Despite a storied past, competitive freeskiing continues to push on in Chile. The exciting announcement was just made that there will be a four-star Freeride World Tour Qualifier event in Chile this summer. After extensive negotiations between the organizers and El Colorado ski area, permission was granted to return to the coveted terrain and snow of Santa Teresa.
Here, Drew Tabke, 2013 Freeride World Tour champion and part-time South American expat, tells his inside story of the Chilean competitive freeride history.
September 4th, 2009; Farellones, Chile. The floor of the Blue Tambo bar bounced so violently with the raucous crowd's celebration it seemed it might buckle and drop everyone into the basement at any moment. Despite his microphone, the event's MC, Frankie Alisuag, struggled to get a word out over the shouting mob. "CHOPO! CHOPO! CHOPO! CHOPO!" They chanted. Each time the revelry would seem to be winding down and Alisuag would attempt to continue with the awards ceremony, the melee erupted anew and would somehow, unbelievably, grow louder.
Eventually, though, awards were given and the reason for the celebration was formalized. Cristóbal "Chopo" Diaz, born and raised in Farellones, just a snowball's throw from the party, had won the inaugural Chilean Freeskiing Championships at La Parva. For anyone in attendance who saw the Chilean competitors' abilities and the passion on display at the prize giving, there was no doubt that the sport of freeskiing had found an enthusiastic home in the mountains of central Chile. But the battle to establish a formalized presence for the sport was only beginning.
The event at La Parva was made possible by the title sponsor—The North Face Chile—which, through cooperation with La Parva and MSI (the North American event production company behind the Freeskiing World Tour), planned and paid for the world-class event. It was the first of its kind in Chile and the first on the continent since Shane McConkey brought a ragtag group a freeskiers to Las Leñas, Argentina, for a one-time event 12 years previously.
The Freeskiing World Tour grew, and when the show returned to Chile the following year, the level stepped up even higher. The North Face Chile and MSI again lead the way, nailing down the Santa Teresa venue (dubbed Max's Face in honor of local snow-safety professional Max Barros) in the El Colorado backcountry. Despite low snow, the event was a huge success. In particular it was the competition venue that drew praise from organizers and competitors alike. Santa Teresa's wide breadth and virtually endless options of terrain, perfect southeast aspect, and expansive roadside finish area were just some of the qualities that lead event director Bryan Barlow to claim, "I've never been involved with a venue that's more perfect than Max's Face for freeskiing."
The following year, 2011, the momentum the Freeskiing World Tour had generated in Chile began to meet resistance. The intention was to return to the optimal setting of Santa Teresa, but uncooperativeness from the Lo Barnechea commune (the administrator of the road at the base of Santa Teresa) threw on the brakes. Adding weight to the situation, American snowboarder Aaron Robinson fell while riding on Santa Teresa during the early season, struck his head, and died. Struggling to find another host resort, organizers entered into a conversation with neighboring resort Valle Nevado, who ultimately pulled out of hosting the event at the last minute.
With but two weeks before dozens of Freeskiing World Tour competitors were to arrive in the country, an unlikely last-minute solution was hammered out. The event would be held at Ski Arpa, a cat-skiing operation just north of Santiago. The logistics were staggering. Mobile hospitals, helicopter rides for media, complex transportation to the remote base area, last minute lodging in the small city of Los Andes, and what amounted to a three day private rental of a cat skiing operation. For The North Face Chile, the cost of the event effectively tripled. Brand manager for The North Face in South America, Max Meza, explains. "We've always believed it is worth the investment to produce a freeride event every season in Chile and maintain the momentum we've built with the sport. As a brand we feel that the freeride category is one of the most authentic ways to validate our products and our athletes, and the landscape of Chile's mountains provides the ideal proving ground for the sport and for our gear." Despite the difficulties and cost, the event at Ski Arpa was a success and freeskiing's foothold in the country was maintained for the time being.
The following year it was Mother Nature, not bureaucracy, which stood in the way of the sport. Plans were solidified for a return to Ski Arpa for the 2012 event, but Chile's zona central was in the worst of its third consecutive year of winter drought. It had snowed but two or three times, and after agonizing contemplation, the event at Ski Arpa was cancelled due to lack of snow. But the organizers and sponsors were stubborn. Rather than lose momentum by letting a year lapse without a freeskiing event, last minute changes again took the whole production to an unforeseen location—this time deep in southern Chile. The North Face Down South Volcano Trip to Antillanca that ensued was akin to winning the ultimate Chilean ski vacation for the lucky registered athletes. Though there was no competition, the riders were treated to an extended weekend stay at Antillanca in Chile's Lakes District, with a focus on ski touring the area's surrounding backcountry terrain, a bottomless party supply, and wood-fired hot tubs in the beautiful base lodge.
With a ski industry that has historically focused on alpine racing, condos for wealthy Santiaguinos, and vacations for Brazilian tourists, the push in Chile to build more support for freeride, freestyle, and backcountry culture hasn't been easy. But thanks to a motivated and progressive group of organizers, athletes, and industry professionals both inside and outside the country, the sea change in the Chilean ski scene is obvious.
"Freeride in Chile is at an exciting place in its growth,” said The North Face Chile athletes and events manager Tomás Philipps. “I get to work with ski resorts and push for responsible access to more freeride-friendly terrain, something that hasn't been a priority for the resorts in the past. Being able to have Santa Teresa isn't just a victory for the competitors. It means there's a promising future for the entire sport."
Now all that's needed is a little help from the weather.
In 2014, Drew Tabke will be spending his seventh winter in Chile, where he coaches, guides, trains, and eats too much steak and chorizo. You can stay up to date on the Chilean winter at Chopo Diaz's website ChileNieve.com and find competition coverage at FreerideWorldTour.com.
Registration for The North Face Chilean Freeskiing Championship Aug. 7-11, ’13 event opens today at 2 p.m. MST on FreerideWorldTour.com.