Water, snow, and sky blend together in the Argentine Lake District to form a collage of stunning beauty and endless opportunity. Glacially carved peaks surrender their snowpack to steep-walled drainages and turbulent rivers flow into pristine lakes. Condors circle granite cliffs that rise from the water's edge. Far below the condors’ winged vantage, our silver chariot blasts across the steppe in search of the next adventure.
We are driving down a historic stretch of road known as the Ruta de Los Siete Lagos, or Seven Lakes Route. Behind the wheel, we sip maté and Argentine reggae pounds from the speakers. Our eyes gaze longingly at the towering white faces above and we trace lines through the brilliant snow-covered mountains.
Setting out from San Carlos de Bariloche, our plan is to work our way north through the rugged landscape towards San Martin de Los Andes. Along the route, we decide to stop over in the tiny town of Villa La Angostura to sample some of her snowy delights.
The Jean Pierre Gondola climbs to the top of Cerro Bayo, which tops out at over 6,500 feet. Our cabin clamours into the top station, where we disembark and step onto a summit free of clouds. Here we can see well into Chile. Lago Nahuel Huapi, the largest body of water in the district, stretches out below. Named by the indigenous Mapuche, the lake served as the life-blood of the ancient communities. Its finger-like fjords stretch into the Andean foothills. From our lofty perch, we can see nearly end to end. The enchanting view distracts our attention for nearly an hour before we drop in on wind-sculpted pow.
Our ski tips bounce across the various textures along the ridgelines, but soon we find fast, chargeable snow. Lap after lap from the summit terminal provides ample opportunity for various line choices. We exhaust the south- through east-facing bowls and cliff bands before retiring to the parking lot for after-ski cervezas.
That night we stay in Villa La Angostura. After a dinner of local trout and wine, we sit around a table at our hostel, downing glasses of Fernet con Coca while recounting the day's excitement. The next morning delivers foggy minds and foggier conditions. Weather reports confirm our fears of rain to the summit. Cold snow has instantly been transformed to slop and we pack the truck to head out of town.
Route 234 winds its way north for over a hundred kilometers through lush temperate rain forest and along gorgeous lakeshores. Low-level clouds give the landscape a mystic quality and we are virtually alone throughout our travels. Lagos Correntoso, Espejo, Traful, and Falkner keep us inspired as we trundle over the uneven road surface. It is just before dark by the time we roll into the small community of San Martin de Los Andes.
Situated on the east side of Lago Lacar, the town is home to skiers, climbers, mountain bikers, and kite surfers. A vibrant mountain culture flows through the streets and adds a familiar element to a foreign environment. Our accommodations for the next few days are a small A-frame lodge located across the road from the beachfront. Its rustic exterior fits perfectly into the surroundings.
Skiing has played an important part in San Martin de Los Andes' history ever since early Spanish explores utilized wooden planks to move about the hillsides in winter. The small ski area of Chapelco eventually developed into one of the better-known resorts this side of the Andes. From the base area, we load a vintage gondola and ascend to the mid-mountain terminal. Wind has yet again foiled our original plans and we find the upper lifts completely closed. The onset of warmer temperatures has also wreaked havoc on the snowpack. We are relegated to the piste and carve wide GS style turns around moving gates. A pack of ski patrollers takes notice of our antics, yet does little more than shoot us envious glances as we blow by.
That afternoon, we opt to head up the summit ridge. Onlookers stare at us as we adorn skins, baffled as to why we would abandon perfectly good chairlifts. As soon as we reach the ridgeline, we are nearly blown flat by the erratic gusts. Seth works towards a vacant lift shack and fumbles his way inside. We follow his lead to escape the torment.
The tiny fortress provides protection from the elements and we fire up the gas stove to boil water for maté. Inside, we relax and listen to the soothing tunes of Credence Clearwater and Bob Marley. Outside, the tempest shrieks, threatening to topple the diminutive structure and blow us clear to the Atlantic. An hour passes and we watch as wet slides discharge from the slopes and over the cliffs of the Back Bowls. It appears we will have to return another time to reach those objectives.
On the way out we see a couple of ski patrollers emerging from another shack across the way, likely with the same idea as us. They pass on some local knowledge and tell us we should have been here last week.
Such is the journey--less then stellar snow, unexpected adventure, and a great group of people to share the experience with. Winter in Patagonia never ceases to amaze.