Gleaming the Tube
The original plan was, well, there were more than a few original plans. Adam originally had planned to fly down to Santiago and begin guiding for a cat ski operation in July. But when July came, and there was still no snow at the base of the area, the operation called it off for the season. Instead of losing money on his plane ticket, he just bumped the date back a month and a half for big mountain ski season (September), and cajoled another friend into flying down those same dates (Billy). I was originally planning to be done with work by then, as my schedule of shift based avalanche forecasting could be a bit more flexible. But when I showed up to Chile in May and was denied a renovation on my work visa, all of my previous negotiations with the company meant nothing. The long lasting, drawn out beaurocratic process that I went through to regain my work visa is a story for another time. I worked in the meantime as an educator, teaching decision making courses to the forecast crew and decision makers at Andina and Teniente. I did end up working a few shifts as a forecaster in kind of a pinch hitter position, they put me in wherever they needed to fill a spot. Anyway, my schedule quickly got busy once the visa actually did come together, and I didna��t have much flexibility for a personal ski trip (bogus). Though it did have some.
It is hard to plan a trip into the big mountains when you are not sure of things like; who will drive you up there, with who and when can you get a ride out, or if youa��re even going to be able to make it up at all. Luckily we had satellite communications, myself with the InReach and Adam had just scored a sat phone from a client on Denali over the summer.
Adam and Billy arrived and we spent the second half of the day shopping for food. They bought enough to spend 10 days in the mountains and we mix and matched so I would be carrying in enough for 4 days a week later. If for some reason I got called in to work and couldna��t make it, they had the ability to stretch their rations out. My friend Diego from Punta Arenas had just gotten a car in Santiago, and we were eager to go ski after a storm day, which we didna��t have many of this season. He decided wea��d go up to the Embalse el Yeso early and ski some powder on a very obvious low hanging fruit called Pico Yeso. Pico Yeso is South facing fall line containing 3000ft. of vertical, directly above the waters of the reservoir. We were treated to one of the best powder days of our season, and showed Billy a great introduction to what the Central Andes had to offer. At the end of the day clouds built in, and the brief period of high pressure and sunny skies ended as quickly as it came, and flurries began as we cracked our celebratory cervezas. We left Adam and Billy to camp on the side of the road as we rolled cautiously down the steep icy road. The road was so icy in fact, that a family up for a mountain drive had abandoned their vehicle to walk down as I jumped in and got to drive it in a slow motion slip and slide down the heinous road for them.
I went off and taught my last course of the season as Adam and Billy made their way into the interior of the range. They encountered unsettled weather for the majority of the next week; overcast skies, high winds, and very high winds… Somewhere in that time, the winds mellowed out enough for them to nearly summit a 4800m peak and ski a new route down a couloir on its SE side, as well as a few other routes nearby base camp. I finished the course as they had returned to a base camp at the junction of the Rio Yeso and its tributaries. The next day Diego dropped me off just shy of the entrance to the Parque El Yeso, and I went on a search for the crew, wandering into the winds towards a land of a current population of 2, but containing one of the greatest concentrations of high and un-skiied peaks in this part of the range. I found what looked like their old tracks, which were barely distinguishable and quite melted out. I thought I spotted their camp once, but it ended up just being a rock, the long flat distances playing games with my perspectives among the wind-blown snowscape. We hadna��t communicated since two days ago. When we had, I gave them the forecast, which was for a weak storm to be moving through the region on this day, and they sounded 50/50 on whether they might move up to a high camp or not. I decided if they had moved up, I would follow and attempt to make it to their camp that night. Luckily, as I came around a bend and entered the flats where the tributaries all come together, I found their tent and the guys hanging outside having a good ola�� puffy pants party. I was really psyched to be out in the hills, away from it all. They told stories of high winds, very high winds, and getting blown backwards while attempting to move camp up hill. The winds were so strong that they only moved about 2Kma��s in a few hours before calling it quits and hunkering down for the night. Snowfall set in a bit harder during the day, so we stayed put, not wanting to repeat the act of moving a few kilometers and having to pitch camp again. We went for a quick venture up the river a short ways to investigate where I had a hunch that the hot springs (Termas del Plomo) were located. I was right, they were just up river. We soaked in the termas for a good long while as light snow continued.
The next day broke blue, and we were off and up to a high camp, set to make an attempt on 5000m Cerro Belloa��s South Face the following day. This time of year when the sun comes out after a fresh storm, you have to expect that youa��ll be glopping up the bottom of your skins if you are going to be walking uphill in the mountains all day. We glopped indeed. The sweat fest was nearly over when we made it up onto the Glaciar Yeso, spiraling around and up towards the objective guarding the head of the valley. As soon as we hit the shade, it got cold. A world of extremes it is up here. When the route came into view, I was fairly sure that we were golden; the route went through without major technical difficulties. This was a sigh of relief, because we had no previous photos to go off besides Google Eartha��s distorted satellite images, and the maps arena��t very good here.
Camp was near a cool balancing rock formed from a melting glacier. Our tent was recently acquired by Billy for this trip, and was pretty small for 3 people, just big enough. It is a different type of tent then conventional style, a tube shaped structure that seemed to hold up well in high winds. We found cooking in the vestibule to be the way to go, only problem was that the third had to hideout down low in the tube, back curled over, twisted in a strange position which would eventually hurt the back. In the morning, it was finally my time to cook, and it felt great to sprawl out into the vestibule. Adam was left to gleam the tube.
The forecast models showed increasing cloud cover and ridgetop winds by mid-day, but temps were fairly cold, so we had to compromise our departure time to work well on both ends. We left camp at a civilized 0700, while the sun was warming the ridges and making its way onto the E facing part of the face. Our line had a very slight bit of East in it, anymore and we would have had to leave much earlier to avoid wet loose avalanche danger. A neighboring slope with maybe 25 degrees more of East ended up wet loose avalanching by the time we reached the base of our route. Skinning up and over the glacier, the route went from nearly flat to 45 degrees almost instantly. And then it continued up into the sky, the angle was relentless and steepened with every hundred meters or so. Looking up at the crux from a rib perched in a nice safe spot for a break, it looked like it may warrant roping up it was so steep. Our perspective of the world was one you can only get while up on a huge face in the mountains. We sank deep through the snowpack, bootpacking quite slowly, rest stepping one at a time towards the unknown. The crux warranted holding on to the slope, keeping ones balance, and cranking. There were only a few pieces of rock under the snow, but no ice, mainly just pure steep snow climbing. We regrouped right above that, talking about the slabby look to the last piece of the puzzle before the summit. Billy led up and poked around, checking for strong over weak layering with a few pole probes. All felt good, and we followed.
The summit ridge was gorgeous, with 360 degree views of the highest peaks of the Central Andes. Just to the north of here is a section of mountain crest that contains the most amount of contiguous land remaining at, or just under 6000m of anywhere in the Andes. One might say this is the heart of the range, or at least one outstanding part of the central Andes. From Nevado de Piuquenes to Tupungato, this stretch is roughly 20km long, forming an immense massif and physical barrier between Chile and Argentina. Luckily for us, this area has been fervently ignored by ski mountaineers, and by alpinists in general. We drooled over endless lines. Mindblowing steep ski routes of such quality and character that to nail just one in skiable conditions would easily be the ski of a lifetime for most humans.
Adam pulled out the smoked salmon that had almost been eaten every hour of the trip until now. We had taken turns vetoing the eating of the salmon, wanting to save it for this moment, for a sacrifice. Now was the time. Thank you salmon, you gave us the energy to send. We clicked in after half an hour basking in the glory and views, the light wind and the sun.
The snow was perfect. No sluffing, just steep, chalky, and stable recycled powder. Perfect for steeps. The jump turns took lots of effort in the thin air, so we linked some up, then pulled over to let the next guy go, regrouping above the crux. The crux was steep and not quite ski width. I remembered Lou Dawson writing about his tips and tails getting caught in a steep narrow choke and he was left hanging upside down. I took some photos from above the crux when the boys were skiing. We were truly up on a wall; I had to pack out the snow surface with my backpack so I could keep my weight in to it and balanced, perched high above the glacier flats. Once past this part, we could make some slightly bigger turns. We hooted and hollered as we jumped cautiously down the wall. The lower section had sluffed out during the storm, leaving a crunchy but edge able bed surface. We had to slow it down here, and we skied one at a time as our sluff would pick up speed on the icy old bedsurface. The name of the game was to get on a sluff rib and stay on it. We ran it out onto the glacier, where we regrouped and looked up. Wind was already transporting spin drift and initiated sluffalanches on the upper face as a few high clouds formed. Mellow roly-poly turns on the lower glacier provided some much needed relief of residual stress that we clung onto while on the steep descent.