#sendandreturn: Super C Portillo – The One That Got Away

What is BCA’s #sendandreturn all about?  It’s about good decision-making based on the avalanche forecast, terrain and conditions, and the willingness to forgo sending it down a planned route for the sake of returning at the end of the day!  Amie Engerbretson illustrates exactly what it means in ‘Super C Portillo – The One that Got Away’ (a second time)! If you have a #sendandreturn story worthy of sharing on the BCA blog, send it to us, and we will send you a BCA Backy Urban pack as a thank you in return.

By BCA Pro Athlete Amie Engerbretson

The Super C is an infamous, coveted, aesthetically beautiful couloir nestled in the Andes Mountains that tower above the idyllic mountain oasis, Ski Portillo. I went to Portillo for the first time four years ago and realized right away that I was somewhere magical. The Andes Mountains are breathtaking, and Portillo is a skier’s paradise with postcard-worthy views in every direction. The Laguna del Inca serves as the centerpiece of the landscape with beautiful runs, both in and out of the ski area boundaries, running at perfectly steep pitches right down to the reflective blue waters.

Of all the many famous and killer runs at Portillo, the Super C is by far the most talked about and one that every avid backcountry skier who passes through the big yellow hotel puts at the top of their hit list. While the stats are impressive: a beautiful 45-degree 1,320-meter descent, it is not the steepest, gnarliest, highest, most extreme anything. I think its allure is that it is simply a beautiful, perfect couloir. Big rock walls, due north exposure for great snow quality, and a long sustained pitch that skiers dream about. I say I “think” for one big reason, I have never skied it.

The first year I visited Portillo my trip begun with the typical South American travel fiesta that involved a two-day delay and bags that didn’t show up for several more days. I had my ski boots, but nothing else: not even spare undies. I showed up to beautiful snow conditions. My ski crew was firing, hitting all the classics and having a blast. I was getting by on borrowed gear and doing my best, but I didn’t have my avalanche gear and, of course, wasn’t feeling at my prime on a hodge-podge of equipment. It was clear; the Super C was a must. One guy in our group had skied it before, loved it, and the rest of our crew wanted a taste. I was intrigued. I wanted to ski it and see what all the hype was all about. But I was weary, as I just didn’t feel comfortable going for an objective that, while not overly extreme, was high in my comfort zone when I didn’t have my own gear. I waved goodbye to my crew early in the morning as they went for the perfect Portillo run and I jealously kept my ear to the radio to hear updates.

I was bummed and felt silly for not going, pretty much kicking myself all day. I did notice that day was a little warmer than previous days. I wondered how they were doing and hoped they were being smart. Just as my jealousy was peaking, I got a radio call from my crew: they were at the base. They had to turn around due to warm temps and overhead snow hazards. As I learned over beers later that day, they made a great decision because as they were transitioning back to ski mode in a safe zone, a wet slide released above them and took out a traverse across the crux of the hike. I was first and foremost glad my crew was safe and made a smart call, but also secretly relieved I didn’t miss out on the best run in the Southern Hemisphere.

I didn’t get a chance to ski the Super C again that trip, but lucky for me, #sendandreturn, two years later I got the chance to go back! From the moment the plans to return to Portillo solidified, the Super C was on my mind. Upon arriving at Portillo, we found ourselves with a challenging snowpack, both thin and sugary. Usually, Portillo is known for a consolidated snowpack, which makes all of its wonderful steep terrain easy to approach with a series of boot packs. The Super C is usually approached by boot packing straight up from the top of the Roca Jack lift, putting your skis on for a short traverse over some exposure, and then another boot pack to the top. The snow we had was the kind of snow that eats bootpackers. Days after a storm, you would still just wallow in sugar trying to move up the mountain. It was impossible.

Photo: Mountainyahoos.com

Of course, this is precisely why we have skins! Portillo is generally steep, lacking ridgelines and it is pretty darn technical skinning. For the Super C, adding skinning to the approach made it longer, more exposed and definitely higher in my comfort zone–if not out of it entirely. Our group decided they wanted to go for it. The first half of the boot pack was in and was okay as long as you didn’t step out of it. Instead of the traditional route which involved traversing over the exposure and continuing to boot pack, the day before, someone had put in a skin track from the crux onward. It was described to me as technical, hard and punishing. It was very steep, tons of kick turns and in places only three to four steps between kick turns. The crew that had put it in had ski crampons as well. I didn’t. This made me nervous: I am not a great skinner, and I didn’t feel good about putting myself in a technical situation that I didn’t have supreme confidence about, or the right gear for that matter, especially above exposure. I decided I would hike up the first half, get eyes on the skin track and make the decision from there.

That morning, after about an hour of hiking we made it to the crux. I crawled up on the small transition zone and looked across and up at the skin track. “Um, heck no!” was basically my response. The first kick turn was steep and gnarly above massive exposure. From there, it didn’t get much better. I discussed with my crew, transitioned and skied a beautiful untracked pow field back down to the resort. I radioed my crew at the bottom, and they were planning to go ahead. I made the right decision. I didn’t have complete confidence in my skill set in that situation. I would be putting myself and my crew at risk, and most importantly my discomfort would have made me hate the experience. I still felt like crap. I felt like a wimp. I felt silly. I knew they were going to come down and talk about the run of their lives and I would just be silent. I spent the day skiing alone, being mad at myself.

A couple of hours later, I got a radio call from my crew. I expected glee and elation but what was the word? They were at the base. After taking too much time deciding what to do at the crux, it was too warm, and they had turned around. Again, I was relieved I didn’t miss out, glad everyone was safe and even found a little space to realize I wasn’t a wimp, I was smart and made the right choice for me in the specific situation. The other thing I realized is that the Super C isn’t going anywhere and it seems like it is a run that is worth the wait. One day, I will be there, with the right crew, on the right day, in the right conditions. I will ski it, enjoy it and celebrate at the bottom with friends.

Ski you soon Super C xoxo. #sendandreturn