“Just because you wear contacts doesn’t mean you can see.” —Garrett Russell
By Ryan Dunfee
BARILOCHE, Argentina — Garrett Russell has been coming to Argentina for seven years now. After being randomly invited to Las Leñas, in 2004, to coach for some tiny ski program called SGT, Garrett ran into Skylar Holgate, a Silverton guide and longtime friend. (Disclosure: The writer, Ryan Dunfee, is employed by SGT.) Both Garrett and Skylar have been returning to guide skiers and riders in Las Leñas and, now Bariloche, ever since.
I recently caught up with Skylar and Garrett—Garrett is returning to skiing after taking the 2010-11 season off in order to have knee surgery—to talk about the early days of SASS at Las Leñas and what has changed since then.
On returning to Telluride after having knee surgery:
Returning to my roots is what it felt like. Telluride is a sacred place for me; the skiing that goes off down there, it doesn’t matter how good of a skier you are, or fears you don’t have. I saw so many people ski lines that I’d been looking at for years. You’d see these people ski it and just think, “They have no concern for their family.” But I can’t say that; like watching my brother ski the Heaven 11’s. It was like people ski it because they can. It doesn’t matter how good of a skier you are—it just matters how you perceive fear. He [Chason Russell] conquers sh*t… He’s like a person that doesn’t do it for fame or money. He’s one of those people who does it because it calls them, it beckons them; a rare breed of people for whom the mountain is asking them, begging them, to come shred.
I feel like I have a new knee, like a gift. I am so humble now, I have so much respect for those people that take a winter off with an injury. It was the most tortuous experience, not being able to ski, but I built that grave for myself, we all did—we all love skiing. It’s an addiction. Once you get to see the light of skiing, of putting 110-percent into it, it consumes your soul.
I feel like I’m skiing more cautiously. Why wouldn’t you not? When it comes down to speed, you can ski as fast as you want, you can ski as out-of-control or not as you want, but when it comes down to it… When are we really in control?
I like skiing slow—in the moment. My favorite thing, even with my friends, is to watch them ski their line all fast; I get to watch what they miss. There are pillows, there are steeps. When you’re going fast, you look through life.
About meeting that first year at SASS:
SKYLAR HOLGATE: We knew each other from Telluride. We didn’t even talk.
Garrett: I saw you [Skylar] at Hostel Damajuana. There were probably 300 hostels in Mendoza, and randomly I choose this one. I walk to the little apartment by the pool and I see these people with snowboard bags and I’m like “Yo! Have you guys been to Las Lenas?” Skylar looks up: “Garrett? What the f**k?!” That couldn’t have gone any better.
I remember sitting there, fresh off the bus, 18 years old, asking, “Do you guys know these people, mi amigo Skylar?” Two minutes later someone was like, “Yeah, are you with SASS?” Me and Skylar didn’t even have to coach that first year. We just lived in Corbus Cuatro and we were the stoke factor. We would ski the gnarliest sh*t after telling the coaches where they should go ski for the day.
Skylar: We would go ski the nastiest lines and show up for dinner and just stoke kids out. Because everything in Las Leñas is just right in your face, so we’d be like, “You see the pinner couloir that goes for 3,000 feet then you gotta rappel off that cliff?” And their eyes would just open up looking at it. And that was our work everyday—the stoke factor at dinner. We’d tell the coaches where to go ski for the day and then they’d just be watching from the chairlift as we opened up lines on the South Wall.
Garrett: We learned something super important about getting fresh tracks in Leñas. Everyone would party super hard and super late, so we’d après-ski like pros, pass out around 10, wake up at 8 and be the first people on the chairs.
Skylar: We used to come home, eat dinner, and as soon as we ate dinner, everyone would go to sleep. Then we would get woken up at 1:30 in the morning, and literally we’d get up like it was our job—get up, shower, go to the club, party till like seven in the morning, but we’d already slept for 6 hours. We’d come back, sleep another two hours, and get up and go skiing. It was like a job.
I remember going up Marte and watching Garrett skiing with Madeline Latapie, one of our first campers, on the South Wall. Madeline was 14 years old, with tiny skis, and the snow was deep. And at that time I was living with Dan Treadway, Hugo Harrison, Bryce Phillips, Phil Meyer—a heavy hitter skier crew. They’re coming screaming down, straight-lining 2,000-foot couloirs. I’m watching guys tomahawking down this chute, and then we got little Madeline mid-pack on these pink skis that were literally 140s and Garrett trying to coach this poor girl down the mountain. I’m watching people hauling out of Frankie’s on 198 B-Squads at like 70 mph, and there’s this little blonde girl from the East Coast packing it down in neck-deep powder.
But look at those kids, they’re all back here now. We were getting testimonials from parents saying, “My kid left a 15-year-old and came back a mature 20-year-old.” They learned how to be cool real quick.
On running SASS in South America:
Skylar: It’s taken years of trial-and-error to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in this country. You know, you can do stuff at Mt. Hood, Whistler, no problem, but here, you just can’t. From chairlifts to lunches to tickets to where the hell kids were going to sleep, it took years to figure it all out.
I’d have to bring down all the avi gear and having the crew take turns with it. James Heim would take a crew on the lower mountain, and the other group would be up top doing Marte laps with beacon, shovel, probe, and then they’d swap out gear and those guys would go up, and that’s just how we’d roll. There was no Argentines, not even ski patrol, with beacons back then. Everything you see now here in Bariloche—people with beacons, backcountry safety education, avalanche forecasting, backcountry jumps—was learned from SASS. When we showed up, every large avalanche pretty much killed one or several people. And this was a major resort. Now you can see how much it’s changed since we’ve been here.
On moving SASS from Las Leñas to Bariloche:
Garrett: Bariloche is better for running a camp because you can ski everyday. At Las Leñas, the base is in the alpine and everything else is above it. Even if isn’t snowing, maybe the clouds are low, it’s foggy, it’s windy, and the mountain’s closed. The whole reason for Mauri [Cambilla] bringing us here is because the lifts run pretty much seven-days-a-week.
One the history at Las Leñas:
Skylar: 1.7 million acres is all they own—basically all the way to Chile. Some of the richest mineral rights in the world because it’s basically an old ocean that’s been pushed up to 12,000 feet.
Garrett: And Las Leñas is the start of the Incan Trail… or at least that’s the rumor. And we were staying in the Pisces. All the hotels were named after astrological symbols. So the Pisces was supposed to be in the shape of a star, and under the fifth star they found a native American burial ground. And everyone who started digging and working on that fifth point died. So they never finished it. Las Leñas is one special place, one of the most magical places I know.
Skylar: All the buildings are big triangles, so when it snows 20 feet, the first floor just gets buried and you walk in the second floor. Or if that one gets buried, you walk in the third floor.
Garrett: You’re one ridge away from where that plane crashed and the people ate each other, and they made that movie, Alive. It’s like a days walk from Las Leñas.
Skylar: They walked towards Chile, which is like 200 miles of mountains—the biggest of the Andes mountains—and they never got high enough to see that the other direction was a desert. The survivors come every year to do a talk because it’s so close to the crash site. I’ve had guides point out where they crashed from the top of runs. Either way, there’s a 7,000-foot vert couloir off the top of it.
On the scene in Las Leñas:
Skylar: At Leñas, you have all the hotels, two clubs, and one bar, and that’s it. There’s nothing to do there but drink (if you can’t ski). It’s like being in Alaska. It’s a real tight community, everyone is homies and they’re some of my best friends, but at some point you see the same couple hundred people everyday for months on end… it’s like being in the Twilight Zone. It’s a quarter the size of the Bariloche village, and that’s where everyone is the whole season.
You have all these film crews there trying to get shots for two weeks, and they get to this little base area and the mountains are so massive, and go out for so long, everyone just does the same enclosed, standard-procedure, in your face runs. But that’s Lenas – for accessibility, it’s ridiculous and you can get into the craziest terrain with almost no effort. It’s lazy-man big mountain skiing.
There are some amazing, amazing mountains. But there are some lines that are 9 hour, 10 hour hikes to get to them. Las Leñas is accessibility. And no matter where you go, you could go out for two days walking and drop some 9,000 foot couloir, and it all drains down to Las Leñas—you can ski 5,000 vert right down to the bar.