The light is flat. High fast clouds scrub the blue out of the wide Patagonia sky.
Keoki, Tim and I consider carving ego, swan-like turns down the lower coral-horned ridge of the big south-facing wall of terrain above the Glaciar Martial within the Provincia de Tierra del Fuego.
Poles tapping their Braille dance, the breath wanders from our lungs like steam swelling out of a riser pipe. But the grin on our faces signaled the arrival of adrenaline. It was either put up or throw up. With a slight nudge from the stares of my friends, I pushed off.
Winter snow forgave bending skis that bounced free to turn into a series of sloping away drop-offs. The bowl, clean and long, gave room to finish turns before widening down to the meadow that lies between it and the chairlift of the Aerosilla resort far below.
If there is a predominant geological statement to Ushuaia that immediately captures the eye it’s the Glaciar Martial and northern peaks of Cerro Andoy, Cerro Martial, Cerro Roy and Cerro Dos Banderos.
Climbing its ridges is adventuring into a monstrous place to rip. It’s a hoedown of wild shots and playful pitches. Towering over Argentina’s, the world’s for that matter, most southern town the peaks seem to reign supreme among all the left hooks that drop on the point of Ushuaia’s jaw. Half southwest facing, the other half southeast, with an elevation well over 1000 meters, the fantasia of acreage offers Sylvain views of the Beagle Channel across to Chile and Porto Williams.
Of course there is the slight problem of getting up there. The Aerosilla resort base begins at 385 meters. Closed for the summer season its one lift wasn’t running, but that didn’t matter seeing it only rises to its top terminal at 575 meters.
Instead, it’s an “earn your turns” type of thingy that requires a bit of hoofing and then a bit of skinning and a lot of sweating and panting. Think Tallac or Jake’s Peak plus a little. Think walking from the bottom of Aspen Mountain to the Maroon Bells. Think about bringing a lot of water.
The first day, with only the three of us above the tree line, we made initial descents where virgin snow awaited patiently and the seracs even sang an inward music. By day five, as more and more, participants of the Ice Axe expeditionary force began flying into Ushuaia, the Glaciar Martial came down with a case of Squaw Valleyitis with everybody getting their freak on. Ice Axe guides, led by top Antarctic ski guide guy Kevin Quinn, began laying down lyrical lines off distant faces that reminded one of heli-runs. Included of course from others trekking about was a bit of straight-lining, magic carpet riding and stick romping enough to sate the maw of any mountain rippage.
Aside from the world-class skiing, Ushuaia offers plenty of history, shopping and Olympic-type eating, which is good when waiting for one’s ship to depart to Antarctica while drying out gnarly long undies.
Forget the colossal lodges, old celebrity photos, wood-fired on-mountain raclette, casual elegance and all the other accolades un plus bel espace de ski du monde is famous for. Ushuaia is nevertheless a cool ski town, kind of an Aspen in its own right, but thankfully without anybody from Aspen.
After all, it was the original Green guy himself, Charles Darwin, who in 1880 said about Ushuaia, “It thrills me. It’s a grand success.” Named after a local tribe in the Magellan region of the Mitre peninsula, the Ushuaia idea of the world was very peculiar, as they perceived it not from the point of view of land, but of water. The Beagle Channel was their dominant toponymy, suffixed “aia; it was, so to speak, an area of water entering land and not the other way around. The tribe, and a few other clans, traveled the channel nomadically, even being called “Canoe People”, as their homemade crafts were central to their lives.
Today, Ushuaia, site of a once primitive tribal headquarters, is the bustling capital of Argentina’s newest province. Its port remains not just a safe haven for ships rounding Cape Horn, but departure for our ship, the Adventure Clipper.
Che! (Hey!) Us skier/ mountain types know a little about water, whether in a chilled mass on the ground or flowing from high alpine streams into lakes, toponymy and all. Che! You can even drink the water around here.
THE ICE AXE SAT (Our daily informative quiz): Q. The mascot for the Aerosilla resort in Ushuaia is a Saint Bernard. What breed is Saint Bernard? A. Saint Bernards descended from Tibetan mastiffs brought to Greece in the fourth century BC and then into Western Europe by the Romans. Their fame and name comes from their association with monks at the Saint Bernard hospice atop Saint Gotthard Pass. A nobleman who decided against marriage on the very eve of his wedding, and instead joined the Augustine Order, building the hospice in A.D. 962 as an aid to travelers crossing the eight thousand-foot pass, founded it.