By Ryan Dunfee
BARILOCHE, Argentina -- Catedral may be the only ski resort in the world where walking around the base area with ski gear feels awkward. The majority of the mountain--from restaurants and chairlifts to the rental shops selling butt sleds for 35 pesos--is designed for the peatones, the grupos. On the walk from our hotel to Tage for a morning café Americano and tostado completo, lines of orange and blue branded buses nearly knock you off the road and the proceed to unload mobs of porteños from Buenos Aires or Brazilians fresh out of the airport from Rio.
For the uninitiated, this exodus of South Americans from more tropical or urban locales is bewildering. But the grupos are the life line for Bariloche's tourist industry--mobs of high school seniors looking to bang each other and gel their mullets, or chartered planes packed full of Brazilians here for one reason: To see snow for the first time. While we're all used to the cousin from Florida who comes from Christmas that one year and marvels at throwing a snowball for the first time, the Disneyland scale of this industry in Bariloche, based entirely on looking at and standing on snow, is astounding. Entire hotels are owned and branded by one group, with TravelRock, MaxxDream, and Upgrade owning the majority of the market share. Hundreds of people from Rio waddle around the base area in matching head-to-toe branded snowpants, jackets, boots, and backpacks, never before having needed snow gear at any point in their lives. Group travel has never really been a big thing in the States, and you can be sure the average yanqui would scoff at donning a matching one-piece along with seventy other morons to do anything (other than join a cult).
As you continue from Tage onto the lifts, you pass another set of grupos circled around a particularly charismatic leader yelling through a megaphone as they jump up and down and sing chants to the tune of club music. On the thin veil of snow covering the beginner slopes on the bottom pitch, a blueberry-clad group is encouraged to run and attempt to slide on the snow. One hits a patch of dirt and nearly slams her face into the ground due to deceleration rapido; another few simply drop flat; and another lucky few slide a couple of yards. Elsewhere, small inclines result in orange-clad lemurs falling on their asses one after another and laughing unstoppably for minutes on end. As you descend the cat track after a day up high, you're constantly heckled by cat-calling high schoolers on the lifts above who easily pick out the gringo yanquis with their big skis and backpacks.
While chairlifts connect restaurants to restaurants, creep at a walking speed so the peatones don't fall over, and make accessing the goods a project in adventure skiing compared to the straight-to-it access you get off the Jackson Tram, the goods here are plenty, empty, and without a flock of orange one-pieces in sight. While Catedral is making a stronger effort to market to freeriders, the mountain experience is completely bipolar: Ride lifts with Argentines or Brazilians who ask you how much better the skiing is in the States, then dropping into the trees or off the piste into knee-deep vacuums of terrain without a rental binding around. Fallen trees laden with coastal snow beg to be pillow-dropped or bonked, and peaky slabs of granite stick out of the faces of scrabble up top, begging to be dropped, slayed, and slashed. Forests of trees covered in eerie green moss hide in the whiteouts, sitting low, open-spaced, and perfectly pitched. For those visitors feeling a little too lonely in all this perfect terrain, there's always the grupos, happy to take in anyone who likes to dance and knows how to wear a mullet.