Endless Summer of Skiing? In Chile, Yes.
Sunday, June 29, 2003
Tumbling through the Chilean air like a pine cone in a tornado, I was a little worried: I was farther from the ground than I had planned, without the skis that seconds earlier had been clamped to my boots, and was upside down, a position that often leads others to remark, "Look at that idiot," and later, "Dearly beloved . . ."
At least I knew I wouldn't hit a tree. I was skiing at La Parva, a Chilean resort about 33 miles east of, and 6,000 feet above, Santiago that rises from 8,400 feet to 11,975 feet and is entirely above the tree line. I also had an excellent chance of landing softly, because a late August storm had dropped a 14-inch quilt of snow throughout much of the Chilean Andes.
La Parva is interconnected to two other resorts, Valle Nevado and El Colorado, both also above the tree line. Combined, the three mountains offer 43 lifts, 26,440 acres and 70 miles of trails, the largest skiable area in the Southern Hemisphere and more than four times the acreage of Vail. Nothing in the United States can compare to such a vast expanse of treeless slopes. At times, these huge fields of uninterrupted snow are wonderful: You can rip turns with abandon, secure that you can recover from small errors without smacking into immovable objects.
But the unremitting whiteness can also deceive -- which is how I ended up vaulting through the Southern Hemisphere.
I was carving off the Las Vegas poma lift, nearing a jump that had looked perfectly exploitable from 90 yards away. I had figured on hitting it fast to maximize air time for me, and entertainment for my friends (including my fiancee, Cathleen, and her sister and brother-in-law, Christina and Ed).
But as I neared the jump, I saw not the two-foot kicker I had perceived from above but a gully that ramped into a 10-foot vertical wall. The ski tracks on the ramp were from people who had skied down the face, from the other side. I was approaching the project from the wrong direction. But I was committed. Women were watching, for God's sake.
I hit the wall. My legs compressed. My skis released from the impact and I flew almost straight up. A moment later one of my skis floated surreally past my face, its label boldly readable in my field of vision.
The rap on Chilean skiing is that it favors the intermediate skier, with wide, fairly gentle runs and a few steeper pitches, but no hairball chutes, huge cornices or tight forests.
This is, for the most part, true. Ed and I found our steepest skiing on a moraine near La Parva's boundary, off Las Aguilas quad lift. We skied laps there one afternoon, demolishing the powder stashed beneath a small rock face, and were shocked, each time down, to see that no other skiers had followed our tracks.
That we had all this terrain to ourselves was partly because we were skiing midweek in late August, about a month after peak season, and partly because La Parva doesn't draw as many skiers as Valle Nevado, a destination resort with major onsite facilities and a popular practice site for Canadian and European ski teams The U.S. Ski Team holds summer workouts in Portillo, Chile, in the same mountain range but slightly more north of Santiago.
You would think that acres of dry, light snow one hour from Santiago (population about 6 million) would draw a crowd, but the cost (about $20 for a day lift ticket) is too rich for most Chileans, and the crowd, such as it was, comprised mostly Europeans and Americans.
We were standing below a saddle at the top of Valle Nevado (the resorts are linked by trails) when a guy in his fifties wearing a red parka skied up. We eyed each other, trying to decipher through facial features whether to say "hola" or "hi." "What's up?" I asked.