To Patagonia and Back
Story and Photos by Brian Mohr
Published in Backcountry Magazine – Feb 2005
“You guys…turn around!”
At Emily’s command, our sweaty heads swung. A faint rainbow grew out of the falling snow and arced down to our lakeshore camp below. Having just stepped into the gaping entrance of our first Patagonian couloir, the snowy rainbow could only be a sign of things to come. Mesmerized, we climbed on.
As we ascended through the snow and clouds, the tiny lakefront village of Chile’s Mallin Grande faded away. One thousand meters above, we reached the top of the couloir’s secondary branch—and our first run of the day, the Rainbow Couloir.
With the northern Patagonian ice sheet on the horizon and the sparkling blue waters of the Rio Baker’s headwaters below, those first buttery turns between the mountain’s fluted walls cast us into a blissful euphoria. After lunch - when the snow squalls broke, the sun poured in and a giant Andean condor began circling over our heads - time seemed to stop altogether.
Sipping our well-earned cervezas around a campfire that night, Emily and I shared stories about our last trip to Patagonia. In 2000, following the signs of spring south from the mountains of central Chile and Argentina, we pedaled our mountain bikes nearly two thousand miles into the heartland of Chilean Patagonia. It was here that we vowed to return and ski the mountains of the southern Andes—and to revisit some of the inspiring people and places that we discovered.
For over a decade, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, a former CEO of Patagonia (the outdoor clothing company) and founder of Conservacion Patagonica, has lived in Chile with her husband Doug Thompkins, founder of the Conservation Land Trust (CLT). Through their efforts, the CLT has permanently protected 1.4 million acres of Patagonia’s Valdivian rainforest, high-desert steppe or pampa, and coastal wetlands. On our bike trip, we were lucky enough to stumble upon Parque Pumalin, the 800,000-acre centerpiece of CLT’s efforts, located in the northern reaches of Chilean Patagonia. Flanked on one side by the snow-capped Andes and on the other by the Pacific Ocean, Pumalin protects the largest temperate rainforests on the planet.
“In Patagonia, we have the opportunity to accomplish conservation at a grand scale, something that is no longer possible in many parts of the world,” say the folks at Conservacion Patagonica, which recently finalized its purchase of a 170,000 acre ranch in the Chile’s Valle Chacabuco, well south of Pumalin. Since its inception in 2000, and much like the CLT, the organization has been focused on protecting Patagonia’s wilderness and biodiversity by purchasing critical habitat, safeguarding it and returning it to the public domain in the form of national parks.
Although Pumalin is a private park dominated by towering peaks, ancient forests, and pristine coastline that the CLT eventually wants to turn over to Chile as a national park, there is much more at work in this landscape. Small farms within the park that keep busy with animal husbandry, cheese making, honey production, wool handicrafts, and organic gardens are simultaneously commercial enterprises and visitor information centers. And everything is carried out under the strictest conservation guidelines. While Pumalin aims to protect the tremendous biodiversity and wild lands within its boundaries, it is also building a sustainable economy for the Chileans that live and work there. The Thompkins like to point out that this arrangement is a great example of how “eco-tourism generates a type of development that is compatible with conservation.”
Upon our return to the southern Andes, we planned to make our way through Pumalin’s magnificent rainforests and ski from some its snow-laden summits – including those within the 2000-3000m Cordon Esperanza and the remote and mighty Volcan Michimavida (2143m). But reports of imbedded wet weather, and forecasts for more of the same forced us to make the hard decision to save Pumalin for yet another trip.
Instead, and two weeks into our month-long ski safari, the four of us Vermonters -including “Crazy Craig” Barnard – who now lives and skis in Alaska - and Brian Malley, a childhood friend of Emily’s - set our sights for the drier rainshadow of the northern Patagonian ice sheet.
The Journey South
“What do you saaaay?” Emily posed with an irresistible draw.
“Good moooorning Yiddles!” Yiddles was Emily’s stuffed and miniature Airedale terrier—a token reminder of her favorite pup back home – and our snow loving team mascot.
Santiago, Chile had faded in the morning sun behind our rented, double-cab pickup, only to be replaced by a sweeping view of the snowcapped Andes to our east. Spotting a small farm town on the map along a backroad into the mountains, we stopped there for some supplies and our daily dose of empanadas – a regional meat, vegetable or fruit filled treat.
“Yiddles thinks we should head that way,” Emily relayed, while pointing across the front windshield to a row of jagged peaks off the Andean divide.
Not too long after the 1980s top-40 that dominates the radio in central Chile fizzled out, we had spotted a sparkling gem - a 4,000-meter, unnamed peak high above the Rio Teno. That night, towering 2,000 meters above our riverside car-camp, the mountain was all we could think about as we devoured one of Brian’s gourmet fireside feasts.
A star-filled sky left us a cool, clear morning and a summit cast in a warm, pastel glow. Locking our sights on the main, twisting gulley off the summit, we determined that it was definitely a “two sandwich day.” Weaving through a maze of Quisco cactus and Espino bushes, we reached snowline and spent the remainder of the climb in view of the high, dry and very skiable cordillera (Spanish for these mountains) of central Chile and Argentina. We arrived here on the front end of a four- to five-month dry season, and it was clear that the corn cycle was in full effect.
From our windless, basalt-strewn summit, we spotted the Andes’ southernmost 5,000-meter peak—Cerro Sosneado (5189m) – and took good notes on the endless mountains across the border in Argentina. “In just a few weeks, we’ll be back to these mountains,” I said. And before long, it was corn o’ clock and time to ski.
Two mornings later and nearly 300 miles south, after skiing powder, wind-pack, corn, and mush on Volcan Chillan (3,212 m), I crawled out of my tent at the base of Chile’s Volcan Llaima(3,125m). Reaching road’s end the night before under steady rain and heavy fog, we were hard pressed to muster hope for a clear day on Llaima. South America’s most active volcano, steaming Llaima had us spellbound when we camped under it back in 2000. It was exciting to think that our dreams of climbing and skiing its forbidding and beautiful cone could soon become reality.
Taking my morning stroll under a canopy of prehistoric-looking Auracaria trees, I spotted an impossible patch of blue sky through the fog. Salivating over the prospect of clear skies above, I hustled back to camp to rally the gang, and in record time we were skiing toward Llaima’s clearing summit, 1,700 meters above.
Amazingly, Llaima floated clear above the rain and clouds for just five hours. It was enough time for us to climb the mountain, peek into the bowels of its unimaginably ominous crater, and make the mostly-corn coated descent back to camp. “No rain, no rainbows,” commented Craig, on our recent string of events.
Continuing south, we took no chances with the rainy forecast, and hopped over the border to the potentially drier, Argentine side of the Andes. We reached the base of Volcan Lanin (3,717 m) just in time for a late day scouting run on the lower flanks of the mountain. Still two thousand meters below its towering, rime-plastered summit, we encountered bulletproof snow and hurricane force winds. The weather only deteriorated that night. “Yiddles is quite upset,” Emily informed us. “But he hopes we’ll get Lanin later.”
In geographical terms, Volcan Lanin, which straddles the Chilean/Argentine border, also marks the approximate northern extent of South America’s Patagonia – a region that includes all of Argentina south of the Rio Colorado, and in Chile, everything from the Gulf of Corcovado southward. Although much of the world associates Patagonia with the environmentally and socially responsible outdoor clothing company, or the magnificent granite towers of oft-photographed Torres del Paine in southern Chile, Patagonia is much, much more.
Leaving Lanin that morning in pursuit of fairer skies, we immersed ourselves in the high-desert landscapes of western Argentina’s steppe-like pampa. Upon stopping for a leg-stretching boulder session at a roadside limestone garden, we watched a friendly gaucho tend his sheep by a nearby river, while flocks of migrating birds swirled in the air above. On one side of the road, the sun shone bright. In the mountains, a storm was bearing down. By nightfall, we had passed through the skier-friendly towns of Bariloche and Esquel – home to some of Argentina’s most popular, lift-served ski areas - and were setting up camp for the first time under a Patagonian sky.
Into the Heart of Patagonia
Shin-deep powder and morning snow squalls welcomed us to Patagonia, and we spent our first day in the region skiing close to the rocks, for visibility, in the chute-filled Cordon Buscosa, just north of Esquel, Argentina. By the early afternoon, Yiddles had a frosty beard, and we were basking in a rare mix of bright sun and steady snow.
As hungry as ever back in town, we made a quick stop by the plaza in Esquel for several dozen empanadas artesenal – the kind they fill with cebolla(onion), ajo(garlic) and Roquefort. Out on the road, emu-like nandu, pink-flamingos and armadillos made for an exciting sunset drive. Not too long after the stars came out, Brian was passing out cervezas by the campfire.
Upon crossing back into Chile the next day, it became very clear to us why some people are working hard to protect Patagonia’s wildest reaches. We had passed through the town of Chile Chico and stopped high above Lago General Carrera and the headwaters of the Rio Baker. Looking across the lake, I thought of our North American friend, Jonathan Leidich, who first inspired us to come here, and now lives where the lake pours into the Baker. Beyond the horizon, the mountains and glaciers of Patagonia’s northern ice sheet extended for thousands of square miles. Before long, the intense and rugged beauty of the landscape before us had tears welling up in our eyes.
“Tomorrow we’ll be climbing and skiing mountains in one of this planet’s most beautiful corners,” I said over a raging fire above the lake that night. “And for this, I’d like to make a toast to our friend Jonathan, folks like the Thompkins, and the many local Patagonians with whom they live and work.”
Born and raised among the rivers and mountains of Colorado, Jonathan is the founder and co-owner of the Chile-based Patagonia Adventure Expeditions. Since first laying eyes on this region ten years ago, he has made it his mission to not only make a living here, but to pursue the conservation of the region’s greatest gems. The Rio Baker watershed has been the focus of most of his energy. Not only Chile’s most voluminous river, the Baker runs a super-scenic course along the entire eastern edge of the northern ice sheet before spilling into the Pacific. And it is the Baker’s headwater mountains that we have come to ski.
Thanks to Jonathan, and all those who have been working hard with him, the Chilean government is now warming up to the idea that large-scale conservation and eco-tourism are real alternatives to an industrial economy based on logging, mining, and fish-farming. Recently, Jonathan and his business partner, Ian Farmer, secured a Chilean government grant for the development of several long-distance trail networks—including the spectacular, hut-to-hut Aysen Glacier Trail—in order to legitimize the long-term protection of the Patagonian ecosystems through which these trails pass.
Incredibly, the ski day that kicked off with a rainbow seemed to characterize the week that we spent in around the Rio Baker’s headwaters. Often, we’d spot lines that could only be accessed through a local farmer’s land. “She go!” Craig would say, borrowing a phrase from an old climbing buddy of his.
Without fail, the encounters we had with the local people were overwhelmingly positive. “I think the gringo is a very important part of this region’s future,” says Jose Cardega Sierra, a gregarious cattle and sheep rancher who lives near Puerto Tranquilo, Chile. “They are bringing in money, and creating some work for people who live here.” After inquiring about access to some tasty-looking peaks above his land, Jose pointed us—the gringos—to his own animal trails and the easiest access to snowline in the valley. Of course, our friendly nature and abilities to carry on meaningful conversations in Spanish scored us points, but I think there is something more to it.
As the world turns and local families find it harder and harder to make ends meet through farming and ranching, the prospect of tourism is an exciting alternative. After the trip, we asked John and Ian for their perspective on this. The way Ian sees it, “Dropping five dollars for a ski day, buying a good meal or hiring some horses might help convince them that they should stick with tourism and not sell out to the lumber company.”
Hoping to catch up with Jonathan at his home in Puerto Bertrand, his wife, Marianne, welcomed us with hot leek soup and a warm fire. Although Jonathan was out doing trail work and we would not get to meet up with him, we spent the evening exchanging thoughts about the Patagonia we had all come to know. Camping alongside the Rio Baker that night, we went to bed feeling incredibly fortunate to be where we were, and incredibly appreciative of the Patagonian people who embrace the conservation efforts underway.
Chasing the Sun
Wanting to save enough time to enjoy our trip northward, we said our farewells to Chilean Patagonia with ten days to go. Trying our luck again with some rain-forested mountains above Chile’s Camino Austral, a persistent spring storm steered us back into Argentina. Although the storm brought heavy snows to the Andean divide, travel above tree line was nearly impossible. Yet, high above the pampa, we scored fresh tracks in the shelter of Patagonia’s native Lenga and Coihue forests.
At a fork in the road near Volcan Lanin, signs of heavy-duty winds kept us off the mountain once again. Although Yiddles was beside himself, we consoled him with the promise of a sunny grand finale. Literally breaking out of the southern storm track that night, we awoke the next day below a fine selection of high-desert chutes off the Argentine side of Volcan Copahue (2,969 m). Skiing in the company of lizards and prickly cactus, the chutes of Copahue provided a bountiful harvest of string-bean couloirs and peel-away corn that kept us well fed in our final days. Savoring our last turns in the endless backcountry surrounding Las Lenas, Argentina and along the higher reaches of the Andes near Portillo, Chile, the high-fives, hoots and hollers never ceased.
Indeed, Yiddles was very pleased.
Custom Adventures/Guiding Services:
Patagonia Adventure Expeditions - Coyhaique, Chile www.adventurepatagonia.com
Conservacion Patagonica www.patagonialandtrust.
Parque Pumalin www.pumalinparque.cl
Chile Travel Info www.gochile.cl
In general, the southern Andes hold snow from June through December, with late-September through November offering the best conditions for spring skiing.