Friday, August 29, 2008

Portillo, The Hatchers, the Silent City and `Bs. As.´


That would be Portillo. It´s perhaps the most aesthetic of South America´s ski areas, and we went there with Steven Hatcher, Andres and telarktipster Reformed Skier.

Steven Hatcher turned out to be my long lost brother, or something like that. Lived in Elko, skied the West Desert ranges, Utah grad, telemarker, Pete Krebs fan, lover of literature, non-snob wine fan ... I could go on and on. Anyway, he and his wife Wendy and their son Hank (Hank, that is, when he is not being the uber-bad-chile Felipe) let us make ourselves at home in their home in Santiago. Steven plied me with what must have been my body weight in red wine, including a 1998 Gaia which was totally spectacular, and took me skiing several days.

Portillo was not the greatest snow day, but it was a great day nonetheless. We left their home at 7:30 and made it there by 9:30. The last 5 miles is on a crazy switchbacked road lined with trucks waiting to make it across the border into Argentina, which is just a mile from the ski area.

Portillo is a huge yellow lodge, a big frozen lake and a series of avalanche chutes served by lifts made specially by Poma. They are called, I think, Va et ventes, or come and go. Some people also call them slingshots. They are four, five or six (depending on the lift) poma discs attached to a pole attached to a wire. Each lift has two, which run at about a 20 degree angle from each other. One goes up while the other comes down and vice versa. The key design of the lifts means there are no towers and no top tower, just the wire anchored into the rock cliffs at the end of the lift. Skiers load together and are hurled up the mountain at frightening speeds (no, the snow is not level, yes, you do get flung into the air at times) and then the lift stops at the top. Getting off is, as Steven put it, synchronized falling. You feel good when you realize you made it up and off safely. We were home, well sunburned, by 8 p.m.

On Tuesday we sadly bade farewell to the Hatchers (sorry, guys, we think we left our toothpaste in the guest bathroom) and took an all day bus back to Mendoza, then caught an overnight bus to Cordoba. The overnight busses are not all that condusive to sleeping but are interesting in that you get to observe the nocturnal habits of Argentines as you pass through cities in the night. As we came out of the mountains it got warmer and the wind let up some, and even at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. people would be out in the streets or eating or drinking in sidewalk cafes. Nice.

Cordoba was, well, uh, interesting. We got in at 6 a.m. and spent a few hours drinking coffee in the bus station. When we walked into town we noticed that everything was closed. Not that big a deal since most Argentines don´t really start the day until 10 a.m. or later, but even at 10 everything was shut, the streets were totally empty and there were police everywhere. When we checked into a hotel we learned it was a citywide census project, and everyone except for hotel workers had to stay in their homes until 8 p.m. This made for a very odd day as we went from landmark to landmark ... just us and the homeless people our admiring things.

We decided to cut our losses on Cordoba and took an all day bus to Buenos Aires, or Bs. As. as it is often abbreviated. We came in at dusk and took a taxi to a hotel. Bs. As. is a city of 14 million, making it the largest city I´ve ever been to excepting Calcutta and Dhaka, and possibly NYC and LA. None of those cities, however, are as beautiful as Buenos Aires. We´ll post pictures soon, but it´s very similar to Paris without the monuments, or Barcelona without the signature buildings.

We finally got our passports dropped off at the Brazilian embassy. Not only do they make American tourists wanting to spend money in their county pay $151 each (cash only, thank you) just for the pleasure of getting in, but they also wanted us to have confirmed tickets in and out of the county and copies of bank statements. No thanks, we said. We won. (I think so. We pick up the passports on Wednesday. Guess we´ll find out then.)


Monday, August 25, 2008

More from Yerba Loca

These are of me, taken by Steven.








The hike out, which was interesting ...



Sunday, August 24, 2008

Yerba Loca

We made it back to Santiago Thursday after a wild and spectacular crossing of the Andes at Los Liberatodores. The road was lined either side of the pass with thousands of idling trucks, the backup courtesy of several days of the pass being closed. Several large slides in both countries had crossed the road and left substantial debris piles.

Friday Steven Hatcher, our really nice guest here in Santiago, took me up to Yerba Loca, a national park on the edge of Santiago and along the road to La Parva and Valle Nevado, the ski areas we went to in July. We drove up the muddy and snowy road to its end then crossed a stream and began to hike until we got to snow, where the skin started. The mountains, which look huge but simple from afar, open into mammoth and complex peaks and ridges, a single mountain practically the size of a whole range back home.


That grove of trees is where we started.


Steven sliced up a huge and very aesthetic bowl with telemark turns:




A huge place:


Skied out in the long twilight; a fantastic day:


Monday, August 18, 2008

Beauty and Frustration

It rained all day in Mendoza on Saturday, though the skies cleared just before sunset.

The (expensive) shuttle picked us up in Mendoza at 7.20 and we got to the ski area, 100 miles away, at 12.30. Along the way enjoyed spectacle of llamas, condors, two massive slides which crossed the road, one leaving debris 25 feet deep, two stops to put on chains (the first time the driver thought he could fake it, then found out he actually had to use them), numerous checkpoints, screaming infant and projectile coughing toddler in the seats in front of us and, finally, for a front loader to plow a spot for us in the lot.

Took half an hour to buy tickets and when completed found just one lift operating and a line never less than 100 yards long.

Still, the one lift had a traverse that led to the 2 feet plus that fell overnight. Blue sky, no wind, blower.

Beautiful, but skiing here is so much hard work. Worth it, perhaps, with this shot Laura took.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Filete de bife y uno cortado mas

Thanks to Laura, I had the steak last night.

Argentina is known as the land of thick and juicy steaks. We went to the market in Mendoza where there is a line of restaurants along one wall and a line of butchers along the opposing. So freshness is not really an issue.

The cook himself cut my steak from a massive slab of beef. It took 20 minutes to cook medium over wood. We had it with a bottle of the cheapest wine in Argentina -- Toro Viejo (´Old Bull´) Classic. Nonvintage, nonappelation, not even a grape ... but at less than US$3 it was hard to pass up.d

Good times.

I don´t know what I´m going to do when we leave Arg. and I can no longer walk into any cafe and order a cortado. Cortados are drinks I got hooked on in Spain ... little shots of espresso and steamed milk for a buck. They´re never on the menu ... it´s more of a locals drink and much heartier than the standard cafe con leche, which is Laura´s drink of choice.

In the bus station the other day in Neuquen I went and got one at a stand-up cafe. I don´t have any explanation for it but I just really like going up to the steam-hissing bar and asking for a cortado.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Snow, winds and more winds

Our second night in Esquel we went to bed to rain and woke up unexpectedly at 6 am with men yelling and someone pounding on our door and trying the handle. We thought we were being robbed and played dead and when things seemed quiet I went downstairs. The landlady said it was just the police, bored on a Sunday morning and stirring up trouble.

The rain ended and we took the bus up to La Hoya, set spectacularly in a crinkle in the mountains and powdery with 8 inches new. The snow ended by midmorning and the skies cleared ... and then the winds really started to blow. We´ve seen our share of strong winds here in Patagonia, but this was an exceptional event. The winds and fresh snow created a howling ground blizzard, scraping some trails clear to rock and creating massive drifts. One by one the lifts shut down until only a quad and two rope tows were left. Sad. La Hoya seemed a perfect blend of off-the-map solitude and huge bowls, not to mention modern lifts and comfortable lodges.

We took an all day bus to Neuquen, retracing our route from Bariloche along the way. Back over the windswept pass with the bus crashing through drifts, and back over the densely treed pass where we had to put on chains and crawl past 18 wheelers sliding into ditches. Neuquen was out of our way but a transit hub. We took a taxi into town and spent the night before coming back at 4 am for another bus.

The busses in Argentina are rolling mobile homes, double deckers, with reclining seats, massive windows, movies, music, meal service and coffee. We had seats up front at the top, with massive picture views of the rolling desert. A long Patagonia dawn gradually revealed gauchos on horseback and wide river canyons and snowy mountains in the distance. Closer in the canyon closed and great sandsone spires rose alongside the road, giving way to snow and avalanche chutes and finally the summit, a shimmering kidneyshaped lake, the village of Caviahue and the road ending in a snowdrift.

We checked into the first cheap hotel we found and I slapped on my skins and started skinning practically from the front door. I went up a hill behind down dotted with araucania trees and wind drifts. This being Patagonia, I was soon followed by a happy scrappy dog. Little in the way of turns, but a fantastic long Patagonian twilight view over the lake.

Winds howled during the night packing the streets with drifts. We took a taxi the one mile to the ski area. Caviahue is a smallish resort ... two doubles from the base climb to a peaklet, with a poma and rope below. A poma and double descend to a second area, where a quad and a tbar climb sidebyside to a high point on the main ridge leading to the sprawling Volcan Copahue. A very nice day on packed powder, marred only by flat light. Homemade pasta and pollo milanesa (chicken fried chicken) for dinner.

Woke up to more winds, cancelling today´s plans to climb the volcano. Back in Neuquen now, headed to Mendoza on the night bus.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


More Snow and Working Hard

By Thursday night the snow in Bariloche just above downtown was a foot deep and still coming down, though the snow had slackened. I woke up periodically during the night to see it was still coming down, though by the time we had breakfast at 8 a.m. there was a sliver of blue sky, and by the time we were downtown waiting for the bus it was deep blue cielo azul all around.

The bus was the typical spectacle: where does it stop, when does it come, etc. Then it came ... and drove by without even slowing. On the advice of a guy standing nearby we huffed it down the icey streets to a different stop and got on a standing room only bus to Catedral where we arrived at 10 a.m. only to stand in line to buy lift tickets for 30 minutes. You sure have to work hard to ski around here.

The report I heard was Catedral had 100 cm in 24 hours, but judging by how some of the lifts were buried -- and I do mean buried -- I´d say the storm total was considerably higher. Our first run, off the gondola, was chest deep.

Several of the summit lifts stayed closed all day, and skier traffic was heavy and concentrated. Besides the snow, also epic was the chaos in the liftlines. There is something about skiing these major resorts that brings out the Category Five bastard in Argentines. It´s a true spectacle to behold.

Despite that Catedral does have a huge area to ski and a magnificent setting -- jagged peaks, the deep blue island studded lake, big snowfields. Still, I don´t ever feel the need to ski here again.

We checked out Friday as more snow fell and went to the terminal for our 11 a.m. bus to Esquel. The bus was 90 minutes late -- rare, and we found out why. Snowpacked and icy roads all the way. We put on chains for one nasty summit and crawled past truckers sliding sideways into ditches. Further south the skies cleared to reveal an open countryside buried deep in snowand a setting quite like Alaska -- huge, huge peaks. The bus crunched through snowdrifts covering the road and we got to Esquel at 6 p.m. Esquel is a very cool little town. We checked into -- and out of as soon as we could this morning -- the most disgusting hostel I´ve ever been to (if you find yourself in Esquel, Argentina, by all means avoid Casa del Pueblo hostel) and are planning to ski La Hoya tomorrow.

Confessions and Housekeeping

First of all I need to offload some of the little scraps of paper I´ve been saving with all sorts of notes:

*Read J.M. Coetzee´s Disgrace. Good.
*Read Chitra B. Divakaruni´s Sister of My Heart. Very good.
*Recent beers: Quilmes Lager, Quilmes Stout (sweet), Cristal Lager (overhopped, grassy)
*Recent wines: Diego Murillo Vino Tinto Rio Negro Argentina ($2), Ventus Patagonia Merlot-Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Neuquen ($3.25), Cerro de Plata de Etchart Mendoza ($2)

Now: I have had lots of people writing to say it sounds like we are having the times of our lives. We are having a great time, but, as I wrote for an upcoming story in The Mountaineer, it´s not all ice cream and backrubs. Here are some of the not-so-great sides to traveling so far:

*tasteless oversalted food in Chile
*charged $7 each to load skis on a bus in Argentina
*endlessly complicated shower routines -- is this one the hot water, or is it this one, is there any hot water, or do I just need to wait more, now it´s too damn hot, I´ll add some cold water, now it´s too damn cold, etc.
*Casa del Pueblo Hostel, Esquel, Arg: usually you pay a bit more to stay in a Hostelling International facility. This was the most disgusting hostel I have ever been in, all of Africa included
*not sure how much of my topsheets are left after four days of skiing in Argentina -- lift lines are hopelessly chaotic with people literally skiing (or in some cases walking as many people board lifts here with skis in hand) across your skis to cut in line
*complete lack of stopsigns and traffic lights makes crossing the street a continual challenge
*there were two ski areas in Bariloche: Catedral, the big one, and Piedras Blancas, a small one. Went into the Piedras Blancas info office downtown to ask how much of the area was open and was handed a slip of paper and told to call a guy named Pedro in the morning, he would know, she does not know

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Minus Four and Snowing Sideways

Minus four celsuis, that is.

We woke up Monday to preternaturally dark skies, and while eating breakfast found out why: yet another monster Patagonian storm was on the way. It misted for a second, then began to snow in all out fashion.

Up at Cerro Bayo ski area, where we finally made it on the bus after slipsliding around and stopping so one couple could rent ski gear, there was 8 inches new. It snowed all day long with one short break long enough to reveal the landscape around us: snowy jagged mountains as far as the eye could see, the valleys dotted with long skinny lakes deep blue in the short sun.

Despite the new snow -- another 4 inches came during the day -- the skiing was hard because the underlying surface was ungroomed ice and because the wind made everything feel chaotic. Cerro Bayo was not a bad place but characteristically South American -- jumbled lift lines, short runs and lifts so hard to get off of you think sometimes it might be easier and safer to just walk up the mountain instead.

The snow abated during the evening and melted off some in town. This morning we woke up to more dark skies and then dumping snow, which commenced just in time to make our walk to the bus station slippery. We are now in Bariloche, where the wind is so strong it has made surfable waves on the lake and the snow is again coming sideways, though here it is not sticking. Not sure if skiing is in the forecast for tomorrow or not.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Storm Surfing Patagonia

We woke up Friday to driving rain and me still a bit sick. We decided to hold off on Chapelco for a day. I got some antihistimine and we walked around town. San Martin de los Andes is a pretty fancy place, and most things here we can´t afford. I guess it´s important to remember that down here, the rich people are probably richer than rich people are in the U.S. Anyway, we had coffees in a nice cafe and read a bit and bought bus tickets for Sunday and hung out in our room, which was very nice.

The rain slacked off during the night and we woke Saturday to some drizzle and light snow and a low snow line. The city bus left on time at 9 a.m. and we were up at Chapelco quickly. Chapelco had about 8 inches new at the base and a foot or more at the top, but there was not enough snow to open the trails at the very bottom. There is a gondola and we rode it to a midstation. Above the gondola was a suprisingly modern infrastructure serving mostly very short runs, though the really good stuff was accessible either by tbars or a chair which rose into dense fog. We skied a lot of the heavy powder but quit a bit early.

Down in town it started raining again. We ate a nice dinner out and walked around town. To bed to the sound of pouring rain.

This morning we were up early to catch at 7.45 bus. The hotel owners were helping us get our bulky gear out the narrow doors and offering to call us a cab. We schlepped our stuff through the flooded streets. The bus took the long way to Villa La Angostura since the mountain road apparently had lot of snow on it. We headed out of the mountains and rolled through this endless dry prarie before paralleling a beautiful river and then rounding a long lake. The lake led into hills and we picked up snow on either side of the road and then vistas led to mountain views with some serious drama -- looks a lot like Alaska, with the openness of Montana thrown in. Awesome.

There was about a foot of melting snow under sunny skies in Villa La Angostura. We cheked into a hostel and walked out to a lake. Snowy mountains all around. We´re heading to Cerro Bayo tomorrow.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I woke up more sick, and Laura less sick, on Thursday. It rained all Wednesday but Thursday dawned totally clear, and the summit of Villarica was totally exposed.

We caught our bus to San Martin de los Andes at 10.30 a.m. The bus was almost empty. We left Pucon and dawdled up this pastoral valley with mountains on one side and the volcano on the other and a big silty river in between. As we climbed higher the mountains became more jagged and the valley narrower. There were small pastures and men on horseback and dogs herding sheep. at 2,000 feet we hit new snow, and then we stopped for a short break beneath a jagged spire of peaks.

The road turned to dirt and we made two switchbacks and crawled along a high lake, the mountains now towering overhead. The bus slowed to enter the Chilean border post, which was in what looked like a ski lodge. No problem. It then idled about a mile over a mellow hill and stopped again to enter Argentina, where the post was also in what looked like a very nice ski lodge replete with a dog sleeping in front of a fire. Again, no problem.

Now in Argentina, the bus steward passed out cookies and coffee and put tango music in on the CD. We descended through huge mountains that gradually opened to reveal wide canyons, flooding rivers, and a totally open landscape, not unlike the east Oregon deserts or southern Idaho, always with huge mountains in the distance.

We pulled into San Martin de los Andes at what we thought was 3.30 ... turns out we lost an hour. The search for a hotel room was complicated by the fact that the cheapest rooms were $60US a night ... though you get a lot for your money, it´s not in our budget. We had little choice, however.

We drank wine and ate cheese and ham for dinner in our room. Today it´s been raining all day and rather warm. Not sure if it´s snowing up at Chapelco or not, but if the skies clear we´ll go look tomorrow.