Northern Cali Newlyweds Hunt Patagonia Powder
After tying the knot in California’s summer heat, my new hubby, Greg, and I were feeling the need to cool off. So, after thumbing through Skiing magazines and a good bit of Internet research we decided to head to the Southern Hemisphere for the novelty of sharing powder turns in August.
Our happily-ever-after started on Aug. 17, 2009 with about 18 hours on various airplanes and in various airports before landing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We spent our first few days there sleeping off the jet lag between multiple bottles of Malbec and mouthwatering steak dinners, sultry tango shows and raucous futbol games while retiring every evening to the Hotel Babel – which we chose for its sleek, modern interior and friendly staff.
Buenos Aires, home to 3 million people, is clean, organized and renowned for its cosmopolitan character. It’s nice, but we had come to ski and that meant leaving Buenos Aires’s cafes and European flair behind. One Long, Blissful Bus Ride Twenty hours of Pampas (flat-as-a-pancake cattle grazing grounds) separate bustling Buenos Aires from the snow-covered Andes in central Patagonia outside of Bariloche, our destination. That might seem like a long way, so we needed to ride in style.
We bought two tickets on Via Bariloche Exclusivo ($70US per person), a first-class bus equipped with La-Z-Boy-like seats that fold down flat into beds. There was plenty to keep us entertained. A bus steward served breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizers, dessert, and even a midnight snack. There were movies (and most of them didn’t even skip) and we could bring our own booze! After two bottles of wine and two liters of Quilmes (the national equivalent of Budweiser, though far superior), I discovered my new husband actually enjoys watching romantic comedies! My chick-flick man and I didn’t think our 20-hour-bus-ride could get any better when, at like five past midnight, we heard the bus steward ask, “Whiskey, champagne, cookies?” Yes, yes, and yes!
We arrived in Bariloche the next day and found fluffy, fat flakes falling steadily on the holly tree beside the cozy lakeside cottage we’d rented on VRBO.com for the next four days. I must have been overcome by the infamous newly wed bliss because all I could think about was getting started on the official honeymoon sport … skiing!
Bariloche is set on the principal lake of the region, Lago Nahuel Huapi, a large, long lake with fjord-like fingers snaking through the mountainous landscape. Outside of Bariloche is Cerro Catedral, the Squaw Valley of Argentina. More than a dozen chairlifts, pommel lifts, tow ropes and gondolas access 1,200 skiable hectares. The resort tops out at 7,150 feet, which, if you’re lucky, is above snow line.
And we were lucky, the first day. We showed up on Aug. 23, 2009, the first true powder day at the end of a meager season, and had an amazing day powder skiing all while staring at the beautiful deep-blue of Lago Nahuel Huapi.
That was until a storm snuck in, blocked out the sun and turned to rain! The rain wore on for days. So we at a lot of food (at fancy places like the Butterfly, a must-not-miss for Bariloche honeymooners), drank a lot of wine, took a road trip through the Circuito de Sieto Lagos (circuit of the seven lakes) to a remote and cozy hot springs resort called Lahuenco (another trip highlight), and engaged in the other official honeymoon sport (also a highlight!)
Into the Backcountry Finally, the wet storm ended with a cold snap that dropped six to 12 inches of fluff on top of an icy crust. Plus, the forecast called for clear skies and temperatures peaking around 40 degrees for the next four days, with a storm arriving at the end of the fourth day. We made haste to a backcountry hut known as Refugio Frey, about a four-to-six-hour ski from the top of Cerro Catedral, which we chose for its rustic appeal and access to outdoor adventure. Our ski-in was another trip highlight as we found heaps of untracked feathery snow lying in south-facing shadows on the way to the hut.
After four hours of amazing, pristine outdoor adventure Greg and I found Refugio Frey sitting humbly at the outlet of the snow-covered Lago Tonchek. We arrived around four in the afternoon with the day’s last warm rays on our skin. Hardy-looking folks greeted us with warm smiles as we settled into our new base for the next few days.
Rustic Hut, Full Keg Inside the charmingly rustic hut (room and board for only $35 per night, per person) there was a boot room, a staffed kitchen, and a commodious dining room with a woodstove and drying rack at its center. Upstairs, there were 28 bunk spots with foam mats.
We picked a private area and made a stop by the tap downstairs to fill up on frothy, dark beer and watch the evening shadows climb up the golden Frey, a granite pinnacle scaled frequently by strong climbers. One of our hut hosts, Paula, was making the ascent when we arrived, in between skiing steep lines, cooking dinner and kneading the dough for the next morning’s breakfast toast.
When the landscape turned gray and a nearly full moon illuminated the eastern valley, the evening revelry began. Our hut hosts prepared appetizers, dinner, and dessert. Wine bottles were pulled off the mantles and uncorked. Dark beer ran in a steady stream from tap to pint glass. The hut was packed with more than a dozen folks, mostly Argentine. We were the sole Americans; a guy named Jan, the only European. Boisterous conversations in Spanish and English and the golden glow of candlelight added to the warmth of this place as we filled our bellies and bloodstreams with fuel and fire for backcountry exploring. South-facing Stashes
The skiing around Frey is superb and easy to access. Narrow, east-facing chutes form a steep amphitheatre right out the back door. The Argentines liked to ski these icy lines, making jagged zipper-line skin tracks all the way up. Greg and I preferred to hunt powder on the south-facing slopes, of which there were plenty. When conditions are right, the lines that can be skied are virtually inexhaustible and for us, that meant skiing well after sunset under a near-full moon every night of our stay.
But then, the weather might turn on you, as it did on us the day we had to hike out. Another couple (who had incidentally gotten engaged the night before) also planned to hike out so we decided to tag along.
All went well until we came to a frighteningly steep, slick slope. I took off my skis and fastened them to my backpack to boot pack the slope. No more than five steps into my ascent I slipped and slid well below my starting point, a sluff of powdery snow falling with me.
Panic percolated my bloodstream. “Can somebody please call a helicopter rescue?” I thought about crying after the sluff had stopped and I froze in fear with snow piled up on my sleeves and the wind howling outside my hood. Shaking off my momentary paralysis, I began to ascend on all fours, punching my fists into the snow and trying to grip the ice layer beneath the fluff with my fingernails through my mittens.
Making the top was at once comforting and agonizing. The storm engulfed us. Visibility was about ten feet. Heading off into the white abyss was incredibly disorienting. For the next four hours it was one icy, unstable footstep in front of the other. The cozy world inside of my hard shell echoed with uncertainty but also a dogged determination not to die in the Andes on my honeymoon. At one point, we hiked up to what seemed like the top of the ridgeline, an attempt at orientation. Greg asked Jeremiah, our leader, “So do you think you know where we are now?” He gave a “mas o menos” gesture that made me do a quick assessment of the survival supplies we carried in our packs - some food, sleeping bags, headlamps, and, did Greg pack that emergency shelter? I stared deeply into Greg’s eyes and said in the most upbeat tone I could muster, “I think we could probably stand a night out here if we had to.” No response was necessary as we kept on in what seemed to be more and more like the right direction. And finally, it was.
Matrimonial Metaphors The blur of travel during a complete whiteout exhausted all of us, and the rain we endured as we continued down the mountain to civilization stole every last ounce of energy that remained. But still, I couldn't help snickering to myself between whimpers as we bumped our way through thick clouds and over uneven terrain once we reached the resort.
This is what we do for fun. We head out into the elements, enjoying its carefree pleasures and enduring its heaping shares of whoop-ass. And what better metaphorical experience — joy and laughter, discomfort and fear, struggles and uncertainty — could a newlywed couple embarking on a lifetime together have in one trip?
I’d recommend this memorable trip only to hardy couples with a strong sense of adventure. The three-week trip (Aug. 17-Sept. 7, 2009) ran us approximately $5,500 including airfare and a much-needed night of pampering at the Villa Sofia Resort & Spa in Bariloche, complete with hot tub and honeymoon champagne after our epic storm day!