Ski into A Volcano!
What are you doing in early October? Actually, it doesn't matter. I've got a better idea. You should come to Chile and ski into the caldera of the Puyehue volcano.
A Better Choice for your Guide
My previous blog post was about why you would want to ski with a guide in Chile. After that I ran across a few advertisements from U.S.-based guides, offering trips to ski in Chile. Looking into these trips I see that they've done some homework – but not quite enough. The itineraries look good. For example, while I typically aim to ski three volcanoes in a week, some visiting guides have squeezed four volcanoes into their plans. That would be better. Never mind that the weather in southern Chile is far from perfect everyday and having some flexibility is critical. I saw one trip offered to a volcano which is presently erupting. I wouldn't recommend that. Some guides offer great prices. Cutting corners is never a good idea. Good food, comfortable lodging and safe vehicles with enough space are not cheap in Chile. So I am not sure where it's best to cut costs.
I guess I'd like to add to my previous post. Not all ski guides and trips to Chile are equal.
La Santa Rosa
There are a lot of people trying to ski in Chile right now. Most are stuck in the valley. Those that can't wait are finding themselves with visibility like being in a ping pong ball filled with milk and spinning around very quickly.
This is the Santa Rosa storm – one of those things that makes skiing in Chile interesting. The Santa Rosa is really a legend; but it is amazing how often it seems to happen. The Santa Rosa is the name given to the storm that happens "every year" five-days to either side of August 30th. It is believed to be both the last and strongest storm of the winter. Now that we have science to measure and record data, we know this isn't actually the case; but who are we to let science get in the way of our beliefs.
This year's Santa Rosa is mostly irritating; but with a little luck it will turn out for the best. The meteogram picture above is likely a little off. Typically, the winds and precip amounts are underestimated and the temps are a little too cold. But it's a good indicator of what's in store. If you're trying to ski this week, you'll be in flat light and wind most of the week. There will be five to twenty centimeters of new snow up high and it will be rainy in the valleys. The good news is that it is here and it is going to leave some snow for the spring season, which is coming quickly.
It's still fun to see a legend in action.
If I had a buck for every time someone told me, this year, that they will "definitely ski with me – next year." I would buy land down here and retire. I know... Chile is more expensive than most people imagine at first. And as a certified guide, with insurance, a lot invested in my business, and the desire to provide high-quality experiences for my guests, my service is not "cheap" either. So I do understand when people are surprised at the cost of skiing here.
While you're waiting for next year, this is what has happened this year. So far:
My single biggest piece of advice is this: Don't wait another year. "Time is not money; because once lost, time cannot be regained." After eleven-seasons in Chile, I am confident in two things: 1. Climate change is taking its toll here. The northern areas are much drier and hotter. The southern zones still get precipitation, but it is often warmer. Winter will look much different here in the near future. 2. There are still some great "stashes" to enjoy; but the pressure from snowmobiles and helicopters is increasing.
If skiing in Chile is on your bucket list, I would do it in 2015. Every year that you say "next year" will be one more regret you have.
When I was a kid I liked to "explore" the creeks behind my house. I found all kinds of adventures and learned many lessons. Sometimes I would get a little lost and come home late. Sometimes I would fall in the creek and get wet. All of this seemed like a big adventure at the time. Obviously it wouldn't seem so amazing today.
I have to say, this feature in Powder Magazine bothers me a little. And I will be perfectly upfront about that I am a little jealous of the exposure, and a little irritated that I am not given any credit for the information I shared with the authors. But beyond this, I am amazed that these two were able to create an "epic adventure" out of something that hundreds of people do each year.
An inch of snow rarely becomes the backdrop for an epic; but if you have rented a van with crappy tires and don't know how to use chains, well... I guess it's an adventure. Not being able to ask locals questions or understand the answer doesn't mean a road is unnamed. A good tour plan will help you prepare for a 9000-foot ascent and not be surprised when it takes all day. Yes, concrete structures without heat are cold in the winter.
Why the hell would you get up at 5AM to ski on Villarrica? It's a five-hour ascent for the average skier and the skiing gets good around 3PM. One of my favorite days each year is when I get up have a leisurely breakfast in Pucón, get to the mountain around nine or ten, ski two or three laps off the summit and am home in time to hit the hot springs at sunset. 5AM!? This is ridiculous.
Skiing in Chile doesn't have to be like this. Each year, hundreds of people embark on this trip and find beautiful places, great snow and challenging peaks without being flustered by the basics. Many people do this by bicycle! Chile is a wonderful place to find adventure, but it shouldn't come from a lack of experience or preparedness. Check out this Powder Magazine piece. Adam's photos are beautiful as usual. If you want to experience these places without the headache and hassle, give me a shout – this is what I do everyday for a couple months each year. And yes, even though I don't freeze my ass off in crappy concrete huts, I feel I still find plenty of adventure.
I can help you do it right.
Long, Skinny Country
If you were going skiing in Alaska, would you get a weather report from Los Angeles?
Chile is about 3000-miles from north to south. That's about the distance from Los Angeles to Haines, Alaska. And if you look on a map, you can see how the topographies of the two coasts are mirrors of each other.
Most of the bigger, well-known ski centers in Chile – those with marketing budgets – are located close to Santiago, which is in the central part of the country. Santiago has a similar climate and topography to Sacramento, California. So when you here a weather report from "Chile" it's important to understand where that is from. Imagine if you got a snow report from the "U.S." or "Europe." The distance, topography and climate from the central Andes to the area of lakes and volcanoes is very similar to the difference between Lake Tahoe and the Pacific Northwest – very different indeed. It can be sunny and warm in the central mountains and pounding snow in the south.
And in fact, that's exactly what's happening.
With that said, if skiing in Chile is on your "bucket list" I wouldn't wait for too many years. I am a ski guide, not a climate scientist, but there is a trend that is tough to ignore. The past several years have been drier than average. If you consider the same is happening in California – another coastal area, directly effected by weather straight off the Pacific Ocean – well... great, deep conditions may be harder to come by. Presently, the recent weather patterns are favorable for skiing volcanoes. The periods of high pressure between storms allow for more skiing and fewer down days. It's hard to say how long this will last.
If you want to ski in Chile, do it soon. If you are looking for good conditions, look farther south and don't put too much weight on the reports coming from the northern resorts. There's still fun to be had in this long, skinny, beautiful country.
Go For Adventure
If you live in the U.S., would you go to Mexico for a hamburger? If you live in Mexico, would you go to France for a margarita? If you live in France, would you go to England for the wine? I could go on forever; but I think you get my drift. If you live in a place full of highly-refined ski resorts, (Europe, the U.S., Canada) why would you go to South America to ski in a resort?
Before I go any further, let me say, I don't have anything against South American ski resorts. They serve the same purpose in Chile and Argentina as they do in the rest of the world. They allow families to ski together and people of all ages to learn to slide on snow and enjoy the mountains in the winter. This is a good thing.
What if you are an accomplished skier? Is going to a South American resort really what you're looking for? If you've skied in places like Jackson Hole, Lake Tahoe, Chamonix, Whistler-Blackcomb, is going to a tiny area with slow lifts and variable conditions really satisfying? Sure, it's better than NOT skiing, which is your option in the northern hemisphere in August and September; and I think a lot of people rationalize it this way.
Why not go to Chile to do something you can't do in the northern winter? Ski into a crater of a volcano (and come back out); ride a horse through a forest to get to the snow; make a first descent; tree ski through 3000-year old trees; totally escape the modern world; follow a dirt road past the markings on a map. These are the experiences that bring me to Chile year after year, and these are the experiences that I live to share with others.
I think a lot of people say, "I want to ski in Chile." Then they look at the time and financial commitment and they realize, "Jeez, US$4000-plus per person for a week at a resort (including airfare), without a guide or wine. That's as much as... a week in Japan; a season in Colorado; a good amount of heli-skiing; a month in Europe..." And to this I say, "yup." If you compare apples to apples, resort experience to resort experience, it's, well... August.
Don't go to Chile looking for the experience you know and love at home. Go for something new. Go to do something you've never done before. It is this opportunity that makes this place so special.
FAQ: Food Safety Concerns
How do you prevent food poisoning in Chile? What are the sanitation standards? Do I need to survive on energy bars and other stuff brought from home? I get a whole host of questions about this topic from people who have preconceived notions about traveling in a developing country.
Mountain Feature: Lonquimay
Volcán Lonquimay becomes a part of many itineraries while skiing volcanoes in Chile. There's good reason for it: it's awesome for people of all abilities!