All Great Things Come to An End, But Memories Last Forever

Tadoussac, Québec

Saturday August 26th, 2017

I’ve been sleeping for the last three days.  Not straight – there have been long enough spurts of “awake” time to eat, move from my bed to the couch, and squeeze in the odd round of sub-par (as in mediocre, not under par) golf.  I washed all my clothes the other morning and aired out all my gear. Big day. I couldn’t leave any of it out of eye sight though, as if some of it was going to go missing out of our backyard. I wandered around aimlessly, literally watching my clothes dry on the line. It’s funny how one can go for months on end travelling from place to place, riding the waves of excitement and adrenaline, and then when that last wave crashes, you feel lost and can hardly move.  Lost is a good way to sum up how I’ve felt these last few days.

I got back to Canada on Tuesday morning, August 22nd,  after a long, overnight flight from Santiago to Toronto.  My buddy Neal graciously accompanied (consoled?) me all the way back to YYZ, where we parted ways. I continued east to Montreal and he flew west to Vancouver, and I’ll join him and others there in a few more days.

It’s taken a little while to really realize that this #skiaroundtheworld trip is finished and, to be honest, it probably still hasn’t fully sunken in.  On the cab ride to the Santiago airport on Monday afternoon, there were a few tears, but it mostly just felt like I was packing up and heading off for that next flight to that next far off destination.  And even after an emotional welcome with my mom, who picked me up in Montreal on Tuesday morning, I was still in travel mode, simply moving from an airport into a car, just another leg of a long journey.

For me, that last wave crashed on Tuesday afternoon when I pulled off the ferry in Tadoussac, still my favorite place in the whole world, parked the car in front of Maison Spruce Cliff (our family’s summer home), and saw the last nearly seven months of my life flash before my eyes:  I did it.

Tadoussac has a special way of helping one relax, unwind, and reflect.  It was the perfect place to come to help ease the pain of my re-entry into reality, pretty much completely unplug, and look back on all of amazing experiences and memories from the last few months.  The freshest of those memories were of course the last days of the trip spent in Portillo.

If I had to draw up a grande finale to a trip like this one, I couldn’t have imagined a better one than our week in Portillo. After the awesome week of skiing in Bariloche, I travelled back to Santiago where I met three of my great friends – Neal, Mike, and Will.  Mike and Neal have been around since the early days at McGill (study buddies, roommates, hockey teammates, reffing partners, barmates, you name it), but it took Will and I a few “international” hockey tournaments (the ones with too much beer and not enough hockey), not to mention me crashing his wedding five years ago, to really solidify our friendship. A perfect crew to spend a perfect week.

The transfer from Santiago to the iconic Ski Portillo resort on Saturday August 12th was relatively smooth, except that Will thought it would be best if he showed up fashionably late and so took his own shuttle. It was a scenic two and half hour or so drive from the airport up into the Andes.  From the front seat, Mike kindly provided some co-piloting directions to the driver, while Neal and I sat in the back and enjoyed blind passing on hairpin corners.

One of the great things about Portillo is that there are no crowds.  There are 500 or so beds at the resort and, thanks to a lower than normal snowpack, no day tickets were being sold. That meant we could ski to our hearts content, all week long, without ever having to wait in line.  Despite the advertised low snowpack, the skiing was really great.  We explored the high traverse and put in fresh lines off the interesting Roca Jack platter lift; rocked laps on the red-carpet entry to Garganta above the classic yellow hotel; and on try number two, we were fortunate to ski the incredible Super C couloir – a 5,500 foot beauty of continuous fall line.  With a little bit of work, we were still making fresh tracks after five days of no snow – thanks largely to that no crowds thing.  Mike and Will even got their first ever heli-ski run.

There was plenty to keep us busy off the slopes as well, with the whole place having a bit of a “cruise ship” feel to it.  We were treated to delicious three course meals at dinner and lunch, tea time, mandatory hot tub soaks after a day on the slopes, and a variety of other activities that the resort prepared as part of “Friend’s Week”.  Despite sitting in the corner by ourselves at the bar for most of the week, we still met lots of new friends over a few pisco sours, and chatted with ex-national team ski racers, current pros, and big mountain legends.  It really was the perfect way to spend one very last week of skiing, and on our very last night, the Andes delivered one more gift to send us off.

I am borderline superstitious when it comes to mountain things, believing that anything less than complete humility in the mountains is enough to cause something to go wrong, and that the Snow Gods always deliver the goods when it matters most.  I’m not trying to convince anyone of one thing or another, but it was pretty special when we woke up on our last morning in Portillo, my 73rd day of skiing around the world, and looked out the window:  nearly a foot of fresh Andean powder, and bluebird skies by the time breakfast was over.  We made fresh tracks in boot deep powder until our legs couldn’t handle it, and then on our very last run we pointed it all the way down to the shores of Laguna del Inca, under picture perfect sunshine and blue sky.  Pure magic, as the saying in Portillo goes.

I’m not sure if it was the gift from the Snow Gods to wrap up the week, or the last needless purchase at 2:59AM the night before (we got an itemized printout of the “extras” on our room bill, with purchase times, so guess what that was), but the four of us took no time to fall fast asleep on the shuttle ride back to Santiago. We scheduled ourselves a couple days to explore some of the sights of the Chilean capital before our respective journeys home last Monday night.

And the rest, as they say, is history. And memories. Lots and lots of incredible memories.  My dad likes to say that there are three parts to any great trip:  the planning part, before you even leave; living the actual trip itself; and the memories that you take away from it all when you get home.  Each part sees its own wave of emotions: excitement, anticipation, and nervousness before you go; happiness, enjoyment, awe (I’ve called them “holy sh*t moments”) when you’re out there doing it; and sadness, pride, and disbelief when it’s all over. It’s kind of hard to pick the best part, because each is so unique and so different.  But, when all three are combined, it makes for a life experience that is pretty difficult to put into words.

When I started cooking up this trip, I had a vision of what it was going to look like.  I had drawn things up 100 different ways, and planned and planned and planned, but at the end of the day I just had to get out there, hang on, and enjoy the ride as much as I possibly could.  I’m happy, and proud, to say that the vision I had turned into everything I hoped it would, and then some.  The experiences, the encounters, the new friends, the feelings, and the memories will be cherished forever.

If you’re visiting this blog page for the fifth time, or for the twentieth: thanks.  I hope you enjoyed reading and being part of the ride, albeit virtually. Thanks for your comments and notes, and support along the way.  If you’ve stumbled across this blog page because you are planning some far flung ski trip (like I was about a year ago, and there were blog pages that helped me out), all I can say is: do it. I hope you make it happen –  maybe I can even help point you in the right direction (it’s usually downhill).  And if you’re just clicking around online, looking to turn pipe dreams into reality: I hope this inspires you. I hope you decide to get out there and accomplish something you weren’t sure was even possible – it will be one of the best decisions you ever make.

Thanks for following along, I have to go back to work now. 🙂

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Coming Into The Stretch Drive…

Friday August 11th, 2017

Somewhere between Bariloche and the Chilean border

It’s August 11th today. In 10 days I’ll be on a plane back to Canada. In. Sane.  Surprisingly, I’ve done a pretty good job the last couple weeks of just shutting all of that out of my mind and have been enjoying every last minute to the fullest.

The minutes of this last week were awesome, though, at the moment, I’m back on the bus heading west over the Andes, and back into Chile. This last week in Bariloche was one of those weeks where everything kind of comes together in ways that you can’t appreciate enough, and makes for a wonderful experience.

My time in Argentina was made so memorable thanks in large part to my friend Federico, who I met in New Zealand. The two of us were looking for people to ski with down there and we were able to spend some time on the slopes together. As it happens, Federico, and his family, are from Bariloche. Within minutes of meeting for the first time, Federico offered to talk to his mother to see if I could stay at their family home during my travels. His brother, Leonardo, would also be around and could perhaps show me some of the local stashes.  With no expectations, I accepted Fede’s more than generous offer and jumped in without knowing what I was getting myself into. It turned out to be one of the nicest things that has happened to me on this trip.

I showed up on the family doorstep a little sheepishly last Friday, wondering how I was going to introduce myself to Fede’s mother, Nilda, as he had told me she doesn’t speak a word of English. How do you say: “Uh, yeah hi, I’m Andrew, Federico’s friend who met me through Facebook ski touring groups in New Zealand and I’m here to stay for a few days”, in Argentinian Spanish?! Beats me.

Turns out it didn’t really matter, because thanks to a bunch of funny hand gestures and the dozen or so Spanish words that I do understand, the door didn’t get slammed in my face. Nilda greeted me warmly and, despite the fact we had never met before, I immediately felt welcome in their home.

Leonardo (“Cuny”), who speaks English very well, arrived at the house an hour or so after me, and played translator between his mother and I.  He is a super likeable guy and after some short introductions we got into the details of the week ahead: Tomorrow (Saturday), we would head up to Cerro Catedral (the resort outside town) for some laps, and then Sunday or Monday (weather depending) we would head into Refugio Frey for a few days of touring. Amazing. Pretty much exactly what I was hoping to do during my stay.

For the rest of the week Cuny completely took me under his wing, and showed me a side of Bariloche that I never would have experienced on my own. He’s hoping to make it up to Whistler one of these days, and I can’t wait to repay the favor.

After cranking out a few laps at Catedral on Saturday (high winds caused most of the lifts to close early), we went over to Leonardo’s friend Claudio’s place for a BBQ dinner. Argentinians are famous for their grilling skills, so I was excited for the meal. Claudio certainly delivered with a spread of beef steaks, ribs, and a variety of sausages to start. It was delicious.

The whole evening was made even more special because it was totally authentic: just a few friends and family enjoying a nice meal together on a Saturday night. I mostly just sat at the table, smiled, and helped myself to more meat and beer, because I couldn’t understand a single word that was being said. But everyone was laughing (maybe at me?!) and having a good time. It was neat to be a part of, and every so often Cuny and I would chat so I didn’t feel completely invisible!

After a bad weather day on Sunday, we packed up early on Monday morning and headed out to Refugio Frey.  I’m not sure how many of these days I’ve had on this trip, but it was another one of those ones where skis go on the pack, boots go on the pack, and snow line seems like miles away.  Plus we had four days worth of food to carry. And it was raining.  The things we do for skiing…

The hike in to Frey was straightforward, with Cuny having spent tons of time there over the years.  Eventually we crossed the freezing elevation and by the time we arrived to the hut there were a few centimetres of fresh snow on the ground. With snow falling, and more in the forecast for the days ahead,  it was shaping up to be an awesome few days.

Refugio Frey sits at the eastern edge of Laguna Tonchek, a few kilometres behind the Cerro Catedral ski area, and looks out towards tons of enormous granite spires and towers. Despite the less than favorable weather when we arrived, we could still make out plenty of different couloirs that looked great for skiing.  The hut is well equipped, with a full kitchen, running water, and caretakers there to keep things in order.  There were relatively few people at the hut when we arrived, so it was nice to have some space and make ourselves at home. Cuny took advantage of the kitchen to prepare delicious meals, and so all we had to do was eat, sleep, and ski.

From Monday until yesterday afternoon, we had the place more or less to ourselves and got first pick on fresh tracks for many of the lines outside the hut.  A pair of German guys who I had met earlier in the month at Chillan also arrived on the Monday and so teamed up with us for many of the runs.

The best day of the week was no doubt on Wednesday when, after two days of snow, the sun finally came out to reveal the true extent of the mountain playground we were in. Cuny had pretty keen to throw some “Patagonian backflips” during our stay, so after preparing a nice kicker on our first afternoon, he tested it out and landed some sweet tricks, with  massive granite spires framing the backdrop.  After a few jumps we’d pick a couloir and then go and ski a fun line.

The skiing was great.  Long, narrow lines, with huge granite walls on either side.  Most of the couloirs spilled out onto the frozen lake and so we just had to look up and pick the next one we wanted to climb and ski.  The fresh snow made it even more special.

Yesterday afternoon, after a few more tricks and a couple more runs, we packed up our things and made our way back into town.  We must have drawn just a few looks when we stumbled on to the city bus at 7:00PM last night, drenched, and once again with skis, boots, etc, all strapped to our packs.  The bus dropped us in town and we walked right to the front door of the house.

It was a short evening last night after getting settled back to the house and drying out our gear.  I had a nice dinner with Nilda and Leonardo and then early this morning it was back on the bus at 7:00 am, before the sun was even up.  The rest of the day will be fairly uneventful, with a few more hours on this bus, and then a two hour flight north to Santiago.  But,  the guys – Mike, Will, and Neal – should all be en route now (Mike lands in Santiago at the same time as me), and I can’t wait to see them. In the morning we will make our way up to Portillo for what should be an unbeatable finale to this unforgettable ski adventure.

Mission: Accomplished

Friday August 3rd,  2017

Somewhere between Puerto Montt and the Argentinian border

I’ve just left Puerto Montt, Chile, for a seven hour bus ride over to Bariloche, in Argentina, where I’ll spend the next week skiing. After a few bus rides of similar duration in Asia, one might be reluctant to hop aboard, but I think this one will be a little better: the seats are comfortable, they recline, and there are even little leg rests. I have a window seat on the second deck of the bus, and the views once we get into the national parks east of here are meant to be great. And Carlos, the bus equivalent of a flight attendant,  just handed out small breakfast trays with some sweets, tea, and coffee. Maybe bus travel can be nice!

I arrived in South America a week ago now, first landing in Buenos Aires for a short night, and then a quick hop over the Andes to Santiago. There were great views of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the world not in the Himalayas) on the way.

The first couple days in Santiago provided perhaps the most stressful moments of this entire trip (including all those moments spent on shit-your-pants terrain in Chamonix): driving in the city. I wanted to have a little flexibility to explore Chile so decided to rent a car for the first few days here.

I’m sure driving in Santiago is no worse than many North American cities, it’s just that all the road signs are in Spanish only, the exit signs are completely un-related to the directions I was given from Google, and street signs are nothing more than a post-it note on a telephone pole. On the drive in from the airport I managed to: miss my exit for the hostel (which caused an hour long detour through the city, in the dark); turn the wrong way onto a one way street (fortunately someone outside yelled at me and I clued in to pull a quick Uey before I drove into an oncoming car); and get stuck in the middle of a large intersection on a red light. When I did finally find the hostel (with only my psyche a little damaged) there was no parking available. So, I had to pay off the night attendant at the gas station down the street to keep an eye on the car while I left it in the 30 minute parking zone for the entire night. The conversation took way longer than it needed to, but I can hardly speak Spanish, and he could hardly speak English.

Things went a little better the following morning (Sunday) for the drive out to El Colorado ski area, about 50 km east of Santiago. It started with finding the rental car still in the parking lot, with windows and tires are still in tact.

The drive to the hill was pretty neat. Santiago sits in the bottom of the north-south running valley between the Andes and the Pacific Cordillera. As you drive east, the Andes look like a giant, snow-capped wall, offering no way out. Once off the highway and onto the ski access road, one must complete 40 hair pin turns (they are numbered on the road) in order to climb up to the base of the hills. At times I wasn’t sure if my dinky little rental car would make it. The approach was somewhat similar to Morocco, as I passed through dry, desert like slopes, with cactuses lining the road shoulder.

Excitement started to build once I safely arrived to the parking lot and put on my gear. The price tag of a one day lift ticket caused me to flinch a little bit, but I was more than happy to splurge, hop on that first lift, and accomplish what I set out to do when I left Vancouver over six months ago.

After riding up a couple slow double chairs and then a T-bar to get to the top of the mountain, I dropped in for my first run in South America.  It was the best run on garbage snow  that I have ever had. Of course the snow quality in that particular moment was totally irrelevant. Sure it would have been nice to make fresh tracks the whole way down, but the feeling of accomplishment at the bottom was greater than the feelings at the bottom of some of the best powder runs I’ve had elsewhere. With the exception of Antarctica (which is an adventure for another day), I had now skied on every continent in the world. On the t-bar ride up for run #2, I couldn’t hold back tears of joy.  It was one of the coolest moments I’ve experienced, maybe ever.

I continued to ride the lifts and run laps for longer than I would normally do, riding the high of being able to say “mission: accomplished”. By mid afternoon I was literally falling asleep on the slow double chairlift, still being a little jet-lagged from the long flight over from New Zealand. I packed it in for the afternoon, had a nap in the car, and then mentally prepared myself for the drive back into the city.

After Night #2 of paying off gas station attendants, I was eager to get out of Santiago. And because it was Monday morning, I had to have the car gone by 8:00am, otherwise it was going to be “big problemo”. So I packed up and headed south out of the city, without making any wrong turns.

Apparently Chile is home to roughly 10% of the worlds active volcanoes.  Although I’ve technically already skied on volcanoes near home (Baker, Rainier), I thought it would be a cool experience to ski some Chilean ones. The nearest place to do so from Santiago was about 5 hours south at Nevados de Chillan, which is where I decided to head for a couple days of skiing.

I was more than happy with my decision to make the trek south. The ski resort at Nevados de Chillan offers easy backcountry access to the slopes of several volcanoes, one of which was actively smoking.

With absolutely no snow having fallen in the last two weeks, and freezing levels having gone through the roof (which helps consolidate the snowpack), I decided to venture out into the backcountry on my own (not a practice I would recommend). But given the current conditions, and the generally mellow terrain, I figured I was more likely to be buried in volcanic ash than in avalanche debris.

The terrain was really interesting, with rolling slopes and gullies carved out from previous eruptions. In areas of low snowpack, you could see all sorts of volcanic rocks that had been deposited. And on my second afternoon I even skied into one of the small volcano craters, which was a pretty neat experience. All with Volcàn de Chillan Nuevo smoldering in the background (there was actually no snow near the crest of the volcano, presumably having been melted away).  The views north and south were some of the most spectacular of the whole trip, with distinct volcano cones visible as far as the eye could see.  If I had more time, I definitely would have spent a few more days there. It would be a great place to ski with some fresh snow.

Speaking of fresh snow, it looks like Bariloche is going to get a bunch of it in the next few days, so (fingers crossed) it should be a great few days. After a week in Bariloche it’s back to Santiago and out to Portillo for, unbelievably, the very last week of this unbelievable journey.