August 31, 2011 – The alarms went off at 5:00 a.m. Arpa guides Derek Lennon and Chris Bouchard were granted a hall pass while Anton Sponar was left to tend to clients at the home mountain. Derek, Chris and visiting friends Will Dejourdin and Bailey Mitchell, (and I) all climbed into the Arpa pickup truck by 5:30 for an off-day adventure. The plan was to head to Portillo, Chile to climb and ski "Super C," a classic big mountain couloir, known the world over.
The truck rolled to a stop in the Portillo base parking lot by 7:30. Morning light had not yet illuminated the tops of the high Chilean Andes, but we could just make out the ominous climb before us (and massive descent) on our approach to the resort. We were on the first chair at 9:00 and rode the Rocajack slingshot Poma lift to the beginning of our 3000 ft. climb.
As we left behind the resort boundary line, Chris set the "Bouch-pack" up the 40-degree slope and through a meter of fresh snow. The sun beat down on the rock wall rising above us and heated the snow on the surrounding slopes. It was a race against time to get up before the warming snowpack would be too dangerous to climb. Although Portillo consistently heli-bombs the slope we were climbing, the high Andes are avalanche prone and none of us wanted to be caught in a dangerous scenario.
For three hours we climbed. One boot-step above the last, with Chris leading the charge. If it were not for his sheer determination to reach the promised land of heavenly downward turns awaiting us, our group would have never made it to the top. The fresh warming snow began to windmill and sluff from rock bluffs above.
We reached the point of no return by noon. Our group had to make a decision to cross over a treacherous "no fall zone" onto a connecting pitch, or turn around and navigate our way back down through solar-heated powder to the resort boundary line. There was no choice to make. Chris lead the charge across exposed rock and into the couloir leading to the top. None of us could slip or fall here, as the couloir funnels into cliff face and very long drop.
As the photographer documenting our journey, I was the last to cross over the obstacle. My heart let up into my throat as I stepped over the dividing ridgeline out onto the bootpack. I held my breath as I traversed the snow wall onto the safe zone. We all made it across. Mt. Aconcagua, the highest point in the Americas, came into view as from this elevation. Chris plodded on, setting our course up another 800 vertical feet to the top of the couloir.
After four and half hours of climbing through deep snow, we reached the top. A condor greeted us, soaring gracefully above our heads. I exhaled and sipped my last bit of hot tea and contemplated the massive descent that lay before me. Although we were exhausted from our climb, a 4000 foot descent demanded our respect and excitement.
One at a time, we skiers dropped into the couloir. I brought up the rear. The rollover at the top of the pitch was among the steepest faces I've ever skied. It must have been 55-60 degrees for the first five turns. This was my third run since starting my South American ski odyssey and I was terrified. My exhausted climbing legs wobbled as I cautiously carved into the mountainside. Three feet of fresh and untracked powder flirted with my skis. I let out a big whoop as I let gravity (and my edges) take hold. I reconvened with my waiting party and we piggybacked each other the whole way, stopping periodically to let our legs rest and for me to set up new shooting positions to film the action from.
By 3:30 p.m., we had all reached the resort boundary line safely and loaded back onto the lift for a well-deserved celebration at the world-famous "Tio Bob's" restaurant. My legs were burning and my heart was full. We shared our reflections about the adventure over a round of beers and chocolate bars.