Ski after ski we slowly slide uphill, all the time between the trees but gaining ground on our goal; the remote peak of Volcan Quetripillan.
Sporadically the forest thins and we glimpse a view to the north, opening up views of further gleaming white volcanic cones, a couple are emitting dense white sulfurous fumes into the turbulent winds far above us. Fortunately we still sheltered in a forest, but not just any old forest, this on consists purely of large awkwardly contorting monkey puzzle trees, some are huge and others stunted like bonsai trees by the wind but each one looks equally alien, scaled like some eerie reptilian. These vivid exotic trees are set in sharp contrast to the carpet of pure white, soft spring snow that we are skiing on. Over our heads bright green and red Austral Parakeets sing and buzz about, then suddenly they disperse as an impressive Southern Crested Caracara glides gracefully between the trees.
We eventually breakthrough the last straggling trees of the forest, squinting across the glaringly white snow covered lava flows of the volcano. Taking a moment to look up the slopes and into the warming sunshine we spy a single track of lonely foot prints in the snow, not human but of a large cat that has recently passed through the area. We fearfully scour the horizon in the direction the tracks have headed, luckily there’s no sign of another living creature in any direction of this now barren landscape. The volcano summit still looks a long way off, and we sit down for a breather. Sat in blissful silence, save for the rasping of the wind on our Gore Tex jackets, we reflect that this is not your ordinary ski tour, but this is precisely why we have sacrificed an entire summer just to go skiing again!
With a decidedly mixed winter ski season in both Europe and North America, it’s a great year to think about heading south this summer. A ski holiday to South America should be seen as an adventure; you don’t book a chalet and stay in a resort for a week. You really need to travel around and explore as much as your time constraints permit. If you follow this nomadic mantra then South America is a fantastic place to ski and this article is intended to share my experiences and recommend the best places to go.
For those completely new to South America, the geography of it all can be overawing. The Andes are huge,they stretch an inconceivably long distance, from Colombia in the north, way down through Patagonia in the South. They rise up to a high point of 6962m at Aconcagua’s summit which is roughly in the middle of the whole range, also located near Santiago, Chile’s vibrant capital city. Of most interest for us is the section that it is feasible to ski. This is a mere 4000km long, don’t panic that’s just 4 times the length of France! Being British compels one to categorise things, so unsurprisingly I have divided this ski-able section into three distinct categories: (i) the High Andes, (ii) the volcanoes of middle Chile and (iii) Patagonia in the south.
The High Andes
The so-called High Andes encompasses an area that follows the Chilean and Argentinian border for about 500km starting at Aconcagua. Unsurprisingly, given the name, it’s all at high altitude; the winter snow line will generally start at about 2500m and the peaks reach a lung-busting 7000m. The best skiing is at a relatively bearable altitude of 3000m to 4000m. Within this height range the air is cold enough to keep the snow light and fluffy for days, which is fortunate because it snows pretty infrequently over this arid landscape.
The area is pierced by the main artery road, which starts from the wine growing capital of Mendoza in Argentina to Santiago in Chile. As a foot note you must stop to taste the local Malbec reds in Mendoza, they are outrageously good! There are a few ski resorts along the road, however the only ones with lifts worth paying for are Los Penitentes in Argentina and Portillo in Chile.
Los Penitentes resort is small but offers a great base for ski tours in the surrounding area. We hopped off a public bus from Mendoza, straight into a slightly down trodden but brighty coloured wild west village. The wind was blowing up mini dust tornadoes along the street, snow was conspicuous for its absence. Bleary eyed from our pre-dawn departure we breathlessly dragged our board bag to a meager patch of snow underneath a drag lift. When we visited it was certainly a bad year for the area, however we still persevered, put our splitboards into touring mode and headed uphill along the side of the “pistes”. Part way up Los Penitentes the ski patrollers skied over to us, they were clearly skeptical about our intentions, seemingly they get less people skiing up hill here than we expected. After some hand gestures and broken Spanglish they soon warmed to our enthusiasm, even getting relatively excited as they pointed out hidden couloirs and other challenging routes for us to explore. All of the climbs we undertook ended with a literally breathtaking view across the infinite peaks of the Andes. A sensation of insignificance is inevitable as you squint across the vast wild expanse of snowy peaks stretching to the horizon. Back down in the village there are quite a few hotels and hostels to stay at but don’t expect any bargains nor any fancy spas! Prices started at about USD90 for a claustrophobic dormitory bed!
Down the road at Portillo ski resort there is no ad-hoc overnight accommodation just a single bright yellow hotel, with mostly week-long holiday packages. While I wouldn’t spend a week here, a few days skiing is certainly great fun. The scene is perfectly set from the steep snowy slopes of the resort that overlook a dazzling, intensely blue mountain lake. The skiing is certainly more advanced than all the other resorts in this stretch of the Andes with plenty of steep slope keeping European ski race teams busy here for most of the winter. A word of caution if you’re already weak at the knees on a chairlift; avoid the piste crossing a bridge over the main road, or more pressingly the antique chairlift that takes you back up. It lurches precariously high above an endless train of lorries waiting at the nearby border point, this ride up is an experience in itself!
Further south there are a few additional resorts in the High Andes area, that are well worth visiting. On the Argentinean side Las Lenas and on the Chilean side the 3 Vallees: La Parva, El Colorado and Vallee Nevado.
After passing Portillo resort and into Chile you will endure the countless tight hairpins, that descendant around 2000 vertical metres down towards Santiago; huge condors can be seen gliding in the thermals above the road, like spectators to the chaos below. After the road flattens out, the air quickly warms and thickens with oxygen and pollution. The scenery changes from snowy, arid mountains to a dusty rolling landscape with towering cacti amid cattle grazing the land.
After a detour into central Santiago it is then straight back up another mountain road. The hairpins up to the 3 Vallees resorts are even less of a relaxing experience than the ones down from Portillo. For us it was extra scary as we had just picked up a new campervan and while still adjusting to everything around us, we experienced the blind hairpin overtaking manoeuvres that the locals seem to enjoy so much. One wheel on the edge of oblivion, the other throwing up gravel from a pothole as they sweep past. In all honesty if you have braved the New Zealand ski resort access roads then nothing here will faze you. However if you’re from North America or Europe take some deep breaths, life’s about to get edgy, quite literally.
So the 3 Vallees offer some great in-bounds and slack-country skiing lines, some of the best you’ll ride anywhere. La Parva is a family orientated resort but it has a few steeper touring routes accessed above the top lift. El Colorado is potentially smaller but certainly steeper than La Parva, it also accesses the steep and deep powder runs of the famous Santa Theresa bowl. A “mini Alaska” is how one local described the Santa Theresa area to me. Think of those epic Alaska ski movies, then down size it and this is actually pretty similar. The runs steepen along spines, some require rocky drops before flying along the smooth mellow run out onto the Vallee Nevado access road. A single loop on this face involves a chair lift up, a long ski traverse, then a small walk up to the ridge, after the run there’s a hitch hike along the access road to a drag lift, which slowly takes you back to the start! Vallee Nevado next door is another small but steeper resort with fun off piste to explore. Apparently due to some disagreements between all the various owners the complete 3 Vallees area pass wasn’t available when we visited. The resorts pretty much overlap but co-operation is currently thwarted by some petty border disputes it seems.
Fianlly for this High Andes area is Las Lenas, located further south and on the Argentinean side of the Andes. Accessed easiest from Mendoza, it is scenic, couloir filled, off piste haven. The famous top lift here opens a huge bowl of skiing options, however it is frequently closed from the wind, so keep your fingers crossed. The resort’s location on the eastern side of the Andes doesn’t suggest epic snow but apparently it can be super deep, like everywhere it just depends on the season. The accommodation is quite limited and certainly pricey in resort, so be prepared and book ahead. Depending on your outlook on life, just rocking up and asking around might work, some ski instructors and other staff sublet spare beds in their own accommodation, but expect a party and little sleep!
The volcanoes and Middle Chile.
This vast area is much more widely accessible than the High Andes. The Panamerican highway is like the logistical backbone of Chile,with ribs branching off to the coast in the west, while in the east, roads provide access to snowy mountainous areas like Maipo de Cajon or beautiful National parks like Rio de Cipresses. These mountain roads were mainly built for hydro plants, mines and forest harvesting, but they also provide ski tourers with a plethora of access points, however any true outdoor lover will have a twinge of sadness that such pristine beautiful environments are now accessible only at the cost of the destruction inflicted by such industries. This is the same curse, the world over and it is certainly more pressing in Patagonia where such development is, at this moment forging new paths into one of the worlds last remaining wilderness areas. All is not lost as middle Chile contains countless stunning national parks and beesides the mountains and parks in the north there are also the numerous isolated, volatile and highly active volcanoes to ski.
We were fortunate enough to have rented our own campervan and it was by far the best way to explore the countless parks and volcanoes in the area. Driving in Chile is surprisingly straight forward. The main risk is hitting dogs or people who fearlessly meander across the roads, even the dual carriageways of the fast Panamerican express is not a no go zone. As we departed Santiago we had our closest incident of the trip, the van it transpired had a large blind spot, I discovered this while performing an illegal U-turn in downtown Santiago. Now in a worst case scenario who would be in my blind spot during the aforementioned illegal manourver? THat’s right I narrow avoided knocking two Cabineros off their fancy looking motorbikes, both smartly dressed in their intimidating, militarian green uniforms. Our embarrassingly brightly coloured “sunset” van was rapidly waved over. Engine off, heart beat racing, window down, the officer demanded my passport, I took it from my belt and passed it over, then suddenly I remembered I had stored €500 in the document for safe keeping, quickly I snatched the passport back, just in the nick of time. Our monthly budget was not about to be used as incriminatory evidence in an attempted bride of the notoriously straight Chilean police! After some stealthy removal I smiled and passed it back. A quick flick to the picture page and we were identified as British, now if there’s anyone the Chilean’s love it’s people who the Argentinians hate, “Ahh Anglisee, you like Chile? vee love Mare-gar-rat Fatcher” “You no we helped you in de Falklands war?” and that’s about as far as the conversation went. We were bade a happy holiday and I thanked them for their support in 1980 and off we went to explore middle Chile!
The volcanoes are probably what draw most people most into skiing in Chile. They are enigmatic, rising head and shoulders above their surroundings. They have a unique majesty and are truly awe-inspiring just to visit, let alone to climb and ski! Climbing their simple shape is not to be taken lightly, the conical slopes can be steep, up to 50 degrees steep. On their slopes expect every kind of snow you can imagine. From the powder runs of your life, to ice axe in hand, knuckle whitening blue ice descents and more commonly everything in between! Snow regularly falls here due to the the prevailing moist Pacific winds hitting these isolated cones. The banks of cloud fiercely arrive like a wall of white horses, dumping snow, the subsequent powder skiing can be epic, but only briefly as the snow quickly transforms to a consistent spring like snow after a battering from the same persistent winds.
At the base of these snowy volcanic monoliths lies yet another treat, you will undoubtedly at some point be skiing up through stunning forests of enchanting Lenga and Coihue trees while bashing through an undercanopy of bamboo plants. For me the real treat is the otherworldly Monkey Puzzle forests. These vivid green trees strike a dramatic contrast against the white snow, it’s hard not to be awed by the experience! Amongst these lush forests are also hot springs, most are commercial operations that vary in quality but some are unforgettable places.
In the picture below look closely and you can see me soaking away in a hot pool!
Tootling about in our under-powered Mitsubishi camper van we attempted to climb and ski 10 volcanoes. Although they are far apart we found that the variable weather, as well as the quality of snow are the key limiting factors to skiing more. For example it rained solidly for 10 days during our trip, and at other points the snow was too icy for the exposed skiing on some volcanoes we had penciled in to ski. I enjoyed every volcano we attempted but I will describe both the easiest and most rewarding peaks;
Chillan Nuevo and Chillan Viejo are the same volcano but represent different summit cones (as the name suggest the new and old cone!), both are over 3,000 metres. They are the first volcanoes you meet when you approach from the north and as a result the summit gives a stunning view across the transitional zone, an area where the High Andes merge into the lower peaks, punctuated by the sporadically spaced high cones of volcanoes in the south. The peaks are easily accessed from the superb ski resort of Nevados de Chillan. We hit this resort twice and both times we had deep fresh snow. Tree lines to steep bowls kept us fully entertained here, there are also some surprisingly scary off piste routes just from the lifts. To summit the volcano you can easily reach the defined cones of the two volcano after a 2 hour ski tour up from the top of the resort. From the right hand Chillan Viejo cone you can descend to the primeval Aguas Calientes. A remote steaming hot river carving a grand canyon through the 3 metre deep snow base. Where else in the world can you ski to a lonely river running at perfect bathing temperatures. We quickly undressed except for our feet, losing any remaning dignity by putting crampons on our boots to descend the deep snow banks, I was sure I could hear the black crows mocking us overhead! It is then a question of hopping across rocks to find a deep pool in order to relax and soak your aching muscles, this is one of those moments you think to yourself there is literally nowhere I would rather be! Before the thought of a 300m climb to get out of the valley stirs you back into action!
Antuco is another volcano that I would recommend, at 2979m it’s pretty high, but consider 1800m of that height is at a consistent 40 to 45 degree slope and it’s a much more serious but nevertheless vastly rewarding undertaking! There is a small ski resort at its base, located just before a huge lake that was created when the 18959 eruption dammed the entire river! The resort only opens at weekends so during the week, the tumbleweed blows and the odd dog barks into the wind, basically you’re on you’re own here! Well not quite we counted 14 giant condors circling in the same thermal.
Lonquimay is another highly recommended volcano, it again has a resort at the base with limited skiing options, but unlike Antuco it is much easier to climb, and it has notoriously good snow for a fun ski back down. There was a random kite boarding festival on when we arrived, a fun looking sport whizzing about the flat slopes with a kite, after discussing our aim for the day, the friendly organizers made sure we were well fed and then loaded us up with their event sponsors’ energy drink, lets just say we had wings, on what was a disturbingly buzzing ascent!
Volcano Villericca is the most popular volcano to summit in the whole of Chile. It is a textbook shape and comes complete with an intolerable sulphur belching, lava spitting crater. Despite this apparent knives edge of risk, the top can get pretty crowded up there. We started skiing uphill early on a Tuesday morning, and the crowds had already arrived, as we set off leaving a lonely track hrough 20cm of fresh snow that had fallen overnight. The lenga trees around the base were heavily laden and behind us the forested slopes had been lightly frosted with icing sugar. Most others on the way up were backpackers, stomping lethargically in large guided snow shoe groups. The effort required in this fresh snow meant that they had no real chance of summiting in time as they plodded upwards. As we rested a couple of locals overtook us and we sat down to admire a line of inexperienced climbers snaking up our track below. The snow transformed near the summit requiring crampons and ice axe to progress in safety. Then as we crested the crater edge the sulfurous fumes hit us, the back of your throat curses and a quick traverse upwind side was the only respite. After admiring the view between the whisps of broken cloud we headed back down with that added unavoidable smugness of skiing past scores of exhusted snow shoe walkers! The ski lifts here also offer some fun “rest” day skiing combined with the attraction of local town of Pucon which is a firm travellers favourite.
Lanin is the final volcano I will mention, sitting on the Chile/Argentina border it’s a serious undertaking, it needs two days to reach the 3747m summit via a refuge part way up. It is massively exposed and it is a long, normally icy ski back down, but the panoramic views are mind blowing. The sign at the top should say welcome to Lanin airways, it like flying, you feel suspended high above everything, clouds float by like a surreal dream, it feels like one needs a parachute rather than skis to get back down!
Patagonia is the final region for skiing, due to the vastness and wild nature we vowed to ditch the camper van and return to using buses. Logic would dictate that as you approach the extreme end of the continent and reach spitting distance of antartica you get the more snowy mountains you will encounter. However in winter many of the Chilean peaks are pretty much cut off and totally isolated, access is expensive, by air or sometimes by sea. The main trunk road south is on the Eastern Andes, in Argentinia. It is subsequently much drier here. THis is not the case in the west where it snows a colossal amount, it is this phenomenal amount of snow that makes Patagonia home to some of the last advancing glaciers on the entire planet. The problem with skiing here is both the access across vast glaciers and the relentless weather. In western Patagonia a perfect sunny day is as likely, as getting served a disappointing steak in Buenos Aires!
In the very northern reaches of Patagonia, lies the Lakes District and in Argentina the town of Bariloche. A delightful place built upon a tradition of making great chocolate, cakes, beer and also home to my favourite ski area. Cerro Catedral Ski Resort has the largest ski area and the most lifts in South America, as a result its varied and interesting slopes, make the resort feel closest to an European or North American ski resort. The off piste is fantastic defined by the large number of runs that all ow you to carve tracks down betwixt soaring granite spires that flank the numerous steep couloirs.
We visited Refugio Frey which is a staffed refuge, the eco friendly, hydro powered and cozy refuge is just a two hour ski tour out the back of the resort. Edgar the host makes cheap and awesome pizza’s and the atmosphere was always great in the evenings! Refugio Frey makes a great base to explore the surrounding area which has further potential for endless days skiing.
The biggest surprise for us on our trip was the lack of accessible snow in the far south of Patagonia. The famous Torres del Paine and Perito Moreno Los Glaciers national park in southern Patagonia are dry and surprisingly mild all winter. This area has to be one of the most scenic places on earth so snow or no snow it’s well worth a trip. We hiked the famous W circuit and camped each night under dazzling, clear starry skies all the while pretty much alone, this convinced that if you can beat the fickle weather, winter is by far the best time to visit. The summer is chaotic and requires planing of your trip weeks or months in advance. A winter hike among such outrageous natural beauty is blissful and the tourist free solitude in winter can be a life affirming experience. Unfortunately, true to it’s name the Torres del Paine inflicted a pain like no other during my visit. Mid way through our trek and at our furthest point from civilisation a outrageous tooth infection reared it’s ugly head. The only relief was swirling fresh ice cold water direct from some of the purest streams on earth. After two day it was becoming unbearable, the beauty of the surroundings failed to dull the agony or the towers of pain if you like. We finally after 3 days emerged onto a park road in the south and stumbled into the wardens admin office. We were kindly informed that there were no more buses today, we tried hitching but we only got as far as the park border. We finally reached the town of Punta Arenas the next day and stumbled into a dentist surgery. A quick X-Ray resulted in the dentist exclaiming “Oh F5%k” at least he speaks English, I took some solace in thinking. He quickly anesthetized me and proceeded to spend 1.5 hours performing a fairly horrendous root canal. Just €35 down and I was pain free! The 45 minute follow up in the UK, 3 weeks later cost me £400!
The search for snow in Patagonia continued with Mt Fitzroy. Based in the rapidly developing tourist frontier town of El Chaiten, this is another stunning and famous spot to visit in southern Patagonia. It is further north and seemed to have more skiing potential. The weather rolling in here from the Pacific is captivating, you can literally see it rising up over the mountains as it dumps snow on the 200 km long Southern Patagonian Icefield, it then rapidly evaporates obove the mountian peaks and before dissolving into blue sky above us.
We visited in October and we just a bit late for some fun looking ski touring options out of the valley. We did however manage a few turns on the well filled in glacier literally in the shadow of Mt Fitzroy, the vertical granite monolith towering high above us. Not the best snow of the trip but enough to satisfy our cravings. The route was accessed from Laguna de los Tres where the lake ice was melting and the snow line rapidly retreating. Despite not skiing again it is another fantastic spot just to hike in the quiet winter solitude.
So feeling totally exhausted after zigzagging our way between the best ski spots in South America, we caught a flight back north. Well the flight was after an unbelievably good steak diner in Buenos Aires. Honestly, I wish I never ate that meal, I just don’t bother eating steak anymore as can only disappoint me! We arrived back into Europe just in time to ski an early November snowfall in Cervinia, Italy, just 2 weeks after leaving Patagonia, the life of a ski addict continues….