By Forrest Coots
Cold, tired and hungry, we pushed on in darkness as blinding snow and winds taunted us. “Camp can’t be more than a half hour away,” Drew says. I glanced down at my watch; we’d been climbing for three hours since parting from our horses. “I think we still have a little more climbing until we get to camp,” I sulked.
Dwarfed by our overstuffed packs, we slogged on across a vast Patagonian landscape. Our packs—heavy with camera gear, personal equipment, tents, cooking supplies, fuel, three days of food, climbing ropes and hardwear—were loaded down to prepare us for the unfamiliar terrain ahead. Had I underestimated this venture? A self supported athlete-filmed project with complete control of concept and film direction… what could go wrong? With too much time to wonder, all we could do was continue on in shadows and silence. From here our journey would be dictated by the winds and whims of the Chilean winter. We were only beginning to wrap our eager minds around the size and scope of these mountains. Severe and inspiring, the craggy spires, granite walls, deep river valleys and snow-capped volcanoes draw mountaineers, climbers and adventurers alike. This southern windswept place challenges its visitors to endure, and it’s daring our team just as those before us.
Just four days prior, our crew—Jason Thompson, Drew Stoecklien, Chuck Mumford and I—had landed at the small rural airport of Balamaceda, roughly 600 desolate miles from the bustling metropolis of Santiago. The first thing we commented on was the wind. Over the next 15 days we would witness its harsh and unrelenting power. While in search of a few good runs, we found a great deal of suffering and just enough skiing to make it worth it. The travel logistics and language obstacles proved challenging enough. With our best Spanglish attempts, we managed, barely, to purchase our trip food and supplies as well as book a three hour bus ride to the village of Cerro Castillo. Upon arriving in Villa Castillo, our next challenge was to arrange horse transport, pack for the trip, and film B roll. Not to mention we needed a weather window suitable for our departure. I believe, however, our most overlooked detail was our gear haul. We had 800 pounds of gear and only four backs to break. The approaches were long and arduous. With sweat and tears, we made two trips to set up our base camp the good old fashion way.
I look again at my watch. The Indiglo reveals another 45 minutes has passed since Drew and I talked about camp. “If you turn off your headlamp, you can navigate better through the forest,” Drew says. I turn off my lamp and let my eyes adjust to the night sky and shadows of the forest. The trees are so thick it’s disorienting. I can’t seem to get a look at the peaks up valley, so I trudge on without knowing how much further.
Arriving hours later we are exhausted, cold and hungry. Despite our readiness to sleep, we had to set camp up and fire up the stoves for a quick meal before we could surrender for the night. Within 45 minutes both tents were guided down and secured. The cook tent was also set up and we all hunkered in to enjoy mac n’ cheese as the winds and snow continued to rage outside. There wasn’t much talk at dinner. Instead, we shared exhausted stares over our the hot macaroni. Cold and damp, I crawled into my sleeping bag. I stared at the orange-grey nylon of the tent ceilings. Trying hard to focus my attention off my physical exhaustion, I begin wondering how our team will fare here in Cerro Castillo. The unyielding winds create a thousand worries in my mind. Eventually fatigue wins over worry. Sleep.
Over the next 11 days, as we venture deeper into the Patagonian outback, our lives drastically change from the hustle and bustle of our previous existence. The Internet, emails, and Facebook seem like a distant nuisance. September 11 comes and goes. Is the world still the same? Our world becomes relative and our Patagonia reality is so great we appear small. The mountains teach you patience and appreciation for the simple things in life. Hot water, what one so often takes for granted, can seem like an eternity of waiting in the mountains. We rise each morning in the welcoming sun only to chase pockets of light at dusk. Each night we wait as the surrounding peaks get encompassed in a sea of clouds and impending storms. We learn that Patagonian weather can frustrate the greatest of skill and effort, but we are patient for our window of opportunity. We are determined. We climbed in storms, kicked ladder-styled steps up steep faces and couloirs in order to ski moments of powder in between cardboard and ice.
Finally the barometer rose and leveled out, signifying the arrival of our weather window. For three days we climbed and skied beneath the blissful afternoon sun. We skied coveted lines and earned each turn with the patience and perseverance we learned there. On the evening of the third day, our window had passed and the wind had returned. As we skied back to camp, we hoped for just one more day of sun. Our selfish prayers were not heard. Instead, lenticular clouds engulfed the mountaintops and 36 hours of hard rain followed. Our camp was melting and it was time to pull the plug and get the hell out of dodge, as they say.
The following morning we wake to the alternatively sweet, however brief, sound of snow on the tent walls. It’s better then packing up in the rain. Once again we face our back-breaking dilemma of hauling gear. With packs that took two of us to get on, it turned out to be a long day of slogging in the rain. Seven grueling hours later we arrived back in Villa Cerro Castillo. With only 5,000 Chilean pesos (10 dollars) between us, we made the best of it, buying the best box wine at the store, and raised a toast to a great trip.