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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Skiing Patagonia's Rio Baker, part 1

By Molly Baker

The view of snow-covered southern Patagonia.

After five minutes of listening to a National Public Radio report on an approved hydroelectric project near the Northern Ice Field in Patagonia, I knew I had to go there. Instead of skiing South America's Las Leņas, Valle Nevado, Bariloche, and Portillo, pro skier Zack Giffin and I decided to head further south into the wilderness of Patagonia.

We recently arrived in Buenos Aires and after a 20-hour bus trip and driving nearly 1,000 miles on Argentina's only thoroughfare south, the unpaved Route 40, we arrived in Cochrane, a small Chilean pueblo near the country's largest river, the Rio Baker. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet sold the water rights to the Baker River nearing the end of his dictatorship in 1990 to Italian-owned multinational energy giant Enel.

This spring, Enel decided to dam the Baker River, the alleyway for run-off from the largest continuous mass of ice in the world outside of Greenland and Antarctica. The two proposed dams will flood over 11,000 acres of Patagonian land for hydroelectric power and power lines will span as far north as Santiago to fuel the electricity demands of Chile's copper mines.

Local reactions to the project are mixed: "It is a very difficult life for the people of Chilean Patagonia. The dam may not be the worst thing for the people because it creates work and development," said Argentine business owner Rodrigo Harding. "The question is what is less intrusive than a dam for energy because ultimately the energy is necessary."

Giffin and I are heading into the mountains of the Rio Baker's watershed to ski, but also to appreciate a landscape that in 10 years will likely look very different. "In Patagonia you can walk a few miles into the mountains and get away from everything," said our only English-speaking friend in Cochrane, Marceloso Soto. "It is one of the only pristine places left in the world."

In the next weeks, we plan to hire horses to take us into the mountains and camp and ski as many peaks as possible. Stay tuned for an update exclusively here on ESPN Freeskiing after we return to civilization.