El Bosque y El Polvo
La Primera Parte de
La Casa Rodante: La Vida del Viajero o no tanto, en Patagonia Argentina
by TJ David via TJDavidSki.com
The freedom to chase storms from behind the wheel of your very own van. To live life on the fringe, rigged and outfitted for sleeping through the coldest nights in the most unusual locations all the while going weeks on end without showering. Van Life. The ability to unbound yourself from those societal rules that say you’re suppose to have a house, a car, a job, bills…the flexibility to travel, the novelty of a different life. Surely, this is something most skiers have contemplated while laying down to sleep during those month long high-pressures we get during January in Colorado when we often ask ourselves, “how can this be, will it ever snow again?”
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t dreamt of hitting the open road with a fat bankroll, sights set on the furthest most exotic place with endless powder producing storms on the horizon. The thought of sleeping night after night in a van, belly filled with copious amounts of mac n cheese, mind lost in thoughts from the best day I’d just had in my life, the better one I’ll have tomorrow, is of course partially disillusioned. The reality is I never actually considered selling all my stuff, buying a van, outfitting it and setting out into the sunset to chase powder. Why? Because the real truth is I like life within the fridge, but hey, it’s nice to dream.
So while gearing up for my annual trip back to Argentina and mi casa lejos de casa where I live with my girlfriend, I noticed a facebook message from an old friend and ex-collegiate intramural soccer teammate, Jared Akerstrom. Jared had seen that I was heading back to Argentina and wanted to tell me a little about a mobile ski/travel trip he’d taken the previous year in New Zealand. His interest in Argentina sparked by a post I had made regarding the prediction of a great winter in the Southern Hemisphere. After a quick exchange of messages with the accomplished skier and Ohio based artist, I started to get pretty excited about the prospects of doing something similar to his past trip here in Argentina. With left the conversation at that, but slowly over proceeding days I found myself piecing together a rough plan to have a taste of the lifestyle I’d bought into years ago through adventure magazine articles, facebook posts and instagram feeds that sold a small part of me on the trendy rise to Van Life.
Several months passed without much talk about the trip, both Jared and I were busy with our personal lives. Jared was organizing his first gallery showing “Formulated Play” and wrapping up his time in Cleveland, Ohio before graduate school. I was unwinding from a ski trip to Ecuador and spending time with my girlfriend on the Argentine coast. Talk about our expectations for the trip hardly transcended our initial interest in avoiding the Argentine resorts and making the trip about a cultural experience, rather than a ski experience. Through a short series of sporadic emails, we began piecing together a few general themes that basically could be summed up in the facts that we didn’t mind touring long distances to access great terrain, we hoped it didn’t snow a lot so we could get up high, safely, and even better if the famous Argentine winds would keep our approaches scoured and south facing lines chalky.
We knew we only had limited time with the van, sixteen days or so, and we hoped to make the best of our time, in whatever way that presented itself.
Things became reality when Jared messaged me saying he’d booked his tickets for Buenos Aires and he’d be coming down to meet me in my home city before making the journey west. I guess that was my cue to put the deposit down on our van, and through a bit of research, get some of the logistics taken care of. I was quickly learning that in a country with limited infrastructure, travel wasn’t going to be as free flowing as in all those stories I’d read on the internet.
After a few days in the city we left Mar Del Plata with the positivity most travelers encapsulate after being extorted by the luggage porter who refused to put our oversized baggage on the bus without first being greased with some extra pesos. What first started out as a simple, “you need to tip me three times what you were going to or I’m not putting your bags on this bus,” quickly escalated to demands and then into an incomprehensible blur of sounds native only to La Provincia de Buenos Aires, and nowhere else in the Spanish speaking world. This was made worse by my attempts to interject with a simple peace offering, “I can pay you, I will pay you, man, be calm,” that came out as “Te puedo pegar, te voy a pegar, chico, calmate.” Shit! I realized as he got angrier, o sea pagar… A phenomenal start to the trip I told Jared as we finally got comfortable in our seats, ready for our 20 hour bus ride. I accidentally told that guy “I would hit him.” We both laughed. Con suerte we’d get through this trip without anyone shooting us over a stupid misunderstanding.
Twenty-four hours, a few empanadas and no-less-than three alfajores (one for dinner, lunch and breakfast…plato completo) later we’d arrived in Bariloche. We narrowly navigated the local colectivo system 17 kilometers through rush hour traffic, took in a quick view of the city center and road along one of the most picturesque lakes we’d ever seen. Finally, in the dwindling light, we set our eyes on our home. As we left our friend, the purveyor of our newly adopted Van Life, Jorge Kozulj’s (Andescross.com) house in the pouring rain that evening we were tired and exhausted. No plans were made for the next day, and rightfully so. I slept, cold, but I slept.
We woke up to the spitter spatter of the same Patagonian rain we’d gone to sleep to, the same rain we’d grow to expect, day after day in this region of Argentina. We watched as moisture gathered on the inner ceiling of our home, the droplets falling on our sleeping bags, as we contemplated our next move. I had just enough courage to leave my sleeping bag to turn on one of our stoves to prepare hot water for a warm mate. The back of our mobile home, a mess, was our first line of business. We completed equipment organization, food inventory and got everything stowed away in places where it wouldn’t shake loose. It was inevitable, after a few dozen collisions with the multitude of potholes that lined the streets of the barrio we’d spent the night in, everything would again be all over the floor and we’d be piecing our home back together once parked and ready to stock up on food and fuel.
I guess this is a good spot to reiterate to any readers about how difficult it is to find fuel for your stove in Argentina. After hearing mañana mañana mañana from just about every ferreteria in the Bariloche area, we finally pieced enough canisters and food together to cook some real meals and get “off the grid.”
A day, maybe two later, we hadn’t made it more than a few trips to the city center and a few kilometers past the barrio where we’d first picked up our van. So much for life on the open road. The rain was relentless, the temperatures too warm…and just when we couldn’t stand another minute in the van, in Patagonia, it got cold, freezing levels dropped and a good tip from our friend, Patagonian guiding legend Jorge Kozulj, had us powder lapping trees in a wind-closed Cerro Catedral.
Neither of us expected to being doing any tree skiing in Argentina. The country’s mountains seemingly rise out of the driest desserts. Ski areas like Las Leñas have almost no trees, what-so-ever, not one on any piste, and the climate can be so dry you wouldn’t even expect an ounce of moisture to fall during the winter or summer months. But, the Lakes Region of Patagonia was different. The trees were in abundance, the humidity nearly always 100% and with a bit of already existing base from a few early season storms we found ourselves hitting the sweetest spots that we couldn’t have even imagined in our deepest, most wild Patagonian dreams.
As we dried our feet, and our mobile home, in the Cerro Catedral parking lot that late afternoon the weather seemed to be holding. Intermittent snow flurries came in and out with the passing clouds, the forecast looked good and cold and we both thought we might as well find another bosque to ski in, at least until the new snow stabilizes and we can go into the alpine.
So with a bit of stoke for the low elevation freezing levels we headed off for a near-by trailhead and prepared ourselves for a few more days shredding the bosque.
The weather was too good. We watched as storms formed on the horizon and out over the lakes beneath us, then slowly disappearing before ever disrupting our day in the forest. As temperatures stayed low, winds kept calm and our curiosity got the best of us, we headed up into the alpine for a quick recon of the area to try to formulate a plan for the following day. As the weather was looking like it would stay cool and the rain and snow would hold off until the afternoon, it seemed like we’d have an opportunity to ski something a bit bigger tomorrow.
After a quick peak at what things looked like up high, we formulated a rough plan for the following morning and made our way down through the forest again. The snow on the more west facing aspects was still excellent, although we noted hot pow as we reached about 1300 meters, the point where we would transition, the spot marking freezing levels. Fortunately, the out led us across one of our more interesting finds of the trip thus far. La Roca Negra, a small refugio near the base of the summer trail sat with smoke rising from the hut’s chimney. A near by sign on a tree noted, “pizza, cerveza, snacks,” and we immediately set our skis outside and poked our heads in. Jared was already inside when I said, “Buenas tardes, vi el humo, esta todavía abierto?” in my broken Spanish. A quick response from one of the girls working brought us into the main room with an incredible view. A couple local beers quickly followed. As I chatted with one of the girls, I asked if they had any food and she explained they only served food for big parties, but for personas copados they made exceptions. Awesome.
As we cooked a lake-side dinner and took in the darkening sky, we noted how unusual the last few days had been. Skiing powder in Argentinian Patagonia? Tree skiing? My preconceptions for what skiing would be like in the land of complex, isolated and beautiful mountains now clearly, in hindsight were complete misconceptions. Ideas about driving to El Chaltén and skiing near the Fitz Roy or heading for the north near Aconcagua, thoughts we’d had flying around Argentina on google earth the night before leaving for Bariloche were now clearly lost. We’d just had a near bluebird powder day in Argentina, what could we expect next? We had no “Plan A” or “Plan B,” and somewhere after our first powder turns in the wind-closed Cerro Catedral our expectations for the trip and what it should be or was going to be was gone as well. Thoughts about cold nights to come, mornings spent drying moisture from our van ceiling, re-shelving food and equipment that had again fallen after hitting another pothole…the small annoyances that after such relentless consistency would be enough to break most people, seemed lost as well with the whisk and arc of a powder turn. As I piled on as many layers as I could and slipped into my sleeping bag, the rain began again. I prepared for another cold night in Patagonia, my final thoughts somewhere between disbelief about the last few days and “well we may have our skis hidden up on this mountain, but honestly, who knows where we’ll actually ski tomorrow.”