Patagonia Wild Cat - Baguales Cat Ski

snow action team 14.07.2015

Forget 24/7, civilisation, your i-freakin-everything devices, and the whole anthill universe that’s daily existence for most people.

At Baguales, a remote catski lodge high in the wilds of Patagonia, you have to totally disconnect — there are no signals. After the solar cells shut down for the day it’s candles, fires, and, this being Argentina, malbec, meat, music and time to reflect on your killer day skiing. (*update – bugger, they have connectivity now)

Even paradise craps out now and again, just like a Queensland holiday when La Niña comes out to play (as in wet one day, pissing down the next), and for us arriving to late in a well below average snow season, meant the conditions were tough going. Of course that was disappointing, but the whole experience easily outweighed it. Just getting there was fun, leaving the lonely highway south from Bariloche to bump along a goat track road up the remote wild valley, fording the wide, fast-flowing Villegas River, bashing up a raw dirt access track to the snow, then switching to snowmobiles for the tow or ride up to the little lodge on the tree-line at 1600m.

The skiing is so good they moved Red Bull’s Beyond The Line (the country’s premier freeride event) here last July. The talent included local World Cup skier Esti Erdocia, chucking a double backie here. © luis vidales - red bull content pool

The skiing is so good they moved Red Bull’s Beyond The Line (the country’s premier freeride event) here last July. The talent included local World Cup skier Esti Erdocia, chucking a double backie here. © luis vidales – red bull content pool

Once a mountain refuge shack for summer gauchos looking after their stock in high pastures (a Bagual is a wild calf ), just like our own alpine stockmen’s huts, it has recently been renovated into a small but complete catski base facility. There’s a common room boasting a massive log fire and four small but cozy double rooms complete with salamander stoves and ensuites. Solar panels provide electricity by day, by night it’s candles and firelight.

Which made it all worthwhile for me even if there had been no snow. It’s only when you switch all the technology off, because you have to, that you realize how addicted you are to it. Sure it’s useful – texting the kids to come and eat dinner is simpler than yelling at them – but if your life revolves round jumping at every message alert, sweating over how many hits your last post got, never mind chasing or being chased by work and business, then Baguales is like going to rehab, full cold turkey on the fully connected 24/7 lifestyle.

I haven’t slept so well for years, helped by an exhausting day battling the rugged conditions and a chilled out evening knocking back some malbecs with dinner fresh off the wood stove around the massive central fireplace.

The young chef/lodge host Lucas Malman is a nephew of Argentina’s top celebrity TV chef, and obviously learnt a lot growing up. He plays guitar and sings too, making for an even mellower chill session.

Asado for the competitors at the lower lodge © luis vidales - red bull content pool

Asado for the competitors at the lower lodge © luis vidales – red bull content pool

Although 2013 was the first full season for the catski operation here it’s based on unrivaled experience in the area on the part of the operators, the Burco Group, and their lead guide Pablo Cottescu. Burco used to offer a roaming heliski program in the region that sought out the best conditions and terrain to suit the groups. Consequently over the past several years they have scouted and road tested hundreds of wilderness runs and potential locations, before settling on the Baguales area as ideal for a permanent base in 2012.

The heliski clientele proved too intermittent and limited to make that viable, but the new catski option leapt into the local consciousness as a must do, at very affordable intro seaon rates – 2500 pesos for the day trip last year, which at the unofficial exchange rate was around $USD280. That’s excellent value for a full day trip that includes transport from the highway entrance 40 minutes south of Bariloche, an arrival briefing snack, lunch and aprés cheese and wine, plus at least 8 runs in the wilderness ranging from cruisy open bowls to chutes and some tree skiing depending on the group’s abilities and prevailing conditions. Argentina’s high inflation means it’s more this year, but at unofficial exchange rates, 40% or so less than official, it’s still a good deal.

It’s a work in progress. On day 2 we went snowmobiling with Pablo to check out the new options they are adding for this season, including glading/clearing more tree areas and putting in more tracks for the cats, which will also mean some longer descents – currently a typical run offers around 400 – 700m vertical. Extending that to 1000m plus will be good. It’s already Argentina’s largest back country catski area, sprawling over a rolling main plateau at 1600m surrounded by 2000m plus peaks (the normal winter snowline is around 1100 – 1200m at this latitude) with plenty of variety.

Organiser’s of the country’s premier freeride event, Red Bull’s Beyond the Line, shifted that here last season, giving international riders a chance to sample the gaucho lifestyle as well as the terrain.

You don’t have to ski like Red Bull competitors to enjoy it though, they can keep it cruisy enough for intermediate skiers to handle and it’s getting common for instructors to book a group for a day from Cerro Catedral – the on mountain office is above the Fire & Ice Ski School there.

Day trips don’t arrive till late morning, so staying overnight you can get in a good session before that, but with just one cat last year and likely two this season overcrowding is never going to be a problem. The best idea is to put together or link up with a compatible group and book it out for the day (see info opposite).

Cooking up a storm the upper lodge © Carmen Price

Cooking up a storm the upper lodge © Carmen Price

Our day got pretty rugged, even dropping into huddles due to high wind gusts exiting the cat on a couple of the ridgelines at Pablo’s insistence (he had been blown off a ridge once mountaineering and nearly died, so he wasn’t about to lose a client up here).

The snow was seriously variable. After a mixed start according to aspect it chilled down for a couple of runs to consistent boot deep slow but fun powder, but then warmed up to sticky and tricky again, so it was never easy. On skis getting one ski in a track so it took off ahead of the other was a worry, while the snowboarders stuck like xmas beetles in honey if they stacked.Frequent rolling clouds and low visibility made it hard for the cat driver, so we were limited to just a couple of different roads and four main faces, but it was enough to get a feel for the potential. All the other clients were happy regardless, and they didn’t even do the best part, staying the night.

Carmen didn’t want to risk her knees in the sticky conditions and was happy just reading by the fireplace, and for couples if one doesn’t want to ski that’s no problem – it’s an idyllic romantic getaway. The lower Lodge, a converted stables, is more luxurious and spacious, and even has contact with the outside world, but for mine you can’t beat the rifugio experience. I’m going back this year just for the fireplace, never mind wanting to ski Baguales in prime conditions.

Book in early if you are heading over, it’s popular.

*New for 2015 season they have a more affordable multi-share lodge package to stay there

Baguales [the ticket]

getting there The access road is 40km south of Bariloche & Cerro Catedral ski resort, day or overnite packages include transport from highway entrance, river crossing or Arelauquen Country Club as required.

to stay The upper Refugio La Mesada is our favourite, only 4 single/double rooms; alternatively the Lodge at base of access track offers 4 star quality in beautifully converted old stables for a taste of Patagonian station life. Meals included, from USD $950 day catski + 1 night Lodge with meals

day package from $USD 500 includes access transport from highway, skiing, snack, lunch, UIAGM guides

more info/bookings www.baguales-patagonia.com

snowboard camps www.epicbariloche.com

flights www.lan.com

local hero thomas blanc stomped this at beyond the line © luis vidales - red bull content pool

local hero thomas blanc stomped this at beyond the line © luis vidales – red bull content pool