As soon as you arrive into the Three Valleys of the Andes one of the first things you notice is a giant couloir, The Chimney, staring right at you. It is hard to ignore and it is hard to fight the desire to go ski it. The Chimney stands at 4,000 meters and a good hike from the ski resort, La Parva.
I’d only been in Chile for a day and already I had my sights set on The Chimney. Day two of my trip I woke up early to find all my local friends too hung over to go skiing. (The benefits of living in the mountains rather than having a limited number of days to go skiing). My friend, Cami, offered to drive me to La Parva, only a five minute drive down the road where I hoped to meet a friend and go hike the Chimney.
After skiing solo all morning I realised the whole town was too hung over to ski and reality that I may be hiking the Chimney alone started kicking in. I decided to do the first section of the hike, which would take me up to the main ridge, to scope things out. It’s a small pitch and it looked like there were a few fresh turns to be had if I skied straight back down. The turns were so good that I did this short hike twice. I decided to reward myself with a hot chocolate and mean while find some locals or ski patrollers to ask about the avalanche danger of The Chimney.
I was told the avalanche danger was low and The Chimney was “good right now”. That was all I needed to hear. Skis thrown on my backpack I began my hike. My eagerness and excitement had over shadowed the reality of being out hiking on my own.
For those of you who haven’t been hiking at 4,000+ meters let me explain to you how it feels. With every breathe you feel as though your lungs are going to collapse inside your ribs. Your throat is bleeding and burning with every inhale. Every movement you make is a struggle. Your steps are half what you would normally take. When you feel as though you’ve achieved a good distance you turn around to discover you’ve only moved 100m. Not to mention your head races with panic that you can’t breathe. But knowing all this I wasn’t phased. I was prepared to take my time and move at whatever speed I felt comfortable. This was not a race.
As soon as I reached the first ridge the wind had really picked up compared to the morning. I took a quick video and as soon as I turned the camera off a gust of wind came blowing me off my feet and falling on my side. (You can hear how strong the wind is in the video).
I did a quick scan and could see only one large boulder that I could crawl to for shelter. At one of my events someone asked me “what is the most scared you have ever been?” They were surprised by my answer as it wasn’t a line I had skied or a cliff I jumped off. It was in 2015 on a ski touring visit to Nevados to Chillan, Chile and the winds were so strong we could not even stand back up. I had to lay down and watch a friend hiking on the other side of the valley nearly be blown off a knife ridge. So you can imagine how my nerves kicked in when I was blown off my feet – again! “Nothing lasts forever” I told myself as I hugged the boulder. I knew the wind had to die down at some stage so i might as well take a selfie. The only thing you can do in these situations is wait for the moment to pass. You can’t control the wind and it is wasted energy to panic. So I entertained myself by seeing how loudly I could sing before I could hear myself over the wind. It turns out I had to really scream to hear my own voice.
Eventually the wind calmed down to just an aggressive breeze rather than a gale. I wasn’t sure if I should continue as the ridge I would be walking along has drops of 200ft of it, with a lot of exposed rocks. But I knew I could turn back at any time so I should just push on. The walk felt endless. There was no snow at the top of the ridge this winter so I was walking on rocks in ski boots. For those of you who don’t ski, ski boots are horrendously awkward to walk in at the best of times never mind trying to negotiate rocks and boulders in them. The terrain began to turn into a steep rocky slope. With every step my foot slid down and the rocks underneath me no longer supported me.
After what felt like hours of walking, clambering rocks and being soaked from sweat I began to wonder if I had gone to far. I was trying to avoid walking on the edge of the mountain so I wouldn’t be blown off but I paid the price for this. I had missed the entrance to The Chimney. Damn it! I thought. What do I do now? Hike back along the ridge in the wind or just give up and walk back the way I came. I looked at the time. “Oh shit” then looked at the low sun. I hadn’t registered how late it was. If I hike back I run the risk of hiking in the dark. If I hike along the ridge I run the risk of being blown off but if I find the couloir quickly I can be down in about half an hour.
I hadn’t hiked all this way to back out now so I began clambering up the rocks to the cliff edge. After walking for only 10 minutes there she was! The Chimney!!! I looked down at the steep narrow couloir and my adrenaline really kicked in. I could not get my skis on fast enough. A mix of nerves and excitement flooded my body. Gopro on – check. Backpack secure – check. Poles – check. Boots done up – nope. “Damn it Rachel focus” I thought. I took a few deep breathes with my skis hanging over the edge. Dropping!!!
The exhilaration you feel as you ski down this couloir is like no other. Surrounded by sheer granite with snow moving under neath your feet with every turn it makes you forget the hard work you put in to get there. Soaked in sweat I couldn’t stop grinning the whole way back to town. Like with every goal we achieve in life we only remember the feeling of achieving it not the hardship it took to get there. Remember that next time you’re standing at the bottom looking up at your next goal. It’s all worth it.