Pisco, Powder and Passion: Chilean Skiing Delivers All Three

Jonesing for a South American ski fix? Columnist Tom Winter explores four different Chilean resorts.
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Kyler Cooley at Valle Nevado

Pisco. A wonderful intoxicant or polluting toxin? The question poses itself almost immediately upon arrival to Chile. Pisco is, after all, the national drink here. The water of life and the stuff that hangovers are born from. Sublime or evil? It’s hard to say. So the best thing to do is say, “what the hell” and tip your glass back, feel the liquid fire burn your throat and realize that no, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

To be honest, we’re not in Chile for the pisco, but the powder.

The protagonists in this journey are Alex Applegate and Kyler Cooley, two of Liberty Skis athletes. Both are unassuming, humble and exude both confidence and humor: exactly the kind of traits you want in fellow travelers when the journey is more important than the destination.

Storms roll in off the Atlantic, coating the Andes with meter upon meter of white goodness. When the snow comes, the skiing is sublime. All rock and shattered boulders, the Andes need snow – lots of it – to reach their potential. And it’s snow we find upon our arrival in Valle Nevado. Although, to be honest, with a week since the last storm has hit, the snow is more cream than dream. But who cares? We’re skiing in August, in Chile. That’s good enough for us.

Valle Nevado is one of three resorts that sit within a stone’s throw of Santiago. The other two, El Colorado and La Parva, each have their own flavor and charms. We’ll ski all three while we are here, and then wrap it up with a trip to one of the most special experiences in the sport: the snowcat operation of Ski Arpa, two hours to the north.

Valle delivers the goods quickly. With easy access to huge bowls, gullies and other terrain features, it’s merely a matter of sorting out which aspect hold the best snow, and there’s plenty of soft stuff to be found. The resort, with it’s all inclusive gourmet meals, comfortable beds and other perks is the ideal location. And it gets even better when a storm front blows in and coats the mountains with a fresh layer. The next two days are a blur of powder turns, out of bounds ski tours and bottles of fine Chilean vino tinto. Life is good, very good.

But as everyone knows, all good things must come to an end. The hotel is booked full and our stay is over. We can’t extend the visit, but we can keep skiing. With four more days before we wrap things up at Arpa, we decide to go local, and head for El Colorado.

El Colorado is where Chileanos go to learn how to ski. It’s where Chilean ski bums go to, well, bum. And it’s a distinctly different place than the international charms of Valle. Both resorts have their pros and cons, and the biggest pro for both Cooley and Applegate is the access to the steep chutes and couliors riddled with cliffs that plunge below El Colorado. These runs terminate on the Valle Nevado access road, and to ski here you add in a car shuttle that takes you back to the lifts. On good days, it’s like accessing heli-skiing terrain without the heli.

We spend two days lapping the zone, the athletes charging, and wrap up our last run in warming conditions with avalanche danger starting to rise. The shot kicks us out into hundreds of day visitors from Santiago who are sledding, sliding and otherwise enjoying the snow next to the road, the smell of bar-b-ques so strong that our mouths start watering before we even remove our skis.

With the lower elevations of the road laps starting to truly deteriorate, it’s time to visit La Parva. The resort plays Aspen to Valle’s Vail and El Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin. That doesn’t mean that the terrain is any less enticing: long rolling groomers plunge down to the base village while a ridgeline striated with cliffs and other mini-golf features hangs above the resort. There’s something for everyone here, and we go looking for a slice of our own pie when the wind starts to kick up. We wrap up our day on a deck, with a cerveza and bemoan the wind while marveling at the terrain we’d missed. But, in reality, that just means that we’ll have to try again next year.

The next day dawns overcast and dark. An ideal travel day. We take our time on the drive to Arpa. Marveling at Chile’s vast vineyards, the funky city of Los Andes and the endless vista of the snowcapped Andes. Slowly the car crawls up the access road to Arpa, as we take in the disparate views of snowy chutes with cacti at the bottom. It’s a bizarre, otherworldly landscape and by the time we reach Arpa’s refugio, we’re fully entranced, in love with the Andes, with Chile, and with southern hemisphere skiing.

Arpa is the kind of place that dreams are made of. Hidden and remote, it’s here where you’ll feel like a pioneer. Aconcagua looms on the horizon. The simple refugio, the charms of Anton “Toni” Sponar, an Austrian by way of Aspen who oversees the operation, and the loneliness of the landscape provide a mix of haunting beauty and passion for the snow. It’s an opportunity that no skier should miss in their lifetime.

We’ve lucked out and gotten rare permission to spend the night here and the evening delivers one of the most amazing sunsets that we’ve ever witnessed. The next day, the cat takes us high above the massive Valle Arpa. As we look down into the endless terrain, we can’t help but try to ignore the fact that these are our last runs. The trip has reached an end. But if you’re skiing down south, it’s hard to find a better ending than Arpa. We look at each other, smile and drop in.

Details, details:

International flights from the USA arrive at Santiago’s airport in the morning, which means that you can be skiing the same day you arrive. Find information on accommodations, lift tickets and book your day on Arpa’s snowcat at the following websites:

Valle Nevado

El Colorado

La Parva

Ski Arpa

Read the rest of Tom Winter's Winter on Winter columns.

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