Leaving La Chanchita in the parking lot, we quickstep through about a foot of snow knowing there has to be more up high. But navigating currency and language barriers, even with Manu leading the way, means we don’t load our first lift
until at least an hour after leaving the bus.
Even then, progress up the mountain seems like slow motion. Through heavy, low clouds and light snow, the six-pack chair carries us through a ravine and over a few gentle rises. It doesn’t look like what we came here for, but eventually the slope kicks up and my heart rate rises again. We come out of the trees to poor visibility—we can’t see shit. By the end of the trip, however, I’ll know that above-tree-line Catedral is made up of a huge bowl with countless lifts and pitches, where the chairs repeat along the cable until they disappear into the shapeless gray. Below us, though, skiers appear, digging trenches through deep snow.
The first couple of runs seem to be in fast forward, skipping ahead from one buried turn to the next. Eventually abundant tracks crisscross the snow under the lift. The relatively sparse crowd is rapidly cutting up each trail, so Manu leads us to the edge of the resort where there’s an untouched stash. After a 15-minute hike, we’re at the top of a lift closed because of the storm and only tiny flakes are still falling. The foundation has already been laid, and as we follow the fall line, each turn brings a choking blast of snow over my head. The face shots can’t stop me from releasing primal whoops of appreciation.
We make turns in the whiteout, following the rope line, then duck out of bounds into the trees for a few more short pitches. The forest opens into a consistent, mellow shot aimed straight at Nahuel Huapi Lake below. The clouds have opened up and low mountains rise from the opposite shore of the narrow lake, yet water stretches side to side as far as we can see. If you look at a map, you’ll notice that water fills glaciated voids between the craggy mountains with tendrils that form a shoreline about two hundred miles in length.
Due to the lower elevation and peaking sun falling on the open ridge, the blower conditions give way to grabbing, ripping mashed potatoes—not the good kind you get on Thanksgiving. The lower mountain, facing north to the sun, had been completely dry until the day before. Now snow barely covers the rocks and grass interspersed with thickets of bamboo. The final pitch and hike back to the resort is, to put it mildly, demoralizing.
A few days later though, I only remember the top half of the run, the feeling of gravity and snow that brought out our spontaneous verbalizations of powder-skiing bliss. The doubtful weather forecasts, long hours behind the wheel, heavy snow, bushwhacking and hiking are abandoned to scribbles in a notebook, brought out only to make this article more honest than the warm remove of memory.
As evening falls, temperatures plummet and a cold, dry wind kicks up, sucking moisture from the snow and redepositing it in leeward pockets of terrain. The first run the next morning is one of the best of my life. I follow a natural feature that has concentrated the snow in bottomless drifts that hold a carve until you exert just a little more force. And then you dive deep, and the snow becomes disorganized into a puff that flows around your body. I have to stop and retrieve the glove I dropped from the lift, but that pause just gives me a moment to chuckle about my clumsiness that provided this run. As I rush to catch the guys, I find another protected line that keeps my grin ear to ear, but where the surface is exposed to the wind nothing but chatter-inducing ice remains.
The migrating snow is still ideal for jumping, so we spend the rest of the day picking out landings. The Faction trio hits kickers, cliffs and step-downs. Each time a skier lands, snow explodes and lingers in the sharp air for a second before it’s blown away. Maybe it fills an old track or makes a new drift for a new turn.
After only a few days, it seems like we’ve done it all. We drove hundreds of miles to the border of Chile and back, just to watch the sun set behind a volcano. The next night we shot a slushy step-over kicker at sundown with the same cone as a backdrop. We skied in the rain and then drove some more. We shot powder turns and wintry step-downs. Now our coffee breaks are longer and conversations about what we should shoot next are circular and unfulfilling. We need to move on again.
A lingering afternoon becomes a rush. Just in time, Manu has arranged for us to leave the bus and stay at Mallin Alto, a yurt deep in a national park south of Bariloche. We load up on food and wine, and Manu drives La Chanchita out of town, turning onto a nondescript dirt road. The light squeezes out of the sky, and the road becomes just a track through sparse woods that seem familiar and foreign at the same time. Will mentions the eastern part of Oregon around the Columbia River. “It looks a little bit like everywhere,” replies Duncan.
With inches to spare, Manu guides his bus across a bridge clearly not built for a bus. In the pitch black, we finally reach a few low cabins on the bank of a stream where a family of gauchos has lived for more than a hundred years.
We leave the bus there and split into two groups to navigate the dark wilderness towards the yurt. A tiny pickup truck takes us to a steep, muddy trail where we transfer again to a ragtag mix of snowmobiles and tracked ATVs. Sometime around 2:00 in the morning, we’re all together again, huddling around a steel drum filled with crackling logs, trying to get warm. I am wondering where the heck we are.
I’m the only one awake as a pink sky shows through a couple of clear panels in the wall of the dome-shaped yurt. I stumble outside to take a piss and snap a couple of pictures of the peaks and ridges that surround us.
We spend the next two days exploring the area, building jumps, skiing lines and dropping cornices under bright sunshine. The snow is ravaged by wind, and it’s not warm enough for true springtime corn skiing, but the experience is kind of perfect—a mellow throwback after a chaotic start to our trip. We bathe in a wood-fired hot tub and eat honest Argentine food.
The trek back to society is just as epic as the way in. We load everyone, gear and all, onto the tiny truck and bobble down the valley. Our hosts take us to meet the patriarch of the land. The truck drives a couple hundred yards through the stream to reach his ranch on the far bank. He is cheerful, having just watched an important soccer game on a staticfilled TV—River Plate against Boca Juniors, approximately the Argentine equivalent of the Yankees versus the Red Sox. We express our gratitude before loading La Chanchita, again in the dark, and bouncing slowly back to Bariloche.
One day in the middle of the trip we have dinner at El Boliche de Alberto, which our host describes as the best steak restaurant in Bariloche. “Steak and wine and skiing,” says Tim with a vigorous, satisfied shake of his head. We’re all grimy and sticky from our un-showered days. In front of him is a sizeable chunk of meat, the last of three pieces included in the “normal” portion. It’s been cooked on a special grill that tilts, raises and lowers to produce the perfect steak—crisp on the outside but sushi-style in the middle.
“Not bad,” says Will, his scruff more of an everyday occurrence than Tim’s shadow of a beard.
“I want that for tomorrow,” says Duncan, barely lifting his hooded eyes from the remaining meat on his plate. Maybe this is the final piece of the puzzle that is ski tourism in Argentina. We’re left with more than we can swallow.
That red flesh seems to melt away from your teeth, there is no grain or resistance once it’s in your mouth. We’ve been left with the aftertaste of perfection, but there is plenty left for tomorrow. It’s simply a proxy for the rest of our experience—the stacks of pesos we use to pay, the place we sleep, the mountains, the storms, the wind and even the snow that falls.
As my flight lifts out of Bariloche, I think about La Chanchita and the bus seems bigger. My sleeping nook is larger in my memory. The snow is better, the lifts are faster. I stare out at the Andes again, but they seem the same, huge and endless.