PHOTOS: Adam Clark
Her name is Daniela. She wears four-inch heels and black leather. Her tight vest pronounces her cleavage. Her shoulders are covered with tattoos, while her scarlet lipstick contrasts her pale face and jet-black Latin hair. She pulses on stage as she sings rock 'n' roll. The Beatles. The Stones. The classics. The red walls of the standing room only Snow Pub are adorned with posters of local volcanoes and skis made during the FDR administration. Alejandro, the pub's middle-aged, dapper owner, continually fills the shot glasses glued to an old Bro Model, while a contingent of international skiers throw the shot-ski back in unison.
They have a lot to celebrate on this late August night—it had snowed violently for three days. The three-story hotel at the base of the ski area looks as if it is slowly being swallowed, snow on the roof curling to greet the snowbank covering the top floor windows. Densely packed cedar branches hold long, bushy moss and a foot of fresh. This is why we are here. The area regularly reports the most snowfall in South America, and we nailed it. When the snow finally let up, the sun popped for two clear days. The place is grandiose and vast; the volcanoes are part of the longest range in the world, after all. Skiing it has the natural wonder of being in Yellowstone, steam seeping out of pockets in the snow.
This isn't Portillo, the internationally-known resort where things happen on time. No, this is backwoods. The mountain is raw and unrefined, like most things are in the Andes. One hundred-plus kilometer per hour winds knock you off balance. Boogers come out dry and kind of bloody, and your ski jacket smells like a mix between second-hand Parliaments (from the bar) and rotten eggs (from the sulfur). One-chair visibility or heavy snow at lower elevations can keep skiers on their heels. Management issues will stop the royal blue bullwheel from spinning chairs past the bright tangerine lift towers. Nothing here comes easy.
Except maybe the snow. The first flakes fall as we gain elevation on our way up the hill through Pinto, the poor town littered with trash, abandoned buildings, thatched roofs and humping street dogs. Gauchos sit atop horse-driven carriages while skiers speed by in 4x4s. Further up the road is the village of Las Trancas, the best ski town in Chile. Hostels here entertain skiers from all over the map: Brazil, France, Sweden, Quebec, Bellingham. The Chil'In serves up Kunstmann beers and thin-crust pizzas, as good an après as anywhere. It's owned by a Frenchman, as is the aptly named Mission Impossible Lodge for the wheel-well crunching road to get there.
On the way out of Las Trancas, a series of open-air tiendas sell wools, herbs and various local knickknacks. Beyond the town, the road deteriorates. It's narrow, unpaved, and littered with potholes as it winds up the mountain. Later in the week, two wet slides will block its path. A month ago, an avalanche swept away a snowplow and killed its driver. If you make it past all that, you'll arrive at Nevados de Chillan.
The Otto is the longest chairlift in South America. It takes 21 minutes for the ancient double to run its 2,427-vertical-foot course. At the top, a handful of ski patrollers linger outside an old A-frame patrol shack. The chair accesses two peaks, endless sidecountry and everything inbounds. From here, some slap on skins and push for the volcano summits—others traverse either direction toward an endless swell of ridges and canyons. After a quick sidestep, Bryce Phillips sends the five-foot cornice. I try to follow as he works his way down the rolling valley wall, hitting wind lips and charging down a series of 45-degree pitches. Ultimately, he stops above an icefall and makes a nice slash above it before dropping in to a ribbon of powder and on to the valley floor.
Unfortunately, in our five days at the ski area, the Otto was only open to the top one day (it has a midway station). I had been warned about this. Even a representative of the Chilean Department of Tourism suggested I go somewhere else because of Nevados' struggles to open its chairlifts.
Perhaps part of the problem is that there isn't much demand for off-piste skiing. Sebastian Oyarzun, the self-proclaimed former second best skier in Chile, says he is one of about 10 local freeskiers in Nevados. Oyarzun is about six foot, five inches and adds 20 pounds to his large frame with thick dreadlocks he wraps up in a wool scarf. He skis Rossignol S7s and coaches the freeride team. Oyarzun says he wants to grow the next generation of Chilean freeriders.
Despite his linebacker size, the Chilean skis gracefully and on autopilot, taking flight on one wavy hip he's memorized from skiing here for 18 years, to another. As one-tenth of the local hardcore contingent, Oyarzun doesn't have much competition for fresh tracks. Part of the appeal of Nevados is that it is still a skiing frontier. While the chairlifts are old and unreliable and avalanche forecasting nonexistent, the skier can also traverse 10 minutes and ski long, steep, fresh lines through the afternoon.
Part of the backwoods feel here is a result of Nevados' inaccessibility compared to ski areas to the north that are just east of Santiago. It's a five-hour drive or train ride to the city of Chillan from Santiago, and another hour to the mountain (though Chillan is just two hours from Chile's second biggest city, Concepcion).
The ski area was founded in 1978 and is owned by the city of Chillan. In 2008, the original operators lost their concession to a water and waste management entity, which offered to invest more money than the previous group could match. After a controversial swap, the new operators changed the name from Termas de Chillan, but the old managers wouldn't let the new guys use the chairlifts they had constructed. While lawsuits ensued, the 8.8-magnitude earthquake of 2010 in Concepcion caused damage and longer delays to lifts. Dave "Gomez" Johnson, the owner of CASA Tours, lamented the loss of the Fresco lift, which accessed the two peaks and an area called Tres Marias.
"It has definitely been a step back lift wise, but things are finally happening," says Johnson. "It's been a frustrating process, knowing what the resort was like before, but the mountain has not changed. It's awesome terrain."
Nevados Marketing Manager Gonzalo Navarrete says they have invested $25 million into the area since it began leasing it from Chillan three years ago. While most of the money has gone to infrastructure improvements—new hotels and cafeterias—Navarrete says they have increased the capacity of two chairlifts and have added two more.
Still, many locals, like Ruben Reyes, the Chilean who is part owner of the grandiose Roca Negra Lodge, express dismay at how the new management has operated the area. Both the terrain park and cat-skiing operation from the top of Otto had been shut down for an extended time, the result of too much snow, says Navarrete.
"They don't know anything about skiing," says Reyes, whose lodge has a beautiful, hand-carved wooden staircase spiraling up a turret. "When chairs aren't opening, it's embarrassing."
Reyes, one of the top snowboard instructors in the country, used to operate the ski school and design the terrain park. Now, fed up with unreliable lifts, he prefers to take matters into his own hands. He's acquiring a fleet of snowmobiles, which he and his guests can ride about 6,000 feet from his lodge up toward the summit of the Volcan Nuevo at 10,452 feet.
After two days of heavy snowfall, and it continuing to snow hard, the only chairlift open is called Tata. It covers 426 vertical feet. We hike up just above the next idle chairlift to access a 200-foot pitch. It holds deep, faceshot pow, but it only lasts two turns before bottoming out to a cat track. Below, dark green parrots with red tails flit about while we poke around some low-angle trees with thick powder in an effort to get a couple of fresh turns before we have to shut it down ahead of the muddy embankment that drops 10 feet to the cat track. We are back in the hotel bar by 1:30, where we marvel at the snowfall and the Phil Collins concert on one of the televisions.
The Otto is as vital (and as unreliable) to Nevados as the Marte lift is to Las Leñas. But on the second day, Nevados opens the Wenche chair for the first time, opening up much of the mountain. From the top of the Wenche, skiers glide up on a T-bar that puts them high enough to traverse out to a south-facing ridge with big mountain lines and great tree skiing. The ridge features bowls, faces, spines, 10-foot cornices and 20-foot cliffbands. And there isn't a single track. Condors circle suspiciously as we traverse. Unsure of the stability of the snow, we stick to a low-angle ridgeline with deep, untracked powder. Our turns leave a 20-foot plume of cold smoke in our wake. A Chilean family with a 10 year old set the first lines on one of the steep faces, while two local skiers send it from the biggest cliffband, their landing causing a foot-deep fracture and applause from those on the Wenche.
In the trees, a rare feature for South American skiing, there are fresh lanes for everybody. Full of pillows, rocks, ice walls and snags, Phillips later likened the zone to his home mountain of Alpental, Washington. We watch Ingrid Backstrom hit a series of three pillows before splitting two tight trees and popping into a lane of powder for four untracked turns. Phillips hits a 15-footer with aplomb, before following his own corridor through the trees. There is no reason not to repeat this line all day. Nobody else is here.
The fourth day is nirvana. The skies part to reveal a two-headed volcano beast—the Volcan Nuevo and Volcan Viejo—and vast canyon after canyon of untracked skiing. Lower in the valley, the formidable Cerro el Gato and Cerro Las Piedras offer their own big mountain lines.
The chairs are already spinning by the time we get to the parking lot. Our truck is the second vehicle there. After a two-minute hike up from Otto, Phillips and I set the traverse just below the big, jagged red rocks of Cerro Pirigallo. The zone is like Mount Hood's Heather Canyon on H.G.H.—a sustained 40- to 45-degree pitch for a thousand feet. The snow is cold and soft, but wind effected, wavy and lunar. Phillips' first turn is a GS arc on his Pontoons. He makes half a dozen more before reaching the other side of the moon.
By the third run, we have company. Only about a dozen people make the traverse, and we can still ski anywhere without crossing any tracks all day. In the afternoon, we push out to the Pirigallo chutes, defined by peppery rock outcroppings, which create 45-degree lanes of 1,500 sustained vertical feet of creamy snow.
Our group catches last chair and mingles at the top of the chutes for a few hours, waiting for the sunset. Below us are Chilean military in fatigues learning how to ski. As the sun melts into the Andes, Backstrom skis along a cornice. A block the size of a Eurovan breaks off and barrels at photographer Adam Clark, while the impact causes a foot-deep fracture above him. He grabs his pack and skis away before he's swept into the boiling water below. It serves as a reminder that this place is an untamed frontier. We cruise the cat track back to the truck, the last vehicle in the lot, as dusk highlights the sliver of moon above the mountains.
Back at the Roca Negra, we bask in the glow of a big fire, and glory of a beautiful day. With snow and sun in the right order, it's been a perfect trip. We kick back for the first time and take in the luxury of the lodge. Phillips and I sip Johnnie Walker Red Label. I think irrationally because things have gone so well. I don't want anything to change, so I won't alter anything I've been doing. I wear the same long johns, same socks. I try to be a better human. I tip more generously, drink less, smile more. I don't know what it is, but we are doing something right. And we don't want the good fortune to end.
The next morning, another cloudless day, wind almost fills in our tracks. At 130 kilometers per hour, it definitively shuts down every lift above Tata. We decide to take matters into our own hands and hire a guide. We skin about 700 feet to the bottom of Valle Hermosa. Near the ridgeline, steam oozes from 10-foot wide holes in the snow. We take a quick dip in the hot springs, then climb 2,000 feet to the top of the valley. On the ridge, while the skin on our faces threatens to sail away with the wind, we take in the vastness of backcountry skiing right at the doorstep of the ski area. We see Aguas Calientes, the popular hot springs destination accessed by skiing a 3,000-foot ribbon. The options are endless, and we remain the only ones on the mountain.
When I drop in, the snow is buff, wind-effected powder, which made for big, sweeping, super-G turns. With the wind at my back, I slash up big playful walls, the fastest 1,500 feet of my life. I am giggling when I approach Backstrom at the bottom. Clark pulls up, laughing, and compares the run to a heli lap because of its size and emptiness.
At the Snow Pub in Las Trancas that night, the party rages on long after Daniela's encore. Sometime deep in the a.m., I catch a glimpse of our guide putting on a women's shirt at the bar. The gal next to him lounges in her bra. Later, our host from South America Ski gets punched in the face, receiving death threats from a mustachioed Chilean goon for dancing with the wrong mujer. The cute Swede, to whom I had made empty promises, leaves. It was time to go home. The walk back along the potholed road is crunchy, as the slushy snow from the afternoon had frozen over. I fall down a couple of times. I fall down again and lay there for a minute. In the middle of the road, I look up. The Southern Hemisphere stars shine bright and light up the vast mountain. Buzzed on Pisco and faceshots, I smile.
GENERAL INFO: To find the best snow, visit Chile in late-August to early-September. Since 1998, Casa Tours has been guiding skiers around Argentina and Chile. For more information, click-in to casatours.com or southeramericaski.com.
HOW TO GET THERE: Daily flights to Santiago or Concepcion; rent a car or take a train to Chillan. For lodging, try the Roca Negra Lodge in Las Trancas, rocanegralodge.com.
This story was originally published in the February 2012 (40.6) issue of POWDER.