Words & Photos by Sean Zimmerman-Wall
Heading south to Esquel, we think about the events that have led us here. We met with Alex Taran, founder of South American Beacon Project, over a month ago to discuss the possibility of bringing beacons to Argentina. Her non-profit is aimed at the proliferation of avalanche education and the development of a philanthropic policy towards providing life-saving equipment for mountain workers in the Andes.
In all, we have fourteen Ortovox avalanche transceivers (beacons) and countless hours of instruction to deliver to these great people. Arriving at our destination, the primary objective is finding the headquarters of La Hoya, a small ski hill located in central Patagonia. After driving through the pre-dawn darkness, we are a bit disheveled, but we are greeted with open arms and hot yerba maté. Diego Alonzo invites us into his office in the town’s center and we brief him on the specifics of our mission and what we hope to achieve over the weekend. The following hours include hiking through the resort’s terrain and observing the recent avalanche activity and snowpack structure. La Hoya has just been hit with a severe wind event accompanied by moderate precipitation, and certain slopes show evidence of significant avalanche activity. After some recon and digging, we are back in town preparing to meet with the mountain personnel of La Hoya. The conference commences around seven in the evening and we jump straight into teaching. Justin Lozier, lead guide at PatagoniaSkiTours.com, starts off the night with a quick intro and we familiarize ourselves with the locals. Our students range from lifties, to patrollers, to a few core citizens. All of them have experience in the backcountry and are eager to learn the techniques we have to offer. Videos and slideshows provide a necessary backdrop for education and our attitudes keep us all on the same page. Each person has their own set of experiences and skills to bring to the table, and we discuss the regional conditions and possibilities for improving safe travel in this extreme terrain.
The next day blooms bright and we load up the car to head to the mountain. A brisk wind overnight scoured some of the exposed slopes, but we are optimistic about finding good snow for instruction. La Hoya’s small contingent of ski patrollers (Pisteros) is responsible for a massive swath of dangerous terrain and the protection of nearly a dozen ski lifts. It is evident that the recent avalanches affected principal runs of the resort as we cruised towards a sizable debris field on the southwestern flank of the mountain. The winds of Patagonia rake the summits of La Hoya and load many of the eastern faces. There are cornices the size of Volkswagens dotting the ridge, and crowns predominate the landscape. We immediately dive into beacon rescue drills and get our hands and feet in the snow. A recent avalanche path provides the perfect training grounds for a realistic scenario. The ensuing searching, probing and shoveling takes on an authentic vibe. The pisteros quickly become proficient with their new beacons and we felt confident that they are equipped to train future rescuers.
Next, we head up into the alpine to dig snow profile pits and study stability. It is a windy afternoon and clouds stream over the ridgeline as we ascend the POMA lift. From the top we scout a good location and make our way around the Cordillera. Our profile reveals a structurally stable hard slab capped with a thin wind affected layer smeared with surface hoar feathers. Each pistero takes their turn conducting hand hardness tests and investigating crystal types. Overall, we are satisfied with our findings and interpret the results to indicate present stability and the future avalanche potential once the Santa Rosa storm arrives. It is now time to part ways and let the knowledge be passed on to others. The group mounts up and skis one last south face to the bottom before parting ways and wishing each other good luck. Delivering the information and resources to this group and enabling them to teach others lies at the heart of the South American Beacon Project, and we can’t wait to return next year to see the strides they have made.
After our adventures in Esquel, we return to our home base in Bariloche and prepare ourselves for the next class. The Club Andino Bariloche has invited us to come and teach a group of ski instructors and students about avalanche terrain and rescue techniques. Our meeting takes place in C.A.B. Escuela de Ski at the base village of Cerro Catedral. This session is very important because it represents an opportunity to teach a younger demographic of skiers and riders. The average age of participants is thirteen and each student has been skiing in the Andes for their entire life. Cerro Catedral is one of the largest ski resorts in South America and subsequently has extreme terrain capable of producing devastating avalanches. Keeping in the spirit of the program, we start things off with an informal intro and make friends with the students. Justin’s fluidity with Castellano puts the kids at ease and gets them excited about learning. Thanks to the Utah Avalanche Center and master editor Butch Adams, we have a translated version of “Know Before You Go” to show to the class. They are intrigued by the stunning videography and music and immediately start asking questions. We interject with simple answers and you can tell they are genuinely interested in learning more. Concluding our work with the video and presentation, we head to the hill to get snowy.
Choosing a representative south-facing slope, which typically has the deepest and best quality snow, we set up a mock-avalanche scenario and start instructing. The beacons we have provided are Ortovox M2’s and are easy to use for an analog beacon. The kids quickly get into it and are knees in the snow searching. Their energy keeps us going and each time they find the “victim”, their faces light up with joy. After an hour or so of beacon drills, we dig a small pit and show them the basics of snowpack analysis. Our goal is to just get these kids thinking about snow, avalanches, and making good decisions in dangerous terrain. Overall, the students, and the two ski instructors Gerardo and Agustín, really enjoy the class. The session ends by mid-afternoon and we part ways. The C.A.B. were a delightful group to work with and it will be exciting to see how the education program develops in the coming years.
Although the weekend was a whirlwind of activity, we felt strong after finishing the final class. Every person we met along the way had a positive attitude and it was refreshing to feel that we were really becoming part of the mountain community down here. In the future, we will continue to put on these courses with the assistance of the South American Beacon Project and keep the “Buena Onda” flowing.