In late August of 2017, I received a phone call from my good friend Tucker, proposing we attempt the mighty Cerro Cortaderas (5197 m) on skis. I was in the middle of my studies to take my legal habilitation exam, and was in desperate need of alpine adventures. It would be the first time I lay turns on a glacier, and boy, were they great turns.
Photos by Tucker Cunningham
2017 was a big ski year for me. Much like 2016, we had great early season conditions, and then the snow gods turned off the powder faucet from July to August. I had set myself the highly ambitious goal to ski every week of the winter and spring to preserve my mental wellbeing from the insane amount of work I had to put into studying. So when Tucker lured me to this adventure, I did not even hesitate to ask when and where I was picking him up.
I was (and still am) quite poor in the glacial game, so I was lent a harness, ice screws, carabiners, slings and all the rest of the cool skimountaineery gear. At last, I was going to be able to go for the awesome Chamonix look, without even knowing how to properly tie a prussik. Luckily, Tucker was at the time preparing for his IFMGA exam, so he was in charge of not getting us killed. I was in charge of hauling my ass and gear.
After picking up Tucker, we made the two hour drive to the Cajón de las Arenas. We were going to camp at the base of the glacial morraine heading to Cortaderas, and make an early summit bid starting at sometime between 5 and 6 AM. It was nearly 2000 metres of vertical relief, but we were both on light setups, and particularly fit. I was sporting G3 Zenoxides with Dynafit Radicals and TLT6 boots, while Tucker was on BD Helio 105 with some brakeless G3 ions and Scarpa F1’s.
For some reason, 2017 was a very strange year regarding backcountry access and trailhead parking for the Arenas Valley. The Altomaipo proyect was in full swing (already years behind schedule and almost in financial ruin before the entry of STRABAG as a partner in the joint venture) and even when their permit barred them from limiting access for climbers, skiers and mountaineers, they found a more elusive way of keeping the crowds out: by changing the location of the parking lot nearly an hour’s walk from the Valley. Now, strictly speaking, an hour’s approach isn’t so bad. However, only a few years before, it was possible to drive directly to the Arenas Valley proper. Many were were enfuriated by the change in the trailhead location – I was quite content with walking a little more to have less crowds and tracks to deal with, and having more skiing on the way back to the trailhead.
So as opposed to our usual trailhead parking, we left my mighty Subaru at the Morado bridge at 2300 m, and slowly made our way to the head of the Cortaderas Valley at aproximately 3300 m. The weather was looking quite grim, just like the snowpack after many weeks of dry and mild midwinter weather. Just as we reached our campsite, it slowly started to snow, and we hastily set up Tuckers’ single wall tent. After our couscous, we were snug in our sleeping bags, trying to catch some shut eye.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of fording a small storm in a single wall tent, waking up to the tent sagging under the weight of wind deposited snow and having your sleeping bag and gear caked in frost, well, its kind of a trascendental experience. When we woke at dawn, it was still nuking outside, so we placed our chances of making it to the summit at slightly above nil. We took it easy, slept in and when we saw the weather breaking, we headed out. After an hour, we were basking in the sunlight and the surroundings, wishing to have begun earlier to make a more serious attempt at the summit.
At the base of the climb, we roped up and I was in the lead. Fortunately, the glacier was deep at this point in the winter, which made routefinding quite simple for an ice novice like myself. We slowly made our way up the seracs, going around and taking our time. We had expected to find some 20 cm of fresh. Instead, we found a mix of variable, wind board, and some powdery pitches. Prime ski mountainteering conditions for the high alpine.
After a few transitions from skis to boots, and back to skis, it was already 14:00, our designated turn around time. We were near a small rock face on the right hand side of the glacier, still a quite long ways from the summit (aproximately 700 vertical metres). Since we had no fuel or rations to last another day – plus the fact I needed to get back to Santiago to concentrate on my studies – we made the wise choice of aborting our summit attempt. We were both content with our decision, feeling we had been making consistent and safe calls throughout the day.
We downed some snacks, ripped skins and soon clicked in to our bindings. As I said, we got a little bit of everything on our way down to camp. From there to the trailhead we got perfect powder. Unfortunately, since most of the skiing was down wide glacial valleys, there was not enough steepness to make turning possible. We cursed our mixed luck, but were still happy to get some awesome turns down to the Subaru.
Cortaderas was a great outing, and one of the most beautiful things I have ever done on skis. It was also a personal turning point: I decided I wanted to do more of this kind of skiing, high in the alpine, with solid and knowledgable parterns. I consider myself very lucky in having and finding the right partners and mentors for the furthering of my arsenal of ski mountainering skills. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return to this beautiful mountain someday.
In October of 2017, a very strong group of local and foreing skiers attempted to ski Cortaderas. On their unroped descent, one of the team members took a massive fall into a crevasse, passing away from his wounds. A rescue by the local authorities was called to recover the body of the fallen skier. In the Andes, there is pretty much no mountain rescue, especially for more obscure peaks. Plan and prepare accordingly.