A trip to the Southern Hemisphere is nothing short of a special experience, especially for Northern Hemisphere based skiers. Leave summer behind for a week or two and plunge back into winter. Scratch the itch that’s been building for the past few months and start to get in shape, ready for the upcoming season in the Northern corners of the world.
September is prime time in the Andes. There’s usually a decent snowpack, and it’s not uncommon for Chile and Argentina to experience some of their biggest storms of the season. By October, the days are getting longer, and it’s a perfect time for ski touring or splitboarding adventures.
As you’d expect, a ski trip to the Andes is a little different from your typical experience in Europe or North America. Yes, the skiing is, but it’s the South American culture that really sets the trip apart.
At 7000 km long, the Andes are the longest mountain chain in the world. Compare that to the Alps at 1200 km long, and you start to get an idea of the scale of the range. The Andes also contain some of the highest peaks in the world outside of Asia.
Snow conditions often vary from north to south. When the snowpack is deep in the south, it’s often less in the north, and vice versa. El Nino and La Nina have a massive effect on the snowfall and the track of storms in this part of the world too. One thing’s for sure, in a mountain range so wild and unique – both geographically and culturally – adventure can always be found.
Chile is a huge country whose coastline stretches down the western side of South America. The Andes run through much of the country, the frontier ridge of the range effectively forms the border with Argentina to the east.
Chile has a handful of large, well-known resorts and many more small, off the radar, resorts that still have a lot to offer.
Portillo is perhaps the country’s best-known resort. It has some great terrain – all of it above tree line – and a modern and efficient lift system. What makes the place really special though is the fact that pretty much everyone who skis there stays at Hotel Portillo. That means that 450 guests, if the place is packed out, have the whole area to themselves which pretty much guarantees fresh tracks at some point.
Ski Touring & Splitboarding
Chile has almost unlimited backcountry potential. From easy tours off the lifts at resorts to big multi-day treks – there’s scope for all levels of backcountry enthusiasts. Much of the Andes is made up of both, active and extinct volcanoes which adds some flair to the mix. The classic cone shape of many volcanoes gives them good touring potential.
Head south through Chile and both, the weather and terrain, generally become wilder and more unpredictable. Patagonia, the mountainous region in the south that covers both Chile and Argentina, is a legendary place. The mountains here are generally remote and inaccessible. The weather can be very harsh, especially when winds haul off the Pacific. It’s a place where real adventure can be found. Ski touring expeditions may require a trek of several days to reach base camp, often on horseback with the help of a local guide.
Heliskiing & Catskiing
The Andes is a cool place to go heliskiing. With lots of terrain and not too many people, solitude and fresh tracks are guaranteed. Puma Lodge has backcountry accommodation similar to heliskiing lodges in Canada. They have a huge tenure with over 3000 km of terrain, all of it at the disposal of Puma Lodge guests. It’s the full 5-star experience with all-inclusive spa and meals along with a private transfer in and out of Santiago. As with any heliskiing trip, this kind of experience doesn’t come cheap. Heliskiing in Chile is good value compared to many places in the Northern Hemisphere though.
The best catski option in Chile is Ski Arpa. It’s located close to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas, and within a few hours drive from Santiago. Ski Arpa is currently the only catskiing operation in South America. It offers a big vertical drop and wide open bowls that are frequently filled with dry powder.
Another enormous country (the 8th largest in the world), Argentina shares the Andean chain with Chile. Much of the south of the country is dominated by the massive lakes and mountains of Patagonia.
Rather like Chile, Argentina has a few resorts that are generally well known to international skiers, and many smaller localities that fly under the radar. Cerro Catedral and Las Lenas are probably the two most popular resorts in the country.
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Cerro Catedral has the biggest ski area in South America. It’s situated in the Nahuel Huapi National Park and is close to the town of Bariloche which provides a good dose of nightlife. It’s a seriously beautiful area with huge lakes and mountains all around; kinda similar to the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
The chutes and couloirs at Las Lenas are justifiably world famous. Just a short hike or skin from the top of the Marte Chair are many beautiful lines. Although ski patrol often close the Marte Chair in bad weather, the place is extraordinary when the conditions align.
Ski Touring & Splitboarding
One place stands out as a great place to start when thinking about venturing into the Andean backcountry on foot, and that’s Refugio Frey. Situated just a couple of hours outside of Cerro Catedral ski resort, Refugio Frey has acquired something of a legendary status amongst backcountry skiers in recent times.
Frey is similar to the kind of mountain huts found in the Alps, having dorms to sleep in and food, beer and wine available to purchase. It’s the surrounding terrain that really makes this place unique though. Refugio Frey is surrounded by a wonderland of couloirs, faces, and spines, all easily accessible from the hut. The potential for expert skiers and snowboarders is obvious but there are more mellow options too – a bonus when snow conditions are unstable.
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In fact, there’s a fairly extensive backcountry hut set-up throughout Argentina. Multi-day ski tours are possible in the Andes by using the hut system for accommodation every night. The tours are similar to the kind of multi-day trips in the Alps where personal fitness and general competency in the mountains is just as important as skiing or riding ability. As always, if in doubt, hire a guide!