My first glimpse was nothing—solid, motionless white out another bus window. Goddam buses. It was dumping. Street signs would shift by outside the dripping pane, almost buried in snow. This proved to be an accurate intro: we were always seeing something we couldn’t quite access—a big, beautiful culoir that you could never get with safe enough snow; an austere, mesmerizing Argentine girl who would never let you past hello; a three meter dump hit by such fierce winds you could only watch as it all blew into Chile.
We were propelled through a convoluted, brilliant four months of South American wandering by our simple curiosity and tales of a snowboarding Shangri La in the Andes. Cheap heli-riding. Gobs of snow. Over 4,000 feet of vert. Gourmet meals for six bucks. More lift accessed backcountry than you could imagine. And Argentina’s famous beauties. When I got the email I immediately decided to pull the plug. I lived in my truck to save, then quit my job and caught a plane as a few friends skidded into this Andean town.
My boots squeaked on the icy porch. I was standing in a jagged cauldron of peaks, the
highest ones just going pink in the rising sun, 7,000 feet above. Plumes of snow shot hundreds of feet off of the summits, floating into the bright blue. It had snowed 4 meters and the relentless wind was scouring the ridges down to bare rock. I hunched my shoulders, buried face in jacket and hopped on a bus full of Gore-Tex and helmets, leather seats and visor fringe. It was going to be a deep day.
We got off and hurried for the lifts. Funny thing though, no one else did. People here don’t do that. They don’t really get into powder. They think riding out of bounds is weird, reckless, too much work, something for crazed Americans and Euros.
We watched avalanches everywhere—some natural, some made by dynamite. There was another blast, but this one continued. All heads turned. A big slab ripped and sent a churning mass of blocks and powder down the mountain. Directly below the growing avalanche a snow cat was slowly grooming the lower face. By the time it reached the cat it was sending clouds 50 feet in the air. There were gasps and “Oh my Gods.” The cat was engulfed. The driver had a violent death.
It looked like the slide was going to continue down the mountain and destroy a lodge, a chairlift and several skiers, but it ran out. When the powder cloud settled, the cat was still there. The slide had stopped cement-solid just before reaching the cat. The driver survived, merely breathed upon by the mountain, swallowed by a huge cloud of sparkling spray.
The town sits in a valley between 14,000 foot peaks—not huge for the Andes—but with 7,000 feet between town and summit you might as well be looking up at Aconcagua. There are no trees, just snow, rock and wind-scoured ridges making jagged stabs toward the sky. Rock bands snake about in parallel. No question this is the site of severe geologic activity; I almost expected to see new mountains jutting up by the end of the day.
The summit hut regularly clocks winds over 130 km/h. Three-meter dumps are followed by 65-degree heat, the sun intensified by altitude and the Southern Hemisphere’s lack of ozone. This causes frequent avalanches, leaving everything in disrepair. A two-day hike from here lies the plane wreckage of the Uruguayan rugby team that resorted to eating their dead.
The only chair that gained access to the top of the mountain had been hit by yet another avalanche, this one so big the whole lift was frozen in place. Ski patrol dropped us at the summit and we rode down to Tower 10; they had already begun digging 30 feet straight down to the base of the tower. It was bent off its foundation, so they jammed in some shims, cranked down the bolts and called it good. Our job: dig a tunnel 100 meters long for the chairs to go through. By hand. It took 50 people 3 days.
Once it was functional they brought up laborers from the nearest town and they went on shoveling as skiers rode the lift, tons of cold metal passing within inches of their helmet-less heads. Eventually one man sustained severe head trauma and died. He was probably getting paid 10 bucks a day.
Dinner here is around midnight, eleven if you eat early. We walk into UFO Point and get a kiss from Majo, the bombshell hostess. The doormen wear black jackets with an American flag on the shoulder, the letters “U.F.O.” in place of the stars. We slide into an alcove with white leather couches and concert stacks at each side. Waitresses revolve around the room, wearing sunglasses—they’re all knockouts. A blonde server comes to our table. She has the graceful face of an angel and a two-inch gap between her shirt and jeans revealing the loveliest ribbon of stomach in the Southern Hemisphere. She takes our order, and brings a side of ennui.
Dinner is done, tables are removed. The crowd starts jumping; lights low, music high. We give the waitress a big tip—partly because we are sucked in by her ridiculously good looks, partly because her wage is $12 a day. We order a bottle of vodka. After a long while she drops it on the table and bolts. People begin streaming in around 2 am. The place pumps. Some sit; I step into the crowd of people dancing, giddy to finally be here, surrounded by friends and big, powder laden peaks.
We first met Mark taking a snow cat to a backcountry line. But we would have met him anyway. He was everywhere. If there were ever people hanging out, especially girls, Mark was there trying to chat them up. And he had a voice that made I Love Lucy sound good. When she was crying. Self-billed as a ski guide, when his first group of clients arrived from Europe, he asked us where runs were. Jack and Mikel took a side trip over to Portillo with him because he claimed to have connections there. The only connection he made was between his drinks and the boys’ bill. By the end of the season he was telling me in the same breath that he was concerned about preserving the cultural integrity of the place, and that he was buying a double condo to rent to large tourist groups. And for $20k, you could too! Made me wonder, how many Marks are out there, saving up their $20k, building their “Ski the Andes” websites?
We were on top of one of the biggest peaks of the back range. Near the summit was a rock pinnacle. The boys were taking the line around the right so I went left. Standing there I looked down at a smooth blue wall, curving up at me like a wave—steepest thing I’d ever seen. I pulled out my axe and dropped in on my toe side; the face was right next to mine. I made one turn, rode across the wall then, lost my edge and was sliding. Ice came over my edge and all I could see was blur, like opening your eyes underwater. I jammed in my axe but it didn’t grab. I knew somewhere below me were chutes and real, real big cliffs. I got that, “you are really, seriously screwed,” feeling, where you hang for a moment, your brain in the throes of a disturbing question: to try something drastic to stop your fall, or to not spend your last few seconds flailing because it’s useless? On your way to your death you try to get your head around this conflict, but you can’t really, so you just keep trying as you blindly slide toward whatever is below, pissed off at yourself and amazed. Just before entering the chutes I ran up on a soft flute, sank in and stopped. I sat there looking down at steep slots and rocks below me, speechless. Thoughtless. Me-less. Fuck!
Jack and Kelly came swooping down the other side, carving turns, pushing against the steepness, nothing but fun in their heads. I followed them down the rest of the run, riding between two banked spines, curving around a cliff band, then across a huge snowfield back into the ski area. I hoped my legs would hold out until the bottom.
There is a man at the base of the ski area who makes steaming crepes filled with every good thing you can possibly fit into a little crepe stand in the snow. Cooking each one takes a long time—you feel you’ve earned the pleasure as much by the wait as by the huge hike or line or whatever you have just done. Our boards were in a pile next to our chairs. I sat there, looking back up at the mountain. I bit into my crepe, exhaled. The sun was on my face. The crepe man had more customers.