You know you're almost there when you feel lost. You've driven north on the smooth toll roads outside of Santiago and past the vineyards. You've navigated the narrow streets of Los Andes, dodging carts pulled by donkeys and amazed at the variety of goods crammed into tiny streetside mercados. You've passed the high pink walls of Casa San Regis, an 18th century hacienda. You've swerved to avoid stray dogs in El Cobre. And now, as the pavement has petered out and you're bouncing along a skinny dirt track, passing humble dwellings and fields pocked with cactus, you feel lost. But in reality, you're closer than ever. And when you see the faded white metal sign with the Ski Arpa logo and an arrow sending you to the right at the fork in the road, you know you're going to make it.
The unforgiving and complex road to Arpa is a metaphor for this Chilean cat skiing destination. Nothing has come easy for the owner, Toni Sponar. And despite the fact that a second generation of Sponars is now helping to carry the load (son Anton acts as head guide and is beginning to take over operations and management), the challenges of running a snowcat operation at the end of the line in a massive Andean valley with hardly any infrastructure and a complete lack of a population base that skis in the closest urban area, Los Andes, remain.
Sure, Arpa has started to gain international notoriety for the quality of the experience it offers, but it's still a pretty basic operation. Perhaps it's the location, or because the place is all about no frills skiing, or maybe it is Toni himself, but regardless, the Arpa experience deeply resonates with every bootstrapping ski bum who has been lucky enough to visit.
One of these bums happened to be Tom Winter. Winter, who admittedly is no longer a bum having graduated from cooking fries to a variety of high-visibility positions in the ski industry, including his current job as vice president of marketing for Liberty Skis, made his first visit to Arpa a decade ago.
"I was really impressed with the place," he recalls. "It was so simple, so pure and the skiing was insanely good."
"I spent a lot of time talking to Toni during my first visit, and the ordeals and challenges that he faced when getting Arpa up and running, and the complexities of trying to do business in Chile really resonated with me," he says. "Here's a guy who is doing a lot with very little and he's doing it out of pure passion. He's created something wonderful and amazing for skiers and it was obvious to me that I had an obligation to share his story and support what he was doing any way that I could."
At the time, Winter was a ski journalist and photographer and so the first thing he did was start to spread the Arpa story via his media channels. He wasn't the only one. Derek Taylor, editor of POWDER at the time, also visited and wrote about the valley, calling Arpa a "must hit for any hardcore skier." Then, in the summer of 2011, Arpa hosted the Chilean Freeskiing Championships as part of the Freeskiing World Tour, which brought a cross-section of the entire international ski community up its windy access road.
The media exposure that Arpa has enjoyed has definitely put the operation on the map. "It's been great that the ski media community has supported Arpa and that definitely has brought more people to the cat operation," says Winter. "But I've always felt that I could do more. I've seen special places like Colorado's Berthoud Pass ski area close and it would be tragic for the skiing community to lose a place like Arpa. Spots like these are really important for skiing."
The opportunity to do more came after Winter accepted his position with Colorado-based Liberty Skis.
"We run a lot of demos throughout the year, and usually we end up selling our demo fleet locally in the Vail area at the start of the next season," says Winter. "But as anyone in the industry knows, demos and rentals can be incredibly valuable to a resort's bottom line. Arpa didn't have a demo program, and our skis were sitting around all summer gathering dust. It was obvious to me that the fleet could be put to better use."
The result is the first ever demo fleet for Arpa. "It's great to have these skis on hand for clients," says Anton Sponar. "We're really excited to be working with Liberty. They have great product, they're supporting our guides and even Toni is on the skis. It's really cool."
The key, says Winter, is creating yet another revenue stream for Arpa, a place where every penny counts.
"Sure, we benefit from the relationship," he says. "People get to try our products and we get some visibility and some cat time, but demo programs are real money makers. Helping Arpa get set up with a rental fleet means that they now have an additional revenue source. And that's a very satisfying thing for me, because as a start up, Liberty has faced many of the same challenges that Toni has. But Toni has done this in Chile, where it is infinitely tougher to get things done."
For this season, Arpa will offer Liberty's Helix, Double Helix and Envy Powder to clients. "It's a good mix of skis," says Anton Sponar. "We get a fair amount of people up here with equipment that's not quite right for our big-mountain terrain and our snow conditions, so getting them on something fatter with rocker will help them really enjoy their day."
"I'm really exited about the partnership," adds Winter. "It's an honor and a privilege for me to be able to work with the Sponars. They're doing this for the love of the sport and they're great people. Who wouldn't want to support Arpa?"
For more info on Ski Arpa Cat Skiing, go here.