Snowboarding the Andes

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Patagonia holds a sense of mystery for snowboarders everywhere. As a half-Swiss-half-American, the idea of surfing on the powder of South American volcanoes seemed a fiction.  It was only when my plane’s wheels set down in Chile’s capitol Santiago and I was surrounded by the Andes that I began to believe.
After a 12-hour bus trip south, my first Patagonian snow was on Osorno Volcano. With the tremendous glistening blue Lake Llanquihue providing a backdrop, I considered my $1,000 plane ticket a fair trade for discovering another world.  A little extra hiking yielded untouched powder, with a sprinkling of igneous rocks poking out to watch for.  There are not a lot of off-piste options on this volcano, but what it lacks in trails it greatly makes up in amazing views.
Later, to reach Bariloche, I took a combination of boats and buses in which I spent the majority of the time either plastered to the window or braving the smack-down winds on the decks.  Despite taking a wealth of photos, they could never fully transmit the hulking iced rock formations reflected up from mineral-laden lakes of the Andes. When I arrived the next morning at Bariloche’s skiing launch site, Cathedral Village, toting my snowboard through unplowed white streets at 6 a.m., I had no plan, just “ganas,” as they say in these parts.  
Following a ski lift trail, after a couple hours of hiking ever higher, my resolve was rewarded. I found a group of eight Argentineans also looking to take advantage of the first snowfall post-Puyehue Volcano eruption.  Leeching of their camaraderie (and chestnuts), all of us hiked for hours more in a quest that culminated in a half-hour of waist-deep powder purity.  Even with lifts open the ensuing day and the entire resort to explore, no run would compare to that day’s ride through untouched powder. 
I owe that day in Bariloche to those skiers, boarders and their German Shepherd.  Despite my limited ability to converse, they were eager to share nature’s gift that is Patagonia.  And from what I’ve discovered since then, similar Patagonian “buena onda” isn’t too hard to come by.
A Good Guide
Like me (but much better snowboarders), Lucus Debari and The North Face team riders also needed home-grown guides to accomplish their Patagonian mission: to shred the the Chilean volcano Puyehue’s crater, a feat few in this world have accomplished.
Debari and his crew came to southern Chile in September 2010. After waiting out rain, snow and fog for several days in the El Caulle refugio near Puyehue’s crater, finally a clear day came when they moved to a campsite near the summit shrouded with fog. Says Debari:”We basically set up camp in a total white out…after not knowing where you are and then wake up (the next morning) on the rim of this amazing volcano with blue skies, and the lakes and other volcanoes in the surrounding area, it was pretty amazing.”
The North Face team then took on the AK47 lines in breathtaking style. It is an experience captured on some amazing video that has enthralled snowboarders globally. 
To get there, however, the North Face riders had as their guide Jorge Kozulj, a veteran who has skied the backcountry and volcanoes all over the Andes. Jorge, 36, is a true-blooded “Andean Argentinian.”  Native to Bariloche, when Jorge reached his teenage years he was skiing the backountry of Bariloche and climbing in the granites spires of Cerro Catedral.  After a stint serving in the ski patrol, Jorge decided to put his off-piste trail knowledge to better use, and since 1999 he has been giving guided backcountry tours to some of his favorite haunts in Patagonia with his Bariloche-based Andes Cross company.
Jorge has traveled the world; skiing in Antarctica, Norway and climbing the Dolomites to name a few journeys, but he says his stomping grounds in Patagonia are no second-best to anywhere. In particular, Jorge points to three standout snowboarding options when in Patagonia: Cerro Castillo, located just south of Coyhaique in Chile’s Aysen region, which he says offers a window into “Patagonia twenty years ago;” Mount Fitz Roy, one of the world’s capitals of alpinism; and Nahuel Huapi National Park, for its relative accessibility from nearby Bariloche and its easier logistics through several huts and ski lifts.

At Cerro Castillo, Jorge offers boarders multi-day ski mountaineering trips, featuring winter camping as it was surely done by skiers that first discovered the Patagonia backcountry over a century ago.  The natural rock turrets surrounding its peaks bluntly explain the name “Mountain Castle.”   For snowboarders, a split board is required to accommodate the backcountry hikes.  Besides that, he tells me, as long as boarders have an intermediate level, no prior backcountry experience is required.

Jorge’s love for alpinism is what keeps on drawing him back to Fitz Roy, which he describes as “…peaks that make Patagonia Patagonia, part of why the word Patagonia is known all over the world.”  Fitz Roy offers the opportunity for multi-night camping or day tours, and with the third-largest continental ice sheet in the world, there are plenty
of glacier peaks to make Fitz Roy an ideal location for ski mountaineering.

For boarders that want to experience Patagonia in a more structured way, consider hut-to-hut expeditions throughout Nahuel Huapi National Park.  Every morning, Jorge enthuses, the hut door opens up to “glaciers, tree skiing, domes, and chutes surrounded by frozen lakes and granite spires.”  Such trips can be a family affair, but still give access to great terrain that is isolated from the seasonal ski crowds. 
A far different way to find the best snowboard powder is the way Sören Ronge did it. A twenty-something professional Swedish snowboarder, last year Ronge crossed the Atlantic in a quest for serene Patagonian Andes powder- but with the goal of finding it without the aid of expensive tour companies, helicopters or sponsors.  His mission was to discover South America as any snowboarder with a backpack and wanderlust could.  Through hitchhiking and scrapping for lift tickets Sören accomplished his goal, in the end visiting four resorts near Santiago, as well as the Villarica Volcano in Púcon in southern Chile’s Araucania region. Read the rest of this article in Patagon Journal's winter edition

Photos for Patagon Journal by Adrian Thomson and Jorge Kozulj