By Ryan Dunfee
BARILOCHE, Argentina -- There's always stipulation for the airport (now being subsidized by the province) and the bus companies (ecstatic at twice-daily and thrice hour-distant bus transfers to-and-from said airport, Esquel, and with enough clout to swing things their way during a tough tourist season) not to change the status quo. But that's just a guess.
In the business of travel logistics, such as we are, Argentina has been a real-life version of The Apprentice. The eruption of Puyehue, a volcano in Chile, 60 miles away, buried the town of Bariloche in six inches of ash just weeks before our departure and the start of our signature SGT Argentina backcountry freeride operation. With enough human drama going on Stateside to warrant hiring the film crew from Real Housewives, the office melted into weeks of frantic Skype calls and coffee-fueled sessions pouring over Argentine newspapers for information about the situation. Calls to every boludo in every airport, bus station, hotel, and ski resort in this whole beef-eating country ensued--what’s going thousands of miles south and another season away.
Our small New Hampshire office (with sh*tty turquoise carpet and a malfunctioning coffee machine) turned into a FEMA field station as we tried to figure out how to get clients to a city 60 miles away from an active volcano with no snow… while simultaneously scouting the country for other less-ashy options to save our operation. Bariloche friends called, noting the heroic public service campaign to clean up ash from some 800 downtown blocks in preparation for the tourist season, to also ask pointedly if we were coming back.
Despite the fact that Cerro Catedral remained closed through July, with a 10 cm base, our director, Travis Moore, with years of experience down south, was a voice of calm: "It will snow," he said. So we put down our hard-earned deposits for the hotel, at the base, and prayed… for snow, and clients.
And while the Bariloche airport remained closed, our guides called a week before the start of camp to let us know they'd just wiped snow off of their faces after an epic powder day. Now, a week into operation, a mix of East Coasters discover open pow fields, rockered skis, and confident hands-forward turns for the first time. More seasoned western and European backcountry skiers, as well as returning clients, set bootpacks around the mountain, looking down on the god-awful Argentine pistes mobbed with Brazilian tourists falling all over each other, while we stand above faces without a hint of a track.
Anything wide of the cat tracks is largely invisible and undesirable to the unskilled mobs in matching one-piece rental snowsuits herding around the mountain with trip leaders blaring Infinity 2008 while simultaneously yelling chants through a megaphone, effectively rendering the base area quilombo of shepherded Latinos marveling at the grass and rocks covered in a thin skin of snow at the base of the Amancay gondola. While lower spots remain shallow and require full-on adventure skiing skills, running out of spots in ski boots through steep fields of caña, the amount of snow on the top half of the mountain is inconceivable, especially considering that the season started literally 18 days ago.
While much of the day passes learning how to ride powder, use a beacon, speak Spanish and pick lines, the off-hill education flourishes. Younger clients, for instance, are taught that they will quickly shut down in public if they don't have a good comeback when they're called out on attempted jabs at coaches. New York native Lucas Blumenfeld is one of our students (with the steepest curve to climb in the Dept. of Life Lessons) and, having requested that I include his name in this article, is now getting what he asked for.
This special adolescent, Lucas, did earn some street cred by linking turns all the way down the steep south face of lower Laguna, and without stopping and keeping his hands in view the whole time… At which time he ran to the base’s shopping mall to buy a fake Louis Vuitton case for his iPhone in order to flaunt it around the hotel.
So, with our feet firmly on the ground here in Bariloche, you can look forward to interviews with local freeriders and organizations finally seeing the light of a season that seemed doomed to fail. Updates from the hill and town and all around musings about life down South should reflect a more positive outlook on life now that I'm crutch-free and shredding pow (but still punishing my lower intestines with a diet of meat and starch).
Those who suffered through my tomes of sarcasm and bitterness last summer will finally be rewarded with an attitude that reflects my dream-like summer ski-and-Quilmes lifestyle. Maybe. Those now checking their bank accounts to see if they can squeeze in a trip this August would do well to ignore whatever number you see pop up - with tourism down 50% this season and the resort nearly empty, opportunistic skiers will find an abundance of untracked lines with my shit-eating grin at the top of every one of them.