Mission: Accomplished

Friday August 3rd,  2017

Somewhere between Puerto Montt and the Argentinian border

I’ve just left Puerto Montt, Chile, for a seven hour bus ride over to Bariloche, in Argentina, where I’ll spend the next week skiing. After a few bus rides of similar duration in Asia, one might be reluctant to hop aboard, but I think this one will be a little better: the seats are comfortable, they recline, and there are even little leg rests. I have a window seat on the second deck of the bus, and the views once we get into the national parks east of here are meant to be great. And Carlos, the bus equivalent of a flight attendant,  just handed out small breakfast trays with some sweets, tea, and coffee. Maybe bus travel can be nice!

I arrived in South America a week ago now, first landing in Buenos Aires for a short night, and then a quick hop over the Andes to Santiago. There were great views of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the world not in the Himalayas) on the way.

The first couple days in Santiago provided perhaps the most stressful moments of this entire trip (including all those moments spent on shit-your-pants terrain in Chamonix): driving in the city. I wanted to have a little flexibility to explore Chile so decided to rent a car for the first few days here.

I’m sure driving in Santiago is no worse than many North American cities, it’s just that all the road signs are in Spanish only, the exit signs are completely un-related to the directions I was given from Google, and street signs are nothing more than a post-it note on a telephone pole. On the drive in from the airport I managed to: miss my exit for the hostel (which caused an hour long detour through the city, in the dark); turn the wrong way onto a one way street (fortunately someone outside yelled at me and I clued in to pull a quick Uey before I drove into an oncoming car); and get stuck in the middle of a large intersection on a red light. When I did finally find the hostel (with only my psyche a little damaged) there was no parking available. So, I had to pay off the night attendant at the gas station down the street to keep an eye on the car while I left it in the 30 minute parking zone for the entire night. The conversation took way longer than it needed to, but I can hardly speak Spanish, and he could hardly speak English.

Things went a little better the following morning (Sunday) for the drive out to El Colorado ski area, about 50 km east of Santiago. It started with finding the rental car still in the parking lot, with windows and tires are still in tact.

The drive to the hill was pretty neat. Santiago sits in the bottom of the north-south running valley between the Andes and the Pacific Cordillera. As you drive east, the Andes look like a giant, snow-capped wall, offering no way out. Once off the highway and onto the ski access road, one must complete 40 hair pin turns (they are numbered on the road) in order to climb up to the base of the hills. At times I wasn’t sure if my dinky little rental car would make it. The approach was somewhat similar to Morocco, as I passed through dry, desert like slopes, with cactuses lining the road shoulder.

Excitement started to build once I safely arrived to the parking lot and put on my gear. The price tag of a one day lift ticket caused me to flinch a little bit, but I was more than happy to splurge, hop on that first lift, and accomplish what I set out to do when I left Vancouver over six months ago.

After riding up a couple slow double chairs and then a T-bar to get to the top of the mountain, I dropped in for my first run in South America.  It was the best run on garbage snow  that I have ever had. Of course the snow quality in that particular moment was totally irrelevant. Sure it would have been nice to make fresh tracks the whole way down, but the feeling of accomplishment at the bottom was greater than the feelings at the bottom of some of the best powder runs I’ve had elsewhere. With the exception of Antarctica (which is an adventure for another day), I had now skied on every continent in the world. On the t-bar ride up for run #2, I couldn’t hold back tears of joy.  It was one of the coolest moments I’ve experienced, maybe ever.

I continued to ride the lifts and run laps for longer than I would normally do, riding the high of being able to say “mission: accomplished”. By mid afternoon I was literally falling asleep on the slow double chairlift, still being a little jet-lagged from the long flight over from New Zealand. I packed it in for the afternoon, had a nap in the car, and then mentally prepared myself for the drive back into the city.

After Night #2 of paying off gas station attendants, I was eager to get out of Santiago. And because it was Monday morning, I had to have the car gone by 8:00am, otherwise it was going to be “big problemo”. So I packed up and headed south out of the city, without making any wrong turns.

Apparently Chile is home to roughly 10% of the worlds active volcanoes.  Although I’ve technically already skied on volcanoes near home (Baker, Rainier), I thought it would be a cool experience to ski some Chilean ones. The nearest place to do so from Santiago was about 5 hours south at Nevados de Chillan, which is where I decided to head for a couple days of skiing.

I was more than happy with my decision to make the trek south. The ski resort at Nevados de Chillan offers easy backcountry access to the slopes of several volcanoes, one of which was actively smoking.

With absolutely no snow having fallen in the last two weeks, and freezing levels having gone through the roof (which helps consolidate the snowpack), I decided to venture out into the backcountry on my own (not a practice I would recommend). But given the current conditions, and the generally mellow terrain, I figured I was more likely to be buried in volcanic ash than in avalanche debris.

The terrain was really interesting, with rolling slopes and gullies carved out from previous eruptions. In areas of low snowpack, you could see all sorts of volcanic rocks that had been deposited. And on my second afternoon I even skied into one of the small volcano craters, which was a pretty neat experience. All with Volcàn de Chillan Nuevo smoldering in the background (there was actually no snow near the crest of the volcano, presumably having been melted away).  The views north and south were some of the most spectacular of the whole trip, with distinct volcano cones visible as far as the eye could see.  If I had more time, I definitely would have spent a few more days there. It would be a great place to ski with some fresh snow.

Speaking of fresh snow, it looks like Bariloche is going to get a bunch of it in the next few days, so (fingers crossed) it should be a great few days. After a week in Bariloche it’s back to Santiago and out to Portillo for, unbelievably, the very last week of this unbelievable journey.

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