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Chasing Glaciers in Patagonia

Patagonia is nature at its most extreme. Between the epic mountains and ancient glaciers is an enormous expanse of nothingness. Planning a route through this arid terrain seems as simple as joining the dots between distant petrol stations and hoping you make it. However, head there with flexible plans and ample time, expecting everything to take twice as long and be equally as difficult as you had anticipated.

We arrived in Patagonia with dreams of nding big backcountry lines to ski in nice spring snow conditions, and maybe spotting some llamas (known locally as guanacos) along the way. Instead, we got slapped in the face by wild weather in one of the least forgiving regions on the planet, with the guanacos enjoying a front row seat of our struggles at every turn.

The month-long expedition was an experience entirely unlike what we’d planned. While we did eventually manage to ski some decent lines on the second-to-last day, it was the journey that made it an unforgettable adventure.

Patagonia is the name given to the southernmost region of South America, a great expanse of mountains, deserts, glaciers and wild terrain. It’s a sparsely populated wilderness almost twice the size of Spain. Our exploration started at Tierra Del Fuego (“Land of Fire”) and it’s easy to imagine this Argentine region being born by violent volcanos of tectonic proportions.

Walking around Ushuaia, you really get the feeling this is the most southern city on the planet. Raked by wild, frozen winds roaring across the cold Southern Ocean, this is the Argentine gateway to Antarctica, a hostile environment where sea lions thrive and humans cling to the coastline. Heading north from Ushuaia, we traverse a great expanse of open plains and snow-dusted desert, split by dead-straight, dirt highways. The horizon was a zigzag of frozen mountains, huge and hostile, carved by ancient glaciers.

The deserts led us west to the foot of the Andes, where Patagonia soars into the sky with escalators of glacial ice reaching high toward icecaps. Standing at the face of the Perito Moreno Glacier, you feel utterly insignificant. You watch in awe as thousand-year-old chunks of ice the size of churches peel from the glacier into the lagoon below.

Monte Fitz Roy is part of a collection of sheer rock spires engulfed by glaciers and renowned as one of the world’s most difficult mountains to climb. It took us two days of trekking along pristine rivers and through rugged mountains to reach the glacier fronts.

We barely encountered another person in the days spent exploring this region and, with drink bottles full of glacial melt water, we felt a certain cleansing of our souls before taking to the road again.

The famous Route 40 “highway” consists of dry packed mud, loose gravel, river rocks, potholes and snowmelt. We traversed some 3,000 kilometers—from the southernmost tip of Patagonia to the mountains around Bariloche— covering almost half the length of Argentina.

About 200 kilometers from the last town we would see, chugging along the highway at about 100 kph, we took a direct hit from one nasty pothole. The previous 28 days on the road had gradually peeled off the protective plastic liner from the bottom of our car, and this pothole had punctured the fuel line.

Rolling to a halt and spraying fuel everywhere, we were in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception and no one to help aside from a few curious guanacos.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere appeared a longhaired, 6’6” Argentine Adonis and his much younger (and gorgeous) Brazilian girlfriend. Quickly assessing our situation, they agreed to drive to the next town, another two hours ahead, and would call back to the previous town where they “knew a guy.” Sure enough, six hours later, the guy showed up with pre-machine cut pieces of pipe to repair our car.

With mad backcountry mechanic skills, he had our car fixed in no time and, after sharing a laugh and a group selfie, we were on the way again. He drove 400 clicks round trip to help two stranded tourists from the other side of the world… we owed this guy a case of beer, to say the least. We’d spent four weeks on the road and hiked through and camped in some of the most incredible wilderness we’d ever seen. Despite the occasional encounter with the locals, we’d basically spent the last month in solitude, patiently roaming our way through the Andes and hoping for the right conditions to ski.

Eventually the mountains in the north mellowed out, the glaciers retreated and we were able to sketch our way through marginal snow conditions and score some solitary turns, sliding to the end of an epic month in Patagonia.


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