Saturday, August 17, 2013

Life is Good

I am writing this post feeling incredibly blessed and a little incredulous as to what an amazing past few days this has been. Life really is good! Seeing as I am more than a little obsessed with skiing and snowboarding, it has been a lifelong dream of mine to go skiing all around the world. Needless to say, skiing in the Andes was at the very top of my Chile bucket list, and the two days I spent skiing this week didn't disappoint! It was an adventure in every sense of the word.

Logistically, things were a little complicated. Through my friends' connections, we were able to find some sweet deals on packages that included lodging, transportation, lift tickets, and equipment rentals, which was awesome! However, it ended up meaning more time appreciating this wonderful view:
Here is a map showing our the past few days of my life:

Wednesday night we took a bus from Viña del Mar to Santiago to spend the night in La Casa Roja, which is an incredibly nice hostel. Walking through the front door was a giant wave of relief because everyone here spoke English! The guy who ran the hostel, Tim, was an Australian who reminds me of all the ski bums I've met in Colorado: funny, sarcastic, incredibly knowledgeable about snow conditions and mountains, and with a fantastic goggle tan. We also made a new friend Paul, who is a Canadian mining engineer who is currently working in the northern desert of Chile but lives in a ski town back in Canada. He was nice enough to hang out with us all the next day and it was fun to get to know him.

We got up at dawn the next day and headed to Valle Nevado. I think the shuttle ride ranks among the most dangerous rides that I've taken in my life. I didn't take this photo, but it'll give you an idea of the kind of curves we were driving:

The road is also not quite wide enough to be a two-lane, yet it has to accommodate both directions of traffic. The shoulder is essentially non-existent, but that does not stop people from walking and biking alongside the road or from stopping to put chains on their tires. There are also random cows that chill on the corners where the visibility is nicely reduced. Add these conditions to the Chilean style of driving, which is characterized by jerky stops and starts, rapid turns, and about a six-inch gap between bumpers of cars, and it's no wonder the boys needed to pull over and throw up on the side of the road (although if you have to throw up, you might as well look out at this view):

Soon we were at Valle Nevado! Tim from the hostel had told us that in Chile it is possible to find untracked snow even several days after a snowstorm, and he was absolutely correct. We were definitely able to make some fresh tracks! It wasn't quite powder freshies, but I was still thrilled. 
My hands-down favorite run of the day was in a river bed because we could play around swooping up and down the walls on the side of the run:
We were completely unaware that this particular run did not go back down to the base at Valle Nevado. There is one- yes, just one- sign on the run to alert skiers that you are exiting the ski area and entering the ski area of La Parva, and we dropped in from a different place so we had no idea. These two resorts essentially share a peak on top, but have different bases. My friend Kari fell on this run, and even though it is really unfortunate that she hurt her knee, it just so happened that some Ski Patrollers were coming down and stopped to see if she was ok. In the process of talking with them, we figured out our mistake. One of them very kindly volunteered to explain our situation to the lift operators at La Parva and accompany us back to the top of the mountain even though we didn't have lift tickets for the resort. 

I am now going to take a brief respite from the first story to explain the ski lifts in Chile. Although they have normal chairlifts, Chileans also use a variation of a Poma lift that they call a telesquí The good thing is each lift detaches from the cable so you have time to get situated before signaling to the lift operator that you are ready to go. The bad thing is that as soon as the lift operator presses the button and the lift reattaches to the cable, you shoot off like a bullet from a gun. Telesquís are no joke. Resorts in the US wouldn't be allowed to run lifts this quickly for liability reasons, but that doesn't matter here haha.

Back to the story. We were now at the base of La Parva and we had to take two telesquís and one chairlift to get back to Valle Nevado. I happened to be on a snowboard, which as all snowboarders know makes riding a Poma or t-bar significantly harder (and I was on a telesquí which as previously discussed is a whole new ballgame). Halfway up the first telesquí, I lost control and fell. It was the worst possible place to do so because I didn't have a lift ticket and our Ski Patrol friend was ahead of me on the hill, so I had no option but to walk. It wasn't very far but the hill was incredibly steep, and I legitimately thought I wasn't going to make it to the top. I also felt really bad that my friends all had to wait for me, not to mention the shuttle driver and the other people riding on our shuttle with us since it was the end of the day and we were close to the hour when we were supposed to meet them to ride back to the hostel.

I finally made it to the top of the hill, panting and physically exhausted, and met up with my friends and our Ski Patrol guide. I am so grateful for their patience because in their shoes I might not have been so patient ha ha. Then we had to ride another telesquí. Awesome. I had already shattered my confidence, so I was nervous to have to ride one again. I fell right as I tried to get on. After screaming a few choice words, I threw my arms down on the ground and shouted. I intended to yell, "Yo puedo!" (meaning "I can do it!") in effort to boost my own confidence but it ended up coming out as "No puedo!" ("I can't do this!"). My friend Harry reminded me that I had no choice but to get to the top. So I tried again. I muttered "Help me Jesus" over and over again the entire ride, a spoken mantra and a prayer to just please please please let me make it to the top of the mountain, and thankfully I did. Eventually we made it back to Valle Nevado. I was so thankful to have reached the base again! In hindsight, even my rough end to the day can't take away how much fun it was to go snowboarding in the Andes!

We drove down the treacherous road again, this time at dusk/sunset/dark, picked up our things from the hostel, and took another night bus back to Viña del Mar. After showering and packing up my things, I went to bed at 12:30 am. I woke up at 4 am to get on yet another bus and ride to Portillo. It´s times like these that I am glad I am young. After all, only a 20-something could come off an exhausting few days at school, get very little sleep, live off PB&J sandwiches and gas station food, and still ski for several days!

The ride to Portillo was really neat. After growing up in Colorado, I am pretty used to seeing mountains, but this was a new experience for me. The Andes are completely different than the Rockies in every way, and that was really neat to see! This picture can give you an idea of what the outer edges of the range looks like:
It was really weird to drive past palm trees and cacti on the way to ski. Once you get higher in elevation, though, there is very little vegetation of any kind - a far cry from the iconic lodgepoles of Colorado! Perhaps because of this, the pronounced beauty of Portillo completely blew my mind and took my breath away:
I couldn't stop looking around and drinking in the amazing sights with my eyes. At first I thought I wanted to ski gung-ho until the lifts closed, but then I realized that on such a warm and sunny spring day I was content to spend a good amount of time just soaking it all in. The snow was also heavy and the runs delightfully steep, so my thighs burned pretty nicely.

Portillo is a pretty small ski area, and unfortunately much of it was closed since it was later in the season and this winter they received an unusually low amount of snow. However, I really enjoyed the sections I did ski! We got to use another variation of the telesquí that as far as I know is unique to Portillo. Basically, imagine a Poma lift that can take five people up the slope at once. The slopes here are much too steep to put in a chairlift of any other type. Here are some pictures:

Thankfully I was on skis, so I didn't have to worry about falling! I honestly don't know how the snowboarders made it, because there were enormous lumps/mini hills of snow in the track. At the top to dismount you simply let go and slide/fall to a stop on the run. It was actually a pretty cool way to get up the slopes, and an example of creative innovation in response to the geography!

As it turns out, every year a group of pro-skiers from the US team come down and teach a ski camp here. I wish I recognized the faces and names pro-skiers better because I rode lifts with a lot of them! I also talked to people from several different states, France, Switzerland, Argentina, Brazil, England, and (of course) Chile. The day was a happy, albeit strange, mixture of English and Spanish as I could never tell what language(s) any one person spoke. I would start speaking to someone in one language, only to have to switch to the other! However, no matter what languages people speak, ski bums from all over are incredibly similar because they are united by a common passion :)

I think Portillo ranks as one of my favorite places I've ever skied. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to ski the Andes, especially since I could never ski in August in Colorado! I loved seeing all the variety in God´s creation, how even the same type of place (a ski resort in the mountains) can look so different in different parts of the world. At the same time, this was the first time in Chile I felt truly at home because skiing and snowboarding run in my blood. 

I'll wrap up the post with a few more pictures, because beauty this amazing needs to be shared:


  1. WHAT and adventure... this 50's something lady is exahusted, and utterly delighted to see and hear about your ski trip~ You really had me thinking and praying for you all the time!~ I love the details, and the way you express yourself... amazing and delighted... I think I will get back to my bucket list these days~ Thanks for sharing and writing such a great story.. Take good care!