Words by Greg Fitzsimmons
The plane’s wheels hit the tarmac with a sudden jolt. Santiago was caked beneath a viscous layer of smog and fog, hiding the Andes.
Despite rebar jutting from unfinished buildings, loud, pungent fish markets where Pescadores pedaled their daily catch, and stray dogs wandering the streets in search of scraps, I felt an uncanny familiarity with Santiago. Chileans greet visitors with interest and a warm welcome, eager to share their diverse country with foreigners.
I spent a few days exploring the cosmopolitan hub of Chile and the coastal towns nearby before heading up to Farellones, a neighboring town to La Parva and stumbled across a ska band rocking in a secluded warehouse of Santiago’s bohemian barrios and graffiti bedecked walls and storefronts, narrow stairways, and hilly neighborhoods of coastal Valpariso. I knew before ever seeing snow that an August ski trip south of the equator would prove to be worthwhile.
I schlepped heavy bags of skis and gear into the La Casa Roja shuttle after a few days exploring Santiago, and was eager to head up to the mountains for the season’s first stop of the Freeskiing World Tour in El Colorado, Chile. The shuttle honked and swerved through morning Santiago traffic and began to climb through the dry desert towards the mountains. Weaving along s-curve cutbacks, described by the Chilean driver as resembling the curves of Chile’s beautiful women, we ascended roughly 9,000 vertical feet to Farellones.
The hard-pack snow and thin base that people in Santiago alluded to was accurate, but the novelty of skiing in August overshadowed the sub-par conditions. Quickly, athletes began arriving and soon the slopes of El Colorado, Chile were filled with some of the best skiers from resorts across North America. Clad in bright colors and skiing on fat, rockered skis, the FWT athletes are a stark contrast to the majority of Chilean skiers riding t-bars and skiing groomers.
An eclectic mix of skiers made the trek down – students from CU Boulder who are racing back to Colorado for the beginning of classes on Monday, professional skiers that have been down in South America for weeks on their sponsors’ dime, quintessential ski bums who think the Blue Tambo Hostel’s modest accommodations are luxurious compared to the vans they’ve spent previous winters in. Across the board, though, everyone is psyched to be a part of the festivities. On the snow, athletes have been stomping lines in El Colorado’s red rock littered side country. A windlip booter was set up and it’s common to see skiers throwing laid out backflips and spinning big rotations before disappearing off the backside of El Colorado, into the Santa Theresa zone where the FWT competition will be held on August 20 and 21.
As more athletes arrive in the four surrounding towns – Farellones, El Colorado, La Parva, and Valle Nevado – more lines are appearing in the Max’s Face zone with athletes scoping potential lines and getting familiar with the terrain. Competitors are generally psyched on all of the options that the venue presents, and the overwhelming sentiment is that it this year’s North Face Chilean Freeskiing Championships promise a massive area for skiers like Julien Lopez, Griffin Post, Jaclyn Passo and Jess McMillan to showcase a variety of skills. “The venue is big and super long,” says Whistler-based Yu Sasaki who hails originally from Sapporo, Japan. “I have never skied in a comp with such a big face… There are lots of cliffbands, chutes, and open terrain; there’s a lot to play with. I don’t have my line picked out yet, but I’ll pick it out today. I have my camera with me and will be taking a lot of photos of the venue during inspection.”
“The more I ski it, the more I realize how big it really is,” adds FWT mainstay Ryan Hawks. “Usually it’s the opposite. As you spend time on a venue site and it starts shrinking, but we keep finding things down here. There is a lot to pick from.”
There’s been a lot of freeriding and drinking the last few days (Smirnoff and Mountain Sports International threw a kickoff party that gave competitors a chance to catch up after traveling), but things are amping up today. Registration and inspection are on tap, and things get underway tomorrow when people start dropping in for keeps at 10 AM sharp. What’s on the line with the upcoming event? $10,000 in prize money, the coveted Sickbird Belt Buckle, and a year’s worth of bragging rights.
Check www.freeskiingworldtour.com for live broadcasts of the event, and more updates on powder.com as things get going in El Colorado.