Monday, September 27, 2010

Patagonia Chronicles:

An account of an 11-day ski excursion in Patagonia with Sweet Grass Productions. Here 5 athletes and 2 filmers head into the mountains outside Cerro Castillo, Chile in hopes of shooting some new footage for Sweet Grass's upcoming film.

Part 1: The Approach

I plopped down into the saddle with a feeling of familiarity. In actuality the situation was entirely unfamiliar, but the feeling of mounting a horse felt all the same. It had been nearly ten years since I had ridden a horse. Once an equestrian, now far less of a lady, I have only salvaged a few blue ribbons and my riding crop from those days.

I adjust myself in the saddle and reach down to give my beast of burden a friendly rub. The rest of the crew mount their rides. The gauchos cinch down the final straps, as the pack horses brace under their heavy loads. A heap of packs, boots, skis, and camera equipment dwarf these stout, surly little horses. At last we are ready to embark.

The crew makes for quite a caravan: 7 gringos, 3 gauchos, 12 horses and a puppy we call “lil Buddy”. The convoy of horses clips and clops along, slowly bobbing through the quaint little town of Cerro Castillo. It is about mid morning and the town is active. People are going about their day, dogs are going about their play. Yet, they are all willing to momentarily stop and observe our procession rolling past.

We reach the outskirts of town and head toward the mountains. We follow a dirt road along the valley floor adjacent to the river. Presently the river is relatively tranquil and modest. However, judging from the girth of the river bed and the distinctive high water mark, this rio will soon rage as it strains to drain the runoff of these Patagonian peaks. Along the river, the terrain is rocky, rugged and dry. Clipping along we pass a few modest ranches and encounter a herd of wild horses. Both physically and romantically this area draws many parallels to the American west at the turn of the century. Perhaps this explains my attraction to it. Finally we stray from the road and head for higher ground. We begin to make our way up a drainage, leading towards an amphitheatre of mountains, far above. At the top of this creek and at the base of those peaks will be our new home.

By this point I am sick of being on a horse. I feel slightly violated and realize that cowboys walk distinctively bow-legged for a reason. Looking around I notice much of the crew has a similar look of discomfort. I proceed to squirm in my saddle, causing my horse to through his ears back in disgust. We continue to climb, over rocks, through the woods, up steep embankments, to finally reach the snow line. I am quite eager to get off this horse, get on my skis, through on my pack and start skinning. I looked over at Drew, fellow athlete, and he seems reluctant to dismount. I conclude he either has balls of steel or would rather compromise his comfort and posterity for a free ride up to base camp.

We begin to organize our gear and top off our packs. The horses and gauchos start their return home, looking relieved to finally be rid of us. With everyone’s packs bursting with gear, we decide to sling the majority of our food up in a tree. Our packs are already approaching 60+ pounds, and we still have a 4-mile skin ahead of us, featuring a few challenging obstacles. Thus, we plan to return tomorrow for the rest of the food.

I am psyched to be in my boots, on my skis, and heading into the mountains. It all feels right again. My stress dissipates. Finally we are here. As we stroll through the glades, trees become illuminated by neon lichen adorning their trunks. They cast dark slender shadows that striate the crisp white snow beneath. For the most part we plug along in silence, observing this new world. Far above the mountains loom and with every approaching step the peaks grow in stature. They look gothic, with towering dark walls and tall spindly spires resembling witch fingernails. These mountains are the ominous cathedrals of Patagonia, where religion and suffering reside- along with salvation.

We continue on, as the straps on our packs start to dig in. Thankfully from here we haven’t too much elevation to gain. We navigate through brush, over logs, around drainages and cross several creeks. Finally, after about 3 hours of skinning we reach our destination, our new home, at the base of these momentous mountains.

Due to the obscene size and weight of my camera I decided not to bring it on this backpacking trip. Thus, I have no photos to provide at this moment. But check out Forrest Coots' Blog for additional anecdotes and pictures from this trip.


erica laidlaw