Horqueta: Skiing the giants of the Andes

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By Shanie Matthews

Editors note: The following is from Edition 4. 
The high pitched whinny scattered the baby goats. My horse pulled back on his reigns, chewing on his mouth piece. He impatiently scratched the dirt with his large hoof. Anxiousness seemed to be something my horse and I had in common. We were both excited to start the day’s journey. Was his stomach, like mine, doing back flips in exhilaration for the upcoming trip? Probably not, as this is his backyard. But I am a ready to saunter up the side of a windswept mountain on the back of a horse to ski a steep, backcountry chute.
I am in Argentina. I initially came to this remote part of the world to ski mind-boggling, high-adrenaline ski descents on my honeymoon with my then husband Jamie. This wondrous country filled with mate-drinking, soccer-loving, passionate people stole my heart. The welcoming natives and the highest mountain range after the Himalayas continually called to me; beckoning me to return multiple times. But for one reason or another, my various trips here in the past had resulted in one perfect Andean chute continually escaping my grasp.
The mighty Horqueta had been staring at me, tempting me with her glory, for far too long. Horqueta is one of those mountain peaks that screams hello to all skiers passionate about untouched terrain. It is a series of perfect hourglass-shaped chutes that are ominously present to visitors making their way to the famous Las Leñas ski area. Horqueta’s towering presence grows from the shrubby, flat plains of the Argentine high desert to a mountain of jagged walls six thousand vertical feet above.
Horqueta means whale’s tale in Spanish. And her resemblance is closer to the wider version of the actual mammal then the string thong that often peeks out from youthful lady’s tight, low-riding jeans. There are actually three chutes; the middle option being the most direct. The entrance is steep. The funnel shaped top dwindles into a tight waist, reminiscent of an anorexic model. The ski-run then slightly zigzags, making a little dance around jutting rocks. Beyond the shift, the chute pinches a bit, maybe three or four ski widths wide, but then opens up to a nice, wide apron. It finishes off with a long, rolling, glacier-carved valley out. She is gorgeous.
This is the type of backcountry ski run that “foot-access” skiers and snowboarders dream about. Still, the six to eight hours approach is a tad intimidating and conditions need to be perfect (Horqueta is also prime avalanche path). That said, we were patiently waiting for the prime time to pounce.
Moment of opportunity
Finally, the moment had arrived. It was the end of a plentiful season. The snow gods had delivered a smacking, powerful set of storms that had left behind a carpet of smooth, blanketing snow. However, there was one slight problem – the snow level had meandered up the mountain slope, causing our approach to be more laborious than desired.
So, here I was dangling four feet above the ground on a powerful horse that was literally “chomping at the bit.” The last time I had rode a horse was when I was seven. The steed I was on then stepped on a bees nest, upsetting quite a few of the buzzing insects. They immediately made it their priority to look for someone to take out their frustrations on. I was their chosen victim. I went home with 20-plus stings. To say the least, my experience with horses was limited ever since.
 “Okay. Listo. We need the horses back by dark,” said Eduardo, the owner of the horses, to Jamie and I. We looked at each other in disbelief. Was he just going to hand over two beautiful horses to us? Didn’t he know that we would be taken on a wild ride by these giant creatures; that they would have complete control because we had no idea how to restrain these animals. Other than what we had seen in the movies, of course.
“No, no wait. We don’t know much about horses. Can you guide us up the trail to the snow and then you can have the horses back. We will walk back down.”
“Aaaah. Si, si, no problema.”
With that miscommunication cleared up we loaded ourselves on the steeds. Backpacks on, poles strapped to the packs, legs doing half splits sitting astride the large animal, skis resting on quads and saddle, we were ready to go. Eduardo sat eloquently on his purebred, spine straight, relaxed posture and a slight smirk decorating his tanned face. “Vamanos! Let’s go.”
The terrain started out mellow, but quickly became rolling hills with steep drainages. Natural pools of water gathered in low points, offering sustenance to the wild flowers hoping to spring to life. Liebres, wild rabbits the size of small dogs, scampered to their next hiding spot as we scared them out from the thorny bushes.
As we slowly increased our elevation, the giant Andes became towering monsters of blackened rock and glistening snow. The green pastures of baby grass blades slowly transitioned into white poke-a-dots, which gently grew into fields of condensed frozen water crystals. Eduardo began to make it his personal mission to get us as high into the mountains as he could. But, as if someone had flipped a switch, the horses were able to go no further. Their weight plus ours was making them crash through the semi-solid layer of condensed snow. They were soon wadding up to their boney knees.
We dismounted the horses and said our farewells to Eduardo. He gave us a wink and gracefully turned around, leading our chariots easily away. Knowing that the extra weight could be left behind, we changed out of our hiking boots and into our ski boots. We pasted the climbing skins to the bases of the skis, clicked into our bindings, and began our ascent up the remaining 4,500 vertical feet to the top of the elusive chute.
The ascent was perfect. Mother Nature truly is a backcountry skier. Or at least she was when she created the Andes. The route began as a mellow field of snow the size of a football stadium. The level ground slowly gave way to rolling mounds which began to open up into low angle hallways of snow, bordered by upheavals of fossilized ocean floors from days gone by. When we reached the summit ridge, the wind was whispering to us, kissing our cheeks. To the north was Cerro Sosneado, the southernmost 5,000 meter peak in the world and the eerie site of the infamous “Alive” story where a Uruguayan rugby team survived a horrifying plane crash and 72 days in the remote windswept Andes by turning to cannibalism.
Each step was to be calculated, our place of entry still needed to be secured. We passed the smaller neighboring chutes to the mother whale tale. Each looked tempting. My screaming legs, after six hours of climbing up the mountain, were ready to call it quits and ski the run before me. But it wasn’t time. Just a bit further and the true goal was to be had.
When we finally arrived to the precipice beginning of our long awaited descent, the moment brought a flutter of butterflies to my stomach. The chute was exactly as we hoped. It glistened with a billion tiny rainbows. The perfect snow was as smooth as a baby’s butt. This was going to be something. And then the strangest sound brought me out of my day dreaming. The whistle of the wind combined with the ruffle of feathers. I looked up to see a giant condor within arm’s length! It’s ten foot wingspan casting a dark shadow over my minuscule appearance.
As the suns brilliance was taken away from my face by this prehistoric animal of flight, it dawned on me. The entire day, though it had been spurred on by my passion for steep mountains with perfect snow, was stellar in so many different ways. A horse bonding session had brought me to snow line. A perfect climb was spelled out for us by Mother Nature herself. And the ominous presence of one of the most magnificent birds on the planet was now flying over my head. What more could one hope for out of a day skiing in the backcountry? I guess there would just be one more thing: the feeling of the smooth snow speeding by below my skis.
It seems to me I’m not going to be disappointed.