“The gauchos, they don’t like clocks,” said our Argentine friend Diego Boracchia as we waited for our tardy Chilean cowboy and four-legged transportation into the mountains surrounding Villa Castillo, a town just north of Chile’s Baker River.
Our mission was to ski the mountains near Patagonia’s Northern Ice Field, the source of run-off for Chile’s southern rivers. Someday soon these rivers could all be transformed into major hydroelectric projects. Last spring, the multi-national energy company Enel initiated plans to dam the Baker River. Within 10 years, the dams will flood over 11,000 acres of Patagonian land and require 1,500 miles of transmission lines to generate hydroelectric power for Chile’s mining industry.
Zack Giffin and I decided to head into Chile’s Cerro Castillo National Preserve to ski the untouched land while we still had the chance.
We plodded along on Chilean horses while our fit Argentine friends walked the 12 miles to basecamp. Horses aren’t allowed in the preserve, so we lugged our gear by foot for the final portion, walking above a tributary of the Ibanez River (another proposed site for a major dam project in Chile). We were reminded of the Baker River to our south and the people and wildlife that will likely be affected by the dams.
We settled into camp, battling wind and rain, and turned our focus to avalanche stability, snow conditions, and wondering how long is too long for consecutive days spent inside a tent.
One pseudo-mild day, the mountains granted the conditions for an attempt at Cerro Castillo, an omnipotent collection of castle-like basalt spires watching over Villa Castillo. Gale force winds turned to mostly cloudy skies just half way up the couloir leading to the summit and this became one of our best days of skiing after an entire month in South America.
A campaign in Chile known as “Sin Represas” (translation: “Without Dams”) has led to anti-dam bumper stickers, billboards, and posters throughout Patagonia. Many locals, of course, support the dam and the jobs the project could create. Still, nearly 60 percent of Chileans sympathize with “Sin Represas.”
“We need to maintain the beauty in Patagonia,” said Felidor Sandoval Munoz of Villa Castillo, a man whose family has farmed off the land of southern Patagonia for over the last 100 years. “We want tourists to come here and feel the beauty, where we still drink water from the streams and breathe fresh air.”
So, that’s exactly what we did.