Way Back Where: Horseback-accessed skiing in the Argentine Andes

The day’s transportation chills out in the early morning sun. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

“They said the key is under a rock… huh…” My companions on a filming trip for ESPN Adventure, Damian and Willie Benegas, wander a scrub-forest-lined fence in drizzling almost-snow, flipping stones and boulders in search of the necessary gate key. Our plans to drive to a remote estancia southeast of Bariloche and ski the valleys at the source of the Foyel River may be thwarted if we can’t find the hiding place. There’s no cell service to phone the owner of the outpost where we will be starting out trip, but we see a paysano living across the road and call over to check if we’re in the right place. Nope. Up the road further. Ten minutes later, we’ve located the correct gate and key. The truck spins through deep clay, snaking up a steep road toward snow line.

The group hoofs it on the approach. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Quarter-sized flakes tumble from the sky in a surprisingly windless spring storm. Herds of red deer, resembling a combination between North American deer and elk, with busty chests and huge heads of antlers, congregate along the river valley, forced down by the blizzard. For two hours, the dirt track winds into the wilds under a low cloud ceiling. Finally, lights from the estancia (cattle ranch) shine through the waning daylight. We settle into a small log cabin, cook dinner on the woodstove and pile the fire high with logs for the cold night ahead.

The refugio is a good overnight hitching post. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Morning sun gleams against fresh snow covering the barnyard, illuminating racks of antlers ornamenting the red barn. A fluffball puppy, iridescent green rooster, solitary goose and chickens wander the enclosure, searching for breakfast. The groundskeeper, a quietly gracious gaucho named Alfredo, ties four horses to the hitching post. Their exhales blaze fiery orange in the light of dawn. He cinches packs and skis to aged leather saddles, tightening the girths one last time before we mount up. “Dale–Vamos?” he asks. “Claro, Si!”

Alfredo deals with transportation logistics. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Our destination, a small log refugio, was built as a hunting lodge close to wild deer, boar and fox populations. After riding nearly 10 kilometers up the river valley, the horses thrash through belly-deep snowdrifts. The brushy lowlands give way to old-growth forest, and we transition to skis while Alfredo and the horses return to the estancia. We’ve ridden farther than expected, and after just an hour’s climb, a small cabin appears at the mouth of a clearing. Steep, snow-covered faces rise to rocky ridgelines from the densely forested valley floor. We excitedly survey ski lines—the anticipation of exploring new terrain has us scrambling to unpack and get out for a quick reconnaissance ski.

Where lines abound, the hardest thing is picking which one to ski. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Bushwhacking through gnarled scrub-oak, we eventually gain a barren, windblown ridge. The skiing is variable—solid ice and sastrugi are scattered with rocks—but the east face harbors sheltered powder. After gliding back into the meadow, we crank the stove and prepare couscous salad for dinner. Big windows look out on the rising full moon. I fill my Nalgene with sweet, tannin-filled stream water and climb a ladder to the loft, passing out after setting my alarm for 5 a.m.

Supportive snow below the jagged rock outcroppings makes for smooth sailing on the down. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Fox tracks ring the clearing around the hut, their tiny prints meandering up our trail from the previous day. The moon silhouettes a toothy ridgeline as we shuffle towards the top. Sunrise stripes the east pink and orange while we transition above our first line, an east-facing bowl sheltered from the dominant winds. As daybreak comes, we work our way along the ridge to check conditions in different couloirs. This area was forecasted to receive 80 centimeters of snow with 120-kilometer-per-hour winds in the last storm, and I cautiously hunt for sensitive slabs. After digging pits on several aspects and surveying the terrain, we don’t find any alarming results, but a gut feeling pulls us back from one loaded, pillowy, extremely aesthetic line. It’s a morning of many couloirs and every variety of snow before the wind picks up, herding us back to the refugio.

Early morning approaches are made more pleasant with some natural background lighting. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Everyone gets their own chute to ski in a landscape lined with couloirs. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

After breakfast and Mate the following morning, we wind into a forest of giant Coihue trees behind the hut. Reaching the upper basin under a sky of scuttling storm clouds, we pause to survey the terrain, and Willie’s smile widens. “This is couloir paradise! What should we ski?!” He swivels his head, taking in the surrounding chute-filled slopes. We settle on a steep line with three couloirs splitting from a bench, so we can each get fresh tracks. It’s by no means perfect pow, but still extremely fun. As we head toward the hut to begin our exit, my eyes light on the first line I saw upon arrival, a sliver of snow dropping from behind a prominent finger of rock. One more bootpack before we leave? The best snow of the trip is hiding in the sheltered curve, and I enjoy my first relaxed, bouncy turns. If there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that Patagonia makes you a better skier.

McIntyre edges her way to a sweeping Andean view. [Photo] Damian Benegas

Leaving the refugio with many more lines to be skied is hard, but another storm is already dropping fresh snow on surrounding summits. If we don’t get out now, it could be awhile before the road is clear again. Plus, it’s good to leave a few things for the next trip—this area is full of ski potential—and the owner is hoping to build additional huts in two adjacent valleys, making this remote terrain more accessible for couloir skiers in search of something off the beaten track.

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