It’s early in the morning, so early that roosters are crowing in backyards. The clip-clopping of donkey carts accompanies the avian symphony—and we narrowly miss a burro as we turn onto a single-lane road bordered by small farms, ramshackle huts, and the debris of a hand-to-mouth, agrarian existence. This near miss jerks us out of our early-morning fog, which I personally blame on Chile’s weak coffee.
If you want to get close with rural Chile, the road to Ski Arpa is the place to do it. The drive traverses hidden vineyards, microscopic villages, and rumbling creeks before climbing up a lost valley toward the final destination: Ski Arpa, South America’s only cat-skiing operation.
Arpa is the brainchild of 74-year-old Anton “Toni” Sponar. Toni, who helped develop Argentina’s Los Penitentes ski resort, spent years looking for the ideal spot to build his own ski area. He finally found it in Chile, in a wild, empty valley above the town of Los Andes. When he first arrived on foot, he noticed huge avalanche paths and nixed the idea of installing lifts. Instead, Toni imported a couple of cats from North America.
After the close call with the donkey, we’re relieved to finally arrive at Arpa’s stunning alpine terrain, which includes views of Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere. The views get better on the way to the top, via an open-air ride in the back of the cat. One particular vantage, onto a run called Avalanches, draws us like Santiago panhandlers to a bottle of pisco.
Avalanches, an Arpa test piece, sits on a spur just down the ridge from the cat drop. Anton Jr., Toni’s son, leads us on a traverse across a saddle and a short, sweaty hike up to the spur. The sweating intensifies when I peer into the line and notice that it’s composed of several steep fins below a menacing cornice. But Avalanches is a marquee run not for its technical difficulty (though certain parts can be dicey) but its length. Ski this one nonstop and your guides might buy your first beer at day’s end. My stomach in knots, I pick a spine and drop in. The snow sloughs with every buttery turn, cascading over jagged cliffs. The crux is a rush of speed and air that vomits me from the spine into an endless Andean gully, terrain that begs for opening up the throttle. The gully spits me out at the cat road with burned legs, 3,000 vertical feet below the cornice.
Back at the modest base lodge, we tip back buck-fifty Escudos, the local beer. Like the rest of Chile, Arpa makes your pesos go a long way. The only thing lacking, of course, is strong coffee.
Lodge: Ski Arpa only has a day lodge. Stay in the town of Los Andes, about 45 minutes away.
Food: The base lodge sells basic snacks like empanadas and chocolate bars, plus cheap après-ski beers.
Max Elevation: 12,350 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 3,300 feet
Average Daily Vertical: 12,000 feet
Price: $195 per person per day, with additional runs at $25 per person. Reservations are required.