The powder, the views, the tourism infrastructure—skiing in the Andes Mountains Chile is as good as it gets! Who knew?
Story by Ellie Rubin, Photos by Chris Strachan
Fuez Bowl, Kicking Horse, B.C.—one of the steepest and deepest runs of any ski resort in North America. I’m standing at the top with only one option: down. My coach, Don, has convinced me that after four days of training I’m ready to tackle this double-black-diamond bowl. His last set of instructions is playing, like a tape, in my mind: “The first turn is the most critical. Stay forward and reach down the hill to make the first pole plant. Repeat.”
I suck in a deep breath and drop in. Sticking the first turn, I float in waist-deep champagne powder, then tack down a thousand vertical feet. Even though I still have a few miles to the bottom, I’m already writing a postcard from the edge to my daughters at home. “Dear girls, your mother has become a certifiable adrenaline addict.” With the ski season about to wrap up, the only question is: where do I go to get my next fix?
It’s June. The city is shimmering with heat. While everyone I know is packing bathing suits and heading for the cottage, I’m searching the basement for my long underwear, helmet and Rossignol Scratch twin tips.
As I half-heartedly rustle through my ski bag, I ask myself once again, “What am I doing?” The logical side of my brain is patiently waiting for me to finally admit that the humidity of the city got to me and what I really need is a dock and a good book. But in my heart, I’ve become a ski addict. It’s not just about conquering peaks and blowing down bowls.
No, it’s about adrenaline and discovering courageous parts of me—a cerebral businesswoman and mother of two—I never knew existed. That’s the thrill. That’s the hook. That’s what has me coming back for more, and more. What other untapped parts of me will I discover if I ascend, and then descend, greater heights? Who else resides under this tony Pucci-ski-clad exterior?
At one of the many ski shows I (now religiously) attend, I was told that the real ski nuts ski Chile in the middle of the summer, where some of the steepest, deepest and fastest peaks beckon.
The sheer altitude of Chile’s ski resorts, along with the speed records set at them, is enough to make even this girl think twice. But there is something else at play here. My husband, Chris, a level-two ski instructor and downhill fanatic, has been challenging me to kick it up a notch. “How can you call yourself a skier if you have never heli-skied before?” Maybe he is right and maybe the Chilean Andes is the perfect place to push my skiing to the edge and my self-discovery to the outer limits.
As we board a plane bound for Santiago, Chris, who will also be acting as photographer, smiles at me slyly. I know that look. He is reminding me that I have committed to upping the ante on my skiing and that a helicopter is the preferred mode of transportation. Am I ready to Ski Chile? Too late. The plane is taking off.
Termas de Chillan
After a day of wining, dining and sightseeing in Santiago, we hop a short flight to Conception and then board a bus bound for Termas de Chillan. Termas is situated 82 kilometres east of the city of Chillan, renowned for its gastronomy and extraordinary scenic beauty. About 1,600 metres above sea level, Termas not only boasts South America’s longest ski run (13 kilometres), but it also offers 10,000 hectares of ski-able terrain and 29 groomed runs, all situated in a pristine forest with 1,100 metres of vertical drop. Not surprisingly, the Alpine Junior World Ski Championship took place here in 2010.
To ski in Chile has always had allure for ski enthusiasts and is the chosen destination for many racing teams during training months. The Andes mountain range is second in size only to the Himalayas, with peaks reaching 6,100 metres, and the region averages more than six metres of snowfall and boasts 80 percent sunny days over the ski season (April to November). But what Chile has that the Himalayas don’t is fine cuisine and a growing fine-wine industry, both of which complete the ultimate ski experience.
Once we arrive, things really begin to heat up—literally. The resort is located on an active volcano, providing a natural hot spring. We quickly discover that we won’t need our Canadian long underwear as the temperature rarely drops below –5 C and we are so close to the sun that black skiwear is an impossibility. So much for my packing strategy.
The next morning, we head out with the director of the ski school, Ricardo, who has graciously agreed to be our guide. My mission: get to the best steeps and deeps that Termas de Chillan has to offer. In other words, get my first fix.
Like many of the Chileans that we have met, Ricardo is slightly shy and very serious about his job. Once on the hill, though, his enthusiasm for the sport and his sense of humour take over. As we load onto the oldest chair in South America, Ricardo yells up to us, “Don’t worry, this beast usually makes it to the top, despite the 800-foot spans between towers! Just don’t look down.” I don’t.
At the top of the chairlift, we go over the options. There are some good runs off the top of the mountain but the best is going to involve a hike out of bounds. My ‘photographer’ is all over that, thinking it will provide the best backdrop for photos. We learn that because of the vast expanse of lift-serviced terrain, most expert skiers can access extreme off-piste skiing. This explains why the resort no longer offers heli-skiing. I pretend to be disappointed, but secretly, I’m relieved. Why up the ante too soon on this adventure?
At the top of the 2,700-metre mountaintop, we carry our skis and slowly climb past the ‘Out of Bounds’ sign.
We traverse along a ridge and peer down a vast expanse of expert terrain punctuated by large outcroppings of volcanic rock (or, in ski parlance, we stare down a double-black chute). Ricardo leads Chris down and then waves for me to begin my decent. But the early season snow and warm temperatures are not cooperating. The snow is like butter under my skis, I just can’t get the rhythm. I see the plume of steam from the active volcano and can only think of the hot spring that awaits me at the bottom. My confidence fades and I make awkward turns to the bottom. Definitely no postcard from the edge from this location.
At lunchtime, with the volcanic steam rising slowing all around us, I suggest that we might have to alter the expectations for our adventure ski trip. Chris responds by unstrapping his skis and settling in, knowing that trouble is brewing. “I know I said that I would be up for heli-skiing, but to be really honest, I just don’t think I have it in me. I mean, could my performance this morning have been any worse?”
“Listen,” responds Chris, “the snow was really sticky. The terrain was completely rocky and you have not skied since last winter. Please don’t talk yourself out of what you came to do. What did you say to me when we booked this trip? ‘I really want to kick it up a notch.’ Don’t do it and you’re going to leave very disappointed.”
“Disappointment I can live with. It’s the alternative that I’m worried about,” I mutter under my breath.
Still, I spend the rest of the day and most of the next morning skiing the groomed runs, finding my legs again. At the very least, I need to regain my composure before reaching our next destination, Portillo Chile.
From the moment we arrive at the picturesque setting of Portillo on Laguna Del Inca (Inca Lake), I’m struck by a sense of other-worldliness. I’ve arrived in a time capsule that hasn’t been opened in 50 years. We are greeted by the two resident St. Bernard dogs, and our bags are whisked to our rooms while Pistos are mixed and arrangements made for our four-course meal in the formal dining room. Not surprisingly, the patina of Portillo is old leather (it literally lines the walls), service is the order of the day (there are 480 staff members servicing a maximum of 400 guests) and when asked to describe Portillo in one word, the owner replies “family.” There are kids everywhere, some whose grandparents skied here as children. An authentic feeling of belonging permeates.
As we snack on a favourite local dish of anticuchos (grilled skewered meat), our host informs us that it is too early in the season for Portillo to offer heli-skiing. Is it my imagination or is he staring directly at me? I feign disappointment while Chris kicks me under the table—just in case I thought he did not see my little ‘rock on’ hand gesture under the 100-year-old wooden table. “We came to get action shots, not resort-brochure ware!” he gripes. He’s right.
Later, as we pour over the trail map, we realize that although heli-skiing may not be in the cards, the mountain has some pretty serious terrain and with the summit elevation at 3,070 metres, the snow is very good. Over several glasses of a local Malbec, the likes of which we’ve never seen in Canada, finding the answers to our ski dilemma gets easier and easier. I’m sure we can work out something.
But what am I working out, exactly? I came here to push myself out of my comfort zone, to ski the speediest slopes in the Southern Hemisphere. I journeyed this far not only to service my inner adrenalin junkie but also maybe, just maybe, to learn something about myself along the way. OK, so heli-skiing may not be in the cards for me on this trip. How else can I push myself to the outer limits—of my athletic ability, of myself? I realize that, as with any kind of journey, only those who seek new adventures with a mixture of open-mindedness and intuition will be rewarded. With just the right mixture of wide-eyed interest and methodical research, anything is possible. In that moment, I know that if I keep moving forward, an adventure will unfold and a solution to my self-imposed ski challenge will be placed right in front of me. Or on the tips of my skis, as the case may be.
Bingo. A torchlight parade down a 3,100-metre chute just to the side of Roca Jack—where several speed records have been broken, including the time Steve McKinney broke the barrier of 200 km/h in 1978.
With my detective hat firmly in place, I start chatting up the bar staff. I discover that every Friday night, the ski instructors perform a torchlight parade to mark the end of the week. Guests observe this 50-year tradition while sipping cocktails under the stars on the terrace. Near-pro-level skiers carry the lights down the hill in a twinkly procession; speed is everything and the competition to be a torch-bearer is stiff.
Bingo. A torchlight parade down a 3,100-metre chute just to the side of Roca Jack—where several speed records have been broken, including the time Steve McKinney broke the barrier of 200 km/h in 1978.
Now that’s what I call pushing the envelope. A few complicated arrangements later and I’m set to join 35 instructors for the torchlight parade the next evening. Each torch, I am told, weighs about seven kilograms and the flame can sometimes spread down the stick, but when you’re skiing in the pitch dark, such trifling matters as fire are the least of one’s worries. Perhaps some practice runs are in order for tomorrow.
The next evening, darkness seems to fall more quickly than it should. At 8 p.m., I leave the buzz and laughter of the fire-lit great room and make my way out. I leave my helmet and goggles behind. The torchlight parades I know are a procession of snowplow turns on the gentlest of terrain. Besides, ski helmets do nothing for curly hair.
As I arrive at the base of the lift, I notice that I’m the only one in the procession not wearing a ski instructor’s jacket and emblem. I am the sole guest. The thought sends a chill down my spine. I stomp my feet to stay warm and begin to mingle.
Portillo, as I mentioned, is known for its friendly, inclusive atmosphere. Yet I find myself excluded from the banter and chit-chat in full swing all around me. Was I wearing the wrong colours for this performance? Did I have bad breath? Too focused on the task ahead of me, I follow the group to the chairlift, eager to get this adventure started.
The skiers start dropping into the chairs in groups of four, but as my turn approaches, no one joins me. I finally yell out, “Are you seriously going to let me go up this chairlift at night by myself?” No one volunteers. At the very last second, an instructor named Ryan (who I later find out was ranked the number-two ski instructor at Lake Tahoe in California and one of the top instructors in Portillo) jumped onto the chair with me.
With a good distance to go to the top, Ryan explains the ‘trial by fire’ that I have unwittingly gotten myself into.
First of all, it is rare that any guest is allowed to join this torchlight parade due to the level of difficulty. In fact, only the ski director has the authority to allow a guest to join the instructors in this dangerous performance. Secondly, I do not have goggles and, he explains, “Portillo is all about speed and this torchlight parade is no different. We will descend a double-black run at the speed of light and without goggles you may find the tear factor an issue.” An issue? Does wearing a highly flammable fur collar while going ‘Mach 2’ with a kerosene-soaked torch qualify as an issue?
Ryan does not have time to answer. We jump off the chairlift and within seconds a burning, dripping kerosene torch is thrust into my hand. I am told, “no matter what, stay behind the guy in front of you. No breaks in the line—it ruins the entertainment value for the spectators.” Spectators, right. Forgot about them.
I have never gone that fast on skis in daylight, with poles, let alone at night with a flaming torch. The pace is so fast that we descend the entire 1,400 vertical feet in just over a minute. My eyes are watering and, by the end, I can barely hold up the torch. But I make it to the bottom without a break in the line. As I zoom past the lift operators, a few of them slap me on the back and cheer me on. I follow my fellow skiers and thrust my burning torch into the raging bonfire. Through my teary eyes I vaguely make out an amassing crowd, all beaming and clapping.
As Ryan passes me a Pisto and gives me the California high-five, I realize that the last time I felt this exhilarated was when I received my first standing ovation, after delivering a motivational speech to an audience of 500.
I head to the dining room for a well-deserved dinner and begin composing my postcard from the edge—the one I am finally justified in sending to my kids back home: “You will not believe what mama did today….” Tomorrow we leave for our final destination, Valle Nevado. But I already have my adventure in hand. Or so I think.
Our bus zigzags its way up the steep side of the mountain, and we are told that there are a total of 60 precarious switchbacks to the top, all of which will be shared with the endless stream of trucks coming down from Argentina. We are already short of breath at the halfway point. As the sun sets over a valley of pink-tinged peaks, our guide reminds us to drink lots of water, hold off on the wine, and not to worry if we cannot sleep at night. These are just a few of the side effects of life at 3,050 metres, the elevation of the hotel. Did I mention the sound of your heart pounding in your ears?
The next day, we are guided through an incredible setting of 37 runs, 39 kilometres of trails and more than 22,000 ski-able acres surrounded by Andean mountains that fade into the Argentinean boarder. Our ski guide, Gregg, understands our goal of adventure skiing and, without any further explanation, steers us up two chairlifts that place us at the bottom of the very highest lift on the mountain—a Poma ski lift that drags us up to 3,670 metres. From here, we make first tracks through delicious off-piste powder that is warmed by the sun. Heli-skiing is overrated anyway, I tell myself.
While Gregg and Chris partake in ski chat (steepest, deepest, hardest, scariest), I’m pretending to take in the view. Truth be told, the thin air is making me feel unsettled and the butterflies begin to flutter in my stomach, again. I sense that if Chris has anything to do with this, my ‘devil-may-care’ evening speed trek at Portillo is not going to be the physical, or psychological, climax of my journey to the Andes.
A few hours later, while celebrating a fantastic day on the slopes with our hosts and fellow skiers, I catch a glimpse of Chris at the end of the dinner table speaking in hushed tones with the general manager of the resort. I learn that since arriving at Valle Nevado, Chris has been working behind the scenes to try to hitch a last-minute ride with the (fully pre-booked) local heli-skiing operator. Two spaces ‘happen’ to have opened up on the first chopper out the next morning.
That next morning goes by in a blur. The detailed fitting for fat-boy powder skis (mandatory equipment to more easily ‘float’ in the thigh-deep, untouched powder at the top peaks) is followed by a weigh-in to ensure the helicopter can take off and land given our combined weight. Finally, I sign my life away, penning my name on several Spanish documents. The fellow skiers joke, “With heli-skiing, the flight up is free—we only have to pay for the trip down!” The humour escapes me, but then so has my nerve.
We are taken to the helicopter pad to meet our guide, Gaston, who also happens to be a French sports psychologist. I look at him somewhat imploringly, while trying to impress him with my French. He ignores my grammatical errors and takes me aside. “Ellie, what is scaring you about all of this?”
Forget the French for now. “What is scaring me? What isn’t scaring me? The fact that I may have overestimated my skiing abilities? The fact that I’m not enthralled by heights? The possibility of an avalanche? Or worse, that I will fall head over heels in waist deep snow and there will be photographs to prove it?”
He smiles. “Heli-skiing is like anything else. If you believe you can do it, you will. And I sense that you believe you can do it. I am simply here to show you how.” Perhaps a white knight in the shape and form of a French sports psychologist is just what a frightened ski bunny needs at this point.
And then the avalanche training begins. Gaston buries a transmitter in the snow so we can practice searching for it. With our backs turned, he suddenly yells “victim,” which is our cue to turn and find the beacon. I have been on stages around the world facing audiences of hundreds. I’ve been in the boardrooms of corporate giants like Apple and Sony Pictures. I have coached people on live television.
But I have never experienced dry mouth before this moment. Given the choice of fight or flight, I’m ready to pick the latter. I start babbling about my two children back home and how young they are. I notice Gaston walks over to the helicopter pilot and whispers something to him.
As I try to determine if I really have to go to the washroom for the fifth time in two hours, I can see that the rest of the ski party is getting antsy. Gaston takes me aside, explaining that the avalanche training is a worst-case scenario process and that the snowpack in Chile is the most stable in the world. Then he tells me he will personally take care of me every step of the way. I find out later that he has already made arrangements for the pilot to circle back to pick me up in the event that I can’t make the descent. I’m cool with that. As with everything in life, you always need a plan B.
We board the chopper. Our pilot, Erique, an ex-military officer, proudly tells us, “It’s a Helibras AS 350 B3, the world’s highest-flying helicopter. You could go to Mount Everest in this beast.” We’ll need it, as we climb to 4,500 metres. The Andes spreads out before us as we gain altitude. Ahead of us, we see the four major peaks between Valle Nevado and Argentina, spanning 25 kilometres. All we have to do is find a ‘spine’ or pathway that looks ski-able. Gaston finds one on the first ridge and Erique begins to circle around what is known as Olivares Valley.
Erique and Gaston have obviously done this many times before, I tell myself as I watch them point and gesture and speak loudly over their headsets. While I’m still looking for some kind of landing pad, Erique takes another pass in and around the steep granite spines and snow-covered pitches. On his third pass, we lose altitude and begin the approach. Erique and Gaston in the front seats obstruct our view below, but we all feel a sudden bump on the left side of the helicopter. Have we landed?
Before any of us can even ask the question, Gaston opens the door and shouts, “Go, go, go!” over the blast of the rotors. Chris is out first, camera in hand. I follow, spinning around and ducking behind him. Then I see it—only one of the helicopter’s skid is on the ridge, the other hangs suspended in mid-air and it’s only because of the pilot’s skill that the helicopter is kept in a perfect hover as the weight of passengers and skis constantly shifts. We huddle in a tight ball on the edge of the drop, holding hands to avoid being blown off balance as the helicopter spools up into the sky. It’s suddenly completely quiet. We look around and see it: we’re two metres away from a 300-metre drop.
It feels like hours pass before we have the courage to stand up. It turns out I’m not the only passenger with a case of the jitters—another skier announces that she simply has to take a pee. We agree to face the other way, since there is absolutely no place for her to go on our precarious peak. The comic relief helps to settle my nerves.
We step into our skis (which is no easy matter when perched on the edge of a sheer drop) and I feel my moment of reckoning crawling into every clammy pore.
Gaston traverses to the starting spot from which we will drop into a deep bowl and motions for me to follow. Everyone is waiting. I close my eyes and suddenly I’m 10 years old again, at the top of a bowl in Zuch, Austria, with my dad waiting at the bottom. I’m afraid, I’m frozen, but then I hear Don’s words at the top of Feuz Bowl, in Kicking Horse, B.C.: “The first turn is the most critical…” and with my weight forward, I reach down the steep slope and make the first turn.
A feeling of magical realism takes over—a physical sensation tinged with something much more transcendental. I’m in my body but at the same time floating outside of it. Time stands still as I sail through thigh-high powder—again and again and again.
The Andes unfurl beneath my skies as I swoop and dive down pitch after pitch, turn after turn. This is as close to flying as I have ever come.
As we come around the final bend in the mountain, the thrill of seeing our pilot, Erique, leaning against his helicopter was like coming home. I whisper my favourite lines from a Carlos Casanova poem: “For me there is the traversing of paths that have heart and I will traverse each path to its end and there you will find me looking, looking, breathlessly….” **