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Tag Archives: Backcountry
Words by me, photos by everyone in the blog.
As many of the events in my life seem to go, this was an unplanned, super lucky, sometimes stressful but very eventful week- an 8 day roadtrip from Bariloche, Argentina and back. Up the Argentinean side of the Andes and down the Chilean side with aplenty closed passes, long colouirs, touring volcanoes and getting lost in beautiful backwater farming villages, where learning Spanish on the fly was the only way to get directions out.
How did it start? We met 4 friendly Americans in Bariloche and they just happened to want to go to Portillo, Chile the same as us- where another friend of mine Andrew Rumph had recommended us to come visit him. Turned out they had already looked into renting a car and two more was not a crowd, so not long after we were departing in a mighty 7 seat Kangoo, with skis packed inside and outside the roof as taught to me by Austrian Kangoo master Fabian Lentsch, thanks buddy. It was a long overnight drive to Mendoza but my turn to drive came just in time to catch one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, complete with a full moon and wild Argentinean countryside.
As one makes the pilgrimage from the Los Pampas province of Argentina to that of Los Andes Mendoza is the gateway city between the plains and the mountains. An old and beautiful city of award winning architecture it has a large Chilean population due to its proximity to the border, meaning that our arrival on the 19th of September was high on festivities and low on vacancies- it was Chile’s national day. The hostel that we managed to find space for all 6 of us (in different rooms) was near to a city park, a park filled with music, dancing, flags and of course several large farms worth of ‘carne’. It seems the Chileans place meat at the bottom of the food pyramid as much as Argentineans, as in 5 plus a day, which may be why the local Argentines seemed fine with the celebrations that were the equivalent of a Canada day party in the USA.
The next day we planned to cross into Chile by one of the few passes through the Andes, bound for Portillo ski resort, which is pretty much a hotel with ski lifts located just on the Chilean side of the pass. But as we prepared to leave the hostel the friendly receptionist found out that the pass was closed due to heavy snowfall! Being mid September (which is Spring to all you Northern Hemisphere-ies) and only a week before the resort shut down for the season this was a shock in more ways than one- suddenly there was epic pow at our destination, but we couldn’t get to it. The options were few, it would’ve taken over 35 hours to get to Portillo by either of the other closest two passes, and so we drove up to the border town of Uspallata to line up with the stranded Chilean families, play tag in the gravel, cross our fingers and twiddle our thumbs. The news was bad the first morning- it was Saturday and they said the pass would be closed until Monday. Gutted and plan-less we returned to the hostel that we had arrived at late the night before to reconsider our options, or lack thereof. As we sat down for a mate (Argentinean caffeinated tea) one of the border workers came in to see his friend that worked there and told us that it would actually open Sunday morning. Stoking out that we hadn’t immediately begun driving for one of the other passes we made the most of our free day by going horse riding. Argentinean style there was no safety briefing- the local gaucho simply asked in Spanish if we had any experience, though whichever answer we gave was simply acknowledged with a curt nod and no further instructions.
The next morning we up and at ‘em early, arriving in the first queue of cars (that grew to 6 lanes), waiting for the hooter from the road control workers to begin attacking the road to the pass in a fashion similar to the intro of the Flintstones. When the time came we were quick off the mark but eventually passed by many due to our seemingly uncommon lack of desire to drive on the wrong side of the road around blind corners. The border itself brought further challenges as one of our American friends had overstayed his visa in Argentina. He seemed pretty un-phased in my eyes since I’ve had a friend get a 10 year ban from the USA for the same thing and when they dropped the bomb that it was a 30,000 peso fine I thought that things were about to get serious. Turns out that 30,000 Chilean peso is only $70 NZD (€45), not the $7000 NZD that it would’ve been if we were talking Argentinean peso. Sprits instantly rose as we were through the last of the barriers separating us from Portillo and epic untouched powder, and it turned out that none of the other cars in the queue were on their way to the ski resort!
As we had been waiting in the long single file for the border I had been eyeing the mountains around us in awe and wishing that we could ski them, they were huge and steep and I immediately understood how difficult it would be to keep this pass open in a storm. One epic looking face appeared to have avalanche debris at the bottom, but no evidence of a slide above it. As we drew closer though we realised that the ‘debris’ were ski tracks, it was Portillo! The lift had been difficult to see because it is a ‘slingshot’ instead of a chairlift, which is like a cross between a cable car and a T-bar. There are two bars hanging from the cables, each of which has 5 poma attached to it (shafts with button shaped ends to ‘sit’ on), and the poma bars and at opposite ends of the cable, meaning that as one goes up the other is coming down. These are almost apologetically placed in the heart of the intimidating Andes range as if in an attempt not to offend it, and since the majority of ski-able faces are at the bottom of potential avalanche paths it seems that this design is also to facilitate ease of transport if necessary, or at least less expensive replacement. There is a chairlift as well though and we gravitated to it immediately after arriving just in time for a half day ticket. There was an unskied chute directly under the chair that finished with a mandatory air, it was love at first run. I found out afterwards that it was a permanently closed area but the forgiveness that I didn’t have to beg was far easier than the permission that I didn’t ask. I met up with my American instructor friend Andrew Rumph and he showed us around to more epic spots, and took me shooting with his pro photog friend- who turned out to be the photographer for the USA ski team that were training there. We skied without a break until the lifts closed at 5pm, one of the best days of the season.
We got a couple more shots with Andrew's friend Jonathan, who I found out afterwards is the photographer for the US ski racing team and the first guy to get a racing shot on the cover of Powder magazine! So I'm hoping to see them published somewhere in the future.
Portillo is one of the most beautiful and scenic resorts I have even had the visited, and the grandeous hotel at the base made full use of the view with huge windows and an outdoor swimming pool and hot tubs. It was from these tubs that Andrew peeled a finger off his cold beer and pointed out ‘Super C’, a 1200 vertical metre colouir that was a slingshot ride and a ridge hike away. It barely ever saw the sun and the recent snowfall had loaded it with deep, well bonded snow. We had originally been planning to spend 3 days in Portillo, which the pass closure had reduced by one, and Super C seemed like the obvious option for our second and final day there, so the beers were cheers’d to it and the thighs given a nervous rub of steep&deep hiking anticipation. We had met one of Andrew’s friends Jake skiing the day before, who worked reception at the hotel, and he joined the team for the morning mission as the only member to have made the hike before. It was good that he did as we valued the extra pair of legs, it took about 4 hours of straight bookpacking to slog up the steep face of knee to thigh deep snow and we were all exhausted at the top. Tove had tweaked her knee in the heavier snow of the late afternoon the day before and made the tough call not to come. With impressive views of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in South America) and mild altitude nausea on my part we readied ourselves to drop in for one of the longest continuous pow runs of my life, past and future. It was amazing and steep and deep and it kept on going and going and going. There were hoots, hollers, hugs and blatant disregard for getting as much footage as it deserved, this was a time to ski for ourselves, runs like this don’t happen every season. I found out later that Chris Davenport had previously visited Portillo for 2 weeks and hiked Super C 9 times, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised. After we left Andrew and Jack used our bootpack to get up there twice more during closing week, and I’m glad to have been able to leave that behind for them in return for the local knowledge of it being there. Thanks again guys.
My first gif animation- the even better type of faceshot.
That evening we said our farewells and drove through the night to Pucon, to maximise the rest of the days that the Mighty Kangoo rental was available to us. Chile is much greener than Argentina and our journeys would take us into the thermal areas of hot springs, volcanoes and dirt roads to borders. Stay tuned for the next update!
Words and photos by Neil Williman and Tove Kockum
So far Argentina has been so exciting, skiing for the first time in a few months and meeting new amazing people. But also it’s been a week to learn how to adapt to a new culture, the very relaxed Patagonian style. Things take their time and you just have to let it flow that way. No need to stress. There’s always time to have a Mate (traditional hot herb drink) or some Dulce De Leche on a cookie. People are very friendly and as a visitor in their country I feel warmly welcomed. Family time here seems more important than sitting by the TV, computer or phone. A good example is the birthday party we went to the other day. It was held in a house on the backyard built with the purpose to drink Mate in, have a barbeque or a party. This is apparently very common in Argentina, to have a hangaround house in your garden.
On Thursday we went riding at Cerro Bayo together with Colin Boyd (FWT snowboarder) and his Argentinean girlfriend Sofie that we stayed with in Wanaka last season. This daytrip was an unexpected surprise and Cerro Bayo turned out to be a freeride paradise! It was only an hour drive from Bariloche but the locals there don’t seem to have discovered what this year’s new gondola has to offer. We scored some fresh snow and a blue bird day with no queues so definitely a day we’ll remember for a long time. With the stunning backdrop we decided to get the camera out, check out what we got below.
Tove getting some
Yesterday we were back on our touring skis, and they were back on our backs. Niki joined us for another mission with James and Lucas, this time touring off the back of Cerro Catedral (Bariloche’s local resort). We were lucky and needed their local-ness to get a one ride pass because they had to convince the lady that we were going cross country skiing on the tracks at the top of the gondola. We started our mission in a milk bowl with absolutely no visibility but we got lucky and the sky opened for us just in time for a sketchy rock scramble over to a good run. The rain crust was still lurking at variable depths under the dry pow meaning that we couldn’t quite ski full speed or drop anything more than a few metres, but the deep turns that we got kept smiles on our faces for most of the skin back to the resort. A 2 day storm was coming in, dropping crazy snowflakes that looked like bean-bag filling, and the thoughts of family fire time with Mate and Dulce de Leche cookies lured us home to bed for a day off.
Making the most of a small hole in the clouds
Niki dropping in Patagonian style
And then it snowed a bunch and we went on another amazing trip! Tove wrote the following words:
Frey Frey Frey, where to begin with you? Well for us it started at a bongo drums party for a friend of a friend that were celebrating that his girlfriend got pregnant. After the party we got a text from Colin Boyd (FWT snowboarder and friend) saying his crew were heading to Refugio Frey (a backcountry hut) tomorrow and that we were welcome to join if we feel like it. Absolutely we thought! Getting to Frey was interesting; first we had to convince the ticket lady that we were going cross country skiing so we could get a one ride pass for the Gondola. It was only a short tour from the top of the lift to the ridge and drop in but we managed to get lost because the visibility was soooo bad, it was like skiing in a milk bowl with no tasty cereals in it. But then something amazing happened, the light popped and the cereals appeared everywhere! It was suddenly a bluebird powder day and we were the first to get to the saddle that divided Cerro Catedral from the back country and the valley that led to Frey. Eric Hjorleifson and Jen Ashton were next to drop, that felt good.
It had snowed 2 days before but the resort had been tracked in low light since then and we had no expectations on the snow quality just over the ridge, so after our first run of deep dry pow we got to the bottom in stuttering, stoked shock. The sky was clearing too and we immediately made way to the next ridge to harvest more dream conditions before moving onto a small river crossing, tight tree navigation and the Frey valley itself.
Niki the monkey man showing us his secret spotts
Neil getting tangled up in the bush while crossing a river
We arrived at Frey with still a few hours of light left so we had a quick Mate and headed out for some more powder skiing. We started touring up a step beautiful face but then eventually had to start boot packing up. Niki the monkey was leading the track and we got to a pretty icy part, our token snowboarder was doing really well in snowboard boots but just as we said so he slipped on the hidden ice and fell over some rocks, his back pack with an attached snowboard got caught and he dislocated his shoulder. He was screaming “mi hombro” but we thought he was saying “mi hombre” which means ’my man’ or ‘my friend’. Hmm we were very confused for a second but soon realized he meant his shoulder. Neil turned into a ski patrol hero and after two tries relocated his shoulder into the right position. There were immediate hugs and cheers, followed by a very relieved and mellow run back to the hut for him and Neil, while Niki and I continued hiking to the top of the face.
Here’s a photo of Tove skiing down, it was steep, fluffy and a superb last run.
With legs tired like over boiled spaghetti we headed back the hut. Dinner was ready to be served which tonight was soup, risotto, pizza and desert and it only costs us about 7 €.
We woke up with the wind shaking the little hutt and the clouds hanging like a napkin over the mountains. But we headed out and again the sky opened for us and we scored a long nice run. After that I decided to start the tour back to the resort but Neil and Niki went for one more run in a nice colouir. The tour back worked my legs pretty good and getting to the top was a relief. Niki and Neil were not far behind me and I knew they haven’t had anything to eat in a long time so I left some salty biscuits in the touring tracks for them to snack on. They were stoked!
Back for one more
We got back to Cerro Catedral after closing and felt happy, exhausted and filled with new good memories. Although we just realized we didn’t have a ride home and thought it was going to be tricky to find a way down the mountain. We got lucky and found a ride down to the roundabout and from there a friendly guy picked us up in his tiny car but we managed to fit all of us and all our gear. On the way home we did a necessary stop at the supermarket and bought stuff to fill our empty bellies with tasty treats and amazing Argentinean meat.
Frey, Frey, Frey, what an incredible place. Just waking up in the morning and picking your lines by looking out the window while drinking your Mate. I’ll definitely come back.
Roadtrip on the cards next!
So those of you that know or follow me anything more than in passing will realize that this article isn't current- but it didn't get run in any of the ski magazines that we submitted it to. It did get run in a snowboard mag but only with the snowboarding shots, and Vasco Coutinho the photographer has just given me permission to use all the best photos in this post, as long as you go to www.latitude46.net which I will because he snaps bangers! I've just been back to this area, and comp-wise I'm in the same position now, so it seemed an appropriate time to be sharing it with the inter-web. Enjoy!
An Italian snowboarder, a Kiwi skier and a Portuguese photographer/snowboarder aren’t who you might expect to find in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Norway. The people who stopped by to tell us that we couldn’t park and sleep in our van were certainly surprised about where we were from, and sometimes interested enough to let us park and sleep there after all. How did we end up there? Well the Italian-Norwegian, Kiwi-Swedish and Portuguese-Danish romances were the base ingredient, throw in a FWQ 4* competition in Røldal and top it off with Norway having about 10 times more snow than the alps that season and you’ve got Norwegian photo-roadtrip pie.
A huge huge thanks goes out to the Slinning family for hosting us at their incredible new-age ‘Juvet Landscape Hotel’, in Valldal near Ålesund. This was the first stop of the trip and the base for amazing backcountry, ferry rides, spa jumps and lifestyle shots. Feast your eyes. And do anything you can to get to stay at the Juvet Hotel.
Next up was Røldal Freeride Challenge, the 4* FWQ competition. Our Italian team member Massimo got unlucky and crashed in the snowboard qualifiers after laying down a good top section in his run. I, Neil the kiwi, got lucky and took second in the finals, which gave me enough points from the competition season to qualify for the Freeride World Tour the next season, and won just enough money to continue the roadtrip. We hired a van that we could sleep in and set about making the most of the snow-laden springtime countryside by finding, building or touring/splitboarding to as many backcountry features as possible. We built jumps (well not me on the first day, I was too hungover from celebrating after Røldal, sorry guys), toured across frozen lakes, rode ferries, saw beautiful sunsets over beautiful scenery and incidentally went surfing too. It was cold. Feast your eyes again.
As if Norway hadn’t been amazing enough already, Vasco (the Portuguese photographer/snowboarder) found a way to take things to the next level. I don’t and never will know how he spotted this thing from so far away, but he had his eye on the prize as soon as he saw it. A natural halfpipe. Those words are thrown around a lot in the snow world, but this one was different. A superpipe of natural formation; a supernatural pipe. It was a two hour tour/splitboard from the road and it just kept looking better the closer we got. We got there, waited for the right weather, waited for the right light, rocked off (Massimo won) and got the shot. People always say that there is a story to a photo, and I hope you can feel this one. The vision of the photographer, the commitment of the team, waiting for hours for the right weather and light, and the nervousness (on Massimo’s part) of hoping not to fall, because the first ride in this thing was going to make the best shot. The satisfaction of it all coming together, and the resulting complete visual meal.
But I was jealous. I felt like Massimo had got the best two shots so far by jumping the spa with a sweet grab (I’m sorry, I can’t name the grab, I’m a skier. But it was definitely sweet) and winning the rock off for the first run in the natural pipe (then killing it). I wanted mine. I wanted my dessert. On the last day of the trip we found it. I can’t even remember where it was now, I just tried to find it on a map but looking for a place that I think that starts with S and is near a tunnel and somewhere on the way to Bergen from somewhere near Røldal is surprisingly difficult. Maybe it’s better that way. But as soon as we drove under it I knew I wanted it. That road gap was mine. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t stomp it, but I wanted to put my prototype Fischer skis to the test. They held up. My body was a bit sore though, stackars pungen! But it was the end of the season. I got my just desserts for my dessert but the taste of success still tanged sweetly on my tastebuds.
We dispersed back to the country of origin of our various romantic interests, and, later, dispersed back to our countries of origin. But we’ll be back. We still hunger for the raw beauty that Scandinavia serves up in its various ways. Maybe we’ll share these delights with others next time. Maybe it will be you. Thanks for sharing, meals bring people together. Hejdå Skandinavien, vi ses snart.