SKIING SOUTH AMERICA IN THE SUMMER
By "Monte " Pat Wright
I got an e-mail from a photographer who was going to South America on a little ski trip and he asked me if I was interested in a story about his adventure. Skiing in the middle of the summer just blows my mind, so I was anxious to have him do a story. I contacted the ski areas was able to provide him with press credentials. This is the first in a series of articles on his trip.
So, if you want to ski for free anyplace on the planet and you can write, we are interested in talking to you (the Editor).
I just returned from a trip through South America's major and not so major ski areas. In the coming months, I will be telling you the ins and outs of South American skiing and a bit about my adventures in the land of Pisco and powder.
This was my third trip to South America and yes, I am addicted. It doesn't take much to get me excited about skiing anytime, anywhere but when I heard about the 15 foot dump that hit Chile and Argentina in the first week of July, I was on the net immediately finding tickets and organizing my adventure. With each trip I gain confidence and tread further into the outback. I also wanted to explore even more of the off-piste areas on this trip and I think I accomplished all of my goals.
First, you need to understand that Argentina and Chile are modern, peaceful countries and that there is very little risk from crime or political upheaval in either country. I smiled knowingly when my mother and friends were telling me to take special care and watch out for banditos and guerillas. I was more focused on the threat of avalanche, gnarly hangovers or worse yet, a powder drought.
I have traveled the major ski areas previously by public transport but for this trip I wanted to be more independent. So, I found an agency in Santiago that rented 4x4 trucks with campers and I made a reservation. This fits in perfectly with my normal modus operandi, as I own a truck and camper and ski far and wide across North America with the same lifestyle. This vehicle and mode of travel worked out fairly well for me but I suspect it would be a bit much for a first timer. I have some experience driving in Latin America and I also speak Spanish, which is very helpful. Nonetheless I suffered some major stress driving the city streets in Santiago and Mendoza, Argentina with this big rig. On the positive side I met a lot of locals and camped in some really beautiful places.
Santiago Ski Areas
Santiago is Chile's largest city and all international flights arrive in their modern and well-equipped airport. I can't claim to be much of an expert on the city as I always try to leave as soon as possible. For a ski bum, it is a place to arrive and depart from but isn't really close enough to the ski hills for a base. The city has 4.7 million people and the most contaminated air in the world. On the other hand, it has a very well developed nightlife scene, great restaurants and lots of beautiful single women. At night you should take taxis and rely on credit cards as there is some street crime especially in the neighborhoods where you might be at night.
Situated along the Mapocho river the city sits at the foot of the Andes just an hour and 15 minutes below some of the finest ski areas in South America. The road out of Santiago to Carillons is rather treacherous and the Santiguinos drive really, really fast and aggressive. You can drive yourself but don't try it contra ski area traffic or at night.
There are three major ski areas in the Carillons region: La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado. All three are large, well equipped and worth skiing. Of the three only Valle Nevado really has an international clientele. The logical place to base yourself is among all three in the village of Farrelones.
Farellones is a small village that has several small hotels and refugios. Most of the lodges here will shuttle you up to the ski hill of choice each morning and bring you back at night. This year, I stayed at the Hotel La Cornisa which was lovely, moderately priced and has an English-speaking owner. A more affordable choice would be one of the mountain club refugios. A refugio is a hut ranging from basic bunks to rather elaborate lodges that are usually owned by mountaineering and hiking clubs. Besides being cheaper I think that the contact with the local mountain lovers is a good thing.
I have skied Valle Nevado more than the other two areas in Carillons. It is very large in terms of acreage but doesn't have too much slope variety. The majority of the runs are wide-open moderate runs that are ideal for high speed cruising. Like most South American resorts, VN uses a lot of Poma lifts but they do have three chairlifts. There are three modern hotels with striking architecture that range from mid-price to luxury and are all probably a little too pricy for the focus of this article. The all-day lift ticket is $17,000 pesos ( $31 US) and they will sell a three-mountain combination ticket for $22,000 ($40).
This year, Valle Nevado had quite a bit more snow than its two neighbors and the snow was very fast and easy. The scenery here is quite alpine and you can see glaciers off to the south. There are some good off-piste possibilities both within VN and off to the south out of bounds. Only 1/4 of the terrain at VN is groomed so there is an unbelievable amount of mostly moderate angle skiing between the runs, should the snow cooperate. Not much here for the extreme super expert crowd unless you decide to bomb the big groomers which I did with a pair of 212cm Elans. There is a very busy Heliski operator based at the resort and they also offer tandem paragliding and hangliding rides. The only nightlife in the Carillons area is based in the hotels at VN. You should understand that it starts up late. Don't even bother to try it until midnight or later and it usually peaks about 3 or 4 A.M. All I all I would say that VN is worth a day or two while your exploring the area.
La Parva is the more northern of the three hills and it has quite a lot of swanky condos at its base. This year the snow wasn't quite as good as VN but it has a greater variety of terrain and some real expert slopes. Although there is tourist lodging at La Parva, it is more of a place for the wealthy of Santiago to spend their weekends at their condos than a tourist hot spot. I once spent three days here and I think I was the only international tourist at the place. Skiers at la Parva tend to be really skilled and there is a great deal of off-piste terrain available. For a mixed group of experts and intermediates La Parva is the ticket because of the great variety of terrain. There are more chairlifts at this mountain which is a welcome change, especially for those of you (snowboarders) of a sliding persuasion. Since La Parva isn't really a tourist destination and has a rather fixed clientele, I found it to be rather unfriendly and cold in terms of ambiance. But, because of the skiing, it's definitely worth a day or two.
Many thanks to Patroller Phillip from France, who showed me some great and hairy lines to the southeast of Las Aguilas.
This area sits in between the other two ski areas and is larger than its neighbors. Although Chris Lizza, author of the South America Ski Guide says that this is his favorite hill on the continent, I don't really know why. It does have Cono Este, a 1000ft, volcanic cinder cone with slopes of about 40 degrees. There is also a gulch near the bottom that might be interesting but I haven't tried it yet. Other than that, it seems a lot like Valle Nevado to me except it has cheaper tickets. There are few off-piste opportunities here because it is sandwiched between the other two ski areas and the base of El Colorado is in the village of Carillons.
I will be following up this article with more material about my trip that will appear in future issues of the Ski Bum News.