Virgin Sacrifice

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Virgin Sacrifice

I am in the back of a Bell 407 helicopter that is tha-whumping furiously in space over a snow-blasted, rock-littered summit. The Andes are hurtling toward me: shark fins, spear points, gargantuan heads of cauliflower-all solid rock. The owner of the helicopter, Belgian millionaire Hubert Grosse, sits across from me, casually gazing out the window as I white-knuckle the armrest. Freddy, our French pilot, cracks his door to inspect our living room-sized landing pad. "Un poquito atras," says Hubert through his headset. Freddy edges the machine rearward, and we touch down.

I open the door and take a deep breath of frigid Patagonian air before scrambling under spinning rotors. Through the fury of the helicopter's wash, I see Freddy smiling as he gives us the thumbs-up and revs the helicopter back into the air. He maneuvers sideways off the summit and jams the stick forward. The machine dives, flashing its underbelly, and in the immediate silence that follows, I wonder if something went wrong. But Hubert is smiling. "The French are crazy," he says, shaking his head. "I just hope he doesn't hurt my machine."

I stand up, brush myself off and inspect the 360-degree panorama of jagged, snow-encrusted peaks. Hubert strolls over to one edge of our platform in the sky and looks down. "The southeast face looks good," he says, and Paul, our ski guide, nods in agreement. I join them and glance down at perfect untracked white. It slopes for a few hundred feet, then plunges out of sight altogether. Thousands of feet below, where the mountain surely ends, a mosaic of emerald lakes and native lenga forests stretches to the horizon. How did I get here? I can see for at least 20 miles, and there's not a road or a house in sight. Nothing. No one has ever skied this mountain. Or even stood on this summit. This mountain has no name.

I've always wanted to ski in Patagonia, a no man's land of grassy steppes, rain forest and glacial fjords where South America curls toward the Antarctic. Mention Patagonia, and most people think of Chile's fog-soaked forests or the Torres del Paine, the granite towers that inspired the Patagonia-brand clothing logo. People know less about the drier Argentine half of Patagonia, where moss-colored grasslands run up against the jagged granite escarpments of the Andes and rhea ostriches dart across ochre deserts. It was here that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid built a log cabin and settled down after a final train robbery in Montana in 1901. It was also around the same time that German colonists founded the town of San Carlos de Bariloche and introduced skiing to South America. It was here that construction began on South America's first ski resort, Cerro Catedral, in the late 1930s, when Vail and Aspen were still pipe dreams. Now Bariloche is once again breaking new ground as South America's first true ski town.

Bariloche is little-known in part because it's been a very expensive place to vacation. Back in the go-go boom years of the '90s, an espresso in Bariloche could cost $8 and a hotel room would set you back hundreds of dollars a night. That changed in 2002, when Argentina's debt-ridden, overheated economy collapsed like a house on fire and took the banking system down with it. Now the economy is coming back. Bariloche is flooded with Chileans, Brazilians, French, Italians-everybody, it seems, except Americans. An espresso costs a paltry 25 cents, and even a filet mignon and a bottle of fine Argentine Malbec go for $9. Land speculators are scooping up cheap acreage and building flyfishing lodges, fancy hotels and impressive ranches. For better or worse, Bariloche is becoming the Aspen of the Andes: elegant lodging, gorgeous scenery and every mountain sport imaginable-including a very affordable chance to bag your own virgin peak with Latin America's first large-scale heliski outfit. Even Cerro Catedral, the locals' mountain, is coming of age. What were once two decrepit ski operations have merged tform one megaresort, called Catedral Alta Patagonia, which, in skiable acres, is already the size of Vermont's Killington, and growing: The Argentine investors behind the new resort have rolled out a $20 million expansion including a high-speed gondola and five chairlifts.

No one embodies Patagonia's current boom better than Hubert Grosse, the 39-year-old Belgian owner of the Arelauquen Golf & Country Club in Bariloche. He arrived in Argentina a decade ago, after a dreary year as a lawyer in Brussels, and never left. Using his family's fortune, he purchased a rundown resort neighborhood on the outskirts of Bariloche in 2000, when land prices had plummeted to preposterous lows. He tore down most of the old homes, set aside some land for a natural reserve and carved out 500 lots. He has already sold 270 of them at a huge profit-and land prices keep rising. Meanwhile he's pumping money into a guest lodge, polo field and an 18-hole golf course. Hubert's latest business endeavor, Burco Adventure, offers heliskiing during the Southern Hemisphere winter (July-October). "We're heading south on a scouting trip in a few days," Hubert says when I call him from my hotel that afternoon. "There's an extra seat if you want it." It sounds too good to be true. I tell him I have to think about it. Then I wait five minutes, dance around my hotel room and call back to say yes.

Bariloche, I realize on a stroll that afternoon, seems more like Europe than South America. Cobblestone streets lead past Tyrolean steeples where century-old bronze bells ring on the hour. Cafes abound. Fantastic chocolate creations, from truffles to éclairs, line shop windows. French-looking people dart by in Renaults and Peugeots and speak Spanish with elegant Italian flourishes. A waterfront promenade looks over the Lake Nahuel Huapi, which is larger than California's Lake Tahoe and crowned by the Cullin Manzano mountain range to the north. Cerro Catedral, with its ski runs clearly visible, looms to the southwest. Nahuel Huapi National Park, founded in 1922, sprawls on all sides of Bariloche and contains large sections that are closed to visitors. It's no wonder that in the last decade, Bariloche has become a magnet for young Argentine outdoorsy types who do whatever they can to make a living in order to kayak, flyfish, rock- and ice-climb, horseback ride, mountain bike and hike in some of the most rugged, empty wilderness in the Americas.

I have a couple of days before my heli trip, so I decide to warm up my ski legs on the slopes of Cerro Catedral. After a 20-minute taxi from town, I meet Diana Reboratti, head of the mountain's ski patrol, at the top of the high-speed gondola. She looks like a California tomboy with hazel eyes and sunburnt face, but she is purebred Bariloche. When she was 18, she began working as an assistant at one of the area's many alpine huts, carrying 80-pound loads of firewood up Mt. Tronador, a glaciated volcano that rises spectacularly behind us. As she explains all this, she suddenly hears news of a nearby accident over her walkie-talkie. The next moment we're cruising toward a woman with a twisted knee. Reboratti begins to deal with the situation until two fellow patrollers-both men-arrive and get to work. Then she sits back, relaxed, and chats with me, occasionally giving directions to her two colleagues.

As we ski away, I ask Diana her secret for supervising macho men in what is perhaps the most macho country in the world. "I grew up with these guys, and I showed them early on that I could do anything they could," she says with a surprisingly shy smile. "Besides, I see things that they don't," a point proven minutes later when, while riding a poma lift, I fail to see a metal pole jangling on a cable and headed right for my head. Cuidado, she says, pulling me aside. Indeed, safety regulations seem looser here. Making banner headlines here last July, four chairs slipped off a cable and slammed into each other, injuring a half-dozen people. The mishap was blamed on poor maintenance. "That was a busy day," Diana says as she skis off.

We ride all over the mountain, sampling a range of blues and blacks, and even a steep off-piste area. The snow is heavy and wet, as it often is in Patagonia, and the resort is overdue for a fresh dump. But the views are fantastic. Because the top half of the mountain is above tree line, Cerro Catedral has the wide-open, go-wherever-you-want feel of a European resort. It already offers a 3,200-foot vertical drop and 1,500 acres of skiable terrain, and it's about to get bigger. Diana shows me the towers lying on the ground where another high-speed gondola is taking shape. The rest of the plan calls for five additional chairlifts and three poma lifts, which will access new areas of the mountain, including a cliffy backcountry area known as La Laguna.

We lunch at a decades-old wood lodge, worlds away from the typical ski-resort lodge in both size and ambience. We sit at a table in a wooden loft. Nearby, a young couple makes out on the couch. Others puff Marlboros and drink red wine. I order a slab of beef and a glass of Malbec, and together our meals come to about 22 pesos, or $7.50, though the friendly old man at the cash register takes my 20-peso note and tells me to keep the rest.

Two days later, Hubert Grosse and I are thundering over Patagonia in the back of his $1.2 million helicopter. Blond and lanky, Hubert spends most of the trip staring out the window at a parade of gorgeous massifs and spires, of which he is fast developing an encyclopedic memory. He is on the hunt for new mountains and good routes for the future operations of Burco Adventure. Although Patagonia has never been known for dry powder, Hubert has another ace in his deck: the thrill of terra incognita. "We will have 10 or 15 years of allowing people to ski on virgin mountains," says Hubert. "Most of the mountains you see have never been climbed, even in the summertime." He is shooting for a boutique experience that would cater to groups of three or less and offer absolute freedom as to the day's destination. "It's really exploration heliskiing," he says. The skiing will begin in July around Bariloche and then slowly migrate south with winter to end in southern Patagonia at the Fitzroy Massif, just north of Chile's Torres del Paine National Park. The going price is about $6,300 per person per week, including lodging, competitive with most heliski operations in Alaska and Canada.

A half-hour after leaving Bariloche, we're hovering over a mountain known as Cónico, a cone-shaped mountain riddled with knife-tipped ridges and stalagmite spires. Hubert is desperate to carve turns, but the wind is clocking 35 knots and Freddy aborts the landing after a flyby. Hubert stares out the window and frowns. "If you're in a hurry, don't come to Patagonia."

The history of Patagonia unfolds beneath me as we fly over valley after empty valley. In one lonely meadow, I see Butch and Sundance's rotting log cabin, set off by itself next to a lone poplar tree. Here, the two settled along with Etta Place, the Kid's wife. They herded cattle for a few years before detectives from the Pinkerton Agency chased them to their legendary deaths in Bolivia. Next we buzz the Patagonian Express, a 1922 Philadelphia-made Baldwin locomotive that still chugs along a restored section of narrow-gauge track south of Bariloche. The few signs of human life we see could not be more different from each other. There are villages of Mapuche Indians, where muddy streets run between cinderblock homes. There's also a garish mansion belonging to Joe Lewis, the American billionaire and past owner of Planet Hollywood. It sits at the head of a majestic lake, crowned by a waterfall plunging off the Andes, and reportedly features 18 phone lines, a horse-racing track and an exact replica of the office Lewis keeps in other homes around the world. Lewis is not the only billionaire ranch owner in Patagonia. Tedple. The mishap was blamed on poor maintenance. "That was a busy day," Diana says as she skis off.

We ride all over the mountain, sampling a range of blues and blacks, and even a steep off-piste area. The snow is heavy and wet, as it often is in Patagonia, and the resort is overdue for a fresh dump. But the views are fantastic. Because the top half of the mountain is above tree line, Cerro Catedral has the wide-open, go-wherever-you-want feel of a European resort. It already offers a 3,200-foot vertical drop and 1,500 acres of skiable terrain, and it's about to get bigger. Diana shows me the towers lying on the ground where another high-speed gondola is taking shape. The rest of the plan calls for five additional chairlifts and three poma lifts, which will access new areas of the mountain, including a cliffy backcountry area known as La Laguna.

We lunch at a decades-old wood lodge, worlds away from the typical ski-resort lodge in both size and ambience. We sit at a table in a wooden loft. Nearby, a young couple makes out on the couch. Others puff Marlboros and drink red wine. I order a slab of beef and a glass of Malbec, and together our meals come to about 22 pesos, or $7.50, though the friendly old man at the cash register takes my 20-peso note and tells me to keep the rest.

Two days later, Hubert Grosse and I are thundering over Patagonia in the back of his $1.2 million helicopter. Blond and lanky, Hubert spends most of the trip staring out the window at a parade of gorgeous massifs and spires, of which he is fast developing an encyclopedic memory. He is on the hunt for new mountains and good routes for the future operations of Burco Adventure. Although Patagonia has never been known for dry powder, Hubert has another ace in his deck: the thrill of terra incognita. "We will have 10 or 15 years of allowing people to ski on virgin mountains," says Hubert. "Most of the mountains you see have never been climbed, even in the summertime." He is shooting for a boutique experience that would cater to groups of three or less and offer absolute freedom as to the day's destination. "It's really exploration heliskiing," he says. The skiing will begin in July around Bariloche and then slowly migrate south with winter to end in southern Patagonia at the Fitzroy Massif, just north of Chile's Torres del Paine National Park. The going price is about $6,300 per person per week, including lodging, competitive with most heliski operations in Alaska and Canada.

A half-hour after leaving Bariloche, we're hovering over a mountain known as Cónico, a cone-shaped mountain riddled with knife-tipped ridges and stalagmite spires. Hubert is desperate to carve turns, but the wind is clocking 35 knots and Freddy aborts the landing after a flyby. Hubert stares out the window and frowns. "If you're in a hurry, don't come to Patagonia."

The history of Patagonia unfolds beneath me as we fly over valley after empty valley. In one lonely meadow, I see Butch and Sundance's rotting log cabin, set off by itself next to a lone poplar tree. Here, the two settled along with Etta Place, the Kid's wife. They herded cattle for a few years before detectives from the Pinkerton Agency chased them to their legendary deaths in Bolivia. Next we buzz the Patagonian Express, a 1922 Philadelphia-made Baldwin locomotive that still chugs along a restored section of narrow-gauge track south of Bariloche. The few signs of human life we see could not be more different from each other. There are villages of Mapuche Indians, where muddy streets run between cinderblock homes. There's also a garish mansion belonging to Joe Lewis, the American billionaire and past owner of Planet Hollywood. It sits at the head of a majestic lake, crowned by a waterfall plunging off the Andes, and reportedly features 18 phone lines, a horse-racing track and an exact replica of the office Lewis keeps in other homes around the world. Lewis is not the only billionaire ranch owner in Patagonia. Ted Turner, along with an assortment of European barons and princes, also own spreads in Patagonia. Even Benetton, the Italian clothing company, owns 3,500 square miles of grasslands south of Bariloche.

Flying through an empty landscape in an expensive helicopter requires both clockwork planning and, it turns out, a bit of improvisation. At one point we land next to a dry gulch where a Burco Adventure truck, which has followed us along rough dirt roads, refuels the helicopter. We're back in the air a half-hour later, thundering over Lake Fontana, which sprawls across a U-shaped valley studded with snowy spires. We land on a frozen peat bog in the middle of a tiny island, and Freddy gets out of the helicopter and starts jumping up and down. "It vibrates," he says, with a worried glance at the two-ton helicopter. He then lifts off again so that wooden beams can be laid in place to make a more secure landing pad. A few minutes later, we are inside a cheery log cabin, sipping maté, the heady Argentine herb tea. "It wouldn't be so bad to get stuck here," says Freddy, as he kicks his legs up on a chair next to a roaring fire. The owner of the cabin is Carlos Mallman, a German descendant from Bariloche and the brother of Francis Mallman, Argentina's most famous chef. Carlos is no slouch in the kitchen himself. That evening we dine on Patagonian lamb simmered for seven hours over an open fire with wine, potatoes and fresh rosemary. One bottle after another of Malbec is emptied during after-dinner sobremesa, the untranslatable Argentine habit of discussing the events of the day over a cluttered dinner table.

The next morning dawns clear and Freddy cranks up the helicopter. Our guide, Paul, leads us expertly down a slope that neither he nor anyone else has ever skied before. A series of interconnected dips and chutes unfurls before us as we cruise down Patagonia spring corn on pitches that range from mellow to oh-my-God steep. The land falls away on all sides and Lake Fontana sprawls beneath us, turquoise and crystal clear. I see the log cabin where we stayed the night before as a distant dot on an island covered with pine trees. For at least an hour, I forget where I am and give into the thrill of seeing this world for the first time. Throughout our ski day we case out a dozen routes on various mountains, which Paul commits to memory and then nails on the way down. But all explorers make mistakes. At one point we drop too low and have to traverse the icefall of a snow-covered glacier. I focus on a block of ice that bears an amazing resemblance to a shark with its jaws wide open, and it helps me ignore the crevasse that yawns below. Near the end of another run, I wipe out in a dense thicket of lenga. Hubert laughs, pulls me out by my ski boot and reminds me, "It's not easy being an explorer." Ted Turner, along with an assortment of European barons and princes, also own spreads in Patagonia. Even Benetton, the Italian clothing company, owns 3,500 square miles of grasslands south of Bariloche.

Flying through an empty landscape in an expensive helicopter requires both clockwork planning and, it turns out, a bit of improvisation. At one point we land next to a dry gulch where a Burco Adventure truck, which has followed us along rough dirt roads, refuels the helicopter. We're back in the air a half-hour later, thundering over Lake Fontana, which sprawls across a U-shaped valley studded with snowy spires. We land on a frozen peat bog in the middle of a tiny island, and Freddy gets out of the helicopter and starts jumping up and down. "It vibrates," he says, with a worried glance at the two-ton helicopter. He then lifts off again so that wooden beams can be laid in place to make a more secure landing pad. A few minutes later, we are inside a cheery log cabin, sipping maté, the heady Argentine herb tea. "It wouldn't be so bad to get stuck here," says Freddy, as he kicks his legs up on a chair next to a roaring fire. The owner of the cabin is CCarlos Mallman, a German descendant from Bariloche and the brother of Francis Mallman, Argentina's most famous chef. Carlos is no slouch in the kitchen himself. That evening we dine on Patagonian lamb simmered for seven hours over an open fire with wine, potatoes and fresh rosemary. One bottle after another of Malbec is emptied during after-dinner sobremesa, the untranslatable Argentine habit of discussing the events of the day over a cluttered dinner table.

The next morning dawns clear and Freddy cranks up the helicopter. Our guide, Paul, leads us expertly down a slope that neither he nor anyone else has ever skied before. A series of interconnected dips and chutes unfurls before us as we cruise down Patagonia spring corn on pitches that range from mellow to oh-my-God steep. The land falls away on all sides and Lake Fontana sprawls beneath us, turquoise and crystal clear. I see the log cabin where we stayed the night before as a distant dot on an island covered with pine trees. For at least an hour, I forget where I am and give into the thrill of seeing this world for the first time. Throughout our ski day we case out a dozen routes on various mountains, which Paul commits to memory and then nails on the way down. But all explorers make mistakes. At one point we drop too low and have to traverse the icefall of a snow-covered glacier. I focus on a block of ice that bears an amazing resemblance to a shark with its jaws wide open, and it helps me ignore the crevasse that yawns below. Near the end of another run, I wipe out in a dense thicket of lenga. Hubert laughs, pulls me out by my ski boot and reminds me, "It's not easy being an explorer."

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