Springtime Ski Touring Adventures in the Heart of Patagonia

This adventure didn't come without challenge, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

It's on my husband's bucket list to ski on every continent. So when he suggest Patagonia for our 2018 summer holiday, I knew there would be skiing involved. So we decided that instead of heading to Patagonia in the depths of their winter, we'd plan our trip in their spring time and hopefully get the best of both worlds - skiing and hiking.

Ski touring is massively popular in Austria around the area where we live and last winter we caught the bug. We quickly decided that we didn't want to head out to one of the ski resorts in Argentina for our Patagonian ski experience. Instead, we'd rather go somewhere most tourists never get to visit. We did some searching online, and found a company called Mountaineering Patagonia based out of El Chaltén which looked like exactly what we wanted. We made contact with them and started planning our adventures. 

Training

During the summer leading up to our trip, we knew we'd need to be comfortable with vertical ascents of 1500m so we trained as much as we could. Before the end of the northern winter we did one final ski tour, where we did the first 550m carrying our skis on our packs and the rest touring, but by 1250m I was struggling to put one leg in front of the other, especially knowing that I still needed to have the strength to ski back down. The rest of the summer was spent hiking, and while 1500m became fairly easy, we knew that once we had to carry all our gear with us, it would get a lot harder.

Arriving In Argentina

We arrived in to El Calafate in mid-September and were pleased to see that there was still plenty of snow on the peaks. However, we noticed that the snow line seemed quite high. After a few days recovering from jet lag, we headed out to our base for the next week in El Chaltén. On the morning after our arrival, it snowed down to the village, but by the end of the day the snow had melted. We met our guide later that day, and discussed the plan of action for the next few days. Our original plan had been to hike up to the Rio Blanco camping area, set up camp and continue up on skis from there. But with the weather forecast looking somewhat sketchy, we decided to plan 2 separate single day tours with a rest day in between, instead of a 2-day tour with camping.

Day 1 - Cerro Mosquito

We woke up to cloudy skies for our first touring day but the forecast was for better weather down the valley. Our guide Juan picked us up at 8:00 AM, we threw our skis on the roof of the car, and drove down the valley away from El Calafate and outside of the bounds of the Los Glaciares National Park. As we drove along we saw the clouds start to lift and the mountain peaks peer through. We also noticed that the snow line seemed pretty high. With no snow in sight (unless you looked straight up) we pulled over the car and got ready to go. Starting off in hiking boots, we strapped our ski gear to our packs, climbed over a fence and headed in to the forest. The path was steep, muddy and pretty slippy, and the thick bushes made hiking with skis on extra challenging as we fought our way through. Finally, after almost an hour of hiking, the bushes started to thin out and we found some snow. Our guide Juan thought it would be fine to tour from this point, so we left our shoes in a bush and continued up with skis on. Although there was enough snow to tour, I was a little nervous about skiing back down through the bushes. We kept on going upwards, and after 1200m of altitude gain over around four hours, we reached the summit. We had a quick rest at the top and enjoyed the view of endless mountain peaks covered by glaciers and the Southern Patagonia Ice Field in the distance. The clouds had almost completely lifted by now and the snow was super light and fluffy, so as beautiful a the view from the top was, we couldn't wait to ski back down. 

Day 2 - Cerro Vespignani

After our first day, the weather forecast didn't look great, so we took a rest day (where we still hiked over 20km) and met up with Juan the following day for our second ski tour. With a longer drive ahead of us this time, we left before sunrise and headed in the same direction as our last tour, but this time heading further down the valley. To my relief, the approach for this tour wasn't half as slippery, steep or bushy as the last one, and the morning sun beams shining through the trees made it even more enjoyable. This time it only took us around 40 minutes until we reached the snow line, on a ridge above a semi-frozen lake, and again we swapped into our ski gear and left our boots in a tree. The route up to Cerro Vespignani is largely glacier, so we also had to harness up for this tour. The snow was heavier here than the previous day, with a bit of a crust on the top, but I was far too distracted by the view to notice on the way up. All around us were fields of ice, crevasses and ice spires, and in the valley we could see the lakes in both directions. Despite very tired legs (and feet covered in blisters) we gained 1500m in altitude and the views were out of this world. Unfortunately the snow on the way down wasn't quite as wonderful, but without too much trouble, we headed back down to our shoes, following closely in Juan's tracks to avoid crevasses, and to my surprise, we carried on skiing. We weaved in and out of rocks through the thin snow cover, and by the edge of the lake, we took off our skis. Although most of the lake was still frozen, this far end had already thawed. What happed next was not something I was expecting. We threw our skis on our back but kept our boots on, and climbed over the large boulders around the shore until we reached the ice where the lake was still frozen. Here we put our skis back on and Juan re-assured us (mainly me as I have a fear of falling through ice) that it was perfectly safe, and we skated across the frozen lake and to the far shore where we joined the footpath heading back down to the valley.




The End of Our Adventure

Despite spending the whole winter ski touring and the summer hiking, it didn't really prepare me for the challenge of touring in Patagonia. As someone fairly new to ski touring, I had been spoiled by the fact that at home we'd rarely have to walk for more than 5 minutes to reach the snow. But in Patagonia we didn't have that luxury. The views from these ski tours were incredible, but you certainly had to earn them with long, sometimes steep approaches through trees that didn't want to let you through without catching the tips or tails of your skis and pulling you off balance. But it was such an awesome adventure and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

If you're thinking about trying backcountry skiing for the first time, make sure to educate yourself on avalanche safety properly by enrolling in an AIARE course or going out with professional guides. Always Know Before You Go! Check out Sam Watson's story 6 Things You Need to Know Before Backcountry Skiing.


Published: November 14, 2018

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Cat Ekkelboom-WhiteExplorer

Austria

Cat is an adventure wedding photographer at Wild Connections Photography and editor of European adventure wedding blog We Are The Wanderers. She believes that adventures do not stop once you get married and continues ...