Mallin Alto in Argentinian Patagonia is something else, like snow camping but with geodesic domes, wood stoves, a wood fired jacuzzi, unlimited vino, a personal chef, and, best of all, sleds or quad track bikes for pretty unlimited hot lap access to an almost unlimited selection of totally wild terrain. Despite being totally wild, Mallin Alto is just 35km from Bariloche airport, and combines easily with a stay at nearby Cerro Catedral, Argentina’s number one ski are. Owain & Carmen Price report.
At Mallin Alto it’s as almost much about the journey as the destination, getting there is half the fun. You 4WD, ford the river, drive & ford some more, then snowmobile or quad track back, or maybe hike a bit as well, and you’re there.
It starts prosaically enough, with a 4WD pick up from your local accommodation in Bariloche, the Cerro Catedral mountain village, or the airport.
Deep snow on the lower valley access road is unusual, but after you cross the last bridge over the ñirihuau river to the farmstead/base lodge it’s more likely. Snow there or not, more river crossings follow, as you bump along a rough track to the bottom hut staging area at 1100m.
As we drove in along the western river bank with Mallin Alto co-founder Kao Deyurka his cousin’s 86 year old grandad, Dionisio Riquelme, born right here in the valley back in 1930, was busy rolling rocks to make a better track on the other side, happy and healthy from his hard physical lifetime as the last settler heading up the valley. It’s only 30km from bustling Bariloche and the international airport there, but they only put in electric light for him last year – he never wanted it previously. He was way too busy to chat to us. A quick shout of “Hola abuelo!” from Kao prompted a return wave, then he was back to rolling rocks, and we were back to rocking and rolling along the trail.
Kao’s cousin and co-founder Lucio Vera’s family have owned the land and ranched it for five generations. Lucio’s great-great-grandfather moved to the Bariloche area in 1881, back when it was frontier territory, and then to the ñirihuau valley in 1900.
“We want to make a track all the way in on the eastern side” Kao explained, “so we don’t have to ford the river so much.”
That would help: the first river crossing is exciting, bumping through several the novelty soon wears off. Never mind after a storm if the river was up, there’s a huge catchment area to fill it.
When there’s lot of snow down at the bottom hut area it’s straight onto the quad track bikes or snowmobiles for the 4km blast along the narrowing upper valley, before winding up through a magnificent old growth lenga forest, big trees trailing mossy green beards which glow in the sunlight if you get lucky weather wise. If there’s less snow down low you continue in the 4WDs to wherever the snowmobiles and bikes are parked higher up.
Or, in our worst-case scenario on our first visit mid-September 2016, it was a case of be left with a hike up through the forest to the snowmobiles from as far as the 4WDs could get.
On our return in August 2017 there was plenty of snow on the track – the 4WDs stopped much lower down.
Either way you eventually emerge from the trees to a high plains swamp, in a totally unpopulated landscape which has been summer grazing grounds for decades, much like Australia’s High Country used to be. Abuelo was never a skier, so there’s no Argentinian equivalent of Tom and Elyne Mitchell riding up to ski there in the 1930s, like they did on the Main Range at home.
But it was a chance remark from him that led directly to the area’s discovery as a ski destination. Kao was looking for firewood for his house in Bariloche around the ranch a few years back when abuelo told him to go up the valley into the lenga forest. When he did, and kept going through the forest to the swampy plain, he saw the hidden ranges above up close for the first time and got excited.
As a long time TV and film producer he has worked with plenty of ski clients, including Argentina’s big Quilmes brewery’s snow athlete team making their promotional heliski videos all over Patagonia. So his eyes lit up at the potential for skiing.
In 2012 he snow camped with his cousin Lucio and started exploring the terrain options in detail, a process by no means exhausted 5 years later as there are so many alternatives still available.
“It was such an incredible area, I had been going up the valley for years to fish (the fly fishing for trout is among the best in the World here) and eat asados with the family and never knew all this was here just waiting to be skied!” he explained.
Mallin Alto was conceived that winter, and born the next, with the first dome and lodge building established. Progress has been steady since, with Kao and his cousin deciding from day one to do it all themselves and not seek finance and partners, so it’s a world away from some of the multi-million dollar heliski lodges you can stay at now in Chile for example, where big companies have pumped in big money to deliver upmarket heli options including flights in from Santiago skyscraper heli-pads.
Nice if you can afford it, but plenty of people like things more rustic and wild, and year on year it keeps getting more popular. They gradually add and extend each summer to improve the offering, reinvesting funds.
Some seasons they can ski through to November, and start in June.Last September they were re-opening the top Mountain Hut just for us. The snow had receded fast from the valley last year due to the warm spring, so we weren’t complaining about the bit of hiking involved arriving. Local friends had been raving to us about Mallin Alto since it opened, and we were just glad to finally make it.
Normally it’s all systems go for guests as the winter staff have everything pumping ready for your arrival. For us coming up at dusk it didn’t take long to fire things up, literally: I got the fat barrel-belly stove in the main dome roaring in no time, which let our accompanying chef Tito get on and do the same for the wood stove.
The adventure of getting here, especially our hike through the forest, had left me craving meat, soon. But Argentinians never rush dinner at the best of times, 10 – 11pm being normal family-outing hours to take their little kids to restaurants, and with a wood stove to heat up to temperature to roast juicy beef ribs on the bone it was going to take a while here. No matter, with the barrel-belly stove cranking and a warm glow filling the dome it was time to kick back with the first bottle of malbec and some nibblies as the wind howled outside.
Mallin Alto overnight packages include all your meals, all your wine and other alcohol, and as many runs as you want to squeeze in a day in their vast playground.
While waiting for Tito’s specialty ribs we asked Kao how he got started, and the family history in the area.
Patagonia is South America’s answer to the outback, a vast and largely uninhabited region of Chile and Argentina stretching 2000km south from Bariloche – which is the same latitude as Launceston in Tassie, or Wellington in NZ.
In Argentina’s version of the Wild West, the government sent an army to defeat the marauding Mapuche tribes, who used to leave the mountains to raid cattle from populated areas closer to Buenos Aires. The War of the Desert was as brutal and bad for the indigenous population as America’s Indian Wars, but for the ex-soldiers land grants were made available to encourage population of the area.
From that beginning 5 generations ago, which led indirectly to one family controlling the whole upper valley, we have the end result of a unique wild ski experience within easy day trip distance of an international airport and major tourist city, Bariloche, and from Argentina’s oldest and most popular ski resort, Cerro Catedral.
The Mallin Alto day trip can easily be added during a package there, from $USD 650, but it’s a longish trip to get there and back in a day as we have shown, so if you’re going to check it out the overnight packages are a much better way to go. Waking up to the view from a private dome with it’s own salamander wood stove for heating is pretty amazing. We had the dome to ourselves, but it can fit 4, and there’s another downstairs room under the main dome/hut to sleep 6 more.
After a big breakfast I headed out with Kao on the sled to sample the terrain. So far they have incorporated 3000 hectares or so, with 5 main valleys available in that, accessed off a 10km ridge line. With an east, a west, two southerly, and a south-easterly option in the valleys, there is nearly always something that will be good according to prevailing weather and snow conditions.
Descents of up to 800m vertical are possible here. The normal winter snow line is around 1200m, and the peaks up to 2200m in the sled-accessed area. Tree line is around 1600m, and when it’s on the tree skiing is huge fun through massive old lenga trees.
Even in 2016, about as bad as you would get it late in a poor season overall, I wasn’t complaining. There were plenty of tasty corn snow lines, just for me.
Then back again in August 2017 I scored a bluebird day and nice snow with boot deep powder lines all over the place. I went exploring with Kao and it was pretty crazy to think I was likely the first person ever to ski some of the lines we did.
“We can do whatever people want according to the conditions” Kao explained. “There are longer runs further along the ridge, so it takes more time to get out there, but we can do that and take lunch out for them. Or we can stay closer to the lodge and do more shorter lines and go back for lunch.”
Lunch! Glad you mentioned that, personally I was happy to haul in after 8 or so runs, with a last run back down to just below the lodge. A cruisy morning of checking things out and trying to get photos must have added up to 2600m or so vertical. Tito was fixing a big lunch on the stove, but with the journey out including a hike back down through the forest I had to pass on the vino.
The main area has an endless array of rolling bowls and faces. Plenty of these are so mellow a novice skier can have a shot, and if you are with a partner or friends who don’t ski/board very well they can still enjoy the unique Mallin Alto wild experience. In fact a lot of Brazilian guests come just for that experience and don’t even ski.
The back country area accessed by skinning or hiking is another ballgame altogether, opening up seriously steep lines and big mountain faces for those with the talent and desire for it. The highest peak in the range reaches 2400m out there, and before low cloud socked it in it sure looked tempting.
Packages and options at Mallin Alto
Taking a Mallin Alto back country package is also the cheapest way to enjoy it at (all USD 2017 check latest on website) $700 for a 2 ski day/1 night option staying at the mountain hut or $400 staying at the lower lodges. That’s for a minimum of 2 people and includes your transport, guide and meals.
The two day and overnight sled packages run from $1400 at the lodges to $1600 at the mountain hut, or one day plus one overnight at $750 and $850 respectively. Each full sled day averages around 3,000 – 3,500m vertical, but according to a group’s ability and conditions you can get more or less in. Staying at least 2 nights is highly recommended to get the full get-away-from-it-all experience.
The hearty meals cooked on the wood stove are delicious, and after a few wines the fact that it’s rustic, not deluxe accommodation hardly matters. The lower lodges are the more comfortable choice to stay, with all the normal mod-cons like satellite TV. But for mine a night or two sleeping in a dome slap-bang in the middle of a lonely Patagonian mountain range is pretty special. A toilet mini-dome would be handy though, it’s frosty scooting back to the hut toilet at 3AM. Plan is to have the connection covered for the 2017 season, solving that minor detail. There are two toilets and showers inside the main hut.
Booking Mallin Alto
Outdoor jacuzzis don’t get much funkier than the wood-fired one at the mountain hut either, with the heater built right into the tub.
In 5 years operation so far earliest opening was June 15, the latest closing November 15. In our 13 years living most of winter at nearby Cerro Catedral snow conditions vary frequently, with mid-July to mid-September your best bet to get lucky for some good powder. I always tell friends to come there for at least a week as big weather systems move in and out regularly. Hoping to book last minute if it’s good is usually no use as locals are onto any day trip vacancies in a flash. So adding a one, or better at least a two night package, to a resort week at Cerro Catedral is the best option. Travelplan can sort that.
I had a ball despite the conditions, and as Kao sums it up, “At Mallin Alto skiing is dessert, the experience is the main course.”
Getting to Mallin Alto
Only 35km south of Bariloche Airport or east of the city, but that involves driving to the base staging area in the ñirihuau river valley and transferring to Mallin Alto transport as required – a combination of 4WD and oversnow quad bike or snowmobile higher up. If self-driving you can leave your car at their Bariloche city base, or the valley base. Mallin Alto will pick you up from Bariloche or Cerro Catedral accommodation.
From Australia Qantas direct flights Sydney to Santiago with connections are perfect, while LATAM started direct Melbourne – Santiago flights in October 2017 to complement their existing Sydney – Auckland – Santiago flights, with codeshares from other cities then on to Bariloche. From North America, Brasil and most of South America, and Europe, LATAM also works well.