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South America Slayfest

By Jack Hessler  Photos by Ben Girardi

Jack Hessler takes it all in.
Jack Hessler takes it all in.

For the third time in my life, I boarded a plane with a final destination of Bariloche, Argentina. As a veteran to the area, if that’s what you wanna call it, the laidback airport security and gypsy luggage thieves, who wait for you to walk away for a moment so they can steal your luggage, seemed normal to me. Everything went smooth as sand. I had to run around all of the luggage carousels for nearly an hour to find my duffel bag, and the 45-minute immigration lines were mere child’s play, compared to the 10-hour flight from San Francisco. We landed in the international airport in Buenos Aires, and took a shuttle to the domestic airport to hop a flight to Bariloche. My younger brother, Jimmy, and my good friend, Chase Josey, of Sun Valley, Idaho, were also along for the journey.

We arrived to Bariloche mid-afternoon, just as the sun began to peek out of the clouds. Here, we met up with the rest of the Sass Global Travel crew, along with my snowboard/life coach Jeff Moran, with whom we would be staying with for the next three weeks. A bus took us from the airport to the base of the mountain, Cerro Catedral. As we pulled up to the hotel, distinct Argentine memories returned to my mind. I remembered the stray dogs that run around begging for food, the army soldiers that seem to be constantly skiing uphill, and the gigantic groups of Brazilian teenagers, all sporting the same outfits, who had never seen snow before. As I looked around a familiar environment, I was flooded with joy, for I realized that despite it being summertime in Jackson Hole, I would soon be snowboarding in Bariloche.

The first week, the weather was abnormally warm and there was no sign of snow in the near forecast. Fortunately, the resort had elevated its standards and built a terrain park by the time we arrived. After a day of mandatory beacon drills and guiding, we spent time in the park getting back on our feet and messing around, while anxiously awaiting a storm.

Jimmy, Jeff, Chase and I all received our level 1 avalanche certifications, which consisted of a three-day crash course in the classroom and out in the field. Luckily, the instructor wasn’t pedantic, and most classroom work was focused around discussions. The main reason for taking this class was not to learn how to survive an avalanche, but how to avoid one.

Thankfully, our days spent in the classroom were during a warm, high-pressure spell, and we didn’t miss out on too much riding. There was a big air competition in the terrain park the following day and our crew held it down. I got sixth place, Chase got fourth, Andrew Burns (coach for SGT) got third, and Chris Coulter (coach for SGT) got first. Then, in answer to our prayers, the snow finally began to fall.

It snowed all day and night, and when the clouds cleared, I realized our waiting had not been in vain. We spent the next few days cruising around the newly blanketed mountain, indulging in a four-course meal consisting of powder, turns, jumps, and more powder. Between this and the weekly asado cookouts, it’s safe to say that we were well fed.

After a few days of incredible snow, the temps warmed and the rain arrived. The snow became cream cheese, with a sticky, thick surface layer and none of the properties of powder. Again, we waited for another blessing from Mother Nature.

Due to a lack of visibility, we spent the next few days in the woods, while the clouds sat on the mountains. We utilized the trees and natural terrain to assist in the making of a “rhythm section,” or something along those lines. There were hips onto trees, log rides, rock jibs, and much more. The warm weather and rain had washed away all the snow on the base, so we had to ride the gondola or lifts down to the base.

After living in a cloud for a few days, the sun has never looked so inviting and motivating. When the weather finally lifted, we realized that it hadn’t been raining everywhere; the upper mountain had been pounded with more snow, and we were back in the powder realm.

Cerro Catedral is like no other mountain that I’ve ever seen. There’s no straight slope leading to the top, instead many different hills lead to the peak, making the mountain look more like its own mountain range. The only other mountain I can compare it to, based on my experience, is my home mountain of Jackson Hole. The terrain varies from open faces, tight tree runs, gullies, and finally, near the base, bamboo forests. The Hobacks are similar to some of the runs here, for example, if you miss the exit by one turn, the remainder of your run can be treacherous. Besides all of the incredible inbound skiing that Catedral has to offer, there is what seems to be endless backcountry access. The most common area is Laguna, far lookers-left of the resort, and it could easily double, or triple the size of the resort. There are towers for a pomma lift, but rumor has it that the one time they opened it, snowboarders and skiers were lifted 20 feet off the ground in response to the steepness of the trail.

The boondoggles the mountain focuses on never cease to amaze me. For example, the ski patrol can issue you a ticket, I believe that two tickets means a pulled pass, for not having a leash on your snowboard, or for not riding the lift with the bar down. But they have minimal avalanche control and allow anyone into the backcountry. Hence, it is not uncommon to be hiking behind a novice Argentine skier in jeans, a sweatshirt and rental skis.

These jean-skiing Argentines are no joke. If you cut them off or cut them in line, they will let you know that you shouldn’t have done that, whether by dropping their skis on you, or calling you a pendejo. I think they do a good job of getting their point across.
The worst part about traveling out of the country, escaping the states, is that eventually, you have to go back. You have to leave all of the empanadas, choripans, and tostados, in exchange for elk burgers and locally grown potatoes. In a way, it is sad, but in reality, the only place better than this is home. See you down south next summer.