La Casa Rodante: La Vida del Viajero o no tanto, en Patagonia, Argentina
(The Mobile Home: Life of a Traveler or not so much, in Patagonia, Argentina)
by TJ David via TJDavidSki.com
My alarm sounds and I turn over quickly in my sleeping bag to silence its painful noise. I’ve already been awake, wiping the dripping moisture from our ceiling off my nose, forehand and face. It’s warm and raining outside. The inside of the van is like a small, white, igloo. Its cold and it takes everything I have to climb out of my ancient, green, hand-me-down, Argentinian sleeping bag, hop into the front seat of the van and turn on the engine. She rumbles briefly as I turn the key, pressing my foot firmly into the clutch. Its a more gentle alarm than the one on my phone and I notice Jared beginning to stir in the back. I crank the air and hop back behind the drivers seat to prepare mate.
I’ve long since adopted the morning ritual of preparing the water, the gourd and yerba. The practice, at this point, lies somewhere between a relaxing morning meditation and habitual addiction. Now, between warm, smokey tastes of the beverage, I’m wiping moisture from our van’s ceiling. My tired eyes move too slowly to truly comprehend the rate at which the water collects into droplets. My morning ritual disrupted. The true enjoyment of sipping the rich beverage lost in the annoying disbelief that yes, even after my third or fourth pass along the ceiling with my Argentinian shamwow!, there is still moisture in the van. These days I’ve really needed the copious amounts of mateína, the energy rich chemical similar to caffeine thats unleashed by steeping the holly-like stems and leaves in hot water.
Jared and I have already exchanged a few looks and without needing to talk, we know we’re not skiing today. As the moisture slowly evaporates from our van windshield we can both see its foggy, wet and rainy. The weather and the forecast has completely changed in the last eight hours. Freezing levels have gone from 1300 meters to 2400 meters, higher than the closest summit, and we know there’s just nothing we can do but walk up, get our skis, and head back to the van.
When its raining and its been raining for more days in a row than I can count, or remember, I start to get a little internally frustrated. There isn’t anything you can do to change the weather. Sure, its dumping up high, but there’s no visibility, I’m unfamiliar with the terrain, which is big, complex and dangerous and the trees we’ve been lapping all week, well now they’re rain crusted. The forecast says more of the same and we’ve exhausted ourselves between trips to the local mall for papas fritas and time spent driving around in the van. Despite the frustration, somewhere inside myself, I was sort of enjoying these little annoyances, the challenges that actually make van life interesting, that call into question your problem solving skills and that of your traveling companions. This, in a nut-shell, may be exactly what van life is.
My thoughts about how much I’d like to actually find some of that wind scoured, Argentinian, south facing chalk I originally traveled all the way down to Patagonia for began to reemerge from the mystical haze that was skiing in el bosque. Our shared interest in standing on-top of something, anything, to just get out of the rain, the van, our home, for just a few hours, brought us back to reality. We were, after all, in La Casa Rodante.
Hot food and a dry place to cook it is all you really need to lift the spirits in the wet world we call van life. When you’ve camped so many days in a row within the same kilometer stretch of road, hardly moving your van, you begin to forget your home is mobile. You can go anywhere you want. You can actually chase a storm, or better yet, dry weather. And so after regrouping outside of Bariloche we thought, “what do we have to lose?” “Let’s get out of here!”
A little navigation from the navigator, Jared, on one of our many incredible maps and another quick look through the weather on my phone had us flipping a coin between heading to the Norte o Sur. The weather looked just a little bit colder in the south. A better chance for skiing we thought. Jared noted Perito Moreno, a mom-and-pop ski area, that happened to be adjacent to the highest peak listed on our road map, and we both thought we could easily make the parking lot before dark. Ideas started flowing…Maybe even use the lift in the morning for a bump up to the freezing line and out of the rain? Hey! With a little bit of thought prospects for skiing in the near future were looking good. Re-energized, warmer, and a little bit drier, we set off for the south with a few hundred kilometers of driving in the mid afternoon rain in front of us. The views, the landscapes, nothing disappointed. We were, after all, on a road trip of sorts…weren’t we?
After a brief stop in the southern town of El Bolsón for more diesel, a few galletitas and a couple glass bottles of coke and gatorade, we were flying down dirt roads in the foggy Argentinian countryside. We were searching for Perito Moreno, the ski area, who’s name roughly translates to “Brown Expert.” With that important knowledge in mind, and a small mark on our map eluding to the existence, or previous existence, of a ski area underneath the summit of the massif with the same name, we floored it to a riveting 50 kph and pointed it up to the base area. We arrived in the dwindling light, tired but enthused. It was only drizzling outside.
We rose around at 8:45 am as the first signs of employees for the ski area began arriving. The lifts were scheduled to open, con suerte, at 9am. A quick walk from the van to the ticket office had us with $30 dollar lift tickets in hand, ready to take a bump up the hill and out into the side-country. The weather, well, it wasn’t great, I felt a light drizzle in the air as I walked over to the lift. Humidity was probably 100%, at least. On most days like these we’d probably just stayed in bed. But, when in Patagonia, I guess.
The sun didn’t stick around for long and as it was disappearing, I thought, “rightfully so, because, after all, this is Patagonia.” Honestly, we just didn’t care. Sun or clouds, it wasn’t raining. We could see just enough to safely navigate, to continue upward, subir. Jared was feeling it and I was feeding off his energy. We were having fun. Onwards and upwards with careful route finding had us on the backside of Perito Moreno. Our eyes never set on a particular goal, purely enjoying the moment and the freedom to make those precise, focused decisions, only at the time they truly were necessary.
Good decision making heading south? Or just por suerte? We’ll never know. But $30 dollar lift tickets be damned, it was worth it. Maybe, deep down, we both thought, just for a second, that we’d broken a carnal rule about using the lifts. We never intended on using the resorts in Argentina. Our legs could take us anywhere, human power was always better than mechanical. Always. But who were we kidding? We’d just driven a few hundred kilometers in a van, using diesel…we weren’t exactly saving the environment. And we were dry… after all. But, like I said, it was worth it. We’d made the right decision. We’d taken what Patagonia had given us and we’d gotten it all back in powder and dry weather.
As we climbed one last time up the t-bar at the mom-and-pop ski hill the skies opened again and the rain fell in droves. I felt fortunate. We’d had a great day and I knew we’d surely have a few more.
The decisions came a little easier when we regrouped back in El Bolsón that afternoon. Back with cell service I quickly scoped the weather and noted that tomorrow looked like it would be equally as good as today if we moved a few hundred kilometers farther to the south. A big storm was hitting the more northern mountains and we didn’t want to have anything to do with that moisture. So with our map out and an encouraging text from our friend Jorge about a place called Esquel, we were on the road for the Argentine city and the mountains that surrounded another small ski area called La Hoya.
We are slow learners when we bothered checking the forecast for Esquel. You just can’t trust the forecasts down here. Pick a spot on the map and go. That’s the idea. This morning the weather called for “mostly cloudy skies” and mild temperatures. However, Patagonia had something else in mind. We awoke to blue skies and freezing temperatures. Our igloo, I mean, Casa Rodante, was frozen, but thats ok, because it wasn’t raining!
A step outside the van illuminated a small piece of what we had’t been able to see while driving up the access road from the valley the previous night. There was little snow. Our drive up in the dark gave us few ideas about places to ski other than the resort. I bit my tongue knowing I’d be buying another lift ticket when I was fully capable of just skinning up and checking things out. But, it was only $30 dollars. Nice bargain when your shopping on the blue market.
I was blown away by the friendliness of the people at La Hoya. Almost every employee at the resort stopped to talk to me or Jared. Granted it wasn’t exactly “crowded,” I enjoyed being amongst la gente del sur. Son simpaticos, no, en serio! And again, you can’t judge a book by its cover. The secrets of La Hoya don’t just reveal themselves, they wait until your on your second chairlift ride for the top. This was a south facing haven with access to all the terrain you dream about skiing back in the states. But when in Patagonia, por qué no?
The weather was cold. The mountain empty. We took in the views and didn’t rush to the untracked. It was all, untracked. We were finally skiing the conditions we’d actually hoped for, talked about, all those days back while we enjoyed our 20-hour bus journey with Viabariloche. Maybe it was four, or five…six new centimeters on chalk, I can’t be sure, but it sure was sweet. And today, it was all ours.
$30 lift tickets…no pasa nada. The skiing was good. And this “sure beat the rain we’d be sitting in if we’d stuck around Bariloche” I thought as I watched Jared drop in for his first run of the day. We were working for it, in a way, searching, using all our combined problem solving skills, our patience and it wasn’t being given up easily.
We’d hit it just right. Maybe it wasn’t a standout day if your comparing a season living in the Wasatch, but for us, it was pure gold. One of the important moments that lift you up, renew your spirits and keep you on your path. In this case, for us, the path to warm beds, hot showers and a safe place to park our van on front lawn of our new friends A-Frame home in downtown Esquel. Seriously, the people at La Hoya are really nice.
One of the toughest parts about traveling and skiing in Patagonia, Argentina, is the lack of infrastructure. When deciding on places to ski its not quite as easy as pointing out a mountain you spot while driving around, finding the access road, parking, suiting up and hitting the summer trail. The honest truth is when you come to Patagonia you’re going to spot hundreds of skiable lines that are simply impossible to get to unless bushwhacking for days on end, expedition style, is something your prepared for. Well we weren’t. Not on this trip. So after spending a lot of time in el sur driving on the famous Ruta 40 we began to realize that here we just had to keep things simple. Use what already exists.
On our last day in Esquel and with the help of some new friends, we got the beta on the above line, complete with roadside access, and decided to give it a go. Sweet. Park the van, lock your expectations inside, and start climbing.
As we climbed the conditions continued to change. The bottom was, well, nearly unskiable. Refrozen avy debris, the perfect proving ground for the durability of an ultralight dynafit setup. The middle, chalky, easy cramponing. The top, as it winds around to a completely different aspect was a bit crusty, new deposits of windblown snow left a reactive layer, and it was steep. Way steeper than we thought. But still, the hazards could be mitigated and we decided to continue to the top. Our dynamic as a team was really coming together by the time we got into the crux of the climb, where rotten snow made the finale quite difficult.
El Sur, an area that has left a lasting impression on me. The contrast between the people of this area and that of my home city. The difference in the alpine here and the bosque of the Bariloche and Lakes Region. The drier climate. The list goes on and on. We’d set out for the south with open minds. Day after day we locked our expectations in the van, set out with what we thought we needed to accomplish our goals, and did what we could to make things happen. We wanted to be drier, we wanted to see more, and we wanted to ski. The south gave us these opportunities and we took them. No, the snow wasn’t what you’d see in an MSP segment, but that didn’t matter. The people, the places, the culture of the area all represented a parallel world to that of ours. To that of Van Life. Both microcosms of something much greater, much more important. El clima és lo que hay, la nieve és lo que hay, hacemos lo que podemos, siempre.