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Cuernicitos

I'm on a bus in Argentina with a guy called Shrek, a bald, 250-pound merchant marine from Louisiana. We met at a tango show in Buenos Aires. The bus is grinding its way up a mountain road toward Las Leñas, a ski resort perched at 7,000 feet in the Andes. He's telling me about the last time he was here, two years ago.

"I swear, he says, still hoarse from the night before, "they brought in convicts from the local prison to dig out the lift. It took three days, he says.

This is interesting news, considering we've just heard that the Marte, Las Leñas' famed summit chairlift, is buried seat-deep. But it's not surprising.

Everything about skiing at Las Leñas is unconventional. For starters, their winter is our summer. The nightclubs open at 2 a.m. There isn't a single tree on the mountain. And the best skiing is out of bounds. Among the ski-bum set, the resort is well known for its deep snow, steep runs and huge vertical, yet it's unknown to most of the skiing public.

It's the first week of September, and I'm headed to Las Leñas—along with 19 other skiers—for a weeklong steeps clinic put on by Whistler, B.C.—based Extremely Canadian. My goal is to ski off-piste snow more smoothly and with less effort, and to gain more confidence on steep terrain. They've timed our trip to coincide with the Santa Rosa, an annual storm that hits the area like clockwork.

"Remember, things always look steeper when you're face-on, says Joe Lammers, a Whistler ski patroller and big mountain skier who's lead guide on this trip. It's our third day on the mountain and the sky has cleared to a perfect blue. I'm hiking behind Lammers and four other skiers, and he's pointing his pole toward our objective: a thin couloir cutting down the middle of a rocky sub-peak above the Volcano chair. I stop and look up. He must be kidding. From here, the couloir looks about a ski-length wide and nearly vertical. I mumble that perhaps I'm in the wrong group. If I'm not comfortable at the top, Lammers says, I can always traverse out and ski the easier slope to the right. I plod on. After an hour and a half of postholing we're at the top of a rounded ridgeline above the couloir. Craggy peaks stretch in every direction.

I click into my skis and sidestep behind Lammers to the top of the couloir. He was right. It's still narrow and steep—about 45 degrees—but from here it looks infinitely more skiable. I'm still not fully convinced as I slide into the 20-foot-wide entrance. "Lead with your hands, Lammer shouts. "Commit your tips to the fall line. I turn my skis toward the throat of the couloir and make my first turn. Shaded by the high rock walls, the snow has the reassuring consistency of Styrofoam. A dozen more tight turns and I'm at the constricted exit. With a quick jump turn, I straightline between two boulders and pop out of the other side. A smile spreads across my face, my fear replaced with pride at having skied a line I'd never normally consider.[NEXT]Lammers's on-the-fly teaching is typical of the Extremely Canadian approach. There are no formal lessons or drills, and the focus is as much on passing along general mountain knowledge as actual skiing technique. "I try to think out loud, he says. "The idea is to give people just enough information to get down the mountain faster and more efficiently.

What sets Las Leñas apart is its terrain—4,000 vertical feet of treeless alpine, the kind of skiing you only find at the very highest of resorts. Most visitors are Argentine intermediates who stick to the groomers. Without going out of bounds, we bag 1,000-foot runs of untracked.

But the real bonanza lies beyond the ropes. The summit chair is still closed, so we head to Cenidor, a 40-degree slope that wraps around the left side of the mountain like a giant apron. A two-minute traverse from the top of the Caris quad leads to the top of the 1,500-foot slope. It drops straight down to the valley floor, peppered along the way with natural halfpipes, winnd ribs and short chutes. The cold temperatures that descend on the mountain each night keep the snow light and fluffy, even three days after the last storm.

By the end of our nonstop day, we're bushed, and we retreat to the Innsbruck Inn, at the base of the lifts, for a bottle of the local Quilmes beer (pronounced, perhaps not so coincidentally, kill-me). The skiing at Las Leñas may be exhausting, but it's the nightlife that'll finish you off. At 9 p.m., we meet for dinner at the Escorpio Hotel, a slopeside inn that seems more like a cruise ship, with spa, solarium and shopping. Three courses later, we stumble upstairs to the bar for singalongs around the piano.

On the second-to-last day, the bull wheel on the Marte chair starts to turn and we race to get first tracks down Eduardo's, a 4,000-foot long gully that flows uninterrupted down the face of the mountain. We've been eyeing it all week. It's here that I first experience the uninterrupted vertical that sets Las Leñas apart from mountains like Whistler and Jackson Hole. But now, with 13 football fields of air dropping away from my edges, I'm intimidated. Until Lammers kicks in with some pointed advice: "Ski the slope, not the exposure. It doesn't take long to relax and fall into a rhythm. I stop and look down. The endless vertical between me and the red roof of the hotel below suddenly seems inviting, and I realize that the only thing stopping me from linking a thousand turns to the valley floor isn't terror, it's the lactic acid in my burning quads.[NEXT]We spend the rest of the day skiing one perfect powder run after another. By 4:30, we've logged 17,000 vertical feet. We end on Cuernicitos, a local secret. To get there, we shoulder our skis at the top of the Marte lift and cross the windswept summit of Los Fósiles peak. At 11,523 feet above sea level, our boots trod on handfuls of the namesake seashell fossils that reveal the mountain's oceanic past. We ski for an hour down an endless 35-degree piste, stopping only to catch our breath. Regrouping at the bottom, even Lammers is gushing: "I've probably skied here 200 days, and that was one my top days ever.

That night, on wobbly legs, fueled by adrenaline alone, we hit the Corona nightclub until dawn, then load the bus to head home. When I got here a week ago, Lammers described Las Leñas as "the kind of place where you don't glance back as you're leaving, because you know you'll return. He's right. As the bus pulls away, I'm looking straight ahead.

Details

Las Leñas Located 800 miles west of Buenos Aires, in the Andes Mountains. 3,904 vertical feet; base elevation 7,492 feet; summit elevation 11,253 feet; 11 lifts; the season runs from mid-June to mid-October.
Extremely Canadian Extremely Canadian's trips are designed for strong intermediate and advanced skiers. Prices include transportation from the airport, lodging, lift passes, breakfasts and dinners. In addition to Las Leñas (Aug. 27—Sept. 2 and Sept. 2—9; $2,985), destinations for 2006 include Alagna, Italy (Jan. 21—28; $2,800); Niseko, Japan (Feb. 18—25; $2,800); Interior British Columbia (Feb. 18—26; $3,395); and La Grave, France (March 11—18; $2,970). The company also offers two-day clinics in Whistler from December through April ($322, lodging not included).
Getting there Most major airlines fly to Buenos Aires. From there, Aerolineas Argentina (aerolineas.com.ar) offers flights to Malargue, 45 miles from Las Leñas.
Information Extremely Canadian: 800-938-9656; extremelycanadian.com. Las Leñas: laslenas.com

JANUARY 2006

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