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Nieve Rosada

Features
posted: 12/05/2002

As always, it seemed like a good idea at the time: Forsake the April doldrums for sun-soaked skiing and early-season beach-bumming in one of Europe's party capitals, stirred liberally with the kind of cultural epiphany bound to occur in a place none of us had ever been. Sierra Nevada: the perfect spring break.

On such razor-thin logic, Eric Berger, Smiley Nesbitt, Richie Schley, and I have caught the inaugural flight of a first-ever direct route from Toronto to Madrid, Spain-complete with weird faux tapas and a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the departure lounge-and are now feeling the inevitable transatlantic effects of cultural assimilation. The pain is exacerbated by the prospect of a five-hour haul south to the country's loftiest ski area, Sierra Nevada. It's the crown jewel of Spanish skiing and de facto godfather range to a world of Latin-labeled namesakes.

On the drive, we cross vast plains flatter than any North American prairie, the monotony interrupted only by occasional and incongruous three-story billboard-style silhouettes of a black bull-liquor-ad leftovers that have since gained cachet as cultural icons. When the land finally wrinkles, folds, and breaks where the plate of a nascent African continent first introduced itself to Europe, canyons yawn, mountains loom, and sunny hillsides sprout an olive-tree color that runs to every horizon. The smell of freshly pressed olive oil hangs thick in the air.

The road up is a zig-zag through tiny villages, orchards, and roadside honey concessions, rising through several vegetation zones that peter out into a smattering of pine, dominated, fittingly, by one last three-story bull. The giant bovid profile is only slightly more Dali-esque than the cluster of real bulls kicking through the snow here.

Although the town of Sierra Nevada clings as precariously to the mountainside as a medieval village, any similarity ends there. The concrete base cluster mirrors the modern mountain blight that is the purpose-built Euro ski resort. We're bunking at the low-profile Hotel Telecabine, however, which is the original village hotel, a labyrinth of funkified wood and dusty photos.

A first look around suggests our travel plan was well conceived: Fresh snow lies in glistening clots under a blazing spring sun, and the multi-ethnic mix of Spaniards, Portuguese, Argentines, and Brits crowding the numerous decks confirms it's also game-on in the après department. From the base at 7,000 feet, we can see across the steely waters of the Mediterranean to the shores of Morocco, the outline of Gibralter hovering in a haze to the west.

Stimulated by the exotic surroundings, we charge the gondola, then ride variable-speed chairs up a series of up-thrust strata and natural halfpipes into the alpine reaches of the resort. We want to get as high as possible to take advantage of abandoned new snow in an adjacent valley where lift service has been suspended for the season.

But we're no match for an incoming cloud bank racing up 4,000 vertical feet from the Strait of Gibralter. We step off the final T-bar into the kind of featureless high-alpine milk bowl that Europe is famous for drowning jet-lagged victims in.

Beating a hasty retreat back to the base as snow starts to fall, Eric bumps into a snowboarder named Tincho who he once photographed in the small resort of Chapelco, Argentina. A brief but intense white-planet, small-world-type conversation ensues, and we arrange to meet at an outdoor cafe for beers. Tincho shows up with a small posse of wide-eyed locals marching in parade step.

"Estamos, uh-como se dice? We are-freeskiers," a short, easygoing Argen- tinian named Mauricio asserts through a smile that beams like a searchlight from the most savage tan imaginable.

"This is true," adds a hulk named Chappa, who's brooding over a freshly broken ski, "and we have a video, too."

The Tower of Babel cracks open in Spanish, French, and glish. It's quickly apparent that these gente are local keepers of the flame; dedicated souls weaned on North American ski videos who spend as much time as possible outside of the heavily choked pistas. The problem for such iconoclasts in outposts like this, where foreign sensibilities tend not to pool deeply, is that without a constant stream of like-minded visitors, there's little opportunity for cross-pollination.

Their leader steps forward with offers of crazy descents and local secrets. Discovering we're from Whistler, he's certain we're the long-awaited mothership sent to rescue them from planet piste. We can't dissuade him by revealing our true beach-blanket-bikini-bingo agenda, either. In lieu of direct communication, he pulls out a chunk of hash the size of a tennis ball.

And that's how we meet Chipy.

Eduardochichero xaffon-Chipy to all-is the figurative mayor of Sierra Nevada. He speaks excellent English, to be sure, but more salient qualifications include being a long-time local guide, instructor and bon-vivant, the guaranteed last one standing at any fiesta (of which there are legion) and likely first on the slopes. On the hill, he's kept busy greeting instructors, coaches, mechanics, and groomers, but it's in the clubs that he's truly king: Bartenders, DJs, managers, and patrons cycle endlessly wherever he holds court, his constant laughter and bobbing page-boy haircut an anchor in the stormy, strobe-lit sea of humanity.

His posse is equally effusive; there are the Argentinians-little Mauri and his smile plus big, clown-like Chappa-and Ingrid, a beautiful, soft-spoken girl of Moroccan, Spanish, and French descent who is goddess mother to the lot. Their enthusiasm is both contagious and overwhelming. But the feeling is mutual: Chipy and company are just what the doctor ordered-Sierra intimates who want to share their high-altitude kingdom. They are our saviors.

Next morning it clears off after depositing six inches of dense, wind-hammered snow-unremarkable save for the fact that the snow is unmistakably pink. Courtesy of a low, parked off the West African coast, the snow's tinge is a consequence of its origin over the Sahara desert and sand dust transported across the Mediterranean. The phenomenon is called kalima.

Our first close-up look at the broad but soaring resort reveals a series of ridgelines dominated by weird buildings. A double-turreted observatory and an enormous 10-story, Dr. Evil-like satellite dish suggest that this is the highest point between the Alps and Kilimanjaro. The lift layout is a typical paradox of purpose-built affairs-cluttered and illogical but nevertheless dense with riders.

After bagging a few runs on low-angled piste, we drop over the back side to ski short chutes filled with creamy kalima. The finger slots backstop the tilted peak of the resort like an inverted pipe organ, all emptying into a wide basin that traces northward into the olives. The frosting underfoot cuts away in tectonic slabs but is manageable enough that we consider heading back up for another attempt at the valley we were turned back from our first day. Before this thought coalesces, it socks in again and starts snowing in earnest.

Although almost noon, our planned rendezvous with Chappa and Chipy has yet to materialize; naturally, we find them at the bottom, lounging outside the Xoubar. "We just arrive, and now look at this," says Chipy, waving his hand at the snow in disgust and sinking back into his chair. "But okay, because tonight is big party."

In fact, thousands have streamed into town on this particular Friday for a massive end-of-season snowboard contest. We're excited for a little cultura, of course, but getting down with the local party program proves challenging. Nobody eats dinner before 11 p.m., and restaurants remain packed until 1 a.m. when the clubs open their doors; the clubs in turn are ghost towns until two. Then, look out.

Thus, it isn't until 2:30 a.m.-14-hours later and barely awake-that we finally join Chipy and company at Sticky Fingers Bar. Located in "club row" on an upper tier of the zipper-like road that sews a hillside of concrete towers together, Sticky Fingers has the contemporary veneer of overpierced DJs and trance house mix, but it also harks back to the '60s in décor, with psychedelic murals of musical icons like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. It harks back in other ways, too, as the dark, sofa-strewn balcony is pretty much reserved for hash smoking.

A deeply rooted Moroccan tradition-inspired by the proximity to the crazy, world-party-capital scene of Spain's infamous island of Ibiza-hash use is ever-present in the resort-on the lifts and decks, in the lounges and bars-a full-on public consumption that no one minds. Which is why, when things get murky around 5 a.m., I blame the not insignificant effects of second-hand smoke.

When we awake-a relative term-there's more than a foot of wet snow blanketing the village. Word spreads that it's scheduled to pound all day; nothing will be open on the hill. We round up the gang and head for the coast.

We reach the beach after an hour-long drive, but sheets of heavy rain and torrents continue to pour. But it is the Mediterranean, where palm trees rule and hibiscus are in bloom. Chipy herds us through a hedge and into the back door of an inauspicious restaurant. The waiters, of course, call him by name and within minutes we're drinking wine and eating olives at a long oak table. Then it's calamari so fresh it swims down our throats, garlic shrimp, snapper, and every size and shape of bait-fish you can choke down-head, bones and all. Hours later and bellies full, we head back into the maelstrom and point ourselves toward Granada.

Centuries ago Jews, Arabs, and Catholics lived here in peace and prosperity. It was a successful, bustling city where the filigreed masonry of Moorish design fused with the buttressed arches of soaring cathedrals. Then came the Crusades, and all hell broke loose in the name of heaven. Today, the ancient Arab and Christian sections contrast starkly in endlessly fascinating ways. Finding our way into the dimly lit recesses of a Moroccan tea house, we sink into pillows as Chipy expertly pours mint tea from an intricately worked brass urn. Revitalized, we brave the latest downpour for one last tourist moment at one of the wonders of the Muslim world.

The Alhambra-immortalized in a hundred books, posters, and every conceivable form of souvenir paraphernalia from postcard to Viewmaster-is part fortress, part museum, and part abbey. Its imposing magnificence over the city is such that reservations must be made weeks in advance to tour it. Thus, we're limited to climbing steep, cobblestoned streets to an overlook. As we crowd the viewing rail, the storm that has raged all day yields, and sunlight streams onto walls through fissures in the clouds-a sight that seems the perfect end to a perfect day. But the day isn't over.

Chipy wants to drive back by an alternate route. Looking toward the blackness re-enveloping the massif, we wonder about his wisdom. Chipy insists, "no problemo." As any seasoned traveler will attest, these words are the kiss of death. Chipy's road is the quintessential "back way," a single-lane hairpin stepladder climbing 3,000 feet from the bottom of a gorge up a canyon wall so sheer you could base jump from every corner. We pray we don't hit snowline until we intersect the four-lane. No luck; as light fades we lay terrifying tracks in fresh nieve. By the time we reach the highway, we're spinning through enormous drifts, barely able to see as falling temperatures amplify the volume of flakes. The last few kilometers are a nightmare of fishtails, near misses, and skidding buses. Lost bulls stagger from the darkness.

Safely back in Sierra Nevada, Chipy remains annoyingly sanguine. "See? No problem." But killing his, it isn't until 2:30 a.m.-14-hours later and barely awake-that we finally join Chipy and company at Sticky Fingers Bar. Located in "club row" on an upper tier of the zipper-like road that sews a hillside of concrete towers together, Sticky Fingers has the contemporary veneer of overpierced DJs and trance house mix, but it also harks back to the '60s in décor, with psychedelic murals of musical icons like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. It harks back in other ways, too, as the dark, sofa-strewn balcony is pretty much reserved for hash smoking.

A deeply rooted Moroccan tradition-inspired by the proximity to the crazy, world-party-capital scene of Spain's infamous island of Ibiza-hash use is ever-present in the resort-on the lifts and decks, in the lounges and bars-a full-on public consumption that no one minds. Which is why, when things get murky around 5 a.m., I blame the not insignificant effects of second-hand smoke.

When we awake-a relative term-there's more than a foot of wet snow blanketing the village. Word spreads that it's scheduled to pound all day; nothing will be open on the hill. We round up the gang and head for the coast.

We reach the beach after an hour-long drive, but sheets of heavy rain and torrents continue to pour. But it is the Mediterranean, where palm trees rule and hibiscus are in bloom. Chipy herds us through a hedge and into the back door of an inauspicious restaurant. The waiters, of course, call him by name and within minutes we're drinking wine and eating olives at a long oak table. Then it's calamari so fresh it swims down our throats, garlic shrimp, snapper, and every size and shape of bait-fish you can choke down-head, bones and all. Hours later and bellies full, we head back into the maelstrom and point ourselves toward Granada.

Centuries ago Jews, Arabs, and Catholics lived here in peace and prosperity. It was a successful, bustling city where the filigreed masonry of Moorish design fused with the buttressed arches of soaring cathedrals. Then came the Crusades, and all hell broke loose in the name of heaven. Today, the ancient Arab and Christian sections contrast starkly in endlessly fascinating ways. Finding our way into the dimly lit recesses of a Moroccan tea house, we sink into pillows as Chipy expertly pours mint tea from an intricately worked brass urn. Revitalized, we brave the latest downpour for one last tourist moment at one of the wonders of the Muslim world.

The Alhambra-immortalized in a hundred books, posters, and every conceivable form of souvenir paraphernalia from postcard to Viewmaster-is part fortress, part museum, and part abbey. Its imposing magnificence over the city is such that reservations must be made weeks in advance to tour it. Thus, we're limited to climbing steep, cobblestoned streets to an overlook. As we crowd the viewing rail, the storm that has raged all day yields, and sunlight streams onto walls through fissures in the clouds-a sight that seems the perfect end to a perfect day. But the day isn't over.

Chipy wants to drive back by an alternate route. Looking toward the blackness re-enveloping the massif, we wonder about his wisdom. Chipy insists, "no problemo." As any seasoned traveler will attest, these words are the kiss of death. Chipy's road is the quintessential "back way," a single-lane hairpin stepladder climbing 3,000 feet from the bottom of a gorge up a canyon wall so sheer you could base jump from every corner. We pray we don't hit snowline until we intersect the four-lane. No luck; as light fades we lay terrifying tracks in fresh nieve. By the time we reach the highway, we're spinning through enormous drifts, barely able to see as falling temperatures amplify the volume of flakes. The last few kilometers are a nightmare of fishtails, near misses, and skidding buses. Lost bulls stagger from the darkness.

Safely back in Sierra Nevada, Chipy remains annoyingly sanguine. "See? No problem." But killing him will hurt our chances in the clubs, and we'll need at least until 5 a.m. to unwind.

Saturday's snowboard event is canceled as the storm continues, but at day's end, the tempest seems to be receding, and hope for a stellar tomorrow spikes again. After a fine, homespun dinner at Ingrid's with our newfound family, we head into the night to discover it snowing anew. It's now hard to walk; sidewalks are obliterated and cars have disappeared, reduced to cold, mute mounds. It's the biggest snowfall of the season-and one of the deepest ever. There's no choice but to hit the clubs again and hope for clear skies come morning.

This evening's tour is kicked off by commandeering a big-screen TV to watch a video the boys made in their home area of San Carlos de Bariloche, and some of Chipy's footage from Sierra Nevada. Los Argentinos rip everything, posting legitimate claim to a freeski heritage, but Chipy's flailing antics-on short parabolics and tiny poles replete with Euro-carve gliders- raise serious questions and a fair amount of laughter.

Our final day dawns less than promising. The snow has ceased, but pea-soup fog continues to limit visibility. We go up early and work a series of cliffs under the surrealistic satellite dish. Nearby, a weekend race club scrapes the snow from a run to set up gates, while freestylers fashion moguls from the spoils on an adjacent line. Under the cliffs, the snow is profundo, powder lines are abundant, and when the fog begins to lift, the skiing goes off. Both sky and crowds bust wide open.

We bolt to the top, bent on finally touring the adjacent valley and a large face we've been eyeing. Off the T-bar, we boot-pack to the summit and slide into a hanging basin of soft fresh. We manage a few short pitches, and Smiley nails a nice off-camber ramp while Richie climbs a back-side ridge to the highest saddle above us, hoping for a few subsonic turns on the wide-open face. But it's not meant to be; returning fog gets us all lost, and by the time we've regrouped, it's in thick. We trudge back to the resort through braided moraines and undulating meadows. In the end we have to herringbone up a road to exit the valley. But lo and behold, our first re-sighting of the resort is accompanied by the realization that the saddle on which we stand is lateral to a broad, unclaimed powder slope under the observatory. It's a short shot, but wading 20 minutes through waist-deep (with the sudden and usual opportunistic tide of snowboarders lapping at our post-holes) is worth it. Richie and I score first tracks, followed by a cartwheeling Chipy. As a finale, we hit the modest terrain park, where the abridged snowboard comp is wrapping; Mauri launches a stylie mute 720, and both he and Chappa prove solid rail-sliders.

Then, still standing on the mountain as light flattens in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, we realize it's over, and suddenly we're all laughing and crying and hugging like we've known each other forever. Sure it poured at the beach, and on the mountain it had "pinked" so hard we barely skied, but the warmth and generosity of our new friends had made the whole crazy trans-Atlantic notion worthwhile. Not the perfect spring break maybe, but a perfect break from spring.

g him will hurt our chances in the clubs, and we'll need at least until 5 a.m. to unwind.

Saturday's snowboard event is canceled as the storm continues, but at day's end, the tempest seems to be receding, and hope for a stellar tomorrow spikes again. After a fine, homespun dinner at Ingrid's with our newfound family, we head into the night to discover it snowing anew. It's now hard to walk; sidewalks are obliterated and cars have disappeared, reduced to cold, mute mounds. It's the biggest snowfall of the season-and one of the deepest ever. There's no choice but to hit the clubs again and hope for clear skies come morning.

This evening's tour is kicked off by commandeering a big-screen TV to watch a videoo the boys made in their home area of San Carlos de Bariloche, and some of Chipy's footage from Sierra Nevada. Los Argentinos rip everything, posting legitimate claim to a freeski heritage, but Chipy's flailing antics-on short parabolics and tiny poles replete with Euro-carve gliders- raise serious questions and a fair amount of laughter.

Our final day dawns less than promising. The snow has ceased, but pea-soup fog continues to limit visibility. We go up early and work a series of cliffs under the surrealistic satellite dish. Nearby, a weekend race club scrapes the snow from a run to set up gates, while freestylers fashion moguls from the spoils on an adjacent line. Under the cliffs, the snow is profundo, powder lines are abundant, and when the fog begins to lift, the skiing goes off. Both sky and crowds bust wide open.

We bolt to the top, bent on finally touring the adjacent valley and a large face we've been eyeing. Off the T-bar, we boot-pack to the summit and slide into a hanging basin of soft fresh. We manage a few short pitches, and Smiley nails a nice off-camber ramp while Richie climbs a back-side ridge to the highest saddle above us, hoping for a few subsonic turns on the wide-open face. But it's not meant to be; returning fog gets us all lost, and by the time we've regrouped, it's in thick. We trudge back to the resort through braided moraines and undulating meadows. In the end we have to herringbone up a road to exit the valley. But lo and behold, our first re-sighting of the resort is accompanied by the realization that the saddle on which we stand is lateral to a broad, unclaimed powder slope under the observatory. It's a short shot, but wading 20 minutes through waist-deep (with the sudden and usual opportunistic tide of snowboarders lapping at our post-holes) is worth it. Richie and I score first tracks, followed by a cartwheeling Chipy. As a finale, we hit the modest terrain park, where the abridged snowboard comp is wrapping; Mauri launches a stylie mute 720, and both he and Chappa prove solid rail-sliders.

Then, still standing on the mountain as light flattens in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, we realize it's over, and suddenly we're all laughing and crying and hugging like we've known each other forever. Sure it poured at the beach, and on the mountain it had "pinked" so hard we barely skied, but the warmth and generosity of our new friends had made the whole crazy trans-Atlantic notion worthwhile. Not the perfect spring break maybe, but a perfect break from spring.

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