Herbert The Hound and the Rock from Outerspace

After a bit of climbing on the local Esquel crag, La Palestra, we stocked the van and headed over to Piedra Parada. The drive took a bit longer than expected, but the excitement in the van was palpable. The only shortage we had was firewood, that was until we passed a small farmstead that had a big pile of logs. I stopped and went in looking for the farmer who was just returning from the fields, and when asked if we could buy some logs he just said to help ourselves. Actually he helped us select the best driest logs – he was interested in our van so I gave him a quick tour. He thought it was pretty cool, especially the stove. People in Argentina are the best! We said farewell and headed on now fully stocked with nice dry logs.

After a couple of wrong turns the enormous volcanic remnant that is Piedra Parada hoved in to view. It is quite awesome, basically a 200m high boulder sat singularly on the plain.

The Imposing Rock of Piedra Parada.
The Imposing Rock of Piedra Parada.

We stopped by the campsite to try and get a copy of the guidebook only to find it deserted, but we could see the farmer in the field. We drove back down the road to speak to him to be told that the campsite would be 25 pesos a night, but all the facilities were closed for winter and he had no copies of the guide to sell, just one to look at. We said didn’t need the campsite as we had the van, but we’d pop back to have a look at the guide later.

We went climbing, picking lines we liked the look of or some of the few lines given in the pdf from the Petzl website. The weather was perfect – about 20 degrees, sunny and dry. We had a really fun afternoon, it had been a good month or so since we last climbed. The sun started to set so we headed over to the farm to see if we could get a look and some photos of the full guide. The place was deserted again apart from a couple of dogs. We returned to the van and started on the evening van routine, setting the fire, making tea and getting dinner on the go.

Then we had a visitor, one of the farm dogs. He was quite a cute character, clearly desperate for company and maybe a little food! He whined and whimpered every time we shut the door for a while before settling down to guard us. His presence could be quite disruptive when trying to answer a call of nature however, usually requiring one of us to run interference – something of a performance in the middle of the night!

Barbara and our new friend Herbert the Hound.
Barbara and our new friend Herbert the Hound.

The night skies were incredible! We spent some time marveling at the Milky Way, perhaps the clearest we had ever seen it.

The Stunning Night Sky at Piedra Parada.
The Stunning Night Sky at Piedra Parada.

The next day we decided to tackle some routes on the Piedra accompanied by our new best friend, who we had decided to christen Herbert. He went off chasing hares and we picked the easiest bolted route we could find, which was still quite hard, too hard for Barbara to follow at least.

I started to look at some trad. climbing possibilities to get to the top, or rather the only one that looked reasonable. Then I spied a bolted belay. Awesome! I fetched Barbara and we started climbing.  The first anchor could be seen from the ground and it was guess work after that, but I just went with following the line of least resistance and occasionally some bolts. When Barbara left the ground poor Herbert was bereft at being abandoned, running back and forth crying – it was heartbreaking!

High up on Piedra Parada. Nice Beard!
High up on Piedra Parada. Nice Beard!

After 5 pitches the line of least resistance was an overhanging chimney full of loose rock, so I took a walk round the terrace,there were a couple of cairns and a possible way to continue, but it looked like a couple more pitches of climbing and the clock was against us. I thought retreating back down was probably the best option rather than try and get off in the dark. As it was it was dark for the last abseil to the ground, but no real dramas. Herbert was not awaiting us:-(

We headed back to the van only to find Herbert lying prostrate in the middle of the road not wanting to move. He needed quite a bit of fussing before he felt a little better and decided he might join us back at the van.

The third and final day we ticked off some sport pitches in the canyon and had a welcome wash in the stream, as we would be heading for Bariloche early the next day.

It was very sad saying goodbye to Herbert the faithful hound, but we did, he didn’t understand why he was being abandoned again. However we had to return to our ski based objectives, this is difficult to explain to a lonely dog.

La Hoya

A friend in Santiago had recommended La Hoya as a good place to ski as it is cheap and there is good access to off piste terrain. La Hoya is just outside Esquel, and a days drive from El Chalten with the forecast looking good for the next few days we headed there. Esquel turns out to be a relatively unremarkable town, but nestled in amongst mountains and near the Los Alerces national park it is a pleasant place to stay with a good variety of restaurants and bars. The only thing it seems to lack is unofficial money changers the town only has two who offer a pretty poor rate in fact if your heading south of Barlioche you should stock up on pesos there to get acceptable rates. However we did manage to find an local guy keen to exchange so dollars in the queue at a takeaway Parilla (BBQ) place. He was a nice guy and we went with him to his house to do the deal it worked well for both of us as we both got a better rate without a middleman.

The skiing at La Hoya did not disappoint even though the snow cover was pretty poor. It really is a great little resort with lots of hikable off piste to go at although the low snow restricted us to the top bowl that can be dropped into from a plateau which is just a 5 minute hike above the top lift.

Barbara booting the last bit up to the plateau above La Hoya
Barbara booting the last bit up to the plateau above La Hoya

The bowl had collected a good amount of wind blown snow and had a corniced entry, basically lots of fun. Out the back of the resort there is access to a ridge line stretching over a few small peaks and giving access to more remote bowls.

Tom dropping off the top of the plateau.
Tom dropping off the top of the plateau.
The ridgeline out the back o La Hoya lots of options for fun skiing in those bowls.
The ridgeline out the back o La Hoya lots of options for fun skiing in those bowls.

So if your skiing in Bariloche and you have time La Hoya is worth a visit if you’ve got backcountry gear, it was only 240 pesos a day at the time of writing and mucho fun!

Yet again the weather turned, but this time we got summer! It was forecast to be 12 degrees at the base of the resort and 6 at the top. However all was not lost there was climbing nearby, a small crag at the edge of town and more interestingly Piedra Parada about 120km away. Piedra Parada had been host to the 2012 Petzl Roctrip so had lots of newly bolted lines and the forecast was for winter sun, yay!

Patagonian Skiing

The weather once again defeated our plans to ski in the hills round Torres. They looked like they had awesome terrain and a convenient road heading right up into them, but the weather gods frowned on this plan and brought us some strong Patagonian winds that were not forecast to stop for a week or so.

So the decision was made to head north again and ski in some of the mountains we’d spotted on the way down to Puerto Natales. We’d just need to hop back into Argentina – or not, as the Argentinean border staff were having a strike. So we had one more day in Puerto Natales and one more delicious meal in El Bot, a nice local restaurant.

Flamingos at the end of the world.
Flamingos at the end of the world.

We headed for the border early the next day, ooh it was snowing! It had put down a few inches on wet roads, would we even get to the border without the help of snow chains? It was up hill all the way and lots of squiggly lines left by the few vehicles that had already passed through. We made it with some careful driving, but coming down the other side of the pass might be fun. I was feeling quite pleased with the tyre selection, it had been worth dragging Barbara round all those tyre shops in Bolivia and Peru She now knows lots about tyres, I’m sure she valued the experience. (Maxxis Bravo 771 for any tyre geeks out there, so far working well on gravel, mud, snow and other frozen stuff.)

The border was very straight forward thanks to the helpful Argentinean staff. It turned out there was a small ski area right at the border, maybe they had just gone skiing the day before – I’d be going on strike every time it snowed if I were them. We thought about breaking out the skis but the hill wasn’t very steep and the snow was deep, so didn’t look like we’d have much fun if we could even get the skis to run at all. We decided to head on north to bigger and better objectives… This video captures our perhaps misplaced excitement!

First we thought we’d have a look at some hills in the Los Glaciers National Park,  so we headed for El Calafate to get a map and supplies. El Calafate is a pretty quiet place in the winter, even more so if you arrive during siesta time as we did! However we got what we needed once the town woke up and headed for a good potential spot in the park just north of town, again a nice little road seemed to head directly into the park up to about 600m. We turned onto said road full of hope and optimism. New snow, fully stocked van, psyched occupants and some big hills, what could possibly go wrong!

The first few km went by uneventfully with just the odd little slide on the muddy surface and some tyre tracks from people that had turned around. We continued on merrily, the mud patches getting deeper and bigger, but still manageable, if you kept momentum. We were discussing turning round when the road became just mud and there was nothing to do but plough on and hope, if we stopped we’d definitely be stuck. We made it maybe 1 km before we ended up bogged down at a standstill. Not good.

I opened the door to have a look see at how bad the mud was – it was deep and it looked like we would be going nowhere before the encroaching darkness came. I tried getting out, but gave up once my first foot had sunk well into the mud.

Crap!

We had a discussion about options, none seemed that good given we were about 15kms from a very quiet highway in deep mud. The drinking wine option came high up the list, but it was after the trying to reverse out that I realised that we could get the van to move a little bit. Maybe we could rock the van out? We repeated a forward and then reverse manoeuvre until we ploughed ourselves a longish furrow. Then it was forward then reverse as fast as possible and don’t stop. It worked for a while at least then we had to try again, there’s a short video here. Eventually we reached solid enough ground to turn around, this seemed a long way but happily we made it! We turned tail and ran away thankful we had avoided a real epic.

Steve after his escape from horrific Patagonian mud. Very sticky mud at that.
Steve after his escape from horrific Patagonian mud. Very sticky mud at that.

El Chalten was the next place one on the list on our great South American ski adventure! We might even get to tour around the base of Fitzroy!

Mount Fitzroy massive from the road into El Chalten.
Mount Fitzroy massive from the road into El Chalten.

After a stormy night in the van we headed to a cafe for coffee, cake and internet in El Chalten. The internet said the weather wouldn’t be great, scuppering any multi-day plans. A day tour didn’t seem out of the question though, just a case of finding an objective. We headed through town and out on the gravel road in search of skiable terrain. A few kms out I noticed Arroyo (river) Mosquito on the map, this clicked with something I had seen on the internet about touring on Mosquito peak. We parked by the river and decided to follow the faint path through the woods up to the snowline, there had been some fresh snow the night before so we might be in luck. After an hour of boot packing we got the skis on and continued skinning through the trees.

Barbara starting the approach to Mosquito peak.
Barbara starting the approach to Mosquito Peak.

The snowpack was not great, a 12-18inches of slushy faceted snow, a melt crust and then a foot of fresh. We decided to stay in the trees and not head to the open slopes above. We did a few laps which were pretty fun although Barbara was struggling as the snow was pretty heavy. I decided I liked mash potatoes. We headed back to the van for the now traditional hot chocolate, but we had now had to substitute dolce de leche liqueur for Bailey’s. The forecast said more of the same the next day, but the snowpack stabilised enough to head up to the ridge line and we got fresh lines all day, yay!

Finally getting some skiing done!
Finally getting some skiing done!
A happy Tom on the way back down after a successful days backcountry skiing!
A happy Tom on the way back down after a successful days backcountry skiing!

The following day the weather decided we had had enough fun, although it was teasing us cos it was fairly calm in the valley, but the spin drift on the hill above said go away!

So it seems we aren't going skiing...
So it seems we aren’t going skiing…

The optimist in me said go on it’ll be fine  but Barbara said otherwise! We took the sensible option and headed back to town to consult the internet once more. The internet said it will be stormy here for a week and then mega for a day or two.

We really felt like hobos, always being moved on. Oh and really in need of a wash!

South American Pow… or not!

At last we hit the snow, first stop was El Colorado which is part of the Tres Valles (El Colorado, La Parva and Valle Nevado). We were quite excited about the prospect of getting those skis on to the South American snow, sadly this was somewhat tempered by the general lack of it. There was a dusting forecast, but we weren’t holding out much hope. When we arrived the dusting was in progress and the mountain was shrouded in cloud, so we bailed on actually going skiing. It’s no fun if you can’t see more than 10m!

We amused ourselves for a short while watching all the people driving round with snow chains on, it was quite bizarre given there was basically no snow on the roads. A small industry has developed on the road into the ski areas in Chile hiring out snow chains to meet the legal requirement to carry them, however it seems they insist on putting them on if it is looking like it might snow, whether there is snow on the roads or not. This results in people who don’t know any better nervously driving round with chains on, ruining their tyres and the road for no reason. This is compounded by ski area staff also encouraging people to put chains on even though there is no need, all very strange. Maybe it is to make the skiing experience seem more extreme?!

We ended up having a not so extreme day being van hobos, collecting waste wood and then parking up in the carpark to eat some of the best apple kuchen we’ve ever had and drink Bailey’s hot chocolate,  all in the warming company of Cyrill. This was the first proper cold test for the van and with Cyrill all fired up it was toasty, although there were small icicles forming on the screws securing the ceiling panels, as they are screwed into the van body work so remain at pretty much external temperature.

We got our first view of the ski area the following morning. It didn’t look that exciting, there was very little snow cover off piste and the majority of the pistes were just straight down the side of the conical mountain which made them all more or less identical. We headed out round the back of the resort where, as it turns out, there’s better terrain and were rewarded with some fresh tracks on wind blown snow. The back of the resort actually connects to Valle Nevado and La Parva, which opens up even more fun terrain, if you can afford multiple ski passes! Lord knows why they haven’t sorted out a single lift ticket where you can ski in all the resorts.

Where was the deep El Niño pow we’d been promised???? Not this far North that was for sure. We consulted the internet which told us not to bother going to Portillo (chile), Las Leñas (Argentina) or Penetenties (Argentina) either. We’d also spoken to someone who had said there was almost no snow on the Argentinian side of the Andes in the north at least. This some what scuppered the plan to head in that direction. However all was not lost the forecast was for big dumps in Chillan, Villarica and maybe Barriloche. We made a quick decision not to stay any longer at El Colorado. Even though Baileys hot chocolate and wine were calling, we instead hurriedly packed the van and hit the road heading south to the legendary resort of Nevados de Chillàn. We arrived in Chillàn late the following evening and there was a nice covering of snow in the carpark at least. It looked on for the next day to either tour to the top of the volcano or head over into the next valley to enjoy the natural hot springs.

Van living is awesome for beating everyone to the ski hill in the morning cos your already there, however it makes you lazy and we always seemed to actually make it on to the hill after everyone else?! At least by being tardy we got some info from some others heading out for a tour. They didn’t mention that everyone in Nevados de Chillan seems to be ski touring Nazis. We found this out ourselves when we were told we could not skin past the hot springs next to the resort, then found we couldn’t go through the resort either as they don’t allow it.  The summer trail up the hill was too icy even with ski crampons on, but eventually we found a way through into a valley next to the resort.  This was not the ideal place to skin up the hill as you’re at the bottom of a terrain trap with avalanche slope above you on both sides. We continued on as the avalanche conditions didn’t seem too bad.

We watched a couple of skiers ski down into the valley so I decided that heading up their tracks would be a good way out as they had kindly tested the slope for us! It was a pretty steep slope and we met the other skiers on their second lap at the top, they had got a lift pass. They were also in Chile for the season and had some good info on other good places to ski. We were all waiting for the big dump forecast hoping we would get an epic pow day on the Tuesday. They skied on and we were going to continue on, but I didn’t like the look of the slope we needed to cross to get out the valley. We decided to just turnround instead, a bit of a shame, but better than risk being buried in an avalanche. Anyhow there’s a storm a comin’!

The storm came, but it was a bit warmer than forecast and it was raining at the bottom lift.  Still, it would be dumping at the top – I hadn’t seen so much rain in a long time and it was forecast to rain 250mm in the following 2 days in the valley. That would be a lot of snow higher up, so we waited it out in the van in front of the fire with the obligatory bottles of wine. Eventually the storm ended and the skies cleared, this is where we realised that Chillan is a pretty poorly managed resort. The only lifts open were serving the lower beginner slopes that had remained below snow line during the storm, all the lifts providing access to the top of the resort and the fresh snow were closed. I wasn’t keen on going into the backcountry cos the avalanche risk couldn’t be anything more than high given the 60-100cm of new snow that had just fallen. And did. I mention they don’t let you ski tour in their resort?!

We reviewed our options, there was no point staying as it was turning stormy again, further south looked like the storms might be less severe, or there was a good weather window for Torres Del Paine. We decided to head for Torres as good weather there can be a rare occurrence.  So with only a 2500km drive down the road then, we headed for the Argentinean border.