Words and photos by Coalatree Ambassador Evan Garcia. Read part 1 of this story here.
I arrived to Pucon, Chile after a breakthrough season of flying at home. I had big aspirations, endless motivation, and for sure too high of expectations. I already knew Pucon’s flying was super technical from the previous year, but right off the bat I was quickly reminded of why. Pucon is a picturesque place to get in the air but the flying feels challenging and a vicious valley wind builds up almost every day. There are, however, beautiful sites around this area that offer plenty of flying. That’s all great, but my wild dreams of cloud hopping on an Andean crossing seemed far from coming true.
During these multi-sport trips I try to fly during the day and paddle hard in the afternoons. It’s easy to do in Pucon as everything is close by and accessible. After two weeks in what I refer to as “the siphon” of Chile, I’d spent way more time on the river than in the air. Some cool ridge runs, nice glass offs, and way too many windy landings about sums up the flying I did. Right about when I thought my flying luck had run out for this trip, a weather window finally presented itself!
I have an unhealthy list of dream flights, but one in particular always stood out. Just south of Pucon is the mountain city of Bariloche and its southerly neighbor, El Bolson. The valley that connects these two cities runs north to south and is exactly what you’d imagine Patagonia to look like: rugged snow-capped peaks in every direction, turquoise lakes, and dense native forests blanket every inch of the ground. I’d seen GPS tracks of pilots making a 100km flight through this valley in both directions. Knowing the area very well from paddling trips, it immediately went to the top of my dream flight list, but always seemed like some far-off fantasy. With this weather window, the forecast for Pucon and the surrounding area was amazing, but I am a firm believer in chasing your wildest dreams! It seemed like the day had come, light wind arrived to Patagonia and I wasted no time loading up and heading for Argentina.
A seven hour drive over the crest of the Andes Mountains, through the Argentine flatlands, and past the iconic city of Bariloche landed me in the hippy town of El Bolson. I’m lucky to be connected in this area of the world, thanks to my many paddling friends, so upon arrival a friend got me in touch with a local pilot who also happens to own a tiny hostel. Arriving late at night I had a quick chat with my new pilot friend about the flight I’d be attempting the next day. The small amount of beta I received helped my knowledge of the route and some crucial landing potentials, but also made me more nervous about a few of the crux moves. Besides, what’s a good conversation with a local without a few scary tales to get the gringo to respect the zone?
The 25th of November started as a perfect cloudless day as I walked down the funky side streets of El Bolson toward the local LZ. I arrived early as I did not want to miss a ride up the massive mountain we would be launching off. Once noon rolled around I was worried it was already late to start a big flight, but this is not the case for the west-facing site in El Bolson. A truck full of happy pilots finally arrived and assured me we would be launching at the perfect time.
A dusty road led us half way up Cerro Piltriquitrón and left us at a beautiful “Alps-esque” launch site with turf, shade, and about 30 Argentinian pilots. I was surprised to see such a thriving community of pilots in this area, but they’ve made the sport quite approachable down there with good instructors and accessible sites. After chatting up some of the locals I realized that the XC crew was planning on going out into the flats instead of flying in mountains to the north. I’d come to Argentina to fly these mountains, so I decided if the day felt good, I would stay in the big terrain and fly toward Bariloche. Just as the locals had explained the day started late and slower than expected. I launched at 12:50pm and didn’t get enough height to “go over the back” until 2:00. The site is massive and a great place to start a flight but for the first hour of flying we were hitting an inversion that kept the ceiling low. This also kept us from leaving the site in a timely fashion, but it was nice to warm up a bit before making bigger moves.
As soon as the broken tops of the thermals got higher, I left the site alone. I could see two pilots in front of me heading straight East into the flats. The wind was still light so I decided to stick to my plan and explore these incredible mountains I’d dreamt so much about. The flying was powerful and somewhat intimidating, being a low day for this area I just felt a bit close to the rugged terrain. With that said the flight was going swimmingly! Beautiful steep cliff faces lead up to snow covered bowls and peaks. I even got to climb with a few different Andean Condors, which are prehistoric looking birds with wingspans up to 10 feet long.
About 30km into the flight there is a major river valley crossing where I started to encounter some wind. On maps this section seems like the crux as the terrain is lower and more shallow than the rest of the route. I have a rule while flying XC, once I see 13 mph wind, I start to fly considerably more conservative. My vario was reading 13-14mph after the crossing and I was getting somewhat low on this shallow feature. As my few landing options looked further away and the wind wasn’t backing off I started to get a bit nervous. I decided to play it safe and push out towards the road to find a decent place to land. I wasn’t penetrating into the wind very fast and started to get that funny little feeling of being stuck in the sky. I have a theory in cross country flying; “When you truly want to get on the ground you’ll always find a thermal, but when you truly want a thermal, they aren’t always there” So right when I made up my mind and wanted to be on the ground, Boom, I hit a really strong and rowdy climb that tossed right back in the game.
The next 20kms of the flight pass over a gorgeous class 5 river and went smooth as the wind slowly backed off. At about 5pm I was faced with another decision, keep pushing into the committing lake section before Bariloche? Or take the last and very accommodating landing to start the hitch hike back to El Bolson? I decided to be a good boy and land right next to the road to start the adventure back to my hostel. I love hitch-hiking in this part of South America because I feel safe and know I’m bound to meet some lovely people. Sure enough after 45 minutes of waiting I was picked up by an international group of climbers and enjoyed good company all the back to where I started. All in all the day felt perfect. It wasn’t a huge flight at 66 km, I didn’t fly fast or efficiently, but I did spend over four hours getting a birds eye view of this magnificent place.
The next day was too windy for me so I made a plan to meet up with a long time Argentinian friend to enjoy a day on the water. What I didn’t mention before is that my favorite river in all of Patagonia, the Rio Blanco del Sur, is only a short drive from El Bolson. On our drive to the Rio Blanco we talked caught up and drank liters of maté, a highly caffeinated herbal tea consumed from gourd using a long metal straw. Because this is a flying publication I won’t go too deep into describing the day, but what I will say is that this particular river has a curtain magic you don’t find many other places on this planet. Geology is everything in whitewater and this river sliced right through one beautiful chunk of perfect granite. The contrast between perfect waterfalls, caribbean blue water, and the dramatic arid canyon walls fills my soul with the kind of deep satisfaction only found in true love. It was a fabulous day on the water with great friends. I am always eternally grateful for the opportunity to run this secret little river.
I arrived back in town to a message from one of the pilots I’d met the day before asking if I was interested in going to fly Bariloche the next day. A quick check of the forecast indeed hinted the flying would be epic and pointed toward starting up North. The biggest hurdle for flying in Patagonia is the wind, so for me it’s pretty easy to spot a good flying day. Get on the windy app, go to 3000 meters, and if it’s light, you’re probably good to go. The locals also use XCskies and say it works quite well for the zone. So once again I got to doze off to sleep with thoughts of swirling around magical pointy mountains on my “dream flight”.
Waking up early to make the drive to Bariloche I enjoyed the company of new friends and once again drank a ridiculous amount of yerba maté. In Bariloche the local pilots use a launch on a small bump in the in the middle of the city known as “Cerro Otto”. Compared to the site in El Bolson and the surrounding mountains, it’s tiny, has a very urban vibe, and doesn’t feel like the best place to start a flight. I think for convenience sake it’s the main launch they use as it’s 10 minutes from downtown. The day looked incredible, every mountain around the lake was producing perfectly balanced cumulus clouds, except the small bump we were sitting on. As far as para-waiting goes, like most launches, this was a beautiful place to spend some time staring at the sky. We sat perched above the city and on the shores of one of Patagonia’s biggest lakes, Nahuel Huapi. Being extremely fired up by the shear amount of maté I’d consumed on the drive, the moment good cycles started rolling up the hill, I launched!
The flight started off really slow. I don’t love to make a habit out of scratching, but to stay in the air on a day like this, I was ready to go low to get high! 20, 30, and then 40 minutes into the flight the tops of the thermals were still cresting a few hundred feet over launch. This was OK except for the fact that cloud base was 1500 meters higher. “Patience young grasshopper”, I had to remind myself. That, plus breathing and relaxing into my harness makes the first hour go by easier. I was sharing the air with 10+ pilots and by hanging in the back of a rocky little bowl I got a rogue thermal that broke our frustrating inversion. I frisbeed over the back alone and lower than you would hope to go, but at this point I was ready to leave this little lump of rock and dirt. The glide felt easy thanks to the wind and a lifty line of air lead me straight to the start of the big mountains, a place they call, “la ventana” aka the window.
Upon arriving at the big terrain the vibe of the day completely shifted to proper big mountain flying. There was lift everywhere and the climbs were as strong as anything I’ve ever experienced. In this type of flying I go back to focusing on my “grace under pressure” mentality. In the end, that’s all you really have up there, your ability to make educated guesses by using everything you have at your disposal. Feedback from your glider, the clouds, surfaces of the lakes, trees, birds, your instruments, and most importantly your own instinct. Everything seemed to be lining up at this point and in most cases this is when that elusive and magical flow state arrives. You’re exactly where you want to be, exactly when you should be there.
What proceeded for the next four hours was a smorgasbord of paragliding perfection. Cloud base was around 11,500 feet towering over the mountain tops which stand around 7000 feet asl. The conditions felt pushy but with this amount of terrain clearance I was comfortable pushing on solo. The flight started to move along nicely as I could maintain altitude but my glides felt slow due to the complete lack of wind. It wasn’t until about 80 km into the flight when the day started to settle, I got lower, and went back to ridge running close to the jagged summits. On my final stretch I hit a valley wind coming from El Bolson as expected and finished the fight off right behind Cerro Piltriquitrón where I started my flight two days prior. In cross country flying the “coming back to earth” moment feels unique and is hard to compare to most other sports. From the moment you launch this tiny aircraft that weighs around 7 pounds, it takes an amazing amount of constant bandwidth to maintain focus. By the end of a big day like this I find myself lost in a euphoric combination of excitement and confusion that has me, at least for the time being, dreaming of the next flight.
As I sit here a month later and recall the flying in Argentina, I would say it was textbook. That’s mostly because I’m not strapped to a piece of fabric hanging a mile over rugged Patagonian wilderness. To be honest there were scary moments and I am still tense flying over big mountains. This brings up one last reason why I love these extreme sports we all obsess over. Training hard, overcoming fears and uncertainties, and coming out on the other side is a religious experience for me. It is where I find faith and solidity in this crazy world we live in. I’m not an adrenaline junkie nor do I thrive off of danger, but doing consequential activities brings out and requires a level of intensity and focus that I am addicted to.
So far in my short paragliding career what I’ve enjoyed the most has been the learning process. If I could give one piece of advice to you as a reader, no matter what your skill level is, always allow yourself to be surprised and continue to learn from everything and everyone around you, because that’s where the magic lies. I didn’t grasp this concept with kayaking because I was too young and too focused on being “good”. Paragliding has allowed me to become a student again, taught me to enjoy the process, believe in the unknown, the invisible, and continue to dream big!