El Sol, or what I could see of it, peeks through a split in the rocks as we push off the quad chair Telesilla del Filo, which means "Of the Edge." The name fits: This vantage point at Cerro Castor, the southernmost ski area on the planet, demands your full attention.
I'm only 2,610 feet above sea level, but the view is unlike anything I've seen: snow-covered peaks rising from valley floors, frozen peat bogs with stringy lichen, fingers of glaciers and-in the distance-the blue-gray Atlantic Ocean. I'm in the shadows-in fact the entire ski area is in shade-but the sun paints the landscape like a spotlight on a stage.
Here, on Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), an archipelago located off the southern tip of Argentina, is the last outpost of civilized skiing. Antarctica lies just 600 miles south. Tierra del Fuego is noted for its wildlife, a verdant national park, flyfishing streams and as a takeoff point for voyages to the frozen continent. Now chalk up another attraction: downhill skiing at South America's newest resort.
Tierra del Fuego sits in both Chile and Argentina. Most residents in the Argentine side live in the main city of Ushuaia. Cradled by steep mountains, this town of 45,000 people is how I imagine Nome, Alaska, must have looked 100 years ago, just after the gold rush. On the highlands above the Bay of Ushuaia is a shantytown of wooden shacks with tin roofs-the hardscrabble homes of fishermen, service workers and Bolivian squatters.
But that's not the whole picture. A few blocks away, as we drive down Calle San Martin, we see a modern port with freighters and passenger ships, well-kept seafood restaurants offering giant crabs, and shops that sell everything from souvenirs and furry faux penguins to skis and snowboards. Looking for a cheap trinket? Look elsewhere.
The skiing here is not without its challenges. High winds can rip through the mountains at 120 miles per hour. Then there's the infamous giant hole in the atmosphere's ozone layer that can bathe the island with harmful ultraviolet rays, especially in the sunnier spring months of September and October. Strong sunblock is a way of life; the UV is constantly measured, with warnings issued to stay indoors when the ozone hole is directly over the island.
But there are few UV worries on our June visit, and no wind either. With only about six hours of daylight during much of the summer, we're up at the crack of 9 a.m. to see the sunrise from the Hotel del Glacier. Then, we're on the road to Cerro Castor, 17 miles from town. We're met by Gaston Begue, the 30-year-old managing director of the ski area and a former Argentine racer who placed 48th (dead last) in the super G in the 1994 Albertville Olympics.
As we ride the access quad to the midmountain day lodge, I hear the story of the ski area. It was opened in 1999 by Gaston's father, Juan Carlos Begue, a local businessman and avid skier who tried for years to get a major ski area built here. Though there are a couple of small ski hills in town, nothing significant happened until the provincial government stepped forward to promote winter tourism. It funded three quads and one surface lift, as well as the cutting of 15 runs, and it selected the Begue family to build the base area and manage the mountain. Voilà : a resort with 2,497 vertical feet, 11 miles of trails on 988 acres, three mountain restaurants, a rental shop and a kids' center.
Ascending Cerro Krund (elevation 3,171 feet), the highest peak at the ski area, I look out at exposed slopes, mostly above the forest of lenga beech trees that surrounds the base lodge, and wonder how a ski area of this size can exist in such a remote place. But once I'm skiing, I'm a believer.
You start your descent from craggy peaks, negotiating wide troughs that empty into treeless basins. Then you follow boulevards that are bordered by serrated ridges-stuff that looks like lava rock-before finding the cream of the mountain on thee protected runouts in the trees. What's weird is that the southern exposures are shady, while the north slopes are sunny. But that's what happens when you're skiing at the bottom of the world. DETAILS
The best skiing is in August and September. Fly to Buenos Aires, transfer, then fly three hours to Tierra del Fuego. Upscale travelers are the norm here, and prices reflect their tastes. Figure on spending up to $225 a night for a five-star hotel, $125 to $175 for a four-star hotel, and under $100 for small inns. Lunch averages $17 per person. Contact: skimoguls.com for tours; tierradelfuego.org.
Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick and Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/