It´s early in the morning, so early that roosters are crowing in backyards. The clip-clopping of donkey carts accompanies the avian symphony — and we narrowly miss a burro as we turn onto a singlelane road bordered by small farms, ramshackle huts and the debris of a hand-to-mouth, agrarian existence. This near miss jerks us out of our early morning fog, and we start to notice the mountains. Big mountains. With snow and cliffs and rocks, rising above a lush valley scattered with small farms.
If you want to get close with rural Chile, the road to Ski Arpa is the place to do it. The drive traverses hidden vineyards, microscopic villages and rumbling creeks before climbing up a lost valley toward the final destination: Ski Arpa, South America’s only cat-skiing operation. After the close call with the donkey, we’re relieved to finally arrive at Arpa’s stunning alpine terrain, which includes views of Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere. The views get better on the way to the top, via an open-air ride in the back of the cat. One particular vantage, onto a run called Avalanches, draws us like Santiago panhandlers to a bottle of pisco.
Arpa is the brainchild of Anton “Toni” Sponar, a hardcore Austrian skier who hasn’t slowed down despite more than 75 years on the planet. And it’s Toni who we meet first upon arriving in a muddy lot after an hour of white knuckling it up a onelane dirt road that’s better for goats than our 4x4 SUV, his thick Austrian accent out of place in the wilds of the Andes. We’ll hear the story of his long, strange journey to this lonely spot later, over cheap beers in the tiny lodge here. But now, his voice fades into the background as we stand looking straight up, distracted by the massive peaks around us.
Sponar has Colorado roots. Like many European ski instructors, Sponar saw opportunity in the new world and left the Alps to teach and ski in less traveled mountains. He ended up in Aspen, where he quickly became known for not only his rock-solid skiing technique, but also as a gifted instructor, who not only could teach even the most difficult students, but also do so in several languages. But in addition to his instructional skills, Sponar also had an entrepreneurial streak and a strong yen for adventure. With the Colorado resort industry maturing at a breakneck pace, Sponar again hit the road, ending up in South America (he still spends northern winters in Aspen), where he assisted in the development of Argentina’s Los Penetentes resort. One day, when he was flying over the Andes, he noticed a valley. Ski Arpa was born, at least as a concept, if not actual resort, because even now, approximately 30 years since Toni purchased 5,000 acres in the valley that caught his eye, the place remains wild and raw, an anomaly in the sport.
We’ll hear all this later, once we finish our day on the hill. We’ll also hear about the lift that was buried in 1984, the first lift that Toni installed, and the lift that was completely wiped out by avalanches, nearly bankrupting the fledgling operation. We’ll hear about the idea of replacing the lift with cats, and how both snowcats showed up at the dock to be shipped down to Chile, only to wind up being inches too wide for the containers. They had to be completely dismantled on the spot. We’ll hear about too much snow and not enough and how things would have been a lot more simple — and boring — if Toni had just stayed in Aspen. And then, almost as an afterthought, we’ll hear about how this place is fully booked almost every single day of the southern winter.
The terrain here is massive. But despite the towering peaks, there’s something for everyone: think Vail’s Back Bowls on steroids. Most runs drop 3,000 vertical feet or more, with everything from mellow bowls to steep, twisting gullies sprinkled with cliffs and rocks. It’s impressing and invigorating at first sight, especially since 48 hours ago we’d been in the heat of a Colorado summer, baking as we hiked McClintock trail inChautauqua.
That’s one of the attractions of Arpa. For Colorado skiers who just can’t get enough, times get hard — and hot — during the long summer days. But Chile has a full compliment of ski resorts large, small and some — like Arpa — funky. Santiago is an easy trip from Denver, and jet lag isn’t an issue because the time change is minimal. Book your trip to leave on a Tuesday, and you can be skiing by noon on Wednesday.
The logistics of our trip don’t matter now, though, as we stare down the gut of Avalanches, an Arpa test piece. The line sits on a spur just down the ridge from the cat drop. Anton Jr., Toni’s son, leads us on a traverse across a saddle and a short, sweaty hike up to the spur. The sweating intensifies when I peer into the line and notice that it’s composed of several steep fins below a menacing cornice.
But Avalanches is a marquee run not for its technical difficulty (though certain parts can be dicey), but its length. Ski this one nonstop, and your guides might buy your first beer at day’s end. My stomach in knots, I pick a spine and drop in. The snow sloughs with every buttery turn, cascading over jagged cliffs. The crux is a rush of speed and air that vomits me from the spine into an endless Andean gully, terrain that begs for opening up the throttle. The gully spits me out at the cat road with burned legs, 3,000 vertical feet below the cornice.
Later, back in the modest base lodge, we tip back buck-fifty Escudos, the local beer, and listen to Toni’s stories. Finally, as the sun paints the valley pink, we reluctantly fire up the SUV and leave, Avalanches looming above us and our tracks faint scratched in the dimming light.
Two days later we’re on a high-speed quad, with skiers, groomed runs and a gourmet lunch behind us. If you’re into concepts of ying and yang, or the power of opposites to attract, you can do a lot worse than couple Ski Arpa with Valle Nevado. Valle is, arguably, Chile’s most developed resort. And it’s a place with big plans, including a Rocky Mountainstyle base village and even more high tech lifts. With 7,000 acres served by 12 lifts and a joint ski pass that allows you to access the terrain of adjoining El Colorado and La Parva, it’s more like the massive ski stations found in the Alps than anything in North America. The size as well as ease of access (it’s approximately two hours from Santiago’s international airport) means that it also draws Colorado skiers like moths to a flame. Within 10 minutes of checking into our ski-in/ski-out hotel rooms, we’ve seen several Summit County pros that are using the venue to tune up for the upcoming season.
But we’ll leave them all behind — the transplanted pros, the grooming, the lifts — when we depart the highest lift and head for a striated ridge above the resort. The hike is tough, given the snow that’s been falling over the past week. But we finally top out and look over Valle Nevado, the Rio Mapocho river valley and, far, far below us, Santiago. We think of our friends at home, of the tomatoes ripening on the vines and of cycling along Boulder Creek. Then we look at the pristine snow below us. Home can wait.
Chile offers snow-starved skiers the chance to beat the heat and get some turns in while waiting for Arapahoe Basin and Loveland to fire up their snowmaking, although to be honest, you’ll probably find that one icy run much less appealing after skiing mid-winter conditions in the Andes. Book your flight from Denver to Santiago, and expect to be on the snow by noon.
Ski Arpa Ski Arpa only has a day lodge. Stay in the town of Los Andes, about 45 minutes away. You can bring your own lunch or purchase basic snacks like empanadas and chocolate bars, plus cheap après-ski beers at the day lodge. Skiing/snowboarding costs $195 per person per day, with additional runs at $25 per person. Reservations are required: skiarpa.com.
Valle Nevado The largest of the three ski areas outside of Santiago, Valle includes meals (breakfast and dinner) and lift tickets with your accommodation. Most rooms are ski in-ski out and the terrain is wide open, with plenty of options for skiers of all abilities. Currently the resort is offering a variety of specials, including a “kids stay free week” and a 50 percent discount on a second adult when booking a double room during selected dates in September: vallenevado.com.