by Mike Myers
Patagonia has always been an elusive goal. Nearly halfway around the world, to make it worthwhile requires more than a week’s worth of vacation days. So when I saw a two-week window in my schedule open in early September, I called a buddy in Bend and we buried ourselves in Google searches.
I like to plan most of my tours myself, but when traveling abroad, I’ve found the bit of extra cost in using a guide service is well worth the time saved. Having someone familiar with the terrain, who speaks the language, and can get priority beds and service helps tilt the scales of adventure and vacation a bit more evenly. The downside is you may be paired with people you might not get along with, who don’t have a similar skill level, or have unknown risk tolerances. At the same time, it forces you to interact with people from different cultures you might otherwise miss which, besides skiing, is the best part of a hut-to-hut experience. I will remember some of the lines I skied during hut trips forever, but my notebook is just as prized. It’s filled with recommendations for trips in Norway, Japan, Alaska, Finland, and Italy along with names of guides in those areas--all gleaned from crazy stories told while drinking beer in a hut around a roaring wood stove. That’s one of the takeaways to love most about hut skiing and skiing in general--the commonality in spirit and adventure bringing everyone together.
We decided to book a guided tour through PowderQuest, a U.S.-based company with a lot of good reviews. There are a host of items to consider when picking a guide company. We focused on the guide to client ratio (we had a comfortable 1:3), the size of the group (ours was limited to 6), and the ground services provided. The PowderQuest trip included transit to and from the airport and transition shuttles at the park entry and exit; lodging before and after the trip for respite days; meals, bedding, and sleeping pads in the huts; IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) or Argentine Mountain Guide Association (AAGM) certified, bilingual guides; and all entry fees and lift tickets. Most of the companies we reviewed required trip insurance which, when traveling with that much expensive gear, you should do anyway. I chose World Nomads. They have a decent policy that covers backcountry skiing and evacuation (something to check as some policies exclude what they consider “extreme sports”). One important thing we didn’t have on our checklist, or think to ask about (but everyone uses), was toilet paper. While the huts we chose (Frey and Jacob in Nahuel Huapi Park) have outhouses, they do not come with toilet paper, and napkins are handed out like currency. If you neglect to bring it, you better become paperback speed readers.
Once I locked in our trip reservations and flights, I learned researching weather and snow conditions was a much tougher task than in the States, particularly the PNW. Here we have a myriad of tools at our disposal to determine what conditions to anticipate: Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) reports, the NOAA website, Avalanche.org, Snow-Forecast.com, various blogs, and multiple ski resort reports. Researching these variables in South America proved to be more challenging. Resorts like Cerro Catedral provide basic information on new snow levels, and more popular spots like Tierra del Fuego have some accessible avy references, but the avalanche conditions in much of the backcountry were more opaque, particularly if you aren’t fluent in Spanish. What proved helpful was the real time beta we garnered from calling the ski shops in Bariloche, and eventually getting hold of a guide who’d recently been out in the area we planned to visit. Of course we packed all the standard avalanche gear (probe, shovel, beacon, snow saw, snow study kit, repair kit, 10 essentials, medical kits, crampons, ice axe, helmet, layers, etc), but we still weren’t sure what skis to bring. The forecast showed a big storm coming in from the south but, if it shifted, we could be stuck with our fatties on ice sheets. Thankfully, our B&B in Bariloche offered storage, so I packed two alpine touring (AT) alternatives, a pair of 178 cm Dynafit Manaslus that are 95 mm underfoot and some 178 cm DPS Lotuses that are 120 mm underfoot. Both are set-up with Dynafit TLT Radical ST tech bindings and fit to one boot, my Scarpa Maestrale RSs. With these two alternatives, I could handle hardpack or deep powder.
Our eight day journey started in Bariloche, Argentina. An old mission town, today Bariloche attracts tourists year round with its quaint streets lined with chocolate shops and serves as a popular jumping off point for climbers and outdoor enthusiasts. For those from the PNW, finding good beer in Argentina can be like finding a sunny day in Portland in February. So finally locating a brewery serving a decent IPA is worth noting. Pro tip: save some time in Bariloche and go straight to Berlina Brewery if you’re homesick for hops.
The weather on day one suggested the storm was going to stay south and miss us, calling for the Manaslus. A quick briefing in the morning, then we were off. To cut out 2,000 feet of elevation gain with a full pack, we began our trip to the first refugio, Frey Hut, via a single purchase lift pass at the Catedral ski resort. Since the huts come stocked with food, drink, and sleeping pads, you mainly pack layers, snacks, a sleeping bag, and safety gear. Not having a tent, food, or booze saves a lot of weight (note, the huts serve wine and beer for super cheap, $1.50 a beer and $6 US for a decent bottle of Argentinian wine), but a week’s worth of gear still adds up. My pack tipped the scales at a little over 45 lbs. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have packed so many snacks for the tour. Meals were hearty and the hut staff provided a bag lunch that sufficed for most of the daily caloric needs. At the end of the trip, I still had most of the bars and gels I’d packed in. Having that additional weight also made our first run of day one, down a 38 degree couloir, an interesting experiment in getting my legs back after not skiing for four months.
Arriving at Frey Hut (5,100 feet elevation), we encountered more weekenders than anticipated. Due to its close proximity to the resort, and open reservations during the winter, you roll the dice on there being anywhere from 12—60 people on any given night. Our first night there, we crapped out. People were sleeping on wooden benches in the outhouse, the floor of the kitchen, sandwiched next to one another in the two bunkhouses. Needless to say, you put that many sweaty bodies and wet ski boots in one place and it makes the rental shop at Timberline smell like a flower shop. As we all know from the Mazama Lodge, it only takes one heavy snorer to keep everyone up all night, so earplugs are a must. On the plus side, with that many people you’re forced into meeting a lot of cool, like-minded folks. I shared a few beers with a Canadian who was sailing from Vancouver to the southern tip of Chile and had arranged to meet up with his three buddies at the Frey Hut as a milestone party for his trek. It was hard not to chat it up with a group of Swedish guys in their 50’s who were pounding wine and laughing uncontrollably at themselves as they rattled off dirty jokes all night. A Norwegian ski guide tried to convince us to go on his annual sailing and ski trip through the Fjords. “You get a little wet here and there, sure, but imagine skiing during the day, then sailing to your next mountain. It’s pretty cool.” Hard to disagree with that.
All those weekend warriors jettisoned the next day and we had a bunkhouse to ourselves and room to spread out. Breakfast and dinner were prepared fresh each day, and by fresh I mean they baked the bread each morning, roasted the meats at night, and made everything from scratch. Replacing those Mountain House dinners with homestyle cooking and having a cold beer next to a wood-fired stove, all while watching the sun set out the window of the dining area, well, some might say that’s heaven. At night, when the wind died down, you could lounge on the Adirondack chairs outside the front door and watch the stars churn by. With stars from horizon to horizon, it brought back memories of a recent trip to Yosemite, but with the odd sense that these weren’t the same constellations I was used to seeing. Our guide told us stories of moonlit tours he’d done on prior outings when the sky was clear. He encouraged us to go explore, but after a long day of skiing, a hearty meal, and a few glasses of wine, zonking out comes early.
Each day we’d set out around 9:30 a.m. and ski till 4 or 5 p.m., all within the granite spires flanking the frozen lake outside the Frey Hut. Elevation ranged from around 3,000 feet at the valley floor to approximately 7,200 feet for most ridges. Daily elevation gains averaged around 5,000 feet, equating to two or three longer runs. Each day we’d eat breakfast, do a quick beacon and gear check, then head out. I was a bit shocked there wasn’t more of a snowpack discussion. Prodding our guide, Jorge, for tidbits of information about the risks of the day yielded very little. He told us he had been coming up to the hut nearly every day for the past three months, which I convinced myself translated into some comfort.
Most have heard Patagonia is famous for its ferocious wind. Frey Hut did not disappoint, in fact the wind blew my buddy’s puffy shoe off on the way to the outhouse on night one. Thankfully, with temps in the 20s, the wind wasn’t crushing and we had sufficient layers to stay warm. But, in addition to hijacking shoes, the high winds also made the skiing largely windswept hardpack. Most mornings required scribing lines up icy slopes with ski crampons. For the one splitboarder in our group, this did not bode well. Midway through the trip he just couldn’t get sufficient purchase on the long steep climbs with his soft boots, and by the end of the third day, with boots that weren’t fitting quite right, his shins were bloody and raw. A pow wow with the guide and a client who was also a doctor convinced him to turn back. That’s not to say the snow was all hard-packed and challenging. Jorge knew of a few stashes of corn on leeward aspects, and took us to some couloirs that held the corn pretty well. That’s when a guide is worth every penny.
After three days skiing from Frey Hut, we packed up and headed to Jacob Hut, a bit further into the park over two mountain passes. Jorge warned us, “Be prepared to do a lot of traversing and climbing today.” It was definitely a long eight hour day of skinning and survival skiing. Maneuvering between brush on the way out of a valley is one thing, but picking your way down a 30-plus degree slope through scrub can be quite another. After each ridge we encountered a frozen lake needing to be traversed. This may not sound that exciting but when you decide to have lunch in the middle of a frozen lake flanked by jagged peaks all around you, I could think of worse places to spend the afternoon.
Over the second ridge, we encountered a section eerily exposed to a few terrain traps: 40-plus foot cliffs within 100 yards down slope. Later, we discovered the couloirs those cliffs had created captured a wealth of corn that proved to be a lot of fun, offering a few air-catching opportunities off buried rocks. However, that was about 800 feet below. Just after the ridge crest it was nearly a sheet of ice. If you lost an edge you risked tumbling over the cliffs. That was the moment I wished I’d had leashes on my skis. They were on my other skis--I’d forgotten to switch them over. While I had ski brakes, if I bit it those wouldn’t stop a runaway ski from disappearing off the edge of the cliff. I don’t like to do it, but I locked my tech toes just in case I fell so my skis wouldn’t come off. With some intense concentration, everyone passed the danger zone with flying colors, and we were rewarded with corn-a-plenty. So pro tip number two: Put leashes on all your skis.
Due to the relative difficulty in getting to Jacob Hut, no one had been there yet this spring. The cooks had skinned in the day prior to our arrival to dig it out. While they were able to free the entrance to the hut, the outhouse was too buried; hence the quickly coined terms, “wee pee bucket” and “ye ole poo shovel.” The walls of Jacob Hut are lined with faded group photos from 50 plus years of skiing and hiking memories, labeled in a dozen languages, nearly all with exclamation points. The hut seeps with history, making you feel like part of a ritualistic tribe. It’s more rustic than the Frey Hut and with that comes more character. One cross beam is carved like a mermaid and the books along the windowsill are well worn--signs of down time after a long ski day or getting snowed in. The skiing around Jacob is similar to Frey, in that you tend to start the day skinning across the frozen lake to take your pick at a horseshoe of ridgelines. Topping any one of them takes away your breath and explains why people come to Patagonia --granite spires and steep angular pyramids as far as you can squint.
After three more days at Jacob we had two options for the route out. A shrub-dodging ski down to the riverbed followed by an eight mile hike out with skis on our back, or a half day skin up to a ridgeline that cuts a few miles off the hike. Unfortunately, my buddy blew out one of his Dynafit bindings the night before, and attempts to MacGyver it back to full functionality were not successful. Therefore, we opted for the longer, more conservative, route of hiking out. We went from 20 degree temperatures at the hut in the morning to close to 70 degrees at the tail end of the valley. Every couple hundred feet of elevation loss we’d shed a layer, then another, then another. By the end of the trail I had on a t-shirt and shorts drenched in sweat, and some mud-laden ski boots.
After an eight mile jaunt out in ski boots with a full pack, Bariloche quickly sets you straight with good wine and, quite honestly, the best steaks out there. At our farewell dinner the six people and two guides we’d spent the last week sharing meals and life stories with were like longtime friends. We’d come from different countries and achieved varying levels of success, but our shared foundation in skiing immediately leveled the playing field and left the complexities of our home lives behind us. And while we didn’t have the best snow, we caught a few epic lines I won’t soon forget, and had plenty of practice skiing in less than optimal conditions. As we were wrapping up dinner our guide told us Portillo, Chile caught the storm that cut south of us and received three feet of snow, while we battled the wind at Frey and Jacob. I guess I’ll have to put Portillo on the list for our next trip to Patagonia. And next time I’ll remember the toilet paper.