Let the spring corn melt away. The newest and largest ski resort in South America serves up powder all summer long.IT'S AN OLD NAVAL TRADITION: Sailors crossing the equator for the first time are hazed by more experienced shipmates in elaborate ceremonies that mark their graduation from "pollywog to "shellback. But no such celebration occurs when our American Airlines flight rumbles through the frozen night sky, 33,000 feet over the coast of Equador. My friend Josh, who washed down a sleeping pill with a glass of wine, snorts, turns in his seat and continues to slumber soundly. I curse my insomnia, curse Josh and pop in another DVD.
We arrive at dawn in Santiago, Chile (13 hours from Miami, same time zone—weird). You'd think a couple of grizzled shellbacks could figure out which customs line to stand in, but after a half-hour wait, they send us back to a special line for first-time American visitors: $100, por favor. And welcome to Chile, Señor Gringo.
It's the end of September, and we've come for four days of late-winter skiing at one of the world's newest ski resorts, Valle Nevado. All I know about it is what I've heard or read on the Web: founded in 1988, 2,656 vertical feet of treeless terrain connected to two other resorts, El Colorado and La Parva. Valle Nevado means "valley of snow. Its unapologetically modern cluster of hotels perches on a knife-edge ridge in the spectacular Andes a couple hours due east of Santiago.
The drive from the airport is what I expect. Lush farmland gives way to gritty slums with dirt soccer fields, then downtown Santiago, which is beautiful. Next trip I'll build in time to explore the city. No time to stop now, though. We ascend into fog-shrouded mountains.
They tell you Valle Nevado is 35 miles east of the city. What they don't tell you is that the last 10 miles are like one of those graphs in geometry class where the curve approaches vertical without ever achieving it. By the time you've negotiated every switchback, you've traveled considerably farther than 10 miles. We take to calling it Calle de Muerto, and it's hard to comprehend how it could ever occur to anyone to build a road up mountainsides this steep.
Valley of Snow, indeed. It's pounding sideways when we reach the base village. Our group rallies for a couple of runs, but it's a weird way to start the season—skiing by touch on unfamiliar terrain, not knowing whether what lies ahead is groomed or knee-deep, flat or steep. I'm cold and jet-lagged. Was I really mowing my Vermont lawn in 80-degree heat yesterday?
We party late into the night, then I sleep like los muertos. The following day dawns clear, and we finally glimpse the Andes. Spectacular. We eat local dishes for breakfast. One of our group, Marc, will never be seen again. He retreats to his room and spends the next four days trying to expurgate his stomach lining.
The rest of us charge outside, eager to christen the new season with powder turns. We're in line at 9 sharp, but apparently there are no words in Spanish for "powder day. While most of Valle Nevado's international clientele sleeps off its hangover, lift attendants are, shall we say, deliberate in their attempts to get the mountain open. We settle initially for low-angle descents in deep snow off a short poma. Our friend Jeff augers on a cat-track. We laugh at him.
Our group includes extreme skier Shane McConkey, and I have some trepidation about whether my summer-soft body will be able to keep up. He kicks off his season by riding the poma backwards. Never seen that before. Not going to try it.
My trepidation eases as we explore the mountain. Valle Nevado is beautiful, with eye-stretching views of Santiago and the plains to the west, and the terrain is enjoyable, but there's nothing long or scary enough to starkly expose my shortcomings. The conditions are superb. It's either snowing hard or sunny during our stay. And we have a secret weapon: Jimmy.
How much do you like winter? Jimmy Ackerson put in 26 consecutive winters, shuttling for 13 years bettween North American resorts and Chile as an instructor, before settling down in Chile and taking a job as head honcho here. Jimmy's got a radio. He always knows which lift is about to open, and he steers us unfailingly from one feast of untracked to the next.
We settle into a rhythm: powder all day, party all night. Exhilarating, exhausting. On the way back down Calle de Muerto, I'm a little green. Not sure if that's the color of the pisco sours we've been drinking in dark bars, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is.
And, dammit, I still can't sleep during the flight back to Miami. Josh, of course, can. But it gives me plenty of time to think. Try as I might, I can't think of a better way to start a season.[NEXT "Signpost]
VALLE NEVADO, CHILE
22,239 skiable acres (320 acres groomed)
2,656 vertical feet
Summit elevation 12,038 feet
11 lifts (one high-speed)
Tickets: adults (13—64) $38, seniors $25
Choose from four lodging properties. Puerta del Sol, with 115 rooms, is the largest. Valle Nevado Hotel is the smallest and most exclusive, with 53 rooms. Tres Puntas offers more casual, youthful ambience, with 94 guest rooms, and the Mirador del Inca offers kitchenette apartments.
Rates: $225—$550 per person, including lift tickets and meals.
Café de la Plaza is authentic Chilean; Le Montagnard specializes in alpine cuisine; Restaurant Don Giovanni serves Italian classics; and La Fourchette d'Or is classic French. Expect great values on Chilean wine.
Santiago Airport is 35 miles west, but it's a two-hour drive through city traffic and up a tortuous mountain road. Transfers start around $100 per person, round-trip. Private vans accommodating up to seven passengers cost $260, round-trip.
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