Patagonia's Thunderer

Patagonia's Thunderer

One thing is sure when skiing in Patagonia - mother nature sets the rules. Whether it’s 120 km/h winds, rain falling horizontally, or the freezing level spiking, getting it right takes a lot of patience and a bit of luck.

In mid-August, my partner Bob Walker & I migrated south for some annual summer skiing. The plan was to meet with our good friends Igor Bernas (Basque) and Manuel Quiroga (Argentinian) for a few mountain objectives before pursuing the rest of our trip as a 2-person team. After skiing to the summit of Volcano Villarica (Chile) & Mocho-Choshuenco (Chile) and spending 4 days skiing around Refugio Frey and Refugio Jakob (Argentina), we were warmed up to the South American conditions. Keeping an eye on the unreliable weather forecast, Bob & I had a 24 hours window to attempt something… but what? Cerro Tronador?

Funny enough, exactly 10 years prior, I was down in this same part of the world with a different group. I remember our trip to be quite successful with lots of summits and great adventures, but when we tried to climb Tronador, the Park Wardens and Army put a stop to our plans. Back then, apparently, we needed to have a “guide” to go up and winter access was forbidden. Needless to say, Cerro Tronador always felt like the one that got away.

We left Bariloche with great hopes as the clouds were still part of the valley’s landscape. As we drove the twisty road in Nahuel Huapi National Park, we could see the clouds working their way up and away. As we arrived at Hotel Tronador, fifty-something tourists on a tour bus were taking photos of us gearing up, rather than the stunning summit standing tall at the end of the valley.  This popular summer climb sees very few visitors in the winter.

My heart almost stopped when I saw a Park Warden walk towards us… No, not again?!  After chatting with him & filling out the required paperwork, we were on our way across the long Pampa Linda flats and up the mountainside through thick bamboo forest.

Two hours later, we were finally on skis.

From there, the trail was simply stunning with a small glimpse of our objective at every switchback. While crossing the long ridge above the glacier, I could feel the excitement growing with every step. The summit glowed under the sun with not a cloud to be seen.

We gained the Refuge Otto Meiling just before sunset and fortunately, very minimal excavation & firewood work was required to get in and get cozy. We sat inside, close to the fireplace, soup in hand, looking at the falling light, and I felt pretty lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

The morning came with skies as clear as the day before. The moon was lightly contouring the peaks as we started our uphill travels. The wind was very light and the trail breaking was minimal. We decided to go with the later to start and if conditions held, we would attempt the second summit. We gained the broken headwall without too much trouble and treaded the needle around the icefall all the way to the col between International & Argentine peaks. We made our way up a gigantic hanging piece of ice and found a little scramble up to the icy, rocky, pointy summit. The views from our 3202m platform were simply amazing. As we put the skis on and made our way down towards the col, the wind started to pick up significantly. We knew we had to ski outta there pronto!

To our great surprise, the snow on the glacier was sheltered enough to make for 15 cm or so of fresh powder skiing. With each turn the wind kicked the snow up in the air, making it look like our skis were on fire! The sun had softened the path we followed earlier, making the rest of the descent, all the way to the refuge, quite good.

At the refuge, we took time to take in Tronador’s beauty & witnessed both summits getting completely hammered by the raging gusts of wind. We skied/walked back down to Pampa Linda, feeling happy and satisfied at finally being able to put a checkmark beside this beautiful, large, impressive mountain. After waiting so long, I guess the summit I could only dream of is now part of the memory bank.

While sharing some drinks with our friends at the local Brewery, I thought to myself that if the trip ended right then, I would be content. Little did I know we would shortly be summitting Volcano Puyehue, Llaima, and Lanin, & ski some of the best corn I have ever skied.

I guess, in the end, Patagonia was very kind to us. Maybe we got lucky, maybe we played our cards right; all I know is that we only had a few down days. The weather & especially the wind can jump to the extreme, making it tricky to meet all objectives. Add logistics and timing to the mix, and you could easily be waiting a decade.  But the wait sure does pay off.

Skier: Melanie Bernier

Location: Cerro Tronador, Patagonia, Argentina

Photographer: Bob Walter

Skis:  G3 FINDr 102

Bindings: G3 ION 12

Skins: G3 ALPINIST+ Universal

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