Sk touring in central Chile

August 2020

I have been living in Chile for over two years now and despite living in the world´s leading adventure tourism destination, I haven’t written up any trip reports because most of my activities are weekend activities from my front door but the global Pandemic forced me to live permanently in the mountains, during a big snow year.

The mighty Volcán San José viewed from Lo Valdés (Morro Negro in the foreground)

My neighbourhood of Baños Morales -last outpost before the border with Argentina (photo courtesy of Augusto Claro)

My road- skiing literally from the door - good for laps. The ridge in the shade is one of my favourite summer runs but I had a bad feeling about the avalanche risk (however in never fully went)                    

 My favourite pre-breakfast dog ski (village down in the distance and Cerro Chacaya to the right and dogs in the tracks)

The 2019 winter had one of the lowest snowfall records for years, making it the 11th year that central Chile found itself in a Mega drought, since basically all the precipitation arrives in winter and that snow basically provides the river flow from the Andes for the rest of the year. I ventured out a handful of days at weekends, sometimes straight from the door and other times higher up, but I didn´t know other skiers so I had to be careful on my own. 

 

After 20 years of mountain activities and trips, I was so used to going out with my old mountain friends (they were also my biking,  running and climbing friends) and I knew their abilities, their temperament and their attitudes. After moving my life to a new continent, I now realise how much confidence your friends can give you and how much they egg you on and crazy ideas become realities. But my mountain friends in Chile are on their way to converting into ski tourers after this winter!

 

Another issue about a new mountain range is getting to know the dangers, the snow and exit routes if there were an accident. I am gradually realizing that there isn’t the same avalanche risk in the Andes as we have in Europe but on the other hand, in the event of any accident, the options for rescue in the Andes are tricky and likely to be very slow. 

The route to the shed with our ski equipment was always clear! The house nearly disappeared though.

In the route between Baños Morales and valle Arenas (the old road) there are a few avalanche tunnels that form every year. Nieves Grises was a huge one that fell overnight in June

Views from our street

The dogs who were all born in the summer before had amazing adaptations to the snow- they went out with me on my morning adventures and loved the adrenaline of the descent, even if they were faced with nearly a metre of powder!

My second ski season here arrived just after we dived into COVID-19 isolation. After having spent the first 3 week strict lockdown in Santiago in our flat, unable to go outside for fresh air, we took the opportunity before the next prolonged lockdown was announced to move ship (and office) to Baños Morales to our retreat in the mountains. The first snow arrived in mid June and it didn’t stop snowing for a month!

The village had a few mountaineers permanently residing for the season – pandemic refugees making the most of not being able to work, but I had to be strategic with my time as I had a lot of work. Every morning I headed out before breakfast and the local stray dogs would join me. The pack were all born in the village earlier this year and had perfect adaptation for the snow. I kept thinking their paws would start to hurt or they would start to whimper from the cold but they were amazing and became a constant source of entertainment as they raced me skiing back down the hill. I quickly realised I couldn’t venture as far up the abandoned road between the village and Valle Arenas as the year before as the quantities of snow that had fallen filled the path, leaving a 50 degree slope plunging straight down to a raging river. Contouring on this and over a series of avalanches from above the path made it quite an obstacle course.  I was just happy getting out for my daily fix!

The route between Baños Morales and Valle Arenas eventually disappeared under snow drifts in one windy passage which had a 50 degree slope beneath to the river below. I gradually decided to abandon this route when I was on my own.

Valle Arenas and a spot the fluffy fox competition!

Morro Negro and the route that skirts around beneath it to Valle la Engorda. Parque Arenas was bought by new owners in 2019 but with a social uprising in Chile and then a global Pandemic, their plans for protection and access are still evolving. Private ownership of wilderness in Chile is common. Let´s hope that is a way to protect the land and allow access to responsible tourism.

In Valle Arenas, there is an area known as the Centro de Esquí. Here I am looking down on my companions who are eying out a descent route in one of the gulleys. Early season was very snowy and visibility was poor. I decided to only do the descents that I had studied from below while I patiently built up local knowledge

Valley up above Centro de Esquí. Half way up the route to cerro Arenas. Continuing up a very icy slope, you get to a wonderful pass over to the next photo.

Morro Negro. A short and steep ski

Skiing the pass down towards Valle Arenas (long and steep). Down towards the view in the photo below, making it a great circular route.

Views from the pass from the funnel valley in the photo above. Straight ahead is Cerro Unión, a clasic ski peak and the pass to the right of it is a classic to descend into the Monumento natural el Morado park and straight down to Baños Morales (one for next year!!). Glacier colgante and Laguna Morado are hidden by snow to the right of Cerro Unión.

Skiing up the first part of Volcán San José with Valle de la Engorda below

Dream skiing down from Las Lajas on Volcán San José. There is so much skiing potential on this Volcano, including losts of low angle slopes

Skinning up Valle Arenas. The river had banks of snow over a metre high.

Views beyond Cajon del Morado to Glaciar Loma Larga

At weekends I started to meet other local skiers, either by bumping into them on the hill or then being invited to join other groups. I had to build up my confidence again after 2 years off from ski touring. I was now in a land without guide books and suggested tour routes and also had to learn about a different type of snowpack, but my morning reccies helped to build up that evolving picture.

 

After a couple of weeks of me returning for breakfast with rosy cheeks and videos of chasing dogs, Claudio finally gave in and said he wanted to learn to ski. I had my originalset of touring skis ready for him to learn and he had boots he bought about a month before he broke his cruciate ligament two years ago. So off he set, first just skinning around the village in the powder snow and then setting himself loose with some other beginners on the slopes overlooking our house. He made incredible progress, and I tried to avoid tricky slopes (not always successfully), while he tried to overcome the fear of injuring his knee again.

We started to head out to explore some new valleys with our recently adopted dog, Blankito and the geography of the area started to come to life for me. I did some more extreme tours with local friendsand got back my confidence for steeper slopes. It was a great few months of getting to know my backyard, getting to know my mountaineering neighbours and building up ideas for future exploration.

Claudio´s baptism by fire. Learning to ski, accompanied by the village dogs. Luckily his love of mountain biking and martial arts past meant that he wasn´t afraid of speed nor falling

We started heading up to Valle de la Engorda every weekend to explore the Marmolejo base camp valley and the flanks of Volcán San José

Blankito our newly adopted mountain dogs was in his element!

Sometimes on the long less steep descents I gave Blankito a rest and carried him on my shoulders or in my arms

Playing around with dog harnesses on steep ground- not actually needed

This dog was made for adventures! But since he likes sleeping, he was allowed a down jacket to curl up in during breaks

Escaping the inclement weather in a group shelter 

Combining work and pleasure. Cerro Tres Puntas, Valle Nevado ski resort. Checking up on the instruments at the atmospheric Observatory. The resort was closed all of 2020 so we were the only people on the slopes

Spring skiing in September above the Laguna of the Glaciar Colgante del Morado. There is so much to explore beyond if you were on a multi-day trip.

Refugio Plantat (3130m), built in 1937. Base camp for Volcán San José. It was buried in the snow until September We carried up some supplies for our friends Kari and Nico who did a winter ascent of the volcano (they have climbed it several times!)

Exploring the side of the Volcán San José along the Valle de la Engorda

Claudio´s skiing improved incredibly over the season. 

Skiing on Volcán San José. Refugio Plantat and San Josecito to the right of the flatter area

Volcán San José (5856 m) with Marmolejo (6108 m) peaking out behind on the left. 

Sunny Andes skiing at its finest! Definitely recommended. Come and give it a go!

 

For more information about routes see Andes Handbook and Wiki explorer. For a history of skiing in Chile (in Spanish) see Club Alemán Andino (DAV) article.

This place is a winter paradise here, with infinite possibilities. I cant help thinking how incredible it would be to have something like the network of refuges that the Alps has and link up the valleys, mountain passes and ridges, allowining multi-day trips to have incredible adventures deep into the Andes. However, the fact there are no huts makes it feel even wilder. For a European ski tourer, used to researching your route in advance, according to the level of your team, booking the huts and checking the weather and avalanche reports daily, the Andes feels unknown and vast. It feels a little less vast now and I really appreciate the solitude you are treated to, as well as the smiles you can exchange when you meet another team at the end of your tour. 

I want to explore the Yeso valley next season; with the UK-based Eagle Ski club we were planning an expedition trip here, so maybe we can do that when we can travel again.

 

My move to Chile has brought lots of new exciting challenges; working as an environmental scientist I have infinite projects that are worthwhile and novel and the mountains provide amazing winter and summer playgrounds.

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