But mostly, we see clouds and the foothills of the Andes.
Little do we know, crossing the large expanse of the Santiago metropolis, the serpentine freeway parallels the river Mapocho, flowing from its source in the mountains where we are headed. Santiago is a modern city of 6.5 million people with all the trappings of any large city, including shantytowns and ritzy neighborhoods complete with high-end shopping centers, historic areas, traffic congestion and more. The city is full of sculptures, street performers and a selection of world-class restaurants and hotels. Afternoon and evening pass by while we venture into the Provencia section of Santiago, getting our first taste of Chilean culture and cuisine.
In the morning, after a typically simple Chilean breakfast, we are met by our driver and transport, ready to take us to the ski resorts far above Santiago. The morning rush hour traffic is left behind and a steep and winding ascent into the Andean highlands begins. Climbing through the steep canyon, our gaze darts from the steep cliffs to the massive mountainsides speckled with cactus and boulders. Occasional glimpses of mountain peaks perk our anticipation to a crescendo. The dizzying switchbacks continue, eventually passing through some 40 turns to reach Farellones, a town perched on a meager flat spot roughly 6,000 feet above the streets Santiago.
A warm welcome from Pau Padros and the staff at Posada Farellones, the simple and comfortable ski lodge we will call home for the next eight days, sets us at ease after the long trip. The brief introduction ends and we scramble into our ski boots, clothing and gear to catch Pau’s shuttle to El Colorado, the first of three ski areas that we will visit. It takes only a quick moment to make the adjustment from the dry heat of summer to winter in the southern hemisphere, and we start tracking out the boot-deep powder that sparkles beneath a vibrant blue sky.
Tracking out El Colorado’s 2,500-acre volcanic cone with nearly 3,000 vertical feet of open bowls, we launch off from the numerous cornices, rocks and cat-tracks, nearly forgetting to stop for lunch. Stunning views of the treeless expanse of rugged Andean peaks – San Ramon, Cerro La Parva, and dozens of other summits surrounding the massive glaciated peak of El Plomo, where contemplating the Incan mummies that reside in the thin air, 17,815 feet above sea level inspires us to slow down and make few unexpected stops.
The first inhabitants of these mountains were the Chachapoya, also known as “the cloud people,” and judging by the foot of fresh light and dry powder left behind by a recent storm, their spirits were smiling on us. Back home in northern latitudes fine fragrant summer breezes blow, but here, we have no choice but to plunge into winter. The slopes of El Colorado are covered with bright white crystalline magic, reflecting deep blue skies; there are maybe a few hundred skiers on the entire mountain. On each run we choose where to cut fresh tracks across the smooth, powdery canvas, with no hidden moguls to interrupt the flow down the mountainside.
It seems that every turn in the road and every arcing of our skis bring a discovery. New terrain features, new friends, new cultures, new cocktails – the Pisco Sour, apparently the official cocktail of Chile, and many other new culinary experiences. But most intriguing of all are the numerous mummies that reside upon these mountain summits. The Chachapoya, who like many indigenous people of South America practiced human sacrifice, usually offering up young children that were mummified and placed along with gold and jewels on the high summits of the Andes to appease the mountain gods.
Time passes. The seemingly endless ski day drifts to a close at 5 p.m. when the lift shuts down.
Back at La Posada de Farellones, the glowing orange disc that’s the sun settles to rest on the western skyline. Mountains rise from the haze and clouds fill the valley where Santiago bustles into night. A stroll to the cliff edge exposes more of the grand view into the river canyon where a stream of car lights winds down the narrow spaghetti-strand curves. A sudden movement below my feet on the near-vertical rock face alerts me to the presence of a strange large rabbit perched on the slightest of ledges, completely exposed to the 60-foot drop. In the next moment it leaps across the face and bolts straight down the face towards a buddy; they begin a playful prance on the cliff face. Later, Pau informs us that the rabbits – “la liebre”—aren’t like ours in North America, but “much bigger and stronger.” No doubt about that, but who ever heard of rock-climbing rabbits,?
More difficult than the abrupt leap from summer to winter is adjusting to the Chilean dinner hour. It is after 8 p.m. before we are seated in the dining area of La Posada Ferollones. My stomach has been grumbling for hours. But our good fortune continues and the wait is well worth it. Pau, the tall, slender strong and resourceful proprietor of the ski lodge, has culinary expertise that would turn the heads of the world’s finest restaurateurs. We are happily surprised by a culinary treat tonight and every night of our stay, as Pau and his staff serve up three-course meals (seconds and thirds available upon request) that leave our tastebuds in ecstasy.
A night full of red-wine dreams of the red-rock country of Utah ends as a crystal clear cold morning dawns. Today La Parva is on the ski menu. The little one surpasses all expectation. Several surface lifts, along with a few chair lifts, surreptitiously line numerous gullies, small bowls and steeper faces mixed into a landscape of boulder and rockfields, some dangerously hidden by veils of new snow. Short hikes from La Parva’s highest lifts lead into the backcountry, where some of the best skiing is found. A quick jaunt takes us onto a high ridge and across to the top of “Chiminera,” a 600-foot tall couloir leading into the large bowls of La Parva’s lower slopes, where endless powder fields lay in wait. Sloughing powder accompanies our glide down the chute; we pass towering rock walls before the chute gives way to a sun-filled bowl. We spend the rest of the day exploring the many nooks and crannies of La Parva, still finding miles of untracked snow and exciting terrain right up until the 5 p.m. end of the ski day that’s standard here. By now, a cloud cap has formed over El Plomo’s summit. The Cloud People are brewing another storm.
Two days of mostly overcast skies, with fog and clouds tumbling past, pushed by a cold wind depositing new snow intermittently. After three days of anticipation we arrive at the base of Valle Nevado, one of the world’s largest ski areas. Finding our way across the bowls to the various high points throughout the ski area is challenging due to the tiring and sometimes nauseating flat light, forcing us to ski at times by Braille. After a complete tour of Valle Nevado’s lifts and pistes, we head back to lower portions of the mountain, where better light affords higher quality snow conditions.
The next few days are a predictable, enjoyable routine of eating, skiing, sleeping, meeting new friends and enjoying new experiences. Making the rounds through the ski areas, we become more deeply acquainted with El Colorado, La Parva and Valle Nevado. Before completing our Andean ski loop, we find favorite stashes, perfect rock drops of varying size and degree, terrain parks, long empty groomed trails as well as steep and deep off-piste chutes, and bowls. The cloud people continue to smile upon us, and just when we are feeling we need a rest, a two-day storm blows in. Heavy snow, poor visibility and freezing temperatures dissuade some skiers, while others seize the opportunity and find another powder fantasy day waiting. An overnight blackout and a rare Santiago snowfall on the morning of our last ski day delivers over two feet of snow. Here in the mountains the blackout continues. Questions abound as to whether or not the ski areas can operate the lifts.
No power, no problem. El Colorado comes through, reporting the lifts are running on auxiliary power. At last check, 55 centimeters of snow has dumped on the slopes. Deep, deeper and deepest best describes this final “summer” ski day, and though it’s limited by lift closures and poor visibility, this day registers as good as it gets. After a day of fogged goggles, frozen toes and frost-nipped noses, the sun explodes through the clouds. The clouds vanish, leaving no trace of their ephemeral forms as they’re replaced by stark blue sky stretching horizon to horizon. A blanket of untracked new snow covers the ski area slopes, taunting and teasing those who descend to Santiago this evening knowing that tomorrow will bring a supreme day on the slopes.
Leaving the snowy mountains and our hosts is bittersweet. Is seems that just as our ski legs were tuning up from their summer reprieve, La Posada Farellones is feeling like home and we have forgotten about the summertime left behind. The transport arrives to shuttle us down the winding incline with over 40 hairpin turns 6,000 feet down into the tangled streets of Santiago. Two more days of exploring Santiago, watched by the massive Andean summits that abruptly arise from the edge of the city, with several peaks reaching 16,000 and 17,000 feet are in plain view from anywhere in the city. We spot the ski areas basking in sunshine where fortunate skiers are tracking out the remaining powder left by the recent big dump.
It has taken only a week, and now the mountains and the city seem more like old friends, familiar, friendly and inviting. The setting sun reminds us of the plane, waiting to jet us back north, back across the equator, back into the last weeks of the northern summer. Bleary-eyed, we head for the spruced-up flying beer cans that channel the human cargo to the appointed departure gates.
At last the familiar forms of Mount Sneffels, Dallas Peak and the rest of the San Juan range come to view, accompanied by warm temperatures they make for a fine welcome home. Highway 550 takes us along the Uncompahgre River to Colorado 62 and over Dallas Divide, where puffy popcorn clouds congregate in a blue sky, awaiting a cue to unleash their thunderous and often ferocious electrical storms rain and hail.
In less time than it takes to lace up your hiking boots, the darkening clouds have formed a massive cloudbank that descends onto the high peaks of the Sneffels Range. A few small drops lead into the deluge; a flash of hot-white sky-fire and now a wave of rain breaks across the highland. The mountains are out of sight. Clouds engulf the landscape, now pushing down below tree-line and into the lowest valley. Visibility is diminished, the temperature plummets. Any day now, these king-sized raindrops will freeze and summer will change to winter.
The power and spirit of the cloud people is ubiquitous and prevailing.