Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 96, March 2011
Words: Lesley McKenna
The name Patagonia conjures up images of a wild and faraway landscape, of warm woolen jumpers and sheepskin rugs in old log cabins. To be honest, this was about the extent of my knowledge as we set off to this legendary region of Argentina on a southern hemisphere adventure. But I did also know there are some pretty big mountains there, and that if we were lucky we could be in for some epic riding conditions. We were not to be disappointed.
Our destination was the town of San Carlos de Bariloche, located in the foothills of the mighty Andes in a province called Rio Negro. Bariloche, as it’s more commonly known, is nestled between four large lakes, making it a stunningly beautiful place that is great for both mountain and water sports. The nearby mountain of Cerro Catedral is home to one of the largest and most important ski areas in South America, and this would be our playground for the duration of our stay. Cerro has a little bit of everything as far as terrain goes: there are the usual rolling groomers and beginner areas, some good tree runs and a decent terrain park. But what really separates it as a snowboarding destination is the awesome backcountry, most of which is easily accessible. An easy 15 to 20 minute hike brings you to the back bowl of La Laguna, a totally un-pisted powder zone with little cliffs to drop, a choice of mellow lines and kicker spots aplenty. Even better, you can ride right out of the bottom and back to the chairlift with no trouble at all. Perfect!
Before all that, though, we kicked off the trip with a short stay in the capital city of Buenos Aires. We were all pretty excited as none of us had ever been there before, but team rider Robin Van Gyn had a local friend called Annie who became our perfect guide. Seriously, without her we would have been well and truly up the creek. Buenos Aires(literally ‘Fair Winds’) is a huge and densely populated city, and even with Annie’s help it took us a while to get to grips with its special charms. There are a lot of districts, and it’s easy to accidently end up in one of the rougher parts. That said, while some areas have a slightly menacing atmosphere and a bad reputation (we’d heard stories of taxi drivers trying to rip you off and pick pockets galore)in reality we found that everyone we met was super friendly and helpful. One word of warning, though: The driving style in Buenos Aires is a bit on the wild side to say the least! Definitely not for the faint hearted. The rule of thumb at junctions and traffic lights seems to be to launch forth and hope for the best, making for some pretty hairy passenger moments.
One of the highlights of our stay was without doubt the visit to the national cemetery, where every important family in the country has its own highly decorated mausoleum. The cemetery is bang in the middle of Buenos Aires and is one of the main tourist attractions, with thousands of people each year visiting the tomb of Evita and other famous Argentines. It’s an interesting, beautiful and eerie place – especially since it’s also home to hundreds of stray cats who thread their way through the graves, lending it a supernatural feel.
Later on we checked out the famous street markets, which were full of craftwork and colourful clothing –anything from belts to beads to mate gourds. Everyone in Buenos Aires drinks a special local tea called mate out of these hollowed-out gourds, which are usually painted in some sort of traditional design. We were all persuaded to buy one and spent the next few weeks slurping the invigorating mate like a local.
Now, if you’ve ever watched an episode of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (come on, don’t pretend you haven’t!) then you’ll know that the tango is a big deal in Argentina. It’s pretty common to see people of all ages getting their groove on at the public dance floors, but we all really wanted to learn the steps and not just watch others, so we jumped into another erratically-driven taxi from the market and went on the hunt for classes. Eventually we found a very serious and dedicated tango teacher called Andreas, and with his help and a couple of hours’ stumbling we at least managed to master the basics!
All that was left to do before hitting the slopes was to sample some the capital’s legendary food. The melt-in the-mouth steak – or bife de lomo – certainly lived up to its reputation, washed down with several glasses of South American Malbec. Like the Spanish, Argentines like to eat late, and it’s normal for the busy restaurants to be full of families with young children as late as 11pm. More than once we saw a young child sleeping in the arms of its mother, having finished its dinner and decided it was time for bed then and there.
Energised by this buzzing metropolis, we were ready to drive on to Bariloche and finally get our shred on. Unfortunately it had been warm for a week or so before our arrival, and the snow on the lower slopes was thin on the ground, while higher up the faces were wind affected and tracked out. We eased our way in by looking for things to build and admiring the amazing view, knowing that the weather forecast said it was going to dump. And DUMP it certainly did! The clouds rolled in on schedule, chucking down rain in the town whilst up on the hill the drops were turning to flakes. There was so much fresh powder that the whole resort closed for a few days, leaving us with nothing to do but sample the world famous Bariloche chocolate and scope the streets for things to jib and jump off. The locals seemed pretty relaxed about what we rode and we were never shut down; in fact the locals seemed pretty relaxed about most things! Their positive attitude spilled over to the ski area, which had a fun and vibrant atmosphere beyond anything I’d experienced in Europe. The bars and cafés were invariably full after a day’s riding, and there was always live music going down somewhere in the resort. Our very own crooner, Kjersti Buaas, even gave a small performance in a local bar, much to the delight of the gathered crowd. The feeling of community is everywhere out here, and nowhere did we feel this more than at the South American Snow Sessions lodge, where we made our base. The SASS crew, as they’re known, are a great bunch of passionate snowboarders and skiers who know their stuff and have been running camps in Bariloche for a number of years now. I’m pretty sure they are among the best backcountry riding camps out there, so we were privileged to have one of their guides showing us around.
When it finally did stop snowing we were led into the forest to enjoy some epic tree riding in the now completely bottomless powder. There is simply no better feeling than pointing it straight down the mountain and going as fast as you can through the trees whilst up to your arm pits in freshies! It really is amazing. Having tracked them out we left the open backcountry faces to settle for another day and spent some time building a few different kickers. Torah led the charge with an immense corked frontside 7 on her first hit, before the rest of the girls continued to throw down tricks against the stunning backdrop of lake Nahuel Huapi and a perfect blue sky. A week after our first trip to the bowl of La Laguna we finally got to go back. The hike was a little harder this time (with a full two-and-a-half metres of new snow!) but as I say this is a great resort for accessible freeriding and it still didn’t take more than 20 minutes. We were stoked to see that there were still plenty of fresh tracks to be had, and the girls got busy laying down some lovely pow turns and a couple of sweet drops before Kjersti spotted a gnarly-looking rock slide. Robin, our Canadian teammate and a Bariloche seasonaire for the past five seasons, told us that she had ridden the beast once before, albeit when there was a lot more snow on it. Kjersti decided to get herself to the top and take a peek over the edge. It was at least 15 metres long and around 60 degrees steep, but the rock itself was super smooth and had a great run-out. Kjersti duly strapped in and took the plunge, and having managed to survive she was soon followed by the rest of team. From there we hit a cliff band further up the bowl and several more lines below, quickly appreciating why the locals say there is not better spot than La Laguna.
Before we knew it our time in Cerro Catedral was up, and with heavy hearts and tired legs we said our goodbyes to the SASS crew – and also to the numerous stray dogs we had befriended (a special mention here goes to ‘Tripod’, the three-legged mongrel who lived outside our house and to whom we had all become very attached; we still miss her now). A final bife de lomo and a glass of Malbec and we were off, back through the crazy traffic of Buenos Aires and onto the plane, taking with us some great memories of the perfect view, brilliant food, friendly people, great snowboarding and fun times. And I even got that sheepskin rug too – very Patagonian! Lesley McKenna is a multiple British Halfpipe Champion and a two-time Olympian.
Communists & coke heads
5 Famous Argentines
1. Diego Maradona – Along with Pele, widely regarded as the greatest footballer of all time. Maradona learned to play in a shantytown outside Buenos Aires before his talent earned him a move to Boca Juniors, then Barcelona and Napoli (the latter two for world record fees). Short, stocky and with insane ball skills, he was pre y much a one-man team, scoring the ‘Goal of the Century’ against England in the 1986 World Cup by dribbling past six players. He was also a coke addicted, binge eating, sex mad, blubbering, handballing cheat. Pretty much your classic Latin American then. Oh, and here’s a random pub fact – Sheffield Utd tried to buy him from Boca for £180,000, but it was turned down flat.
2. Lionel Messi – The heir to Maradona and 2010 FIFA Player of the Year, currently plying his trade at Barcelona. Like Diego, he is short, powerful and a magician with the ball. Unlike Diego, he hasn’t got an afro, has yet to have his stomach stapled, and wasn’t pictured snorting cocaine in a Cuban psychiatric clinic and having sex with a 19-year-oldin front of several admiring onlookers. Give him time.
3. Che Guevara – Argentine doctor turned Marxist revolutionary, author, intellectual, guerrilla leader, diplomat and military theorist. As a young medical student, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara travelled through Latin America on a motorcycle and was deeply affected by the continent’s widespread poverty, which he blamed on the evils of capitalism. Convinced of the need for worldwide revolution, he helped Castro to power in Cuba before continuing the fight in the Congo and later Bolivia, where CIA-assisted forces captured and executed him in 1967, aged 39. Che’s image has become an icon for all things counterculture and adorned more student t-shirts than Yoda and Eric Cartman combined. Which is really saying something.
4. Eva Peron – María Eva Duarte de Perón – or Evita as she was affectionately known – moved from a small village to Buenos Aires when she was 15 and became an actress. In 1945 she married a Colonel who soon after rose to president (making Eva first lady) and became a champion of the trade unions and women’s rights, before dying of cancer aged just 33. Her rags to riches tale inspired the famous musical Evita and gave Madonna one of her shiest hits with Don’t Cry for Me.
5. Leopoldo Galtieri – Son of poor Italian immigrants who rose through Argentina’s armed forces to become president/dictator, responsible for the ‘Dirty War’ of the 1970s in which thousands of ‘subversives’ disappeared from society. Funnily enough the Americans still liked him because he wasn’t a communist (Reagan’s security advisor called him a “majestic general") but he eventually got too big for his boots, invading the British-controlled Falkland Islands in 1982 and thus incurring the wrath of Maggie Thatcher. Cue Harrier jump jets, infamous Sun headlines (“Gotcha!") and Galtieri being removed from power.
Argentina – how to do it
The season runs from mid June to late September. The busiest period is during the last two weeks of July (school holidays)when lift queues will be bigger.
London to Buenos Aires Intl. from approx. £750 rtn with 1 stop. Check travelsupermarket.com for the latest deals.
Peak Season at Cerro Catedral180 pesos/day (approx. £28) 990 pesos/week (approx. £150)
The Roxy Team stayed with South America Snow Sessions (SASS) who offer week long camps for both kids and adults between23rd July and 3rd September. Every session includes lodging, breakfast and dinner, a 6-day lift ticket, 6 days coaching (inc. pros like Chris Coulter), an avalanche awareness class and a weekly asado (BBQ). Adult price $1899 (approx. £1200)
Visit sassglobaltravel.com/argentina or watch videos from last year’s camps atwhitelines.com/sass
snoventures.com – turismo.gov.ar
… and if you can’t afford a trip to South America this summer, here’s a recipe for cooking the perfect Argentine steak on your BBQ:
• Start with a good quality sirloin approx. 1.5inches thick and 170g in weight. Trim the excess fat and set aside.
• Bring your charcoal up to temperature.
• Meanwhile, make the ‘chimichurri’ sauce. Press 4 garlic cloves through a garlic press into a mixing bowl. Add ½ tsp red pepper flakes, 2 tsp oregano, and about1/4 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Mash together. With a fork or small whisk, stir in 60ml red wine vinegar and 2 tsp lemon juice. Stirring briskly, drizzle in120 ml olive oil. Stir in ½ a small chopped onion and a handful of chopped parsley. Set aside.
• When the BBQ is hot, rub the chimichurri into the meat and season the steaks generously with salt and pepper.
• Grill the steaks until done, 8 to 10 minutes per side for medium rare.
• Drizzle with chimichurri sauce and serve immediately in front of a replay of the 1986World Cup semi-final between Argentina and England.