Backcountry skiing Patagonia: Bariloche and Cerro Catedral
Summer in Utah means winter in the southern hemisphere, so for addicted-to-turns skiers like myself, traveling to a place like Argentina is the only option to defy the seasons and magically ski in September. Luckily, I have friends who have the same mindset, including Justin Lozier and Sean Zimmerman-Wall of Patagonia Ski Tours, who go to Bariloche, Patagonia every summer and work as backcountry ski guides. At the end of their guiding season, myself and other friends were invited down for a “friends tour” of the Andes, the biggest mountains I’ve ever skied.
I flew from Salt Lake City to Bariloche by way of Houston and Buenos Aires. It was a mind numbingly long period of travel that I never woke up from until I saw the jagged peaks of Patagonia rising from the wind and sun scoured brown plateau. I was immediately struck at how the peaks resembled the Pacific Northwest, with the same tidy row of volcanoes neatly lined up like massive piles of powdered sugar – waypoints among the chaos of lesser mountains that lay littered around their feet.
At lower elevations, the mountains resembled something akin to Wyoming’s Teton Range, complete with high plateaus, clean and desolate like the Earth must have looked when it was new, full of barren lakes and rivers without a spec of civilization to be seen save for the shadow of the plane flickering far below.
But really, upon landing at the Bariloche airport and being driven by Javier, owner of the Alaska Hostel (our base camp for the next week) my perspective shifted once again. Bariloche is neither the Pacific Northwest or the Tetons. This place is something else entirely. Expansive lakes of deep blue flow to the horizon, where immense, snow-covered mountains rise up from the shore with nary a foothill to impede the view. This German-influenced alpine town is nestled between the shore of Nahuel Huapi Lake and the Andes Mountains, including the ski center, Cerro Catedral, the largest resort in South America.
After settling into the delightfully rustic A-frame Alaska Hostel and enjoying a giant bottle of Imperial beer, my friends arrived from a ski day on the mountain. After hugs and more manly fist bumps, we walked to a restaurant down the street where traditional Argentinian Asado, an assortment of beef, pork and sausages, was being served along with excellent Malbec wine. Bellies full and minds swimming in fermented grapes, we turned in for what was supposed to be an epic day at Refugio Frey. But the fates had other plans for us.
The winds howled at the top of Cerro Catedral, where we gathered in a huddle, close enough to be able to hear ourselves speak. This impromptu, mountain-top conference was called due to the wind and the quickly lowering ceiling of clouds that threatened to make our mountaineering traverse to Refugio Frey a dangerous prospect. With low visibility and gusts that rattled our hard shell jackets like loose flags, none of us were particularly keen on scrambling over rocks and boulders on a ridge with death-inducing exposure below. We all decided the Frey would wait another day, so we stashed our packs at an on-mountain lodge, and simply skied the resort.
Cerro Catedral is an immense ski resort that honestly has seen better days. The snow line began halfway up the mountain, and the locals say nobody has been able to ski from top to base in five years because of warm winters. Despite that, the upper mountain held good, albeit soft, snow that was fast and fun to turn in. Wide open runs above tree line provided the most incredible views from a ski resort that I’ve ever seen, and dozens of lifts in close proximity allowed for easy lapping over and over again.
After months of not stepping foot on snow in Utah, it was a blast to just ski, no matter the unseasonable spring conditions in Patagonia. We followed up our resort day with beers and sandwiches at the upper mountain lodge, then rode a lift back down to the bottom and into town where Fernet con Coca and dinner awaited, preceded by a walk to the local brew pub, La Cruz, where I found the absolute best microbrewed beer to be. Their Nugget Stout was especially tasty.
But Refugio Frey was still on the docket, so we turned in to get some rest in hopes that the weather would allow us entry into Valle Van Titter and the ascent to a landscape what would become the defining image of the whole trip.