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Endless Winter

Endless Winter

Features
By Edith Thys Morgan
posted: 05/01/1999

As a kid, I remember watching the surfing movie Endless Summer and marveling over how anyone could be so obsessed with a sport that they would travel the world to follow its seasons. Yet years later, as a ski racer in training, it seemed perfectly normal to be skiing 3 feet of fresh snow in August. As a member of the U.S. Ski Team, my teammates and I were annually transported from the summer heat and plunked down in the Southern Hemisphere, where winter was in full swing. Though we occasionally traveled to New Zealand or Australia, most of our summer training was in South America. Something about those journeys made them especially memorable. Part of it was the skiing¿sometimes the best and the most we got all year¿but much of it was the adventure. South America is a pilgrimage every serious skier should make.

Getting to South America means traveling through the beach culture gateways of Miami (for Argentina) or Los Angeles (for Chile). Traipsing through the palm-lined airports, ski boots over our shoulders, and spending long layovers napping on piles of 6-pair ski bags, we in no way blended in. That was just a primer. South America felt exceedingly friendly yet more foreign than our European haunts¿its cities culturally exotic, its mountains remote and rugged. At times it felt like a different planet, which made it incredibly easy to focus on training, to enjoy skiing in its primal form.

The trip to Las Leñas, Argentina, requires a stopover night in Buenos Aires, where we would go to some restaurant displaying spit-roasted meat varieties in the window. A cautionary note here: Vegetarians planning to vacation in South America better bring their own tofu, because "lomo" reigns supreme.

From Buenos Aires it's another flight to Malargue and a 2-hour bus ride to Las Leñas. Somewhat like the purpose-built resorts of France, Las Leñas has the look of a lunar outpost, thanks to the rock-studded treeless terrain and the clusters of metal-roofed structures that comprise the resort. Indeed, this is the place for a focused ski trip, unless you have unlimited dollars to burn in the casino. (Some visitors do, as Las Leñas is a favorite destination for the Argentinean elite.) The best news for American skiers is that vacationing Argentines like to stay out late, starting their casual lounge-chair breakfast at about 11 am and leaving the slopes wide open all morning.

The climate in this part of the Andes is said to be similar to that of our Sierra, with copious amounts of snow followed by long periods of high pressure and mild temperatures. In all my trips that was true. The storms that rolled in were serious business. Las Leñas is about 20 miles from the site of the plane crash featured in the movie Alive, and when the wind howls in a whiteout you can't help but imagine the helplessness of those plane crash survivors. When the storms pass, that same eerie solitude becomes a blessing, as you behold jagged peaks, guarding uninterrupted snowfields beneath their summits, in every direction. When the powder is skied out, which takes days instead of hours, strong night winds buff the mountain better than the most sophisticated grooming machine.

Safety standards are, shall we say, a bit more relaxed down south. One time, after an especially fierce storm, an avalanche took out a tower midway up the Volcano lift, which we used for downhill training. We assumed that was the end of our training there. But as soon as the sun came out, the chair was up and running, and from it we had a perfect view of the Pisten Bully burying the tower. There was something deliciously lawless about the place, which caused everyone to relax. That, more than anything, made it the best training of the year.

Of all the fun we had, the raw intensity of the skiing was most satisfying. When not training on the gentler frontside, we let loose on the Marte lift, which climbs 2,500 vertical feet straight up theackside of Las Leñas' rock-studded fall-line. From there, we'd pick one of countless chutes, or drop beneath the lift into a perfectly wind-buffed amphitheater of fall-line steeps.

The first thing the coaches told us upon arrival was, "Don't sell your old uniforms." So that was the last thing we did. Given the willingness of the Las Leñas clientele, it was too good a capitalist opportunity to pass up. (This was before the ski team had figured out how to exploit the U.S. Ski Team logo themselves. Open your eyes at any major ski area today and you'll see at least a dozen retail "U.S. Ski Team outfits.") I don't believe we sold anything to Argentinean President Carlos Menem, who showed up to watch a snow polo match, but soccer star Diego Maradona left with a smile and a fine U.S. Ski Team vest (while one of my teammates left with a pocket full of cash). And once, while waiting to depart on a bus, the entire team witnessed a woman who could barely walk in her rear-entry boots emerge from the hotel, clad head to toe in a U.S. coach's uniform.

Across the Andes, Chile has several areas within 2 hours of Santiago, making it an easy trip from the West Coast. In fact, by leaving LA in the evening you can be skiing in Chile the following afternoon. The most famous resort is Portillo, which rests lakeside in a high valley at the end of a seemingly endless serpentine road (actually part of the Pan American Highway, Portillo lies just short of the Argentine border). Though it is smaller than Las Leñas, Portillo is steeped in European tradition and feels like a more familiar ski experience. Accommodations are at the Hotel Portillo, where guests break for tea each day at 4:30, and where the owner hosts a weekly pisco sour welcome party (again assuring the slopes will be empty early morning).

Portillo is the exclusive home of the Roca Jack, a five-person-across poma that looks like it came straight out of Torquemada's chamber. The beauty of this lift is its self-regulating effect. If you can't hang on, you surely can't handle the precipitous terrain it accesses. From here one traverses a series of rock outcroppings to successive chutes, one of which hosted the World Speed Skiing trials throughout the Eighties. Looking down the barrel of the chute gives you an instant respect for the feats of Steve McKinney and his comrades. Each of the chutes starts with a near freefall, widens into the smooth expanse of an alluvial field and then into rolling treeless terrain. The other side of the valley has more intermediate skiing (served by a more civilized chairlift), and an on-mountain outdoor barbecue, another pleasant mainstay of South American ski areas. Again, when it snows, it does so with a vengeance. Many skiers have tales of skiing out of Portillo with their luggage on their backs, then catching a bus to Santiago.

Farther south in Chile, the ski areas get even less crowded, and present more adventure. Termas de Chillan, a 5-hour bouncy train ride south, has hot springs and a hotel right at the base of a mountain that features steep to moderate, partially treed terrain. Though it rained most of the time we were there, the guests hardly noticed, spending their time instead basking in the spring-fed hot pool, and dancing Lambada in the disco, kids included, until 3 am.

To explore more, you can fly south from Santiago to Temuco, and from there drive to Villarica, a volcano on the northern end of Chile's lake district. Villarica feels much like an undeveloped Mt. Hood. The even pitch and lava-flow-formed canyons make it a cruising playground, and the option of hiking to the volcano's summit is a daily temptation. When we were there, most of the lifts were old T-bars from California's June Mountain Resort. The skiing requires a 20-minute road rally on dirt roads, worth every bit of car-sickness for the views along the way. Accommodations are in a huge summer resort on the black sand shore of Lake Villarica. Though the grand hotel is virtually abandoned during the winter, staffers in starched white jackets serve you in style. The relaxed atmosphere throughout South America is strangely balanced with a high level of formality in service and a casual joie de vivre with staff and guests alike. Stiff waiters pretend not to understand you as you try to con the last of the dulce de leche ice cream (a staple long before Haagen Dazs claimed it), but then bring it out for everyone with a wink and a smile.

Sitting on a dock above Lake Villarica at night, if you stare back at the mountain and are patient, you'll become aware of the faint glow from the volcano's crater. In moments like that the experience of skiing in South America seems best defined. If you want guarantees, this may not be the place to vacation. But if you seek adventure and a little bit of magic, go south for the winter.

For more information:Argentina Tourism Office, (212) 603-0443; Portillo, Chile, (800) 829-5325.

gh the grand hotel is virtually abandoned during the winter, staffers in starched white jackets serve you in style. The relaxed atmosphere throughout South America is strangely balanced with a high level of formality in service and a casual joie de vivre with staff and guests alike. Stiff waiters pretend not to understand you as you try to con the last of the dulce de leche ice cream (a staple long before Haagen Dazs claimed it), but then bring it out for everyone with a wink and a smile.

Sitting on a dock above Lake Villarica at night, if you stare back at the mountain and are patient, you'll become aware of the faint glow from the volcano's crater. In moments like that the experience of skiing in South America seems best defined. If you want guarantees, this may not be the place to vacation. But if you seek adventure and a little bit of magic, go south for the winter.

For more information:Argentina Tourism Office, (212) 603-0443; Portillo, Chile, (800) 829-5325.

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