A Shift in South America

In Chile, where avalanches were once largely ignored, a renaissance of snow safety is changing the minds of local backcountry skiers

Photo: Ingrid Backstrom skis into the light at Nevados De Chillan, Chile, where resort officials are changing their approach toward the backcountry. PHOTO: Adam Clark

MY FIRST TRIP TO THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE nearly ended before it really started. Skiing on the border of Argentina and Chile in 2008, I’d scoped a line that involved airing a 10-foot cornice that sat atop a 10-foot cliff and landing on a hanging snowfield above a raked cliff. It was a committing line, no doubt. However, after consulting with our guides, I felt confident in both the strength of the cornice and the stability of the slope below.

I hiked up, got as much speed as I could on the awkwardly flat in-run, and pointed it toward my landmark on the horizon line. I was several feet away from the edge of the cornice when the entire thing gave way, breaking off a van-sized chunk. Not good, I thought to myself as I flailed through the air along with a few thousand pounds of snow. As long as the slope holds, I should be alright.

More surprising than the actual avalanche was the group’s reaction to it.

But the slope did not hold. I landed with the remnants of the cornice and watched in horror as the entire snowfield spider-webbed in front of me. The avalanche swept me toward the cliff. I went under the snow. I lost a ski and clawed at the bed surface in an attempt to self-arrest. Moments before I reached the cliff edge, I found decent purchase with my remaining ski and stopped myself before the avalanche could take me over. Breathless and fully panicked, I did a quick self-assessment before one-skiing to the group below.

More surprising than the actual avalanche was the group’s reaction to it. Comprised of Argentines and Chileans, collectively the group said very little about snow conditions before the incident and very little after, as if the avalanche had never really happened. There was no discussion about stability, or of what would have happened had I not self arrested, no “I’m glad you’re okay” hug. Really, the only discussion was what we were going to do now that I only had one ski. While ultimately it was my bad call to ski that line, I was still bewildered by the group’s reaction to what still stands as one of my closest calls.

A friend’s encounter with an avalanche is a wake-up call to others. But I don’t believe that, in 2008, there had been as many avalanche-related tragedies that had hit close to home for South American skiers, which could in part explain the generally lax attitude toward snow safety. However, as backcountry skiing has gained popularity over the last several years in Chile, and as more safety gear—beacons, probes, and shovels—and education become available, with resorts like Nevados de Chillán even establishing backcountry gates, South America’s perception toward avalanches and snow safety is changing for the better.

The Andes encompass 1.3 million square miles of rugged backcountry terrain—and pow. Eliel Hindert takes his slice as La Parva, Chile. PHOTO: Adam Clark
The Andes encompass 1.3 million square miles of rugged backcountry terrain—and pow. Eliel Hindert takes his slice at La Parva, Chile. PHOTO: Adam Clark

SINCE 1906, NEARLY 63 PERCENT OF AVALANCHE FATALITIES IN CHILE (245 deaths) involved the mining industry, compared to only 11 percent in backcountry sports (44 deaths). Recently, however, that number has shifted. Over the past 15 years, there have been nine avalanche fatalities involving backcountry skiers and snowboarders, compared to only one in the mining industry, according to Rene Leon Gallardo, author of “Nieve Y Avalanchas, Una Blanca Historia de Riesgos en Montaña.”

“Ten years ago, you can see just a very few people in the mountains, because you could not buy equipment in Chile,” says Max Barros, 35, who lives in Los Andes, Chile. “Days after storms few people went off piste, not because of the risk, [because] it was ‘very difficult,’ wide skis were something strange.”

“The general attitude of most people is, ‘in Chile there are no avalanches,’ but the younger people have become more sensitive about it.” —Max Barros

Barros, who managed the safety of the Freesking World Tour in 2009 and 2010 and is now Vicepresidencia de Proyectos for CODELCO, a Chilean mining company, says he’s noticed an uptick in attention and interest toward backcountry snow safety over the last several years, particularly among the younger generation of skiers. “The general attitude of most people is, ‘in Chile there are no avalanches,’ but the younger people have become more sensitive about it,” says Barros, noting how the high-profile avalanche that killed JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson last year had a particularly strong effect on skier’s attitudes. Access to education and equipment, enabled through entities such as the South American Beacon Project, has also aided the movement. “There is a strong change in attitude toward education. In fact, AIARE has many courses (level I, II, III) in Chile and Argentina, making it possible for athletes and mountain professionals to get certified about avalanche risks. A few years ago, we would have to travel to the Northern Hemisphere to take a serious course like this.”

More resources are opening their doors to educate backcountry skiers in South America. PHOTO: Courtesy of Max Barros
More resources are opening their doors to educate backcountry skiers in South America. PHOTO: Max Barros

The shift is also happening at ski resorts, which are taking to open-boundary policies. While backcountry skiers historically represented a fringe of the skiing populous, South America now enough momentum behind the movement that resorts are devoting resources to help educate its more adventurous.

“We could not turn a blind eye to what was actually happening in our resort—a lot of people are skiing the backcountry and the freeride areas,” says Rodrigo Medina, Chillán’s director of marketing. “As a ski resort, we embrace the situation and we took the commitment to go further and start a strong education program for our customers. We want them to know before they go.”

In the classroom in Chile, before heading out to score the goods. PHOTO: Max Barros
In the classroom in Chile, before heading out to score the goods. PHOTO: Max Barros

Chillán has designated two zones, a freeride area within the resort’s tenure that is open and closed based on conditions, and a traditional backcountry zone that sits beyond the resort’s boundary. Backcountry users are encouraged to take a short class, after which they receive a unique, numbered bracelet that reflects their commitment to safety as well as pertinent medical information. “We think we need to approach the situation for what it really is. Our goal is to inspire our community and change the traditional approach to the backcountry,” says Medina.

While gear and resources are one thing, perhaps the largest and most difficult piece of the puzzle is the skiing community as a whole embracing and promoting the movement, with leaders, organizations, professional skiers, Chilean ski media, drawing attention to the issue.

The fundamentals, guys. Learn 'em. PHOTO: Max Barros
The fundamentals, guys. Learn ’em. PHOTO: Max Barros

“It is up to us, as ambassadors of the mountains, to share and promote the mountain culture that we’ve learned from the older generations as well as our travels to other countries,” says Sole Diaz, a Chilean professional skier. “We must keep bringing and sharing new knowledge so that all of us, as Chileans, can enjoy the more than 5,000 kilometers of mountains contained within our country.”

On a recent trip, on a ridge that served as a boundary between the resort and backcountry, I saw just such pride in action, an attitude that was noticeably absent seven years ago. As a group of locals prepared to drop in to a short backcountry hit–steep but not notably long–another group followed, without any backcountry gear. A short and animated exchange followed, and the group without packs turned around and headed back to the resort.

The grassroots movement seems to finally be taking root, with locals accepting and embracing their roles as ambassadors to the backcountry. While education and peer-to-peer self regulating isn’t as widespread as it is in other parts of the world, it does seem that Chilean’s attitudes toward avalanches are changing. The motivation comes from the individuals who are living, as Barros puts it: La pasion por la Cordillera de Los Andes.