Glasses clink, chairs and plates shuffle, and convivial waves of laughter rise and fall inside a bustling second-floor pizza joint in a mall in Santiago, Chile. I’m surrounded by a few of today’s best known skiers—Chris Davenport, Mike Douglas, Sherry McConkey and Ingrid Backstrom—and many of tomorrow’s. One of them—Parker Cook, a freeskier and filmmaker who is here celebrating his team’s second-place finish in the just-wrapped Eye of the Condor film and photo contest—stands up and commands the room’s attention. Holding up an oversized bottle of champagne, he bellows: “Chile is not a place you go; it’s a place you come back to.” The room explodes with cheers of agreement; mine is one of the loudest among them. I’ve been in this country fewer than 12 hours, but I get it. Hell yes; I’ll be back.
I arrived in Santiago this morning after an easy and comfortable red-eye flight from Atlanta. An hour weaving through the customs and immigration queues gives me a chance to stretch my legs, dust off my Spanish, and take-in the laissez-faire mentality that so many people have told me to expect—and to enjoy—in Chile. That and a chance to ski with Ingrid Backstrom, one of the world’s best big-mountain skiers—male or female—are what have brought me here. I’ll join Ingrid, another guide and four other women for a week of hiking, skiing, drinking and eating in La Parva, one of South America’s premier ski resorts and a hands-down favorite of the American pros who come back year after year. As I push past the other passengers to retrieve my ski bag, I wonder if my giddiness is very obvious. Stay cool, I think to myself.
After collecting my bags, I make my way, as instructed, to a small café where I meet our guide, Philippe Gautier. The 31-year-old French-Canadian is a winter-chasing nomad. A CMH heli guide November through May, he leads PowderQuest trips around Chile and Argentina from July through October. He doesn’t have a permanent residence, lives out of a suitcase and has seen and skied more terrain in three decades than most people will in a lifetime. If he wasn’t so damn likeable, I’d really hate this guy.
Suzanna and her 17-year-old daughter, Lila, are with Phil when I arrive. They’re returning PowderQuest clients who travel the world on skis. They’ve come to Chile for this camp while Dad and the two sons are with a PowderQuest group in Barriloche, Argentina. I implore Lila to be grateful for her incredible good fortune and two parents who rip. She nods in acknowledgement without taking her eyes or fingers off her cell phone. The other two women, we’ll learn, were delayed by a storm in Dallas. They’ll arrive later tonight.
On our way out of the city, we grab a snack at Comidas La Punta, a small bakery that serves the city’s best empanadas. For the next hour, our driver will navigate the hairiest, scariest two-lane switchback road I’ve seen this side of the Prime Meridian, and he’ll stop occasionally to let a grazing cow or stray dog cross in front of our van. As we climb, the lush green turns to rocky brown and then a dusting of snow. When we pull into La Parva, the ski lifts are shrouded in a cloud of milky white.
Ingrid who has already been here for a week skiing and judging the Eye of the Condor contest, greets us in the ticket office. Is it weird, I think to myself when we meet in person for the first time, that I already have a small girl crush on her? Who wouldn’t? She has bright eyes and a perpetual smile that are innocent yet incredibly confident at the same time, and we all feel completely comfortable with her from the get go.
Which is good because she only gives us a few moments to get our Southern Hemisphere bearings before she has our summer feet booted up and on the first Poma lift heading into the great white abyss above. For two hours, our small group feels our way through the soup. Visibility hovers around 15 feet, and I can tell I’m doing the skier’s crab crawl—spreading my skis out, staying low to the ground and straining my neck as if somehow that will help me react to what I can’t see. It doesn’t. In fact, the more I tense up and resist the unknown, the less stable I become. Ingrid, on the other hand, looks completely relaxed and fluid. Either she has special x-ray vision in the fog or she just doesn’t rely on her eyes like I do.
Today, Ingrid doesn’t lecture or attempt to teach us anything. She just wants us to feel the snow and we do, right up to 5:30 when the lifts shut down for the day. At the end of the afternoon, she asked us to think about our goals and objectives for the week and be prepared to share them the following day. I don’t know about the other women, but my objective is simple. I want to command the same respect from my skiing peers as Ingrid does from hers. I don’t expect to be as good a skier as Ingrid when I leave here in a week, but I’d like to be as confident. Successfully navigating the foggy air today is certainly a good start.