Cops in the Chilean Backcountry

The evolving story of ski access and regulation in the mountains of Chile’s Zona Metropolitana

There goes the neighborhood. Some of the expansive backcountry terrain accessed from El Colorado's lifts. PHOTO: Tom Winter

There goes the neighborhood. Some of the expansive backcountry accessed from El Colorado’s lifts. PHOTO: Tom Winter

It was late July 2013 when Oscar Torres drove up the winding road to the Yerba Loca Natural Reserve, a deep, pristine valley surrounded by snowy peaks located just to the north of three of Chile's most popular ski areas—La Parva, El Colorado, and Valle Nevado. For a few seasons Torres (whose name has been changed for anonymity) had his eye on a line on Cerro El Manchón, a peak clearly seen from the ski areas and the nearby town of Farellones. There wasn't much snow, so Torres hiked up on foot to take some pictures of the chute for a future mission.

After an hour of reconnaissance Torres returned to his car and was about to head home when two motorcycle-mounted Chilean police officers, or Carabineros, who were on a routine patrol of the Yerba Loca road, noticed Torres' ski clothing and the skis on his roof rack. They pulled over and told Torres that he couldn't ski here. The order caught Torres by surprise. He had backcountry skied in the area for years and had never heard of such a rule.

The Carabineros responded with a firm answer, warning Torres that backcountry skiing in this area is not allowed and doing so can result in a substantial fine or arrest. Torres didn't argue and told the authorities he understood, and the Carabineros rode away on their motorcycles.

Yerba Loca Valley from the road.

Yerba Loca Valley from the road.

Torres is not the first skier to be confronted by the police in the Andes outside of Santiago. Ticketing backcountry skiers in the surrounding area has been on the rise in recent years, with almost all police activity focused around Santa Teresa, a vast backcountry area accessed from El Colorado. But Chile appears underequipped to handle the rising popularity of backcountry skiing. With a lack of defined boundary policies at the ski resorts, and no safety network of avalanche forecasting or rescue operations the responsibility for public safety falls in the hands of the police. Torres' encounter with the police, in a natural reserve far from the realm of the ski areas, signaled a broad change in how law enforcement is monitoring backcountry skiing.

Translation: Thanks for coming to backcountry ski in Chile. Now pay your fine and go home. PHOTO: Drew Tabke.

Translation: Thanks for coming to backcountry ski in Chile. Now pay your fine and go home. PHOTO: Drew Tabke.

Santa Teresa, cradle of backcountry skiing in Chile, offers skiers easy access to untracked, uncontrolled high-mountain terrain. From the lifts at El Colorado, skiers just have to duck under a rope and ignore the obvious sign stating "Area Closed—Do Not Pass" to access a 2000-foot pow run that ends at the road. From there, skiers shuttle cars or hitchhike to get back to El Colorado. People have skied Santa Teresa for as long as anyone can remember without police intervention. But several events and incidents in the last three years gave the area a much higher profile, and with that came increased law enforcement.

In 2010, the Chilean Freeskiing Championships, a Freeskiing World Tour event, used Santa Teresa as its venue, which turned an international spotlight on the relatively unknown backcountry haven. The event was slated to return the following year, but early in 2011, American snowboarder Aaron Robinson passed away after colliding with a rock when he was riding a line in the area. Though resort partners didn't acknowledge Robinson's accident as a reason, they nonetheless backed out of hosting the competition less than a month before the event's date, forcing the tour stop to relocate to Ski Arpa.

Read Drew Tabke’s story – Can’t Stop the Tide – on the history of big mountain freeskiing competitions in South America.

The Chilean Freeskiing Championships, all up in Santa Teresa.

The Chilean Freeskiing Championships, all up in Santa Teresa.

Ever since that first competition, police have sporadically issued tickets to skiers arriving at the road after a run down Santa Teresa. Guided groups with paying clients, Chilean locals who have been riding the area for much of their lives, and visiting foreigners skiing the area independently have all received tickets, each carrying a fine between $60-$200 USD. Even pickup trucks with backcountry skiers riding in the back—a telltale sign of riders returning from a Santa Teresa lap—are getting tickets.

The tickets cite Lo Barnechea Municipal Decree 2189, Article 66, which states that ski resorts can report skiers on their property to the police if they violate resort policies. But the ticket seems to go beyond that decree's jurisdiction. A written description on the ticket forbids "extreme ski/snowboard in an uncontrolled area."

Conflicting statements coming from police, local government representatives, and resort authorities make the law behind the tickets even more confusing. Ricardo Cuevas Carrasco, a local representative, says that ski areas have to notify the Carabineros to enforce the offense. But the ski resorts say they don't have anything to do with the tickets and the police claim they can act independently and give tickets to backcountry skiers at their own discretion.

"Our job is to ensure the public's safety. We don't need the resort to request our intervention to issue these tickets," says Lo Barnechea Police Sergeant Palavecino.

Powder to the People! Dana Flahr expressing his right to shred in Santa Teresa. PHOTO: Tom Winter

Powder to the People! Dana Flahr expressing his right to shred in Santa Teresa. PHOTO: Tom Winter

El Colorado management declined to comment on whether they asked the police to enforce their boundary. And neighboring Valle Nevado denied any involvement.

"The road belongs to the Chilean government," says Jose Luis-Varella, Valle Nevado's head of marketing. "We don't have anything to do with [skiers receiving tickets there.]"

The local courts are backing the police up. Along with a group of friends who were ticketed at Santa Teresa this year, photographer Jeremias Marinovic appealed his infraction. Though the fine was reduced, the judge upheld the ticket.
Frustrated backcountry skiers have their own opinions about the increased enforcement. Many believe the ski areas have a relationship with the police, but they deny it to distance themselves from negative publicity when accidents occur. Some say that El Colorado's security director was formerly a police officer and that he maintains ties with the local Carabineros. Another skier, Stefano Carlin, said the police were riding in a Valle Nevado pickup truck with personnel from that resort when he was ticketed.

This past August, the Chilean Freeskiing Championships returned to Santa Teresa. To secure permission, the event's sponsor and production company struck a deal with El Colorado and the Carabineros, guaranteeing substantial safety measures would be in place, including avalanche control, mountain guides, and medical personnel. But with attention refocused on the venue, police stepped up their enforcement in the weeks leading up to the event, giving more tickets than ever before, even to athletes who were training for the event, like eventual men's champion Jim Sorbé. And when the competition left town, the Carabineros resumed giving tickets, leaving local riders understandably outraged.

There is no law that directly prohibits backcountry skiing anywhere in Chile. But the Carabineros continue to view backcountry skiing as a public safety issue. The numbers of backcountry accidents are seemingly low compared to North America or Europe. But any single backcountry accident draws substantial media coverage.

The draw of Santa T's terrain is written in snow. PHOTO: Tom Winter

The draw of Santa T’s terrain is written in snow. PHOTO: Tom Winter

On June 29, 27-year-old Ismael Sánchez Undurraga died in a remote backcountry zone behind Valle Nevado. The accident drew wide coverage in the national news media. Sergeant Palavecino says the Carabineros want to dissuade the practice of backcountry skiing to prevent incidents like Undurraga's.

Now, the police are spreading their enforcement to the deeper reaches of the mountains, explaining Torres' encounter with the police in Yerba Loca. But whether they can or will write a ticket is unclear. Sergeant Palavecino says that ski mountaineering in places like Yerba Loca is not prohibited, but skiers must register with local police before heading out.

Police intervention understandably frustrates skiers who have long enjoyed unregulated use of Santa Teresa and other backcountry zones. But a heightened focus on backcountry skiing may be a good thing. Support for backcountry skiers is sorely lacking in Chile considering how many riders are venturing out of bounds. There is no type of avalanche service, mountain weather forecasting, or dedicated mountain rescue. Most ski patrollers in Chile lack basic avalanche training or equipment. And of the three ski resorts in the area, La Parva is the only one equipped or trained to throw bombs for avalanche control.

The situation is the result of growing pains reflecting a changing skier demographic in Chile. Until the local ski areas and municipality can arrive at a clear-cut policy towards backcountry skiing and establish backcountry safety protocols, both near the resort boundaries and beyond, backcountry users will have to either risk paying a fine for their fresh tracks, or be forced to explore the other 3,000 miles of untamed, snow-covered wilderness contained in the Andes not subject to police patrol.