Yearning to ski? The Andes may be the place

The snow is heavy

the trails are wild

the prices are right

Destination: South America

August 01, 2004|By Jason Blevins

Charles Darwin, who traipsed through South America in the mid-1800s, was somewhat perplexed with the barren stretch of Andes Mountains in southern Argentina, preferring the range's more diverse offerings in Chile.

Obviously, Darwin didn't ski.

The serrated, bleak Andes in southern Argentina is a ski experience like no other. The Valle de Las Lenas resort combines the steeps of Jackson Hole, the snowy aprons of Europe and the vistas of Colorado's slopes -- all from a single mountaintop lift that gives access to more than half a million acres of off-trail skiing.

When the summer broils in North America, winter scours the southern Andes, the world's youngest mountain range. Ski-hardened gringos from the north, seeking a summertime ski fix, flock to the resort every season, enduring cultural and climatological shock to ride what is renowned as some of the most rowdy lift-access skiing in the world.

They mingle uneasily with the hordes of persistently fashionable Buenos Aires vacationers who lend the 22-year-old resort a distinctly upscale flair and fuel a late-night party scene that easily bests Aspen and gives New Orleans a run for its money.

Known as the most expensive locale in Argentina, Las Lenas runs about one-half of what you might spend on a typical Western ski vacation. It's especially affordable considering Argentina's economy is in the tank.

Lift tickets are $30 a day. Dinners at the area's array of eateries, from steakhouses to cafeterias, cost $3 to $15, including locally produced wine. Resort lodging runs as little as $10 a night for a dormitory room to $100 for a five-star hotel or large apartment. Most hotels only book by the week, and the resort quickly fills in September.

The overall flavor of Las Lenas is industrial. Concrete buildings, reminiscent of the utilitarian Cliff Lodge at Utah's Snowbird ski area, litter the base area. Like stone lean-tos, the resort's 11 lodges are braced for an avalanche assault, which is common on the treeless, vertiginous slopes that shadow the village.

Avalanches have wreaked as much havoc as they can in Las Lenas, tearing down lifts, eliminating lodges and burying entire buildings. Concrete walls, angled to repel a snowy attack, guard lift towers. Giant mounds of dirt, dredged from trenches scarring the area's hillsides, are arranged to weaken avalanches before they hit the valley floor. Strategically wedged into the area's looming peaks are huge pipes, which spew explosions of natural gas whenever temperature, snow and wind conspire to threaten the valley with avalanches.

Las Lenas is like a ski-resort factory, with man creating anything and everything to help battle the ruthless power of Andean snow. It is a vain, futile fight.

When the snow comes, it comes hard and heavy. It's followed by the wind, which can lovingly remold every ski line into a fresh powder field but also tends to create avalanche terrain weeks after a snowfall.

Much for the expert

The best time to visit Las Lenas is in the South American spring, in late August and early September. Warm weather softens and solidifies the snow, and the annual springtime dump, the perennial Santa Rosa, usually assures a bountiful harvest of snow.

For the not-quite-expert skier, there's plenty of challenging terrain. Seven double chairs and four surface lifts access 35 miles of trails, some winding for as long as 5 miles. Ski teams from around the globe rally in Las Lenas every spring to get a jump-start on the racing season.

For the expert skier, there is too much challenging terrain. It would take more than a dozen 100-day seasons to even begin to grasp the potential that spills from the mountaintop Marte lift at Las Lenas.

"Stack up four of your favorite, steepest lines in Colorado -- and wipe away the bumps -- and you are starting to get an idea," says Scott Gates, a ski guide from Irwin Lodge outside Crested Butte, Colo.

The highest lift, the fabled Marte, climbs 2,578 vertical feet at an angle greater than 50 degrees. Any apprehension that comes while standing atop a 4,000 vertical-foot, 50-degree flume of snow is eclipsed if you ever find yourself swinging on the Marte when it's been shuttered by gusting, icy wind. It's a ride like no other.

But the rewards are exponential. Las Lenas boasts the most verticality of any mountain in South America or the United States. Take a hike off the top of the Marte, and the potential for skiing increases with each step.

"From the top there are so many possibilities. I think it's impossible to find a mountain similar to this anywhere in the world. Believe me, I've been looking," says Swiss-born Thomas Perren, who has spent every winter in Las Lenas for the past 15 years and penned the mountain's only guidebook.

"Without hiking, there are so many possibilities," Perren says. "But with a little more hiking, the possibilities become almost infinite."

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