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Misadventures in Patagonia

The town of Cavihavue at the base of Volcan Copahue.

Words: Jen Girardi

Skiers and snowboarders are part of a nomadic tribe that can be found dreaming about the next turn, sometimes traveling to great lengths in search of pow. This summer as days were getting longer and temperatures higher, I found myself longing to get away from the scorching heat in Whistler, BC.

 Traveling to the other side of the world to chase winter can be a roll of the dice. This August was low tide in Argentina with storms not delivering the goods. But, things can change quickly in Patagonia. So, when I saw a storm lining up in the forecast, I pulled to trigger and booked a trip to Bariloche to meet up with local legend, Mauri Cambilla, and photographer, Ben Girardi.

 With the forecast calling for an 80cm storm on the day of my arrival I crossed my fingers and started the 30-hour journey from summer to winter. By the time I landed in Buenos Aries the snow had evaporated from the forecast. It was clear when I arrived into Bariloche a few hours later that there was only snow in the high alpine and things were looking shallow at best.

 One thing that was still delivering in Argentina was the asado that Mauri cooked for us that night. A ridiculous amount of beef was slow cooked while we talked about our options. With stomachs full of incredible Argentinian beef and teeth stained red from delicious Malbec our spirits were high even if the snowpack was low. Mauri suggested we head north to a town called Caviahue that is nestled in the middle of the Andes which is known for its amazing terrain and heavy snowfalls. If anywhere in the country was holding snow we would find it there. With the forecast now calling for snow again, it was the best option.

 The plan was set; we would head north in the morning. After six hours driving on the road, we arrived into Caviahue with a storm. The wind howled and the sky darkened as rain fell in sheets as we made our final climb into the mountains. Rolling into what was very evidently a ski town, we passed driveways filled with 4x4’s, snowmobiles and crazy looking snowcats as we pulled up to our home away from home. We rushed inside to get out of the storm and heard the wind blowing so hard that cracks in the windows whistled as if the house was a recorder that Ullr was learning to play.

 We awoke the next morning to perfectly blue skies and no sign of a snow line. It had rained higher than we had hoped. Remaining cautiously optimistic, we decided to try to at least head up to the resort to get a chairlift bump into the alpine. While touring from the valley was out, maybe we could make “plan b” work. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot we knew that we needed a “plan c”. While the resort was not technically closed, the steaming volcano that the chairlifts are built on started spewing black smoke and ash.

 While nobody seemed too concerned with the change from steam to ash, it left us reconsidering wanting to get too close to the crater. The ash and steam had melted what little snow had fallen, forcing the upper lifts to close. With little to no snow covering the mountain, one magic carpet was still spinning, servicing a handful of very brave or blissfully ignorant beginner skiers and snowboarders just trying to stay alive as they navigated around patches of rock and grass on the small, icy slope.

 Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a face relatively close by that seemed like it could be holding snow. While it was going to most likely make for average riding at best, Ben and I decided it was worth it to go explore and try to get a couple of turns in. With no other plans and not much to lose we strapped our boards to our packs and set out for a little adventure boarding. We only had about a 1000-meter elevation gain and a small creek to cross to get to our objective. It seemed like an achievable goal.

 Winding our way through the prehistoric forest filled with magical araucaria trees, we searched for a place to cross the creek that was looking much more like a river from close up. Proving a little more difficult than we first imagined, we found a sequence of rocks that seemed like it would work as a crossing. After putting far too much trust into collapsible poles, we made it across the river. That’s when things shifted into “type-two” fun. Slogging through the chest-high brush, throwing our boards over and climbing under to find them, we fought our way to the snowline, or what was left of it. A mix of patches of snow, grass, and bush, we decided to boot pack until the snow became more consistent to transition to start to splitboard.

 Within the first 100 meters of crossing consistent snow, we decided to turn around. The snow was garbage, with a refrozen rain crust on top and hollow, rotten snow underneath. We had finally made it within reach of our objective but knew it was a better call to retreat. We did strap in and do a few sketchy turns on our way down for good measure before deciding on an easier objective, pizza, and beer.

 Thankfully Caviahue was able to deliver on good pizza and even better beer from a local craft brewery, La Gringa. A few pints and pizzas later we had a new plan. Working his local connections, Mauri spoke with the owner of a local backcountry company, Caviahue Adventures. The owner, Adrian, had a few extra seats to go out to Copahue, a tiny town high in the Andes the next day. It was an easy decision to go as he described the giant natural hot springs and amazing terrain surrounding Copahue. He was confident that we would be able to find some snow out there.

Getting dropped off in Copahue.

Copahue is only accessible by road in the summer so we were stoked to have an opportunity to get out there in the cat track adapted trucks. After driving up a dirt road to access the snow line, we hopped in the snow trucks and cruised through the snowy tundra arriving at the town of Copahue that emerged below us in a valley like a snowy mirage. A-frame cabins, small houses, and even a lodge were built around a massive hot spring in the center of town. The whole town sits in a former caldera of an extinct volcano.

 We hopped out of the truck and transitioned, setting out to explore the unique features surrounding the town. Pleasantly surprised by the snow quality, we rode lines that fed us back into town all morning before stopping for a quick lunch at the one place that seemed to have people hanging out at. It was there that we shared a maté we met one of the town’s only year-round residents, Mario, the chef at the one operational lodge that served as a base camp for Caviahue Adventures. He was stoked to see some more splitboarders in town and invited us for a tour of his house that had natural radiant heating thanks to a fumarole.

 It was then that Adrian arrived back to the lodge with his other clients, they had finished for the day and he offered to give us a sled bump out to some bigger, steeper terrain. With the easily accessible lines surrounding town tracked, we did not hesitate to take him up on his offer. Not long after we were looking down from a ridgeline about to drop in on perfect, light, fluffy powder under blue skies. It was a miracle. We found the goods.

 Quick touring laps ensued for the rest of the afternoon with everyone getting lots of turns, face shots, and high fives. In a perfect corner of the Andes, we lapped line after line of perfect powder, working our way around the amazing terrain.

Chile or Argentina? Whatever the country the snow was good.

After a technical approach to the line Mauri was rewarded with the best snow of the trip.

Mauri and Jen share a party wave

Mauri playing with light and shadow

As the light started to fade a pair of condors buzzed around close overhead, either watching the show or looking for dinner. We didn’t wait too long to find out and started the journey back to Copahue. 

Upon returning, our friend Mario was waiting to show us the hot springs insisting we test the waters before leaving. He took us to a mud bath first, explaining the healing properties of the warm mud before leading us to the perfect hot pool for après ski with seats designed for dipping your feet in. We all agreed that it was the perfect end to an awesome day. 

Arriving home well after dark we looked up to the terrain surrounding Caviahue and planned to come back another year to ride. While we had finally found snow way out in the Andes it only left us wanting more.

 We started the journey back to home the next day, winding through the countryside which was filled with fields of wheat and ranches that went on for miles. We watched out the truck windows as Gauchos herded their cattle and the mountains grew distant behind us.

 Another adventure was complete with a northern hemisphere winter on the horizon. The snow finally arrived in Argentina the week after we got back to Whistler with meters of snow falling in the very tail end of the Southern Hemisphere winter season. A reminder that we can’t control the weather. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. But, whatever the weather brings, adventure is always worth searching for. 

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