under their belts. Sure the weather had turned “sketchy” in proportions that are normally reserved for the annals of exploration, but all of this was apparently to be expected. I thought back to my first impression of Gemma and Pablo and now understood just what sort of days had given their faces that weathered look.