Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Splitboarding the Refugios of Bariloche Part III: Italia (Laguna Negra)

Part III of the Splitboarding Patagonia series, continued from Part I: Refugio Frey and Part II: Refugio San Martin (Jacob)

Refugio Italia (Laguna Negra)

Fernando's (not crazy Fernando from the last story, Helpful Fernando from the Bariloche Club Andino) final recommendation for me was Refugio Italia at Laguna Negra. I told him I was sick of people and wanted solitude, and he said Laguna Negra was beautiful and likely to be quiet, with the refugio opening for the first time for the season the coming weekend.

My friend Anneke at the Green House hostel had been hearing my stories and getting jealous. She didn't have a splitboard but if the past two weekends were any indication I assumed we'd be carrying our boards most of the time anyhow. She also didn't have a tent or sleeping mat, but there was always the refugio. I encouraged her to join. She finally sweet talked her way into a traded work shift so that she could go, picked up crampons and cooking gas while I got groceries (including a box of wine), and off we went.

Into the woods. With our snowboards. Because that makes perfect sense.

The trail started from Colonia Suiza, a little Swiss village way out in the woods of Bariloche (WTF? but then, that's Bariloche). We just barely caught the one afternoon bus at 1:30 pm after my Spanish class with Ivone let out. Advantage of having a Swiss village way out at the woods next to a trailhead: chocolate. We loaded up, and also picked up a lighter for lighting the gas stove, which I had forgotten (or rather, which someone at the hostel had never returned after I loaned it to him, ahem, Santi). It was hard not to eat all of it right then.

Chocolate acquired, we set off, getting the requisite weird looks from everyone who saw us, boards strapped to our fully-loaded backpacks. One person even slowed down to a stop, rolled down his window, and said what I assume was the Spanish equivalent of, "What. The. Fuck." At which point we proceeded to have a nearly word-for-word identical conversation to the one I had had with a different motorist almost exactly one week prior.

"Are you lost?"
"No, we're going to a trail. It's close."
"The ski area is closed."
"Yeah, we know, we're not going there. We're going to Laguna Negra."
"Then why are you carrying snowboards?"
"We're going snowboarding."
"There is no snow." (this was starting to sound familiar)
"Yeah, there is, in the mountains."
"No, there is no snow. Look, no snow."
"There's lots of snow."
"I will drive you to the ski area, but there is no snow."
"No, we know. There is snow where we are going, not the ski area."
"You don't want me to drive you?"
"No, really, the trail is right here, we're fine."

Then he stared at us with a look that expressed simultaneously a high degree of mistrust and suspiscion, "you must be terrible people", and "you are definitely going to die" while slowly rolling up his window before he drove off.

The two of us at the trailhead, ready to roll. Photo by Anneke.

Two minutes later, we were on the trail. I felt every inch of the climb, carrying my sleeping bag, bivvy sack, sleeping pad, cooking gas and stove, a cooking pot, the box of wine, 2.5 L of water, pasta, oranges, veggies, cookies, sandwiches, snow clothes, my camera, my GoPro, my Kindle, my splitboard skins, my splitboard, my boots, and a first aid kit, weighing in at a total of ~60 lbs. So we decided to stash the food and cooking stuff, since we'd be returning the next night in order to catch the early Sunday AM bus so that Anneke could get to work on time.

Anneke, on the first of many creek crossings.
Aaaand another creek crossing. Notice Anneke's soft cast. Because going snowboarding the week you get your cast off (when it was snowboarding that broke your arm in the first place) is totally fine.

I was happy that it was a significantly shorter hike than the weekend prior, but carrying as much as we were it still felt long. At one point we ran into a guy (I almost literally ran into him, the sun blinding my eyes and keeping him from view until I was less than 3 feet from him) who asked if the refugio was far. "Yes," I said honestly. He wasn't even halfway. He then said that he was exhausted and turned around and went back. I felt bad, but the next part of the hike made me glad I had said that. It was sketchy; as Helpful Fernando had predicted, the final stretch switchbacked up a steep ridge and it was snowed over. Which meant postholing through ice-crusted snow for the final seemingly straight uphill kilometer and a half. Which meant a lot of falling into holes with our heavy packs on. It was not very fun, but the views very beautiful. And snow, snow is good, right?

View from the climb

Anneke hiking through the snow...in shorts. Aussies are badasses.

Between our map, Fernando's trail description, and some old tracks, we figured out where we were going and picked our way slowly and carefully up the ridge. Anneke, hauling her board and a rented sleeping bag that alone must have weighed 20 lbs was a champ. This was her first time out since breaking her arm 2 months earlier, and she had just gotten her cast off.

I popped over the ridge and saw the beautiful refugio perched on the edge of very frozen Laguna Negra. We got in and greeted the refugioero, who was startled to see us, having just arrived himself and unlocked the refugio for it's first day of occupation that season. He spent the first 10 minutes unnecessarily apologizing for the mess and set about cleaning up the place.

Refugio Italia

I meanwhile set about finding a good spot to camp and was struck by the beauty of the mountains, now bathed in Alpenglow. I had just pulled out my camera when a giant fox--a Zorro Gris / Patagonian Grey Fox, which isn't really in the fox family being much more closely related to wolves--appeared. He was the size of a labrador, sleek, stunningly handsome, and not the least bit shy.

At first I thought, "maybe he isn't a fox, maybe he's the refugiero's dog," and remembered seeing the dog tracks in the snow on the way up. But no, despite the lack of shyness, this was definitely a wild animal, a wild animal who had followed the human tracks up the mountain because he was hungry and hunting, and the thought that this animal had climbed up that ridge because he smelled food and that food was of a human nature was in my head as he approached and very closely and slowly circled me. In contrast to how I usually respond to dogs--squat down and hold out my hand for sniffing--I stood tall and eyed him back, snapping occasional photos (with a brief flash of  thinking "at least if it eats me, my family will know what got me").

Foxy fox

"Hey handsome," I said to the fox. "I'm a big healthy animal. So let's make a deal: I won't eat you if you don't eat me."

Fox continued to circle and watch me as I set up my bivvy sack. It checked out my snowboard and backpack, but there was no food (we left the food down the trail hanging from a tree), and I must have impressed upon him that I was not food, because he eventually left and I didn't see him again.

"Why are your jaws so big, fox?" "All the better to eat you with, my dear."

In the meantime Anneke had arrived and was drying out and warming up inside, and I joined her, unpacked the wine, an we toasted. The wine was terrible, even the refugiero refused to drink it with us, but whatever. The chocolate from the Colonia Suiza on the other hand was excellent, and our friend the refugiero didn't refuse that. We discussed the morning, I showed her the line I wanted, and pointed out other options while she decided on hers.

Anneke & me toasting our arrival at Refugio Italia with truly awful boxed wine (my first not-good wine since arriving in South America) in our metal cups. Fortunately this was made up for with very excellent chocolate.

We had asked for a simple meal versus the normal 3-course meal and were served a steaming heap of pasta with a mushroom alfredo sauce. I twas going to be another Benadryl night, but it was delicious. And, Benadryls downed, I crawled into my sleeping bag, attempted some night photos, and slept like a log. I woke up to the sunrise, took some more photos, and went back to sleep, sleeping until 9am, exhausted form the week. Funny, But I always slept better in my bivvy sack than I ever did in the hostel, as much as I loved the Green House.

View over Laguna Negra from the bivvy sack
Sunrise at Refugio Italia

I finally got up, anxious to squeeze as much as possible out of the day, and went into the refugio to repack my bag for snowboarding. Anneke and I had breakfast (bananas, oranges, and crappy sandwiches) and we set off, a late 10:30 start. It took us a while to get around the lake, and by the time Anneke and I split ways and I had put my skins on, it was already noon.

Anneke plowing up the mountain.

So I popped in my headphones for the turbo-charge of energy that music can provide and rocketed my way around the rest of the lake and up the ridge on the end of the lake opposite the refugio, this time making it the entire way on skins, a welcome change from weeks of doing pretty much everything with crampons and the board on my back. I celebrated at the top with a sandwich and another dance party, keeping an eye on Anneke’s progress up the opposing slope and hoping I’d be able to catch her on my GoPro on her way down. Turns out she had stopped, not to put on her board and go down, but to watch me as well, and eventually she started back up the hill, and I started hiking the ridge. I stopped at the point where I’d no longer be able to see and film her, but she was going all the way up—go Anneke!—so I continued, keeping on solid ground and away from the heavily corniced snow edge on my way up to the summit.

Me, hiking along the Cerro Negro ridgeline to the summit. Photo by Anneke.

I didn't realize I had made the summit until I noticed that the view from the ridge was no longer facing the direction it should face from the summit, having passed the summit and continued along the ridgeline toward Cerro Lopez. I turned around, found the summit, filmed my final dance party (see video below...the clips from the Cerro Lopez summit were filmed while dancing to music in my head since my MP3 player had run out of juice), and slowly, carefully, picked my way down the very steep, very cliffs-on-both-sides series of rocks to the point where I wouldn't have to drop a large cliff or giant cornice to hit the slope.

I sat down on a rock, strapped on my board, and made the drop, my heart leaping into my neck in that wonderful surge of “oooh hellll yeah woooooooo!” of doing something absolutely awesome like dropping off the steep face of a pointy mountain. It was an excellent run, a run well worth the long hike, a run that made up for the previous week’s meh-ness, a run worthy of what would be my last run of the season.

When I hit the flats, ran out of speed, and came to a stop and turned around to look at my tracks, I thought,

“Damn, girl, high five, that’s some badass snowboarding you just did.”

And the clouds parted briefly and God turned his holy sky spotlight onto the summit and the beam of light traced my tracks all the way down to the valley as if to say,

“Damn girl, high five, that’s some badass snowboarding you just did.”

And He saw the tracks and saw they were good. And she saw the tracks and saw they were good. And content, strapped her snowboard back onto her back, put her crampons on, and returned to the refugio.

My tracks on Cerro Negro. That triangle to the right is what I snowboarded down, starting at the little whit epatc to the right of the summit (the summit itself had some pretty gnarly cornices followed by cliffs, so I avoided).

Anneke had had herself a pretty badass line as well, and even though “it was only, like 3 minutes! All that hiking for 3 minutes!” I could see she had swallowed the pill and was now an addict like me.

That nice field of snow on the ridge opposite the one I was on is what Anneke cramponed up and then shredded on her first time out since breaking her arm. Proving, once, again, Aussies are badasses.

We “snowboarded” down the snowy switchbacky slope we had climbed up (I put the quotes in because with a 50 lb backpack on, you can’t exactly maneuver well enough to really snowboard. More like stand on a board and sort of scoot in a general direction and keep your fingers crossed that you don’t die, because you can’t turn or break without falling), taking a good half hour off of the time it took us to climb up, and tromped our way down the hill with the goal of making the 8:30 pm bus back to town.

We would have made it (barely), could have made it, but the closer we got to the trailhead and bus stop, the less we wanted to spend the night in the hostel. When I finally said, “Actually, I kind of want to spend another night out here…” I didn't get a chance to finish with “…I’ll walk with you to the bus stop if you want,” before Anneke said, “Metoo”. 

So we got to the spot where we had stashed our food and cooking gear, unstashed it, hiked a bit further to a nice spot where we could camp for the night, and set up camp. There was rain forecast and the clouds had rolled in, and since Anneke didn't have a tent we were worried about rain, but found a spot with thick enough trees and I had some garbage bags to cover her and we figured if worst came to worst, we’d have a bad night’s sleep but catch the 6:30 am bus back to town and warm up at the hostel.

We cooked our pasta and tuna fish dinner (way to much food, but we ate it), attempted to make our wine palatable by heating it (which just made it worse), and collapsed into our respective sleeping bags for a full night of rain-free sleep. Which didn't mean that we were bright-eyed and busy-tailed when my alarm went off at 5:45 am, but at least we made that 6:30 am bus.

River view on the hike out.

And with that, I packed away my splitboad and snowboard for the season and shifted gears to what I thought (wrongly, in some cases) would be less snowy adventures in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, starting with a 36 hour bus ride from Bariloche to Ushuaia.

I returned to Bariloche with my family in December and made one final pilgrimage to some of the refugios I had missed, including Refugio Lopez on Cerro Lopez and a re-visit to Italia where, instead of snowboarding like in this story, my sister and I surfed sliding piles of scree on our way down to Laguna Negra (story to come). I also rang in the new year in Refugio Otto Meiling on Cerro Tronador with Anneke before finally saying goodbye to Bariloche for this trip.

I had the time of my life hauling my splitboard for days for my several 3-minute snow runs. I freaking love snow, love mountains, love sleeping in my iced-over bivvy sack under some of the clearest night skies I've ever seen. I spent every weekend in Bariloche incredibly, deeply, blissfully happy. Like, laughing and smiling for no particular reason happy, just because the mountains were so goddamned beautiful and I was in them and holyshitlifeisawesome. When was the last time I was this happy this often? I honestly don’t know, but definitely not since I was a teenager.

Me, in my Happy Place

This means something. Something I always knew but tried to hope was not true because it makes things difficult. That I belong, belong need require, in the mountains. In the mountains. Not within driving distance of them. Not within sight of them. In them. Real ones. Big ones. Mountains with snow and steep faces to jump off on my snowboard. Mountains I can retreat to for peace and quiet and stars and solitude.

So that makes the future easier, because now my job isn't to find a job, it’s to find a way to live in the mountains, be it as a scientist or as a refugiera or as a crazy hermit with a herd of goats. It’s not to find a lover, it’s to take mountains as my lovers, because they make me happy. Desperately, gloriously, soul-dancingly happy.

Also actual dancingly happy.

A special thank you to Fernando (a.k.a. Helpful Fernando) at the Club Andino for the tips and advice! Also to all of the Refugieros whose hospitality, friendliness, and excellent skills in the kitchen made the experience an especially delightful one.


  1. I love this video!! Seriously. Amazing. It made me happy just to see you being so happy! I feel like I'm on the top of a mountain. :)

    1. :-) Thanks Anne! Hope you two enjoyed your time in Bariloche and the rest of Patagonia!