The province of Formosa in northern Argentina is a mixed landscape of subtropical forest and desert. It's not a place that breeds legendary skiers. So Gabriel "Chimango" Martinez is fortunate that his family packed up and moved to the ski town of San Carlos de Bariloche when he was five years old.
Cradled in the bosom of the Andes, Chimango forged a life dedicated to the mountains. His roots as a ski instructor eventually translated into a powerful lust for riding fuera de piste (off-piste) and exploring the vast range led him to try his hand at bigger lines and more challenging terrain. In 1993, Chimango developed an idea to unite skiers from across the country. And that's how Free Ride Argentina (FRA) was born.
Through his organization, Chimango brought talented skiers from across Argentina together with the premise of evolving the sport. Free Ride Argentina helped attract freeskiing competitions and major ski manufacturers to South America. The group nurtured prominent Argentine skiers like Mauri Cambilla and Tomas Blanc and it trained locals to become coaches. People noticed the movement and it began to gain momentum, and soon freeskiing became a recognized discipline in the Argentinean ski market.
Today, Chimango's legacy in skiing in Argentina is that of a leader, organizer, mentor, entrepreneur, father, and friend. Twenty years since he founded Free Ride Argentina, I sat down with Chimango over a few après-ski cervezas to see what he's been up to. We spoke in Castellano, a Spanish dialect spoken in Argentina. But here's the translated version:
POWDER: What does your nickname "Chimango" mean?
Chimango: It is a bird native to Patagonia. Kind of like a hawk or falcon.
Why do you choose to stay in Bariloche, and base your business and skiing here?
The town provides quick access to the mountains and the variety of terrain and challenging conditions make a great training ground. The snow changes quickly and it forces you to become a better skier.
What's the freeskiing community like in Bariloche?
It has grown very rapidly. When I first approached people (in the local ski industry) I told them that freeride was the future. They didn't believe me. But now, more than 20 percent of the skiers on the mountain fall into that category. The ability to obtain gear from foreign manufactures also played a big part in growing the scene. No one thought fat skis would catch on, but all freeriders here have something similar. Last year, Red Bull even held a competition in Bariloche called Beyond The Line. It was a huge success and I was able to participate in the process and be the M.C.
You own a ski school at the local ski resort of Cerro Catedral-Alta Patagonia. How has owning a business helped you advance the Freeride community in Argentina?
Now I have an outlet for my creativity in a public venue. Talking with Paula Gomez, the general manager of Cerro Catedral-Alta Patgonia, we were able to develop a ski ambassador program. The team of freeriders, some of whom are talented photographers and videographers, produce content that the mountain can use for its marketing and promotion. Paula believed in us and we have progressed the state of freeride in Argentina. She listens to our suggestions and it benefits the resort and us. Having this opportunity also helps us show young riders that there is a future in the sport beyond just ski racing.
You are a very busy man. How do you balance your professional life and your ski life?
Improvisation. It's just like freeride. Decision points come at you very quickly and you have to make a choice. Do I send this cliff, or go around? Do I partner with these people, or create some other opportunity. You cannot hesitate or you will fail. I owe my life to freeride. Without it, I wouldn't have my daughters, my car, or my business.
What else would you like to say about skiing here?
South America is a place to expand your horizons, both as a person and a skier. The snow is different, the culture is different, and the experience is unforgettable.