Backcountry Skiing: The Super C Couloir

NATE MENNINGER: With my right hand clutching an ice-axe and my left hand grabbing a rock wall, I stepped out onto the six-inch ledge and prepared myself for the deadliest traverse of my life.

Ever since I arrived in Chile, I’ve had my heart set on Portillo’s Super C Couloir: A 50-degree slope nestled within the jagged mountain peaks of Portillo, Chile. I knew that if I wanted to consider myself an extreme sport enthusiast, I had to conquer what so many refer to as the world’s most famous back country couloir.

So in hopes of achieving my dream, I packed my life into a sleeper van and took off for towards my dream.

I spent my first day on the mountain relearning the basics: How to get off of the chairlift, how to control my board and how to properly fall. By the end of the day, I felt my snow legs renewed and decided that the following morning I would try my luck at the Super C Couloir.

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With an alpine bag packed full of food, water, crampons and an ice ax, I set out on my mission…no more than an hour into my hike, the ski patrol surprised me.

A storm was approaching fast, they told me, which meant that rescue operations were a no go and getting lost in the frigid unknown was an unfortunate likelihood.

Considering I was alone, I found it best to turn my ass around.

I retreated to Santiago de Chile where I lived until the end of the month, taking advantage of any opportunity I could to ski – probably five or six times over a two week period. For my last training session, I joined a car full of Chilean men whom I met through Facebook. Andres (the driver) and I really hit it off, and we spent the entire day plowing through some of the best untouched powder I’ve ever encountered.

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I hounded Andres about the Super C Couloir all day. He was a phenomenal snowboarder, a benevolent soul and a back country aficionado; I figured he’d make the perfect partner.

That Friday morning, Andres finally acquiesced to my persistence and agreed to the Super C, pending the conditions that he could acquire both an ice-ax and crampons within the next 24 hours – no small feat in South America.

Somehow though, the two of us managed the task and found everything we needed before nightfall. All that remained was to precook some egg sandwiches, double check our equipment and rest our minds.

We left the next morning at 5:30 a.m. and arrived just after 8.

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Wasting no time, we cinched our gear together, hit the bathrooms and then set out on our adventure.

Most Super C goers purchase a lift ticket to facilitate their journey. That way, the hike itself only lasts about 2-3 hours. We, however, be it poor, young adventures, opted out of a lift ticket and instead chose to hike the entire mountain ourselves. Our decision added almost 4 hours onto the initial 2-hour hike.

The first hour was easy, the second two tough and the final three grueling. Not much more can describe the monotonous rhythm one creates when punching their way up a steep, 5,000 foot snow wall more than 14,000 feet high.

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A few hundred yards past the highest lift, the snow thinned out and traction worsened. We strapped on our crampons for some added traction – marking our first ever use of the metal add-ons. T my surprise, though, they proved rather easy to manage. I did, however, accidentally tear through my snow pants at one point…

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Eventually, we arrived at the infamous Super C Traverse: a 100-meter slit in the mountain face that teeters across a frozen waterfall of sharp rocks and cliffs.  The slope was steeper, the ledge skinny and the drop larger than I imagined.

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Andres and I looked at each other. Falling meant certain death.

With the sun rapidly falling away, we couldn’t afford to waste any more time contemplating our approach. We had to move now if we wanted to minimize our risk of avalanche.

I fought my vertigo and stood on my wobbly legs, grabbing the rock beside me for support. I looked to Andres who, with a twisted look of regret, shook his head no. Andres was smart; he knew that the juice was not worth the squeeze.

“O.K. Be safe.” I said. “But I gotta do this. If I don’t show up in a few hours, alert the ski patrol.”

With that, I leaned into the hardest first step of my life. The six-inch ledge narrowed beneath me, barely providing enough room to fit just one of my fat feet. To continue, I had to wedge my left foot down into the snow, then bend my left knee outwards so that my right foot could swing up and through for my second step. It felt as complicated as it sounds.

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But once my right foot made contact, my heart steadied. Granted, I avoided staring down the sheer face and hugged the mountain like a lost lover, but with patience and my precision, I made it across in no time.

Relieved, I shot up the last slope as fast as I could.

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At 2:30 p.m., nearly six hours after I began my hike, I submitted Portillo.

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I enjoyed a snack and a quick panoramic view from the summit where I snagged this amazing selfie video:

Rested, I strapped on my board and traversed to the drop in. I tightened my bindings one last time and stared down through my feet to the switchbacks more than 5000 feet below me.

With one last goodbye, I dove into the cavernous chute.

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Deep powder, steep terrain and a beautiful chute awaited my first few turns. But before I knew it, I was snowboarding across the remnants of a recent avalanche. The fluffy snow transformed into an icy, wet fusion and demanded complete focus.

Still, I loved every second, from the icy drops to the powdery turns.

In 15 minutes I reached the bottom and rejoined the groomed trail. The lift attendants unknowingly gave me a free ride up the mountain.

As a side note: Yes, I conquered the Super C, but I did so idiotically. When skiing backcountry, you should always carry a beacon, probe and shovel, and above all else, you must always travel with a partner. I, of course, am recommending everything I didn’t do, but that shouldn’t take away from its importance. The Super C is an extremely ski-able chute, and the traverse is definitely manageable without crampons or an ice-axe, but the endeavor requires serious preparation.

If you´re feeling lucky, though, get off your ass, tighten your backpack and start hiking!

 

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