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Powder and Epicness in Patagonia | ARGENTINA | 09/19/2010, by BrennanLagasse
This article is the last in a 9 part series of trip reports from skiing Antarctica in November of 2009 . Read the rest of the story here.
While not a let down in any way, heading home from Antarctica was little sad. Most of us were still digesting what had just transpired. More slide shows and movies were watched, some of them starring several of our fellow shipmates as we cruised back to Ushuaia.
Good stories were shared, over seventy people crammed in one bedroom for a random photo-op, and other adventures were discussed as we rounded Cape Horn on the final push home crossing what had become the "Drake Lake". That meant our crossing was "as mellow as crossing a lake", and we awoke the morning of November seventeenth and walked off the Clipper Adventurer content.
Holding on to the moment, I said some good-byes as I grabbed my bags and thought about what was next. I needed to get a room at the Kush hostel for another night, change my plane ticket, and hopefully take a hike through Tierra del Fuego National Park. Luckily I was able to take care of it all and even catch up with a good portion of the crew at a bar later that evening.
The major plans were to head north into the heart of Patagonia where I had wanted to visit since first seeing pictures of Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy years ago. Andrew McLean had graciously drawn me and the two others who were planning to join me a map of the zone for potential ski mountaineering. However, my flight didn't leave until late afternoon so that meant if I was dialed I could race up to the Martial Glacier for one more session.
Catching a cab early that next morning I headed up to the glacier solo, thinking I might catch a few who said they'd be up for a tour, but found myself on a mission to climb one the couloirs easily seen from town. With the obvious new snow that had fallen since we had been in Antarctica, I figured I'd turn around at any signs of instability, but thankfully I wasn't forced to make that call.
As I proceeded up I decided to boot an alternate, but equally aesthetic line due to the fact my first choice seemed too far a mission for a solo venture compounded with the flight I had to make in a few hours. It turned out to be a great call as I skied creamy powder in the couloir and apron down to a taxi that whisked me back to the hostel.
A few hours later I met Megan as we boarded our flight, unfortunately one solider left behind as Adam had to bail out. We took the short flight north from Ushuaia to El Calafate before catching a shuttle out to El Chalten. The landscape was purely Patagonia. The sky was a deep blue with cartoon like clouds and the dry lowlands gradually bleed into dramatic Andean peaks obscured by precipitation high in this classic mountain region of the world.
As we continued our travels towards El Chalten there were pink flamingos bobbing in small collections of water, and Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma were a glow with a robust turquoise color from the glacial melt that feed their banks.
Hoping to catch that classic Patagonia view that had first facilitated my desire to visit this corner of globe many years ago, I quickly remembered that I may not even get to see the dramatic peaks of this landscape due to the extremely volatile weather patterns that characterize the area. Still stoked to be in El Chalten, Megan and I found ourselves checking into the Aylen Aiken Hostel run by a super helpful and cool guy Roberto that I would recommend to any climber or skier who finds themselves here in the future.
The dream excursion in this region for ski mountaineering is to complete a triangular tour staring from Rio Electrico, across the Patagonian Ice Cap, and coming back out to El Chalten. Although I wished we could have gone for it, not knowing if we'd have time, or if we were fully willing to sit out what could be days or weeks of storms caused us to rethink our plans as we both weren't going to be in town for very long. We decided to go for one of the world class treks that start right from town and recon potential skiing opportunities near the base of Mt. Fitz Roy. This way, if the weather remained unfavorable we could quickly retrace our steps and bail.
After a sweet bouldering session on some super fun problems we started our hike as light snow began to fall. The deeper we got, the more amazing the terrain was. We could see the bottoms of the mountains where large glaciers were situated at their base as we continued up a got a few sucker holes of visibility. What we saw was promising for potential skiing, but it was all a slog for a day mission, and it made much more sense to do some multi-day outings, that is if we had a good weather window.
The next day was pretty stormy, with the well-known Patagonian wind blowing hard through the small town. It wasn't looking good for skiing. From our recon hike the previous day it was painfully clear that any good skiing would require us to travel several miles from the melted valley in El Chalten up into the depths of the mountains. After some internet research, reading, yoga and generally a lazy down day the wind backed off and it started to clear down low. Megan and I had still not seen the higher peaks at all, but at least we could go boulder on some of the overhanging problems that were scoped at the base of the Lago de los Tres trailhead.
Later that evening we threw around our options, which included trying to rock climb on some of the nearby easily accessible crags, roll the dice and head deeper into the zone and hope for the weather to clear, or attempt a big day mission on Loma del Pliegue Tumbado as we knew from Roberto's help that it was holding snow and was relatively non-committing. Also, if we chose the latter, and the weather happened to clear, we'd gain what's arguably one of the better views of the Fitz Roy area and be able to make a more calculated decision on going for a bigger ski objective.
We geared up at daybreak and our mission seemed promising. The lower elevations were relatively clear and our hike took us through some unique flora and cool forests as we gained snowline. There were a few inches of fresh snow now coating the trail and as we continued higher, even though everything else was completely stormed in, we got our first view of the mellow summit of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado.
The snow was sticky and conditions were still pretty thin, but when we accessed the base of the mountain our thoughts quickly turned to the potential slide danger as the new snow was visibly loaded to the leeward side of the peak. Snow continued to fall lightly until skinning became too difficult. Then, wham! Wind and heavy snow. It was intense as only a few vertical feet the summit the wind and snow intensity increased tenfold.
Quickly switching over and clicking in we skied the line that looked like it would be safest while also offering our best shot at quality turns. A short and sweet descent, nothing moved and albeit a super mellow mission in comparison to the descents that laid hidden around us, the Patagonia powder day was on. Smooth fresh snow accompanied us on our descent as we made the call to boogie in case the weather turned even more ferocious as the last thing we wanted to do was get stuck up there in a real-deal storm.
I didn't know it at the time, but Loma del Pliegue Tumbado proved to be my last turns for the trip. A couple of great pow turns at that, and at least we had succeeded in skiing something in this truly remarkable mountaineering region of the world.
Again, not knowing what the weather might do the next few days, I opted for a day mission that would take me on a bus out of town in hopes I would be able to ski off a nearby glacier that local research told me might be good for skiing. It was not. But I did get to scope some extremely worthy objectives that with the right partner(s), planning, time, and gear would make for an adventure of a lifetime. One face we drove passed, that would probably require a day or so approach, held enough singular lines to keep any motivated ski mountaineer busy for decades.
The other cool, yet alarmingly ironic thing that happened on this day is during the afternoon the skiers started to clear. Not just in the lower elevations this time, but up high as well. Recognizing that I was not going to change my ticket to hunker down for what I determined would need to be at least a couple of weeks to get something bigger in, I made the call to head south with my remaining couple of days. I felt a strong sense that it was time to come home, Antarctica was the real mission, and this added bonus was a completely worthy recon mission that would now allow me to formulate more solid plans to return in the future if the opportunity presented itself.
What you need to know about this area if you're hoping to ski is that patience, planning, time, and skills are of the utmost importance. Late November is when all the climbers start to show up as this place rivals Yosemite in terms of sheer epic rock climbing. However, most of the routes involve some combination of rock, ice and mixed climbing. Couple those conditions with the variable weather patterns and that's why many of the climbers I met were here for months rather than weeks to achieve their primary objectives.
None the less the flora and fauna, the kind people, and the dramatic landscape make this a destination any adventurous soul would want to visit whether they're a climber, skier, or just want to walk on the world-class hiking trails that offer some of the most majestic natural visuals you'll ever see.
Sticking to my gut, which was also largely informed by my budget, I kept with my firm call to bail. I left town with a couple of guys I met the previous night in a bar, who just happened to go to the same tiny college I had attended in the US. We pulled over numerous times on our way back to El Calafate to take in the classic Patagonia scenery that was finally visible. The summits of Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy shone bright looking almost fake they were so awe-inspiring.
We made it the famous Perito Mereno Glacier that afternoon, and the next day, reluctantly but excited, I took a long one way tour into Torres del Paine National Park in Chile to visit the other major Patagonia locale I had always dreamed of visiting. Spectacular in all its glory, the rock and ice climbing I know are some of the best there is. While I wasn't able to pinpoint as many possible ski descents as I had hoped, for someone that had some time on their hands there were definitely several surrounding peaks and entry points on the glaciers that would for surely allow some turns.
Exhausted, and just now having regular flashes of my journey to Antarctica, I started the arduous process of traveling home. Landing on Thanksgiving day I took my final shuttle ride back to Tahoe and was greeted by Jillian and our dogs as we were stoked to reunite and have a mellow holiday dinner at home. The next day we awoke to twelve inches new, and nothing to do, so we blasted on down to a closed Kirkwood ski area and lapped a few shots of powder before ending the day with a couple of clean waves in Santa Cruz.
California had welcomed me back from my travels in style, and I felt a strong sense of well-being reflecting on the winter that was to come, a month in time that lived like a year, and what a long strange trip it's been.
Read the complete story here:
The Martial Glacier
Crossing the Infamous Drake Passage
The Lemaire Channel
Somewhere off the Antarctic Peninsula
Unloading the Pack in the South Shetland Islands
Ship of Fools
Another Powder Day in Ushuaia and the Epicness of El Chalten