Going Down

The fastest lift in Chile combined with the world's fastest skiers make for a hard-to-beat week.

“Do you want to race?” Marcus Caston asked, his eyes sparkling in the candlelight, giddy with the thought of ski-hill mischief. “Yeah!” replied fellow pro skier Lynsey Dyer, her smile electric after a day with Valle Nevado Heli Ski. “I’d love to ski their course.” The two stood up simultaneously to propose the idea to the Austrian Men’s National Alpine Team coaches, who were finishing their three-course dinners on the other side of the restaurant.

Valle Nevado is perched high above the city of Santiago. The resort sits at about 10,000 feet.
Valle Nevado is perched high above the city of Santiago. The resort sits at about 10,000 feet.Photo credit to Keri Bascetta

In the end, Dyer decided not to race, but instead to be in Caston’s support crew. He would need the help. The professional big-mountain skier had just challenged the best downhill ski racer in Austria, and the coaches gave the go-ahead.

The day before, just after the van crested the 40th switchback and the wisps of snow started blowing across the road, it had finally started to feel like winter. Earlier that morning, as we drove from the Hotel Magnolia in downtown Santiago to the highway, a brisk, gray chill engulfed the city. Looking east, beyond the palm trees in the city parks, the snowcapped Andes seemed to be an illusion, a mirage to our summer-fatigued eyes.

The highway ascended into the foothills, the palm trees gave way to cactus, and eventually the valley split into two. We veered right, and the hilly eastbound road took a steep hairpin turn, marked by a sign that read “Curva 1.” All of the curvas were marked by a sign, which was good because I lost count around 20. Later, our guide informed us that the people who built the road were paid by the kilometer, so they purposely put in as many switchbacks as possible to earn more money. Their lucrative cleverness has surely been the cause of many cases of carsickness.

Keri Bascetta, our photographer, and Caston, our athlete, may or may not have been aware of the change of botanic environment or the history of the road, as they were both lying down across the van’s bench seats after a full schedule of wine tasting in the Casablanca Valley the day before.

That night, Caston and the Austrian ski racer Matthias Mayer bet a bottle of Chilean wine that the American could come within 10 seconds of the Austrian on their race course.

Hillary Saunders airs it out at Valle Nevado Resort.
Hillary Saunders airs it out at Valle Nevado Resort.Photo credit to Keri Bascetta

“Do you think Marcus’ll come close?” Dyer asked Mayer that night at the restaurant, a few beats after the coaches gave their blessing. We would find out later that Mayer—the gold medalist in the downhill at the Sochi Olympics—was coming off a 2017 World Cup season that included a first place finish on the infamous Streif Downhill in Kitzbühel. He is arguably the best downhill racer on the world’s best alpine ski team, getting ready in Chile for another Olympic season.

Mayer leaned back, beaming at the question. He locked his cold blue eyes with Dyer’s, and, in perfectly confident Austrian-accented English, replied: “He doesn’t stand a chance.”

When we first arrived at the Valle Nevado Ski Resort, the sight of chairlifts, the spaghetti-like tangle of tracks spread between the groomed runs, and people sliding on snow snapped us out of our wine-induced fatigue and put us back into our comfort zone. Just after checking in to the hotel, we bumped into Dyer, Sierra Swan, and Eric Sales, pro skiers creating content for the ski area and its heliskiing operation, a happy coincidence as they all had more experience and knowledge about the easily-accessible backcountry than our crew did.

For the next week, we stuffed our flip-flop-conditioned feet into cramped plastic shells to savor the bliss that is skiing in August. Valle Nevado offers 2,200-plus acres of alpine terrain surrounded by a number of backcountry options, plus gates to access two adjacent ski areas, La Parva and El Colorado. Each morning began with a ride on the fastest chairlift in Chile, and then we explored different sections of the resort’s 2,657 feet of vertical drop.

Every day, we were treated to a variety of conditions, from perfectly groomed pistes to boot-deep cold pow on easy-to-find south-facing aspects. We never ran out of terrain to ski or ways to follow the sun for good turns. Many of the pitches were long and steep, but always adjacent to bail-out areas to rest our seasonally confused legs.

Valle Nevado Athlete Tip

Exploring the vast mountain kept us preoccupied by day, and the resort’s accommodations by night. The majority of visitors stay at the iconic Puerta Del Sol Hotel, the resort’s tallest building, which features a signature checkmark shaped roof. We mingled with guests at all three hotels throughout the week, however, as the primary resort nightclub is located in the economical Tres Puntas Hotel, and the many restaurants are dispersed between Puerta Del Sol and the high-end Hotel Valle Nevado. None of the other international guests we met, however, quite compared with the Austrian Men’s National Alpine Team.

Monte Bianco Ristorante has awesome pizza.
Monte Bianco Ristorante has awesome pizza.
Photo credit to Keri Bascetta

The morning of the challenge, we met up with Mayer and the Austrian National Team as they prepped for their training runs in the hours before the resort opened to the public. The training process was intense; watching the athletes felt on par to being on the sidelines with an NFL team. These are some of the best athletes in the world, practicing what they love to do. We decided to stay out of their way and enjoy the show. 

After each athlete got their four training runs in, a radio call went out that the course was clear and Caston could drop. Despite his impeccable form, the fact that his Blizzard skis were much wider than the professional GS race skis quickly become apparent. It also became obvious Caston didn’t wax his skis for this trip. He gave a solid effort through the steep top section, but appeared to be moving in slow motion compared with the Austrians skiing through the bottom flats. He didn’t land within the 10-second time limit. 

Despite this, Caston and the rest of us were buzzing, still in disbelief of what had happened. We exchanged danke schöns and high fives with Mayer and the Austrian staff, and then, as if it were just another day in Valle Nevado, we went skiing in August.