Words and Images: Ben Girardi
Snow-covered moss hangs down from old growth trees, giving off a magical feeling. The trees before me are perfectly spaced with open hallways that you can point straight down or throw some soul turns in—you can’t go wrong. I drop in and the snow blows over my shoulders with every turn as I laugh my way through the forest. A quick traverse from the Condor Tres double chair deposited me here in the middle of this magical forest at Cerro Catedral Alta Patagonia. The locals know it simply as Catedral. A storm has come in, preventing safe travel into the alpine, but some of the best skiing at Catedral is below treeline. While I love the alpine, tree skiing is my personal favorite.
The pilgrimage to South America, to extend winter and escape the summer heat, has been a routine of mine for the past 13 years working as the photographer for SASS Global Travel, a full service, big-mountain, guided backcountry camp for skiers and snowboarders of all ages. Each year, I head to Catedral, and the nearby city of San Carlos De Bariloche (Bariloche) to join the SASS crew.
As the biggest ski area in South America, Cerro Catedral boasts 1,482 acres, with an average season snowfall of about 20 feet at the summit. There’s enough terrain to keep you entertained for days, and relatively regular resets keep the snow fresh and you wanting to continue coming back year after year. With all levels of terrain, Catedral is great for skiers of all ability levels, from an expert to someone who is just looking to cruise groomers.
In the high alpine, massive red granite spires line the peaks of Catedral and the surrounding mountains. These prominent spires resemble the towers of a cathedral, hence the origin of the ski area’s name. Getting out into the backcountry that surrounds Catedral is unreal, with endless terrain and pow turns in August, it’s easy to see why I was hooked the first time I flew south.
Whatever the skiing goal for the day happens to be, you won’t find a frenetic atmosphere at Catedral, quite the opposite, actually. Pow days at Cerro Catedral are mellow by North American standards. No need to line up at the base of the gondola before the sun rises as there is usually only a small group of people waiting for the lifts to spin. Most locals and regional tourists are not in a rush to get to the mountain in the morning. And if you like shredding powder snow, that’s good news for you.
One of my most memorable pow days started by charging the wide open faces that run to the base of the mountain. The snow that day was thigh deep to the bottom of the gondola, and we were blasting off of the cat tracks that cut back and forth across the mountain. We rode lap after lap, not waiting in a lift line once. I could have called my day there, after those few runs, and been completely satisfied. But, as the weather often does in this part of the world, the clouds suddenly parted and the light broke through enough to allow access into the high alpine.
A quick hike and we were standing among Cerro Catedral’s famous rock spires in a zone we refer to as “Narnia.” Mystical as that sounds, the terrain is just the right pitch and littered with incredible natural terrain features; and it was holding absolutely blower snow on this day. It was the perfect combination of Japan-like snow consistency and Argentinean big-mountain terrain; Cerro Catedral is what dreams are made of. Legendary days like this one are why I make the long trip south every summer; it’s always worth it.
While this might sound like a once in a lifetime occurrence, storms like this aren’t rare. Regular storms roll in, turn the tap on and dump empanada-sized snowflakes on Catedral that quickly accumulate into storm totals from a couple of feet mid-mountain to a few meters in the alpine.
The weather in Patagonia is wild, no matter the time of year. Storms can move in quickly or be blown away, leaving clear skies. When the storms do roll in, they can be accompanied by ferocious winds leading to closed chairs and wind holds. While that’s unfortunate at the moment, I’ve had some incredible times in the wild winds of Cerro Catedral. While I love a good bluebird pow day, I also enjoy the experience of battling the elements.
One day, we caught the chair to the alpine before patrol made the call to close the entire mountain. We took this opportunity to hike to a wind-exposed ridgeline. While it might not have been the smartest idea I’ve ever had, standing on the ridge leaning 45 degrees into the wind and not falling over is an experience I’ll never forget. The conditions going down left much to be desired, but I remember the moment like it was yesterday, as the memories from all the pow turns start to blend together and don’t stand out in my mind.
While Cerro Catedral is a big mountain with a lot of people coming through, I love it for what it’s not. Cerro Catedral is not corporate. It’s not strict. It’s not a list of rules of things you aren’t supposed to do. Catedral is a playground with natural terrain and features all over the mountain. Patrol mark and rope off very little in the way of hazards, so everything becomes something you can ride. If I want to shovel a few side hits on a cat track and just hot lap them, can do—no problemo.
Rarely is anybody going to stop and say something to you, they’ll just allow you to mob down groomed runs, and boost side hits. Want to build a jump inbounds? There are plenty of places where people don’t go that have perfect landings and hold great snow. You can easily stack a few blocks for a step-down, and you never have to worry about a patroller coming along telling you to move along. There aren’t many other places I have been where you can do this directly underneath a chairlift.
This laid-back attitude often leads to sharing incredible experiences with strangers. As a photographer I spend the majority of my time finding the best places to shoot from, not always the best lines to ride. This has led to a lot of time hiking solo in and among the granite spires searching for the perfect angles.
One such time, I set up on a ridgeline, shooting images of a crew on the other side of the valley. We had totally different approaches and exits with mine being a fall-line descent back to the resort. After they skied their line and started the skin out, I packed up with a plan to head down. As I was about to click in, a local guy hiked up to my spot and we started talking. He ended up offering me a beer, because, as he said, he always carries an extra for people he runs into. We ended up sitting at the top of this ridge looking out at the Andes watching the sun set on the massive peaks. It was a moment of hospitality that made me feel incredibly welcome in his country.
As such, spending time in Cerro Catedral has led to many lifelong friends, who would stop at a moments notice to help me out. One, in particular, Mauri Cambilla, is a local ski legend and is always extremely welcoming, inviting me to stay in his house as often, or as long as I need. Every time I take him up on that offer he cooks an Asado, a traditional Argentinean barbecue. It’s an entire afternoon experience, and while the food is absolutely incredible and the best beef I have eaten in life, the best aspect is that it’s a social event focused on spending time with friends and family. It’s an event that also mirrors the true essence of skiing.
As the weather starts to get warm in North America you know I’ll be packing up my bags to visit old friends, experience a culture that I love, and of course ski powder in the truly amazing Andes mountains. You should think about doing the same.