Posted by: Shanie Matthews | December 23, 2009

Horses, a Whale’s Tail and Andean Giants Inspire Joy

The high pitched whinny scattered the baby goats. My horse pulled back on his reigns, chewing on his mouth piece. He impatiently scratched the dirt with his large hoof. Anxiousness seemed to be something my horse and I had in common. We were both excited to start the day’s journey. Was his stomach doing back flips in exhilaration for the upcoming trip, as mine was? Probably not, being that this was his backyard. For me it’s a little different. I am just a gringo ready to saunter up the side of a windswept mountain on the back of a horse to ski a steep, backcountry chute that has been beckoning me for years.

I am in Argentina. My husband, Jamie, and I initially came to this remote part of the world to ski mind-boggling, high-adrenaline ski descents for our honeymoon. This wondrous country filled with mate-drinking, futbol-loving, passionate people stole our hearts. The welcoming natives and the highest mountain range after the Himalayas continually called to us; beckoning us to return multiple times.

South America’s Europe had always left us with the electric buzz that comes with an awe-inspiring adventurous journey. But there was one aspect that would continually creep into our minds after the sparkle of the vacation would subside…for one reason or another, our various trips had resulted in one perfect Andean chute continually escaping our gloved fingers. The mighty Horqueta had been staring us down, tempting us with her glory, for far too long.

Horqueta is one of those peaks that screams hello to all skiers passionate about untouched terrain. The mountain is a series of perfect hourglass-shaped chutes that are ominously present to visitors making their way to the famous Las Leñas ski area. Horqueta’s towering presence grows from the shrubby, flat plains of the Argentine high desert to a mountain of jagged walls six thousand vertical feet above.

Jamie and I had been staying in a rustic stone and log cabin at the base of this monstrous upheaval of stone for the last few weeks. She stared at us in the face every morning. Her wind buffed, white belly of snow would often catch the pink and purple hues of the rising sun. Horqueta’s beauty was the kind that made you stare in amazement in appreciation of Mother Nature’s creations.

Horqueta means whale’s tale in Castellano (Argentine Spanish). And her resemblance is closer to the wider version of the actual mammal then the string thong that often peeks out from youthful lady’s tight, low-riding jeans. There are actually three chutes; the middle option being the most direct. The entrance is steep. The funnel shaped top dwindles into a tight waist, reminiscent of an anorexic model. The ski-run then slightly zigzags, making a little dance around jutting rocks. Beyond the shift, the chute pinches a bit, maybe three or four ski widths wide, but then opens up to a nice, wide apron. It finishes off with a long, rolling, glacier-carved valley out.

She is gorgeous.

This is the type of backcountry ski run that “foot-access” skiers and snowboarders dream about. The six to eight hours approach is a tad intimidating and conditions need to be perfect (Horqueta is a prime avalanche path), but as they say in Argentina “vale la pena” (it’s worth the effort – or so we had heard). We had been perfect by-standers; we were patiently waiting for the prime time to pounce.

Finally the moment had arrived. It was the end of a plentiful season. The snow gods had delivered a smacking, powerful set of storms that had left behind a carpet of smooth, blanketing snow. The flakes had condensed into perfect spring corn that accepted the cutting edge of a ski the way warm butter parts under the cold steel of a knife. There was one slight problem though – the snow level had meandered up the mountain slope, causing our approach to be more laborious than needed. Thus the reason I was teetering on the back of a large, brown, eager horse.

So here I was dangling four feet above the ground on a powerful equestrian creature that was literally “chomping at the bit.” I am not a rider. I am a skier. The two, for me, were separate ends of reality. The last time I had rode a horse was when I was seven. The steed I was on stepped on a bees nest, upsetting quite a few of the buzzing insects. They immediately made it their priority to look for someone to take out their frustrations on. I was their chosen victim. I went home with 20-plus stings. To say the least, my experience with the mighty beast was limited. The same went for my husband. He grew up in Los Angeles and cement urban dreams of his adolescent youth did not include riding, unless it was on cold, white, fluffy stuff.

The sheer thought of walking through brush and loose rock and dirt did not excite either of us. The hike was already a long haul. The high snow line was only increasing the amount of sweat that would be shed. But then the thought occurred to us – we are in Argentina, let’s be gauchos for a day. Why not use the grazing, strong creatures that occupied the open space around our cabin to reach snow line? We decided to look in to renting two beasts of burden.

Jamie had put in some research the night before our chosen departure date by driving to a few ranches in the nearby scruff land surrounding our cabaña. Broken Spanish and hand gestures helped the gauchos realize what he was asking, “No problemo, nos vemos mañana.” No problem, we’ll see you tomorrow. It seemed the ranch hands had no issues with a couple of skiers using their horses for a few hours. The trip was on.

I should make it clear that out in the empty, people-barren land of Argentina horses are treated like family. They are the main form of transportation for the people making a life in the barren land. The horses are the gaucho’s main way of controlling their grazing sheep and cattle. They even offer comfort and warmth to the herders sleeping in the open air at night. We were truly taking a step into the entire basis of the empty, open country of Argentina. If it wasn’t for the horse, the majority of Argentina would still be a barren, human-free landscape.

The screeching sound of our alarm pushed us out of bed before the rise of the morning sun. We quickly finished packing our backpacks and took off for the ranch. Squealing baby goats welcomed us. Their spindly legs shaky under their newly born bodies; the little kids clumsily ran after their mothers as we entered the ranch. The heavy smell of manure slowly enveloped us. A pack of six dogs teased and wrestled with each other. It was obvious they were not impressed by the gringos on their farm. A ranch hand sauntered over to us smiling.

“Hola, soy Eduardo. Quieren alquilar los caballos, no?”

“Si, si.”

Eduardo seemed to find a small joke in us having skis, poles, backpacks and ski boots. He softly chuckled under his breath. He bellowed to a young kid to bring us the rented steeds. A rosy cheeked adolescent brought out two horses; one was brown and looked a bit disoriented, the other was grey white and seemed to have just woken from a deep slumber. With a tug of the reigns they rambled over to us.

“Okay. Listo. We need the horses back by dark.” Eduardo exclaimed to us in quick, muttered Spanish.

Jamie and I looked at each other in disbelief. Was he just going to hand over two beautiful horses to us? Didn’t he know that we would be taken on a wild ride by these giant creatures; they would have complete control being that we had no idea how to restrain the animals. Other than what we had seen in the movies, of course.

“No, no wait. We don’t know much about horses. Can you guide us up the trail to the snow and then you can have the horses back. We will walk back down.”

“Aaaah. Si, si, no problemo.”

With that miscommunication cleared up we loaded ourselves on the steeds. Backpacks on, poles strapped to the packs, legs doing half splits sitting astride the large animal, skis resting on quads and saddle, we were ready to go. Eduardo sat eloquently on his purebred, spine straight, relaxed posture and a slight smirk decorating his tanned face.

“Vamanos! Let’s go.”

My living transportation happily turned towards the mountains. He knew where we were going and was happy to be finally going there. Jamie’s horse on the other hand was not moving. Jamie kicked the sides of the horse as Eduardo had instructed us to do. Nothing worked. Eduardo called the young helper over and told him to get the horse moving. The teen smacked the rear of the creature and grudgingly the beast lumbered forward. The clan of dogs decided to escort our bungling party. We were off!

The terrain started out mellow, but quickly became rolling hills with steep drainages. Natural pools of water gathered in low points, offering sustenance to the wild flowers hoping to spring to life. Liebres, wild rabbits the size of small dogs, scampered to their next hiding spot as we scared them out from the thorny bushes.

My apprehension for the adventure astride the towering animal slowly dissipated. I relaxed to the monotonous swaying. My strong horse smoothly circumnavigated large rocks and slippery side hills. I started to feel a sincere connection to the animal. His agility, power and gracefulness were a delight to be a part of. Jamie on the other hand continued to have problems with his horse. The animal was taking his time. He seemed more determined to rid his bowels of digested hay than follow our small parade. Eduardo found this to be quite funny and would turn around, shaking his head. A rumbling, low laugh would occasionally accompany his interest in how the gringo was doing.

As we slowly increased our elevation, the giant Andes became towering monsters of blackened rock and glistening snow. The green pastures of baby grass blades slowly transitioned into white poke-a-dots, which gently grew into fields of condensed frozen water crystals. Eduardo began to make it his personal mission to get us as high into the mountains as he could. But, as if someone had flipped a switch, the horses were able to go no further. Their weight plus ours was making them crash through the semi-solid layer of condensed snow. They were soon wadding up to their boney knees.

What had started out as apprehension with this giant animal, became a bonding experience. My escort and I had become friends and it was a good omen for what was to lie ahead.

We dismounted the horses and said our farewells to Eduardo. He gave us a wink and gracefully turned around, leading our chariots easily away.

Knowing that the extra weight could be left behind, we changed out of our hiking boots and into our ski boots. We pasted the climbing skins to the bases of the skis, clicked into our bindings, and began our ascent up the remaining 4,500 vertical feet to the top of the elusive chute.

The ascent was perfect. Mother Nature truly is a backcountry skier. Or at least she was when she created the Andes. The route began as a mellow field of snow the size of a football stadium. The level ground slowly gave way to rolling mounds which began to open up into low angle hallways of snow, bordered by upheavals of fossilized ocean floors from days gone by. One of the lanes was perfect to skin up and gave a backdoor entrance into our chosen routes.

When we reached the summit, the wind was whispering to us, kissing our cheeks and reminding us that we were high in the Andes. To the north was Cerro Sosneado, the southernmost 5,000 meter peak in the world and the eerie site of the infamous “Alive” story where a Uruguayan rugby team survived a horrifying plane crash and 72 days in the remote windswept Andes by turning to cannibalism.

Each step was to be calculated, our place of entry still needed to be secured. We passed the smaller neighboring chutes to the mother whale tale. Each looked tempting. My screaming legs, after six hours of climbing up the mountain, were ready to call it quits and ski the run before me. But it wasn’t time. Just a bit further and the true goal was to be had.

When we finally arrived to the precipice beginning of our long awaited decent, the moment brought a flutter of butterflies to my stomach. The chute was exactly as we hoped. It glistened with a billion tiny rainbows. The perfect snow was as smooth as a baby’s butt. This was going to be some descent.

And then the strangest sound brought me out of my day dreaming. The whistle of the wind combined with the ruffle of feathers. I looked up to see a giant condor within arm’s length; it’s ten foot wingspan casting a dark shadow over my minuscule appearance.

As the suns brilliance was taken away from my face by this prehistoric animal of flight, it dawned on me. This entire day, though it had been spurred on by my passion for steep mountains with perfect snow, was stellar in so many different ways.

A horse bonding session had brought me to snow line. A perfect climb was spelled out for us by Mother Nature herself. And the ominous presence of one of the most magnificent birds on the planet was flying over my head. What more could a girl hope for out of a day skiing in the backcountry? I guess there would just be one more thing: the feeling of the smooth snow speeding by below my skis.

It seems to me I’m not going to be disappointed.

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