Alone in the Andes

Gliding along the crest of the ridge in the bright spring sun, Jorge Kozulj and his partner look down at Argentina’s Bariloche lake district. They are alone in the Andes. Instead of managing the needs of a diverse clientele from across the globe, Kozulj, an IFMGA guide, has been free to explore his backyard for the first time in years.

Argentina closed its borders on March 20 to both international and domestic flights. Its citizens were locked in their hometowns with strict quarantine orders. When all restaurants, hotels, travel and tourism services came to an immediate halt, Kozulj and the guide community were suddenly cut off from their livelihoods. For Kozulj, the first months were difficult and confining but, as time went on, he learned to embrace the down time and began to chase after some longtime, personal goals.

Embracing solitude deep in the Andes. [Photo] Jorge Kozulj

Winter storms began rolling in in earnest. Bariloche received some of the deepest snowfalls in decades and—with no crowds and almost no locals—Kozulj and his crew had the mountains to themselves. After long days up high, often in full conditions, Kozulj would come home, practice guitar then work on budgeting for the future. With an unknown reopening of the country in the far distance, Kozulj had to be prepared to lose his winter, spring and summer seasons of guide work.

This new time to focus on other pursuits allowed Kozulj to tackle a long overdue, larger venture. Along with a group of 20 colleagues, Kozulj helped put together an avalanche forecast system for the area of Bariloche. In 2008, Kozulj had started a Facebook page, Condiciones de Nieve en Bariloche, to provide informal forecasts and conditions for the region. When his guide company gained momentum, another colleague who worked with Club Andino Bariloche began to manage the page’s informal forecasts and information about snow conditions so that Kozulj could focus on his work. Every now and then, under more dangerous conditions, Kozulj and other guides would step in to formalize the forecasts and highlight current hazards.

But without full-time guiding, Kozulj and team finally had time to build up a new site: . Harnessing the momentum from this effort, they went on to establish a more formal avalanche forecasting system, the Sub Comision de Nivologia de Nieve y Avalanchas of AAGM (Asociacion Argentina de Guias de Montana). They divided themselves into groups of about four people, and each group agreed to prepare the forecast for one- to three-day stints each month. They held meetings in which they shared ideas and discussed different perspectives, allowing them to provide good information to the public about snow and avalanche conditions.

Kozulj acknowledges that their tools and resources for forecasting are limited. A majority of their information comes from personal observations, like weather and snow conditions from the field, digging pits, pulling meteorological data from a station at the ski area and from the national weather forecast. Their forecast work is being provided on a volunteer basis. Though Kozulj feels their system is a bit rustic, its foundation will allow for improvement over time. Their team is also unsure of how long they can continue with the efforts without financial support. For now, Kozulj says, “It is a fun job to pioneer such a big project with the AAGM. It is a way to give back to the association that helped us to become guides back in the day.”

As the national shutdown continued, Kozulj also began to accomplish personal objectives, including a few first descents in the area and long linkups on challenging traverses through the range. “One of the benefits of having so much time during the pandemic was that I didn’t have to work straight through the season, every day,” Kozulj says. “We all had energy to do personal goals. The idea of linking up some nice tours was always in my mind, but I had never got the time to rest, recover, go work and link up what I really wanted to do.”

The list of checked-off feats continued to grow. After Kozulj and a partner left the well-known Refugio Frey, on the backside of Cerro Catedral, at 6:00 a.m., they climbed Torre Principal of Catedral, skied all the classics of the Frey area and came back home through the high ridges, covering around 25 kilometers and 2,200 meters of elevation. For big-mountain attempts, it’s ideal to have both a day off before to rest and to prep, as well as a day off after to recover. With a full guide schedule, it is not always possible to sacrifice a day or two of work to pursue personal goals.

Another successful traverse totaled about 45 kilometers over two days, bivying on top of one of the region’s highest peaks along the way. Kozulj and friends left home at 5:00 a.m., climbing 1,000 meters to begin their tour before continuing on to link up numerous climbs and descents that connected seven mini valleys. A majority of the terrain they chose was south facing (the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of our north) that spanned over the steep climbs and long walks along ridges. They scrambled along to Cerro Navidad, a peak that offers one of the most scenic skiing objectives in that part of Patagonia but has remote and challenging access. Only a few hearty people have arrived at its summit. Averaging about 2,000 meters of climbing over the two days, the team summited and were able to get back to the parking lot in the shadows of alpenglow.

The pandemic has created a new reality for many occupations. Kozulj and his fellow Argentine guides have capitalized on this global shift to do better for themselves and their field. The silver linings of the most difficult times can come in small doses, but the chance to remember your passion, pursue your own potential, give back to your community and be alone in untouched terrain is a gift for us all.

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  1. That all sounds nice as long as people have something to eat. No money = no food, eventually 🙁

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