Powderquest Patagonia: Trip Report From Devin McDonell

Argentina Ski and Snow
by David Page Sep 10, 2009

Three gringos slog their way into the Argentine backcountry on an almost aborted mission for “polvo perfecto.” Devin McDonell sends this report from the Andes (photos from Mindy Fishel’s camera):

Leaving Las Leñas, we hear that Bariloche has had some good cold storms. But upon arrival we are greeted with rain, and a three-day forecast of rain, rain, and more rain—not only at lake level, but all the way to the top of the 7,000-foot peaks we have been planning to ski.

It is not a good sign.


It’s about 50 degrees. We take a 4×4 up a gnarly road of dirt and snow, as far as we can. We cross numerous overflowing rivers. Expectations for skiing are set appropriately low.

We abandon the vehicle, hike up the road through mud until we can put on our skins. Then we trek up through the woods, and eventually out onto windscoured death crust. “Powderquest” is not off to a strong start. We talk about nothing and laugh at the situation. To our surprise, the rain has stopped.

“Powderquest” is not off to a strong start.

At the summit the wind is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The gusts are so strong the sound hurts our ears. At up to 70 mph they feel more like shock waves than gusts of wind.

Our guide, Jorge, goes into minor panic mode, and starts giving orders. We giggle at some of his directives, and take pictures. Which does not help his panic.

We try to curl up out of the wind. Jorge asks an important question: “You guys ski solid, yes?”

We wonder what would happen if the answer were “no.”

Not a winter wonderland.

We ski down survival-style, make it back to the hotel.


We start at the base of Cerro Catedral, the local ski resort. For the East Coasters among you, picture the original Stowe gondola—in November. Here and there the dirt shows blemishes of month-old snow. The gondola looks poised to fall apart.

From the top of the gondola, we continue on skins to the summit, and emerge through a notch in the ridgeline. We look down at several thousand feet of windcrust. We can see the Frey Hut across the valley—2,000 feet down then another 1,000 feet up, beneath an array of peaks and spires.

The landscape is dominated by mud and rock. The peaks have snow, but it looks ugly. We don our 50-pound packs, pick our way down, skin our way up, and arrive at the hut.


In the night, it starts raining. It rains all day. Melissa is struggling to fight off a cold. In the afternoon three of us go out into the rain and skin about 1,500 feet up toward something that from a distance looks like snow. When we get there, we find about a half-centimeter of crunchy windcrust softened by rain. There is no visibility.

For a few hours we make something of nothing.

Back at the hut, the resident cat becomes our mascot.


The storm rages. The rain turns to snow. In the morning we venture out, and get some fun runs in a mellow bowl, only about a 15-minute skin from the hut. In the afternoon, the snow gets heavier, and the visibility worsens. We laugh at each other struggling in the snow.

We manage to get in six runs.


This is more like it.

We wake up to a winter wonderland: the sun shining, 8-10 inches of snow outside the hut. The Patagonia we had imagined finally reveals herself.

We leave the hut at 10, make three safe laps in the bowl. Beautifully wind-loaded powder. Blue-bird skies. Later, we rock-scramble up to a steeper pitch, only to find conditions too sketchy.

We ski only the lower half. But it’s steep. The powder is knee-deep and doesn’t slide. We close out the day with a skin up to the top of a wide-open chute. We summit at 6:15 and are back at the hut by 7, exhausted.

We manage to rally for our last dinner in the hut, and three bottles of wine later are providing entertainment for seven French guys that have just arrived. We estimate the numbers for the day: 9 hours of skiing, 5,000 feet of climbing, 1,500 jokes about our guide, the cat, and bodily functions. Endless virgin powder.


Jorge and I wake up early to ski the main chute in the valley before we have to skin out. Conditions look perfect, but as we approach the exit of the chute we dig a little pit to find an unstable windslab layer. We decide against it.

The Patagonia we had imagined finally reveals herself.

We continue up a safer route, and instead come down a more wide-open chute. The snow is knee-deep “polvo perfecto” (perfect powder). At the bottom, Melissa joins us. We skin up two-thirds of the chute and ski it again.

The trek home involves skiing down through trees, crossing a river, and then a 2,000 foot climb to another gap in the ridgeline. The last 100 feet is pure comedy, involving a combination of rock scrambling, ice climbing, boot packing, skinning, and otherwise just jamming feet into whatever, trying to get one more step toward the summit.

Going till the light is gone.

We arrive at the gap in the ridge at 4 o’clock, thoroughly impressed by how hardcore we are. Our guide fails to give us the accolades we have earned.

On the long descent back to the parking lot, the wheels come off completely. Mindy loses her ski. It heads down about a quarter mile without her. The last 500 vertical feet are mud and rock.

We arrive at the car at 6, bruised and exhausted, but somehow feeling that we got everything we wanted.

Jorge takes us to dinner. We stay out until 2:30 in the morning. Viva Argentina!

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