This Climbs & Expeditions entry originally appeared in the 2003 American Alpine Journal.
Argentina, various ascents and ski descents.
By Doug Byerly
A dry winter in several areas James Bracken and I were interested in required us to adopt a “go where there’s snow” approach. Unfortunately, where there’s snow in the Andes, there’s often prodigious wind. Bariloche, Argentina proved to have the right stuff in terms of terrain, but a warm, dry late winter left the snowlines high on the peaks. Off we went north, to ski volcanoes in the central cordillera en route to a reconnaissance of the South American ski mecca, Las Leñas. First the great volcano Lanin spit us out like watermelon seeds, then the spectacular Valley of the Volcanoes, home to over twenty 3,000m to 4,000m ski peaks and no skiers to be found. We found fabulous objectives but winds as a savage and cruel as those in the notorious south of these countries.
Ah, finally a refuge at the international destination of Las Leñas, where we attempted to find our ski legs amid the swirling confusion of this social and environmental maelstrom. While poaching lines from ski-movie hotshots, international swanksters, and rug rats in pink one-piece suits, we also found time to grind out late nights at the disco and kite-ski in the barren valley below Las Leñas.
Ten days of this cycle of madness prompted us to head yet farther north, to the high desert mountains of the central cordillera of Argentina. We traveled to the Rio Colorado valley, 100km north of Aconcagua, and made the first ascent and first ski descent of the spectacular 5,000′ Alma Fuerte Couloir on the striking Alma Fuerte Peak (5,700m). Next we skied the east face of La Mesa (6,200m) from just below the summit. Regretfully, the wind caught up with us again and blew our emaciated asses out of the peaks and back into the disco. Retreat complete, with condor escort and loads too big for shattered skeletons. After gorging on prime Argentine beef, pig, goat, chicken, and guanaco, the team decided to split into two strong, experienced teams of one. I went to Chile and skied the four peaks of Chillan in a single day, as well as making possibly the first complete ski descent (7,000′) of the stunning “jewel of the central Andes of Chile,” Cerro Viuda (3,900m), via the west face couloir. In seven days I skied 11 major volcanoes between the cities of Concepcion and Osorno, including a 14,000′ roundtrip (half up and half down) of the beautiful Volcano Llaima (3,500m) in six hours.
Then the fabled El Niño swept me again into the thumping, bumping discos for my swan song. It was kill or be killed and, remarkably, I came up breathing. Alas, it was time to leave Chile and catch up on poaching stateside. As for James, I can’t tell you what became of the lad, other than that he has taken up residence in Bariloche. OK, so the wind got the best of us and maybe the DJs and Buenos Aires girls too, but we sure did cover some ground and lay down some tracks in those fantastic and lonely, windswept expanses of the great Andes chain.
Postscript: In 2009 Doug Byerly tells us, “James ended up moving to Argentina, where he just had his second child with the mysterious woman who stole my partner! Oh well. Those discos are still happening.”