A Ski Expedition to Southern Chile’s Grand Couloirs

By Petit Pinson

Photo: Petit Pinson

David Marchi skins a ridge on the way to another classic Chilean backcountry descent.

While winter holds here in the Sierra Nevada, southern Chile melts into summer. The snowy couloirs and valleys of the Cerro Castillo National Reserve are now rocky slopes and tree-lined trails.

Just a few months ago, I finished a blog entry from the one computer with Internet access that exists in the quaint and colorful village of Cerro Castillo, where we spent our last night in warm beds before heading out into the spectacular grandeur of the Patagonia backcountry.

What ensued over the next 12 days was an epic September ski adventure for four snow-starved Californians – David Marchi and Forrest Coots from Mount Shasta, Danny Sullivan from Lake Tahoe, and myself from Three Rivers – and a Chilean friend, Rodolfo Quiros.

“The mountains in the distance hold my life in a bowl filled with everything I could possibly want.” –Anon.

Sept. 11, 2007

We awake to the early morning call of the rooster and the silence that follows in such rural and remote places. While the family/owners/cooks of the Las Ardillas Lodge sleep in the next room, we make coffee and sip mate tea to jumpstart our journey. The Toyota truck loaded with gear and five sleepy souls, we head southwest on muddy flooded roads to reach our departure point. Sheep stare in slight curiosity as we begin our exploration of Cerro Castillo with heavy packs and awkward ski-boot gaits on dirt trails worn by summer hikers.

Each of us takes a comfortable pace as we hike beside a rocky river and into dense lenga nire and coigue trees, bare from winter, before reaching snow and opportunity to put on our skins. We are a motley crew of four skiers and one snowboarder anxious for climbing and fresh turns. It is one of those journeys where one wonders what is around each bend, over each ridge. Oh, the mysteries that lie beyond.

Four hours later we lunch under snowy skies overlooking potential base-camp spots, and already quotes from Borat and Talladega Nights have begun.

Two more hours of route finding and gaining altitude and we set up base camp by a clear mountain stream (our source of fresh drinking water for the next 10 days) in the valley where we look out to a 360 degree view of Patagonia beauty, when the weather allows.

Snowflakes get bigger and fall slowly as evening sets in. We create a dug-out snow kitchen in the floorless Mountain Hardwear Kiva tent and settle in with hot drinks, dehydrated mashed potatoes, soup, and chocolate before retiring to the warmth of tents for the night. Anticipation builds … What will tomorrow bring?

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, divinely aware.” –Henry Miller

Sept. 13, 2007

The amazing peaks that surround us here in Cerro Castillo are still hidden by snowy skies. Our second tent-bound day filled with backgammon, chocolate, hot drinks, laughter, naps, and a grand plan of attack for when the sun shines on endless couloirs. But we’ve determined that we didn’t bring nearly enough whiskey to “drink it blue.”

Quote of the Day:

“How’s it looking out there?” –David to Petit as she peeks out the tent to check the weather.

“I’m drinking whiskey … that’s how it’s looking.”

It’s a game of “hurry-up-and-wait” so common in the backcountry. Watching the skies between naps and reading, skis and skins ready to go at the first sign of clearing.

Yesterday we ventured out for a short tour up this foggy valley to keep the legs active. The few turns we got in whiteout conditions have us yearning for bigger, steeper and deeper.

The snow here at base camp is heavy and wet. We’ll seek higher ground and protected couloirs to check out the snowpack soon. Already we are pondering future trips into this valley of possibilities.

For now we’ll enjoy the stillness of the falling snow and the “gourmet” meals. Maybe we’ll dig out the “shitter” and fix the benches in our Kiva tent … another nap … chocolate … anticipation … the simple life!

I see stars in the Chilean sky. Tomorrow could be the day! Que sera, sera.

Sept. 14, 2007

What is that light coming into the tent? What is that warmth? … From in tents to intense in the crack of an eyelid. A crisp clear sunny morning greets us. Our first day of 360-degree views of this awe-inspiring slice of the southern hemisphere. We stumble out of tents with wide smiles ready to explore and discover what hidden gems await just up the valley under jagged spires of rock. We are inspired.

After two hours of skinning, we strap our skis to our backs and begin the waist-deep boot pack up our chosen couloir. David Marchi, 6’3” and tipping in at nearly 200 pounds with his pack, takes the lead sweating and swearing his way up the slope, leaving a staircase for Forrest and myself. Danny and Rodolfo have chosen to head to a bowl just out of camp. We’ve opted for the divide-and-explore game plan.

Quote of the Day:

“I’m a guide. I boot pack and then let the rad guys get the first descent.” –David

“If I were a woman, I’d have your children. You’re as strong as an ox!” –Forrest to David during the boot pack

Enjoying every step (in a masochistic sort of way), breath hanging in front of our faces as we ascend, taking in the vastness of Patagonia. A sliver of a new moon hangs in the deep blue sky atop a grand rock pillar as the wind swirls snow across serrated ridge tops, painted pink by afternoon sun.

At 5 pm we are ready for our first descent, a 50-plus degree couloir. Out in the valley giant condors soar in silence, adding to the already surreal scene. Forrest drops in first, carving in shaded powder and fading into the distance 2500 feet below. Hollers of joy echo up the rock walls. I drop in on skier’s right of Forrest’s solitary tracks. The pain of the boot pack is quickly forgotten, replaced by sublime Patagonia powder.

If this is what we can expect for the next week, bring on the boot-pack! The vastness of the terrain limits us to a one-couloir-a-day journey. As we ski back to camp in the beauty of the fading light, we scan the valley like kids in a toy store for tomorrow’s challenge.

We share stories of sweat and sunshine and powder and possibilities as we gorge on crackers and cheese and curry and couscous and tea and chocolate, five souls getting in the groove of the expedition with starry skies promising another day of sunshine and epic couloirs.

Sept. 15, 2007

We awake again to the rock pillars above camp glowing in the pink-orange hue of sunrise. The coffee press and Chilean yerba mate continue to prove their worth. Under our second day of blue sky we fumble over each other as we consume caffeine, cook oatmeal and gather our gear.

Sun pours into the valley as five skin tracks head out of base camp, northeast into a perfect bowl holding a menu of choice couloirs. This is why we are here. These are the moments we’ve been waiting for: the sanctity of the mountains, the intense sense of liberation as we earn our turns in the remote backcountry of Patagonia. Among the five of us, we choose three different couloirs to climb.

We are connected by radio and a passion for this wild place. David and I climb skier’s right of the Castillo, Forrest skiers left, and Rodolfo and Danny boot up a long, steep straight-shot across the way. Soon we are deep into our routes with only the sound of boots crunching snow, occasional rock fall, and our own heartbeats. The sweating and swearing ensue with thigh-deep boot packing to the top.

At the top, in silence, we see endless peaks and bowls and rock-lined chutes. Rodolfo and Danny, the size of ants on the distant ridge, bring a humbling perspective. Forrest is a crackling, breathless voice on the radio.

One at a time we drop into our second day of steep turns, all five of us convening in the valley to look back at the lines we’ve carved. Still flush with adrenaline, we cruise down the gentle rolling slope that leads to the winding stream toward camp.

With such high-effort ascents under sunny skies, the sweat of our labor is beginning to register in the confines of our tents. Regardless, we retire satiated to the comfort of down bags, hoping for more of the same tomorrow.

Sept. 16, 2007

Yesterday we spotted a classic long couloir on our approach up the valley that whetted our vertical-craving appetites, now soaring under a third day of brilliant sunshine. Who knows how long Mother Nature will be this gracious. We haven’t had the freeze-thaw we were hoping for, but the snowpack is solid and deep.

As we skin up to leave camp, mini iPod speakers provide our morning soundtrack: a Tenacious D wake-up call followed by the mellow rockin’ tunes of Ben Harper and Greg Brown. Rodolfo, Danny, and Forrest grumble about snoring and lack of sleep, David quotes Borat, again, and I hang clothes and sleeping bags from trees to air in the mountain sun.

Quote of the Day:

“Man, it would suck to be a bum.” –Forrest after a cold sleepless night of snoring and condensation

Soon we are thigh deep again: David, Forrest, and I in the long chute between vertical rock walls we spotted yesterday and Danny up the open bowl to the north. Rodolfo is nursing a swollen knee back at camp. We find our pace. The three-day old sliver of moon hangs above the summit of this perfect couloir. We decide to call this run “Luna” in that vain, uniquely human “we gotta name it because we’re the first ones here mentality.”

At 3 pm we look out once again over the vastness of peaks and valleys, imagining a helicopter and the possibilities, but grateful for the peace of our leg-powered ascent. Clouds are building in the distance. One at a time we feel the boards beneath our feet and give in to gravity, over 3,000 feet to the sun-soaked valley below.

La vida!

Sept. 17, 2007

The high pressure is holding. Cerro Palo towers over us to the west. Birds are beginning to sing songs of spring here in the southern hemisphere. There is something magical about living in wild places during seasonal transitions … the constant change and the reminder of impermanence, the connection one feels to the surroundings.

More coffee, mate, pancakes, Nutella, nuts, raisins … readying for another exploration on snow but moving like a herd of turtles. Our legs are weary from the last three days as we ponder today’s destination. Danny is already a spot in the distance as he heads up the “Wishbone” couloir we’ve been eyeing from camp since day one. Rodolfo is packing up to leave a couple days early with a swollen knee and an incessant cough. David, Forrest, and I sip coffee and tea and slowly skin up to the songs of Martin Sexton.

The sun is shining, wild parakeets fly overhead, snow melts alongside the stream, as we scan the horizon for today’s challenge.

David skins up the steep open bowl to the east in one long switchback. Forrest and I decide on a rock outcropping for views, sun-soaking and photographs before skinning to a couloir that is a straight 2,500-foot shot back to camp.

We enjoy a steep skin up to the precariously stacked rocks below Cerro Castillo for more views and the entrance to another classic couloir. This one we call “Poser” for the countless photos we take of each other at the top. The soft spring snow of this west-facing run brings us back to base camp for sunny-day day dreaming.

Danny and Rodolfo are headed back out to the village, and Danny will return tomorrow with a re-stock of chocolate and whiskey … priorities, priorities.

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they’ve been told to.” –Alan Keightley

Sept. 19, 2007

We sit in our melting kitchen with our dwindling food supply and pass the time with an Italian card game and re-reading Powder magazine for the 18th time. Yesterday the clouds and snow returned, filling the valley with fog.

Danny is back, and our chocolate and whiskey supply is replenished, just in time!

It feels good to rest the body after five days of burnin’ and turnin’. We enjoy down jackets, hot drinks, and a slow snowy day at base camp – our last full day here. We ration dry bread, dabs of mustard, salami slices and Gu. Life is sweet.

Forrest and Danny decide on a limited visibility ascent out of camp for some final turns. David and I read and write and watch snowflakes float to the ground.

We are here, yet our minds and palates have begun to wander back to the village below that offers the opportunity for showers and fresh food. The final full day of an expedition … bittersweet.

Mossy rocks are revealed in the melting snow by the stream. The Chilean breeze carries aloft the smell of spring, leaky fuel bottles and sweaty skiers. Forrest and Danny disappear into the whiteout, calling back on the radio in breathless excitement. Dark clouds swirl above.

The fading sunlight drowns behind wintry skies, while birdsong keeps hope and anticipation of spring alive. Forrest and Danny navigate blind descents as David skins up the other side of the stream to burn off some energy and get a few flat-light turns. I sit at camp enjoying the solitude.

“As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are, otherwise you will miss most of your life.” –Buddha

Sept. 20, 2007

Day 11: We will depart for the village below in a few hours. Spring sun fights to burn through fast-moving clouds. A break in the storm brightens our orange Kiva tent where we sit sharing oatmeal pancakes topped with raspberry Cliff Shots, a tasty pairing of what’s left.

Snow camping comes with the pleasure of creating temporary structures: stairways, benches, kitchens. We break down camp, cover our traces, and are left standing in a vacant space near a stream in a white world.

There is a long pause before we begin the five-hour descent to meet Rodolfo and the curious sheep in the valley below. The songs of birds are all that intrude amid the silence of the majestic peaks, as we look around sharing glances and grins of a successful expedition.

We will be back.

It’s amazing the amount of change that can occur in nature in 11 days. The snow has melted from much of the trail. The trees are now budding. Quickly we are on worn dirt trails with skis on packs and looking back at the towering spires that framed our camp. Again, bittersweet … We’re yearning for more time in this wildness but also the comforts of the village.

We reach Rodolfo and the truck just in time to capture a weary-legged, sweaty group photo. The Toyota is loaded and as we drive out, a windy downpour erupts. Mother Nature has been good to us.

Silence fills the car as five hungry happy contemplative snow-seekers bounce along the muddy road back to town through farms and wildlands. With spring arriving, we entertain thoughts of fly fishing and nights at Las Ardillas Lodge.

We are greeted in the village with smiles and amusement by the same ladies we met when we arrived, still stoking fires and preparing hot food in the quaint five-bedroom lodge. Oh, the joy of home-cooked chicken con papas fritas y cervezas.

On our one-hour drive north in rain and sleet to Coyhaique, where this journey began, I stare out the window, sleepy-eyed. I recall our first descents and imagine our tracks disappearing under fresh snow.

I am filled with a sense of fulfillment mixed with a sort of post-expedition emptiness that must be a form of withdrawal. We are inspired and humbled, and clean at last.

Some experiences just do not translate.

Hasta el proximo aventura… que vaya bien.

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” –Thoreau