A SKIER’S DREAM: CHILE’S ANDES
Photo: Mark Epstein
“If I had to pick only one place in the world to ski, I would pick Chile. I would give up skiing in North America for that.”
These are not the words of a proud South American. The mouth hypothetically bidding adieu to an entire continent of skiing belongs to Greg Harms, an Oregon-born professional ski instructor and guide who not only has sampled almost every A-list ski destination in Europe and the North American West, but also has worked as a heli-skiing guide in Alaska and Greenland.
In other words, he is a man with some perspective. And in gushing about Chile, Harms is far from alone. Instructors, guides, professional free skiers, and World Cup racers the world over respond with remarkable consistency when asked about Chilean skiing: It is exceptional, they say to a man (or woman); it offers an abundance of terrain, quality of snow, warmth of hospitality, and general authenticity of experience that stand unmatched in the ski world.
“It’s most similar to big-mountain European skiing, with the friendliness of the Rockies but with a relaxed attitude only available here,” says Mark Jones, a guide who first came to Chile from Canada in 1978 and now operates Chilean Heli Ski and Puma Lodge. “The slopes are on the same or a larger scale to the bigger developed areas of the Alps. And the snow is outstanding, like none other on the planet. It’s exceptionally light and dry and falls with a big crystal structure, a true champagne powder that’s drier even than that of Utah or Banff.”
That Chile has become the darling of the global ski cognoscenti is all the more remarkable when you consider that the country claims fewer ski areas than Connecticut and Massachusetts combined — a mere 14. Among those, only three — Valle Nevado, Nevados de Chillán, and Portillo — could be considered bona fide global-skier attractions.
But while Chile’s ski areas may be few in number, their terrain stats are numerically superior to any you’ll find in North America — starting with the largest ski resort in the southern hemisphere, Valle Nevado. With a vertical drop of 2,658 feet (comparable to that of Colorado’s Copper Mountain or Taos, New Mexico) and more than 23,000 acres of skiable terrain, it’s four times larger than Vail, but its 1,300 beds (split among three hotels and a handful of apartments) are about one-tenth what you’ll find at Vail. The resort was planned and constructed by French developers in the late 1980s, and though its purpose-built look (similar to France’s Les Arcs) isn’t to everyone’s taste, when each skier essentially confronts his or her own private Back Bowl upon hitting the snow, few seem to complain.
The snow, of course, can hit too. “A classic Andes storm is like a Tahoe storm,” says Harms. “It doesn’t throw down a couple of feet, it throws down a couple of meters. You can get snowed in just like you do in Alta.”
You might be thinking, “But can’t you just ski in the trees?” Not really, because Chilean skiing is almost entirely devoid of trees. Though it takes some adjusting to the absence of speed-gauging perspective, it “makes skiers more imaginative,” says Mimi Silvino, a snowboard instructor and massage therapist from Redondo
Beach, California, who lives endless winters among her home state, Chile, Colorado, and Alaska. “It makes people more willing to explore the other terrain
features — the cliffs and chutes and bowls.” It also makes for some of the best cruising on the planet.