The voyaging skier’s bucket list indubitably boasts a few classic destinations: Japan, Chamonix, Alaska, New Zealand, South America. They all have their unique experiences, stories we share and compare with others who have made the same journey. Sometimes, however, the opportunity arises to take on one of these mountain Meccas in an unorthodox manner. It means risking the security of the tried and tested itineraries, but it also guarantees an experience unlike anything you could have expected. This September I was given the chance to do just that when my friend Dwyer invited me to join him on his small yacht, the Rascal, for two months in southern Chile.
Having spent two years navigating his way singlehanded from Seattle to Puerto Montt, he was reaping the delights of the Andean winter. My visit would be a spring mission with a twist, in which we would try to access skiable terrain, in the depths of Patagonia, from a sailing boat. Our primary objective was the San Rafael glacier, a tidewater glacier that runs directly into the sea and, incidentally, the nearest tidewater glacier to the equator. If we were going to ski from the boat anywhere, this was certainly a good place to try.
Setting out from Puerto Montt we took to the seas and sailed south through the nearly deserted fjords of Chilean Patagonia. Although we never lost sight of land, the only signs of civilisation were remote salmon farms, the odd fishing village and long distance ferries, one of which was exposed to sight of our glaringly pale behinds floating by. As we sailed, snow-laden peaks drifted past us in the distance, all of them protected by a barricade of densely forested foothills. Accessing them was not going to be a walk in the park.
Fortunately the north winds we needed to carry us south were prevalent, bringing with them heavy winds and rain or beautifully textured overcast skies. Finally, after thirteen days, we sailed in to the Laguna San Rafael, the sinking sun lighting up a panorama of colossal, ornate icebergs while the glacier glowed brightly in the background.
We spent a week among the icebergs, motoring around in our inflatable dinghy, watching in awe as the glacier shed towering blocks of ice into the water, and hiking through the forest to reach incredible viewpoints.
On our last day we loaded the dinghy with our ski gear, beached it near the base of the glacier and navigated over moss blanketed rocks up to a relatively smooth patch of ice. Hiking up a small face with our crampons, we ripped a few glory turns on the sun softened ice, took a plunge in a glacial pool and celebrated with a champagne picnic at the edge of the glacier’s headwall. It wasn’t exactly extreme skiing, but we’d achieved our first goal of the trip, and we’d done it in glorious style.
The following day we began our journey back north. Blessed with an unusual stretch of sunshine and favourable winds we enjoyed productive days of sailing. While Carly, our autopilot, supervised our rapid progress we played cribbage, drank wine and held impromptu dance parties on deck. Before long we were only two days south of Puerto Montt and in the vicinity of the perfectly conical, snow-capped Volcan Hornopiren. Despite the dense forest that covered the majority of the mountain, it’s smooth upper slopes beckoned to us and once more we dug our ski gear from the storage lockers.
Some recon in the town of Hornopiren told us of a trail starting 10km out of town, so the next day we awoke early and ventured ashore to find it. The ascent that ensued was a six hour battle for the books. What started as a cleared trail quickly turned into a painstaking struggle through the dense Patagonian undergrowth. At long last we reached the snow line, switched to our ski boots and cranked out the final, arduous boot pack to the summit.
With a mixture of relief and awe we took in the panoramic view from the top. Glaciated volcanic peaks lined the horizon while nearby fjords gleamed in the low afternoon sun. Dropping in to the slope we reaped our well earned bounty, lapping up creamy, sun-softened turns while our lengthening shadows danced around us. However, we now faced a long, technical descent with limited hours of daylight. Pushing on as fast as safely possible we made it down, finding the cleared path just as the light was fading, and emerging onto the main road under a brilliant full moon. The following days were spent nursing our sore muscles in scenic hot springs before embarking on the final stretch back to Puerto Montt.
We had spent six weeks and over 800 nautical miles immersed in the rugged wilderness of Patagonia. We gained a serious respect for the pristine seascapes we sailed through, the wildlife that makes these fjords their home, and the hidden mountains that will allow you to explore them if you’re prepared to earn it. It was a South American ski trip unlike any I could have expected, one that pushed my limits far beyond their expected elasticity and inspired me to keep seeking the next adventure.
Story by intrepid Mons adventurer Jess Oundjian. Pics by Jess and Dwyer.
For more tales from Dwyer Haney’s travels in the Rascal check out voyageoftherascal.com