Snow Report: South America

Varied conditions have Andes resorts hoping for an El Niño-driven megawinter

As summer blazes on across the planet's northern latitudes, things are just cooling off throughout the southern half of the globe. The Andes Mountains in Chile and Argentina offer myriad skiing possibilities for those looking to keep the shred alive through the summer months. Despite a slow start to winter snowfall, much of the continent seems to be entering a more active weather pattern as peak season approaches.

Valle Nevado. Thin base, fun as hell anyway. PHOTO:  Valle Nevado

Valle Nevado. Thin base, fun as hell anyway. PHOTO: Valle Nevado

The 2015 ski season in South America got off to a worrying start. Cold May and June storms that typically paint the cordillera white during the region's autumnal months were notably absent. The Santiago region, and the rest of Central Chile in particular, have been desperate for precipitation--2015 has so far been one of the driest years in the last 150, and this section of the country has been in a severe drought for four years and counting.

However, promising signs of improvement abound. A historically powerful El Niño establishing itself over the Pacific Ocean has many observers claiming that a substantial shift in weather patterns is on the way. The second week of July saw the region walloped by a substantial winter storm, bringing nearly a meter of snow to the ski areas above Santiago, Valle Nevado, El Colorado, and La Parva. The resorts virtually went from closed to 100 percent open in the space of one week. Even more snow fell on Portillo, which is now reporting a base depth of around 75cm.

Ski Arpa, the unique cat-skiing operation near the highway to Portillo, is just shy of opening operations pending additional snowfall. Despite the exciting opening salvo, winter retreated again leaving high temperatures in its wake. Though these resorts are all open, a very thin base exists, making off-piste skiing difficult or impossible. Local heli ops can access the higher, snowier reaches of the range's interior, and are reporting much better conditions. With moderate snowfall now forecasted for the first week of August, chances are fair that the tentative base will get the strengthening boost it needs.

Elsewhere in the Andes, things are looking decidedly better. Nevados de Chillán, an easy five-hour drive south of Santiago, also got off to a late start for snowfall but now has more than a meter of base depth, and 100 percent of pistes and lifts open. More and more visiting skiers have been favoring Nevados de Chillán in recent seasons for the more consistent snowfall, fun lift- and hike-accessed terrain, and its plethora of natural hot springs. The tradeoff being occasionally wet storms due the center's lower elevation. "We're blessed with a geographical position that receives a lot of snow constantly," said Nevados de Chillán's head of marketing, Rodrigo Medina.

Nevados de Chillán ski area. Always a good bet. PHOTO: Claudio Vicuña

Nevados de Chillán ski area. Always a good bet. PHOTO: Claudio Vicuña

Still farther south in Chile, resorts have fared even better with snowfall. Corralco, near Lonquimay, was the first Chilean resort to open for the 2015 season. The tiny-but-beautiful volcano resort of Ski Pucón will unfortunately have all lift installations closed for the 2015 season due to an eruption on its summit this past March. But locals are reporting more snow there than anywhere else in the country, and ski touring conditions are excellent.

David Owen, owner of PowderQuest, one of the foremost ski tour operations in the Andes, makes his seasonal home in the Pucón area. "As our Pucón trips are all ski touring based, the center's closure didn't affect any of our programs," he explained. "Though the lifts won't be open, the area has become somewhat of a backcountry playground full of local ski tourers and snowmobiles. Sort of a free-for-all, cowboy-style scene on a smoking volcano. Despite the international news making the eruption look like a terrible tragedy, the only tragedy is the huge drop in tourism to the town that pretty much depends on visitors for their livelihood during this time of year."

Pucón. Lifts closed, conditions epic. PHOTO:  ChileNieve, Mateo Barrenengoa

Pucón. Lifts closed, conditions epic. PHOTO: ChileNieve, Mateo Barrenengoa

Resorts even farther south, such as Antillanca (Puerto Montt), El Fraile (Coyhaique), and Cerro Mirador (Punta Arenas) also have seen a strong winter so far, with more precipitation in the forecast. Though visitors to these distant regions should be most concerned with freezing levels and the ubiquitous Patagonian wind when making travel plans.

In Argentina, conditions have developed in a pattern similar to Chile according to each resort's latitude. Legendary ski resort Las Leñas has already seen a few substantial snowfalls and excellent skiing conditions are being reported. The resort's famed Marte chairlift, the key to accessing the big terrain off the top of the area, opened for business on the last weekend of July. According to local ski instructor Multi Gonzales, conditions at the resort are currently the best they have been in several years.

The mythical Las Leñas. PHOTO: Multi Gonzales

The mythical Las Leñas. PHOTO: Multi Gonzales

The southern small resorts of Caviahue and Chapelco were hit with massive snowfall when the big mid-July storm rolled across the Andes, setting up a strong base. However, recent warm temperatures brought rainfall during the last week of July that diminished the snowpack. Still, a strong base is in place with storms in the forecast. Freezing levels will be the deciding factor for ski conditions there in the coming weeks.

The breathtakingly beautiful lakeside town of Bariloche is the main travel hub to Northern Patagonia, and ski resorts such as Catedral Alta Patagonia and Cerro Bayo can offer excellent skiing when temperatures drop. The area is coming off a run of difficult seasons, with the eruption of Chile's Puyehue Volcano covering much of the area in ash in 2011, and warm and dry winters in the years since. This year the pattern appears to have changed some, and the region has received multiple notable snowstorms. According to local pro skier Niki Salençon, the big storm in mid-July was the biggest snowfall in the area since 2007. "All signs point to a good season here with 50 centimeters of base at the resort bottom and nearly two meters up top," says Salençon. Some rainfall diminished the base slightly, but if temperatures stay low, the area could be one of the continent's best bets.

A webcam capture from Catedral, Bariloche on July 27, 2015. PHOTO: Catedral Alta Patagonia

A webcam capture from Catedral, Bariloche on July 27, 2015. PHOTO: Catedral Alta Patagonia

Small resorts dot the vast expanse of Patagonia before finally arriving to Tierra del Fuego and Cerro Castor, Ushaia's resort at the end of the continent. Cerro Castor is the southernmost ski resort in the world. The area's website currently reports an 80-centimeter snowpack at the base with more than a meter up top, a respectable amount considering the base is only 700 feet above sea level.

In summary, the southern resorts are looking like an excellent bet for this season in South America, though freezing levels and winds (and the occasional volcanic eruption) always have the final say. And though the high resorts of central Chile adjacent to Santiago currently lack base depth, the pistes are in fine shape. The heli skiing is great if you can afford it, and it only takes one or two Andean winter storms to turn the backcountry back on. Stay tuned for more updates as the season progresses.