Northern Patagonia; backcountry skiing

After freeriding in Las Leñas, it was time to explore the backcountry of the Andes in the springtime. In the lake district some mountain huts can be found that offer excellent terrain and some of the resorts offer easy accessible backcountry with amazing views. Furthermore the Andes is the place to ski some beautiful volcanoes. All objectives being located in Patagonia, the biggest enemy is the weather. I had time though, so between all the rain, snow and wind there should be some sunny spells…

My trip to Northern Patagonia turned out to be a series of little adventures (as a consequence this post is very long…). It started with a couple of days skiing around Bariloche before I made my way to Chile to climb and ski some volcanoes. I went back into Argentina to ski several backcountry areas near San Martin de los Andes, Villa la Angostura, Bariloche (again…) and Esquel. I finished the trip with skiing the biggest objective: volcano Lanin!

The first stop was Refugio Frey. I signed up for a trip with skiguide Jorge Kozulj, who will also be my guide on the skitrip to Antarctica. Getting to know each other, both in terms of personality and skiing ability, during a couple of days here will hopefully benefit me on Antarctica. I arrived August 31 in the popular town of San Carlos de Bariloche and the weather was…typical. All climates on a day made the trip to the refugio difficult. From the skiresort, Cerro Catedral, you have to cross a valley. Some technical sections can better be passed in good weather conditions and therefore Jorge decided to ski some lines in the resort instead. Not what I came for but nobody can change the weather. Together with Kade and Charlie from London and Ross from Vancouver, we skied some bowls and couloirs in the Laguna area, a renowned backcountry area of Cerro Catedral. We were also joined by Eric Hjorleifson, a pro skier from Whistler who skied in many MSP movies. Eric and Jorge know each other from working in the past for a movie called “All I can”. At times he made us look like beginners, ripping up steep lines where we took things a bit slower. All in all it was a great experience to spend a day with such a great skier who turned out to be quite a humble person as well.

The next day conditions were much better and we took off to Refugio Frey. We used the lift system again to gain some elevation before we put the skins on. A 30 minutes skin brought us to a ridge from where we had to use our crampons and ice axe in order to traverse an exposed section. We all survived and, after a bit of scrambling, we could ski down the Van Titter valley towards the river below from where we needed to skin another hour to finally reach Refugio Frey…

Refugio Frey and its great terrain in the nearby surroundings

Refugio Frey and its great terrain in the nearby surroundings

I had seen pictures before of the so-called Frey amphitheater but in reallife it was even more impressive. Needless, rock formations, couloirs and bowls make an impressive alpine environment. After a lunch consisting of different kinds of empanadas, we went on our first adventure. The steeper lines can generally be reaches in around two hours where a combination of skinning, bootpacking and mountaineering are required. Initially the plan was to skin across the lake in front of the hut in order to climb the face on the far right side in the picture above. From the top of the ridge you basically have two options: ski down the same way we went up or ski down a couloir on the right side (not visible in the picture). I spotted a beautiful couloir directly on arrival however, and asked Jorge if we could ski that one and to my big surprise, everyone agreed. It is located in the shadow on the left side of the big rocky formation in the top right corner of the picture (click here to see a map with all the runs). It is called the Central Couloir and could be reached by the same way we were planning to go up because the entrance of the couloir is accessible by some scrambling on the backside of the rock formation. The inclination is between 40 and 45 degrees, a nice run to start with…

skiing the Central Couloir in the Frey region

skiing the Central Couloir in the Frey region

Conditions were far from easy with a thick breakable crust on top of some powdersnow. Jump turns were on the agenda for most of the run. Only at the bottom one could savely link some turns, still with caution though. After a full day of adventure, we spent the evening in the hut enjoying conversations and a nice meal before trying to get some sleep in the dormitory. Statistics dictate that amongst 25 people, of which 20 are men, you’ll always find a couple of big snorers. Needless to say I needed some sugar the next morning in order to get going…

Luckily the terrain is so good that, even without much sleep, I had enough motivation to get out and ski another line. Jorge opted to ski a run called “El Monje” (The Monk). It is located on the right side of the peak that is in the middle of the first picture. We crossed the lake again and skinned up the first half of the same face as the day before, Where we went right the previous day, we went left this time. After a couple of zigzags the skintrack became quite steep and we decided to bootpack. At the top we had to traverse an exposed section, so the ice axe was helpful for extra assistance. Some more scrambling and bootpacking took us to the start of the run. El Monje is wide at the beginning before it funnels down into a more narrow couloir. After watching everybody struggling skier’s right in tough conditions, I decided to go more skier’s left and found some great untouched powder. An advantage of skiing last!

Being from the UK, Kade and Charlie decided to call it a day and have a couple of beers in the hut. I was here for the skiing so I continued for another run. Ross joined me for a skin before he also turned around to the hut. I asked Jorge to ski something more challenging and committing. He would take me to one of his favourite runs in the area with a start of 50 degrees and steep all the way down. “Are you ok with that Paul?”, he asked me. “As long as you think conditions are ok, I’m good to go”, was my reply and off we went. Roughly 30 to 45 minutes later we were on top of a run he called “Planchon Sur” and I noticed things were getting more serious. Jorge checked a couple of times if I was ok skiing a run this steep because a fall could have serious consequences. We sideslipped a convex section (always fun when you can’t see the bottom of a run…) before Jorge triggered a slab (type of avalanche) on purpose. Once the loose snow had traveled we were good to go. This was clearly a benefit of skiing with a guide who knows the area really well. Conservative turns were linked from one safe spot to the other and we slowly progressed. At the bottom we were able to go up a gear or two and ski down to the lake. High fives were the result of a great adventure and we went back to the hut.

Unfortunately the weather came in. A decent amount of snow in the evening and first part of the night would be ruined later on by rain. The next morning we decided to slowly make our way back towards Bariloche since skiing in the rain would not be a lot of fun. Around 2 pm we arrived completely soaked back in town. I wish I could have skied a couple more runs around Frey but it still was a great adventure!

The rain kept falling for days and after a week or so, I really wanted to leave town. Ross Hewitt, a Chamonix-based skier I had met in the hostel before I went on the trip to Frey, was in Pucon (Chile) with his girlfriend in order to ski some volcanoes. I joined them on a three day roadtrip trying to climb and ski Villarrica, Llaima and Lonquimay.

Llaima volcano and its many lava rocks

Llaima volcano and its many lava rocks

I arrived in Pucon on a Wednesday with the next day being a great day to climb and ski Villarrica (2847 m) according to the forecast. The next morning a taxi brought us to the base of the skiresort on the bottom of this active volcano. We started skinning around 9:30 am. We soon passed a couple of guided trekking groups before we arrived on top of the lift system around 1800 meters. From there a more remote skin took us further up the volcano. More and more people turned back down due to icy conditions. Luckily I had my skicrampons with me and I managed to skin almost to the summit. Only the last 50 meters I used my bootcrampons because skinning through a field of cauliflowers, as Ross called it, was impossible. Ross and his girlfriend Michelle both have a serious sports background and were superfit. I tried to keep up with them and we made it to the top just passed 1 pm. I have never climbed 1650 vertical meters in just over 3,5 hours. I was hoping to have a look inside the crater but a combination of smoke and wind made that impossible. Even on a clear sunny day we could hardly see a thing on the summit…

skiing Villarrica (photo credits: Ross Hewitt)

skiing Villarrica (photo credits: Ross Hewitt)

The next morning we jumped into out rental car and drove towards Llaima. It is 3125 meters high and one of the most active volcanoes in Chile. It is also a popular destination for ski mountaineering in the Chilean lake district. We arrived around 11 am and decided to have a drink first and use the lift system to skip the first 400 vertical meters. For 5000 Chilean pesos (around 7 euros) an old double chairlift and a good old T-bar took us to a plateau from where we had to go up ourselves. The views were amazing with volcanoes on both sides. We skinned up to around 2700 meters before conditions became too bad for the downhill. No reason to carry the skis uphill anymore so we climbed with a light backpack to the summit. Unfortunately the clouds came in as soon as we arrived on the top, so we headed back down pretty soon. We skied some variable snow back down to the car. A nice allround adventure but not the best skiing to be honest…

The night was spent in a nice fixed tent with real beds (click here to see our “Dome tent”) and the next morning we drove up to Lonquimay. On arrival we noticed winds up high and a lot of icy sections on the volcano. We were not looking forward to another big hike without skis and decided to turn around. We explored the surrounding area a little bit before driving back to Pucon. Being the third wheel for a couple of days, time had come to go seperate ways. Ross and his girlfriend went back to Bariloche and I met up with the other Ross, with whom I skied around Refugio Frey, to explore some other areas.

The first one was Miramas, a backcountry area close to Chapelco, the skiresort next to San Martin de los Andes. Ross rented a 4-wheel drive in Santiago for his whole trip and that turned out very useful on our drive to Miramas. After a long dirtroad we arrived at a remote parking spot and we took off. Ross visited this area previously with Jorge (the skiguide) so he led the way. After an hour or so of skinning we found some good snow in the forest and decided to skin up for some treeskiing. It turned out to be a good decision…

we found some nice snow in the trees... (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

we found some nice snow in the trees… (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

After a nice run in the trees we continued our journey towards the alpine. Some rivers had to be crossed but nothing prevented us from reaching the open field we were aiming for. We skinned up to the peak where we were welcomed by an horrendous wind. Shortly we discussed the possibility to ski down on the backside into a nice bowl but we decided to ski down the way we came from in order to avoid more strong winds. Opposite our run was another peak from where we could ski nicely into the forest and make our way back to the car. On the way up the view was very nice despite the weather. It can best be described as a typical Patagonian landscape – a combination of mountains and lakes – in typical Patagonian weather – a combination of clouds, wind, sun and precipitation. From the top we had to ski down from a little cornice where the snow turned out to be pretty good. Lower down in the trees however, the conditions were absolutely terrible. We were invited into some true survival skiing. After another lap in the trees, we finally found the car around 5 pm. This day we didn’t see any other people while skiing, we skied all kinds of conditions, we had to conquer some nasty weather and enjoyed some nice scenery. All in all, it was a typical day in the backcountry!

skinning in a dramatic Patagonian landscape... (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

skinning in a dramatic Patagonian landscape… (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

Next stop: Cerro Bayo. The same day we drove to the small town of Villa la Angostura. It is in this town where our Royal couple have their holiday retreat. Maxima’s brother, Martin, lives here and works in his bistro. We checked in at a nice hosteria and enjoyed a dinner at Argentine time (read 11 pm!). The next day we got up early to visit the only “boutique” resort I know, Cerro Bayo. Villa la Angostura is a place for the rich and famous of Argentina and the skiresort therefore probably thought the word boutique wouldn’t hurt its marketing. It is a quiet resort with beautiful views and so it definitely has a tranquil feel. The base lost all its snow but the recently installed gondola soon took us above the snow level. Eight years ago I spent a couple of days here (I really wanted to have a drink with Martin Zorreguieta!) and you had to hike to the peak in order to ski some nice offpiste laps. With the gondola we had direct access and skied a couple of good warmups. Around noon we headed into the backcountry. From the top station we hiked along a couple of ridges, traversed a bit and climbed the final part in order to reach a nice bowl. The snow was variable unfortunately. We decided to head back towards the resort. Along the way we found some good snow and decided to ski another run on the backside of the resort with the small town in the background, very scenic. We skinned back up and managed to ski another lap under the gondola before we took the lift back down at 5 pm. A full and good day!

hiking in the backcountry of Cerro Bayo (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

hiking in the backcountry of Cerro Bayo (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

The next two days there was rain in the forecast so we took some well-needed rest. Saturday, the first sunny day in the forecast, was reserved for Cerro Lopez, a nice backcountry area close to Bariloche. We left early morning and drove towards a kiosk in the middle of nowhere. From there we hiked the summer trail for around one and a half hours before we reached the snow. Skins were taken out of the backpacks and we followed a skintrack from two people ahead of us. The huge face, which is known as “Cerro Lopez” (Cerro Lopez is the name of a peak but the whole face is commonly known as such), showed evidence of some big avalanches. The new snow (it rained in town but snowed here) from the last two days formed an unstable snowpack together with the icy layer underneath. The skintrack took us to another peak with obviously less avalanche-prone terrain. A large forest with relatively mellow terrain higher up. On arrival at the summit we met two Swiss women. One of them was a guide and told us we arrived at “Filo de las Cabras”. Two couloirs on the backside immediately caught my eyes but, because of conditions and “a negative ski advice” from the Swiss, we decided not to ski them. Damn I wanted to ski those couloirs, maybe later… Skiing the frontside of Filo de las Cabras wasn’t too bad either…

skiing down from Filo de las Cabras the views are pretty good (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

skiing down from Filo de las Cabras the views are pretty good (photo credits: Ross Wightman)

The final chapter of my backcountry skitrip in Northern Patagonia would take place on volcano Lanin together with Ross. He decided to explore the South of Argentina first and come back in the beginning of October for our final objective. This meant I had some time to kill and I decided to check out Esquel and its nearby skiresort La Hoya. In 2005 I made my first trip to Argentina and Chile exploring most of the skiresorts in about six weeks. The only ‘major’ resort I didn’t go to back then was La Hoya. What a great decision to check it out this time…

The drive from Bariloche to Esquel is on the famous Ruta 40 with spectacular scenery all the way. The ride through wild rugged nature leads to a wild and rugged town, one I really liked. Esquel is a small, down-to-earth town without masses of tourists. The daily routine consisted of waking up between 7:30 and 8 am, having an easy breakfast, start walking around 9 am in order to arrive at the hitchhiking spot around 9:30. Usually I got a ride within 30 minutes and got up at the parking area around 10:30 to start skiing. And the skiing at La Hoya can best be described as fantastic!

Lift tickets are a smashing 15 euros a day and in return you’ll get great snow, empty slopes and great terrain. The resort is located in a huge bowl (La Hoya means “the hole”) and from the top one can traverse to some amazing terrain with loads of chutes and couloirs leading back to the bottom chairlift.

the amazing backcountry terrain of La Hoya on the right side with Esquel in the distance

the amazing backcountry terrain of La Hoya on the right side with Esquel in the distance

After doing a couple of laps I noticed even better terrain accessible within a 30-minutes hike. Being in the sun from around 10 am the snow had been transformed into smooth springsnow by 11 am which made for some amazing skiing. The hike to the top itself was great too. Walking around on the summit looking at different entrances to drop in steep chutes, is such a great feeling. After a couple of laps from the summit I also noticed some runs to the backside leading all the way down to the road. Beautifully shaped couloirs where not many had gone before, it was simply too good to resist, even though the snow was firm. For three days I skied laps from the summit finishing the day with a couloir to the road before hitchhiking back to town. The hitchhiking was a good way to practise my Spanish because not many foreigners make it to Esquel so you probably end up in a car answering questions about Marco van Basten and Queen Maxima…

one of my favourite couloirs of La Hoya leading all the way to the road

one of my favourite couloirs of La Hoya leading all the way to the road

On the way back North I made a stopover in El Bolsón, a quiet hippie town. I’m not a fan of hippies as regular visitors of my website might know by now, but the microbreweries of this town made some delicious beers I really enjoyed. In order to avoid myself getting too annoyed by the local crowds I quickly moved on towards Lanin, the highest skiable volcano in the lake district. However, on my way to Lanin I had a stopover in Bariloche. I had to ski the couloir on the backside of Filo de las Cabras, remember, the one I didn’t ski earlier because of avalanche conditions. This time the conditions, in terms of weather and avalanches, looked good. I was quite an effort to get there with the snowlevel being pretty high in the beginning of October. I finally skied the couloir, skinned back around to the summit and made my way back to the road. Been there, done that!

The next day I drove to San Martin de los Andes together with Ross in order to ski Lanin. Ross had made two attempts already but without success because of weather conditions. This time things looked promising. Lanin (3776 m) requires a two day approach unless you’re willing to climb between 8 to 10 hours and do it in one day. We opted for the first option and planned an ascent to the refugio on a Friday because the weekend might be crowded and space in the hut is limited. The weather however on the Friday was pretty bad but the next day things would change positively giving us a great chance to summit. We parked the car just before the border crossing with Chile (at around 1100 meters), signed up with the park ranger and climbed for about 3,5 hours in order to reach a primitive hut. The so-called military BIM refugio is located at 2315 meters and is nothing more than a shelter. We shared the hut with two climbers and 6 skiers / snowboarders. After a decent pasta we all went to bed early. I enjoyed a delightful concert of snorers…

The next morning the weather indeed had changed. No wind, blue skies and comfortable temperatures. We still had 1450 meters of vertical to go and together with the altitude and the lack of sleep due to a great concert, this was a big task. The first 700 meters could be skinned before bootpacking on crampons was the only way up. I slowly progressed and needed breaks more frequently the higher I got. Around 15:00 Ross and I arrived on the summit, exhausted but happy. Amazing views and a long descent were the rewards of the long struggle we had gone through.

happy to be on the summit of Lanin (3776 m)

happy to be on the summit of Lanin (3776 m)

On the East face of this huge volcano there is a steep couloir. Well, I had no choice but to ski it. Ross was not feeling to confident and opted for the normal route. Together with Aurélien, a snowboarder from la Grave, I tried to find the entrance. Initially we failed to find it and Aurélien decided to ride down on the right side. Determined to ski the couloir, I hiked back up and went to the other side and found the entrance. A tricky traverse through some exposed rocks left me on top of 400 meters vertical of sustained 40-45 degrees. Snow conditions were not ideal but I was more than happy to ski this line!

I joined Ross at the refugio where we picked up our gear. We skied down easily and hiked back to the carpark. Completely done but also satisfied we got into the car and drove back to San Martin de los Andes. We celebrated the success of our adventure with a huge and delicious steak at one of the best restaurants in town.

The trip to Northern Patagonia, both in Argentina and Chile, turned out to be a series of many little adventures. The weather is the biggest enemy in this part of the world, that is, if you have planned to take part in some outdoor activities. If you have time on your side, as I did, Patagonia offers some amazing backcountry skiing. It might not have the steepest terrain in the world but a couple of days around Refugio Frey should get the adrenaline pumping for quite a bit. The main asset of skiing here is the beauty of the varied scenery and the wild, rugged feel most places still have. For me it were 5 weeks of great adventures with a lot of variety in several ways!

Next on the agenda is my exploration of Southern Patagonia. The glacier of Perito Moreno in El Calafate, hikes and possibly a day of ski mountaineering around El Chaltén before crossing the border to visit the National Park of Torres del Paine in Chile are the main objectives. Distances are huge in Argentina so in order to get from San Martin de los Andes to El Calafate I will first have to conquer a 34 hour bus ride…

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Northern Patagonia!

3 Responses to Northern Patagonia; backcountry skiing

  1. Jelle says:

    Nice Paul. But did you finaly had this drink with the King’s brother in law? Of not, you have to go back again…

  2. Olli says:

    Great pictures Paul! Just put Patagonia on my list of places I would like to go 😉

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