As the season came to a close in Las Leñas Argentina, Dorian Densmore, Alejo Sanchez and I decided we wanted to explore and ski something new. Here is what we got up to. Video (by Dorian) and trip report are below. Enjoy.
If you’ve ever spent time in Mendoza, you’ve probably noticed some rather large, snow covered peaks not far from the city. This is the Cordon del Plata. We’ve all eyed runs from the city and dreamed about skiing up there, and decided it was finally time to do something about it. The highest peak and most enticing ski line seen from Mendoza is Cerro Plata (19,574ft), which towers more than 17,000 vertical feet above Mendoza (take that, Chamonix). However, with a bit of research, it appeared that Cerro Rincon (17,700ftish), and more specifically Super Canaleta, the large couloir that descends from near its summit, might be the best and most reasonable ski run for us to try.
So, with plenty of motivation and very little information, we packed a week of food, camping gear and skis, and drove to Vallecitos, a closed ski resort at the foot of the Cordon del Plata. In Vallecitos, we spent three days acclimatizing, carrying gear, establishing a high camp, and waiting on inclement weather. This area is very popular among hikers and mountaineers in the summer, so there is a well-established network of trails and camps. However, the area was practically abandoned while we were there.
We established our high camp at “Campo Salto”, at about 13,700 feet. This was 4,000 feet above Vallecitos, 4,000 feet below the summit of Rincon, and more or less at snow line. In our previous days of acclimatization and preparation, it appeared that conditions were still fairly cold and powdery in the high mountains, so we made plans to start for Super Canaleta around on our fourth day.
We awoke to find an inversion in place – warm, sunny and clear up high, and a sea of clouds in the valley below. We skinned the short approach to the base of the couloir and began boot packing. Two things were immediately obvious: this couloir was enormous, and things were warming up fast. We continued booting, as a nearly constant stream of small rocks and snowballs hurtled past.
Super Canaleta is the primary drainage for a good portion of the Cerro Rincon ridge. The classic Andean combination of loose rock, high winds, and bright sun had turned this couloir into funnel for falling rock and snow. When we started to notice some more warming in the snow and a couple softball sized rocks fly past, we decided it was time to turn back. Perhaps only a third of the way up the couloir, we enjoyed a really long run with perfect hot powder back to camp.
It had become clear that Super Canaleta was not going to make it easy for us, but that it was a line well worth the effort. The couloir looked incredible: 3,500 feet inside the walls, huge and open and 40 degrees for the most of the run, choking down to a ski length or two wide and 50 degrees for the long upper section.
We decided to start much earlier the next morning, hoping to minimize danger from falling snow and rock. We once again awoke to warm temperatures and an inversion. We made the approach and began boot packing in the pre-dawn murk. Before the sun had even cleared the horizon, rocks were already tumbling down the couloir.
As a group, we decided to accept the current risk of rock fall, and to turn back if things got any worse. We hiked as quickly as we could, sticking to the sides of the run and tucking into hiding places whenever possible. Every few minutes, someone would shout “Rock!” and the other two would snap their heads up in panic, searching for the danger.
We climbed fast, but the run was enormous and our progress seemed imperceptible. Finally, the couloir narrowed and steepened. Our exposure to rock fall decreased significantly, and we were getting near the top. However, we were now over 17,000 feet, and were pretty tired from our long, rapid climb. We pushed on, changing leaders frequently to keep fresher legs in front.
Finally, the snow ended. We were at the top. In bigger years, Super Canaleta runs right off the ridge, but this time there was a section of steep rock blocking our progress. We had neither the gear nor the time to climb it, and as skiers, we knew this was the top of our run.
After a rapid transition, we were ready to go. Dorian went first, and I followed. The snow was perfect, hot pow all the way. The top was steep and narrow and sluffy, requiring controlled jump turns. It was exciting and exhausting. Finally, the couloir widened, and I could open it up. High speed turns down a huge couloir, and the run went forever. Even with acclimatizing and training on big front side runs in Las Leñas, my legs were screaming, and Dorian was still a tiny ant far, far below. I reached the bottom, gasping, and in complete disbelief of how good it was. Alejo rode up behind me and we had a big group hug.
So many factors came together to make this run incredible. The couloir was huge and amazing, the snow was perfect. Because of our hard skiing and training in Las Leñas, we were able to ski the run fast and smooth and non-stop. Our climb was exhausting and high risk, making the reward even sweeter. Between carrying gear, establishing camp, and working at high altitudes, we put in an immense effort. This was truly a line of a lifetime.
The next day, we chose a smaller, less risky couloir, and made an even earlier start, hoping there would be less rockfall in the middle of the night. At the base of the couloir, we saw rocks coming down, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. We felt we had used up our luck the day before, and no one had a good feeling about taking more risk that day. The mountains were in transition from winter to spring. Everything was starting to warm up and fall, and there was still plenty of snow and rock to come down before a more stable spring cycle would begin. We went back to camp, packed up, and made the long slog back to Vallecitos. We had achieved our primary goal, and had caught a brief glimpse of the potential for future trips.
8 thoughts on “Skiing at Over 17,000-Feet in Argentina: The Super Canaleta”
Extremely impressive Dorian. You guys are killing it.
Lee muy bueno hermano!! gracias y felicitaciones
es buen onda