I’ve been hearing stories for the past 7 years of this seemingly mythical place in South America that contained more expert terrain than most North American ski resorts combined. Information was hard to come by so I decided that I had to explore these “exaggerations” myself. If it was going to be any year- this was the year.
Gazing out the window of our Canadair Regional Jet, all that appeared below was a barren landscape full of enormous craters. The surface glowed of reddish soil surrounded by immense peaks chock full of beautiful, white snow. It seemed as if we had just landed on another planet. If Malargue was a city in a not so distant solar system, then nearby Las Lenas must be the Gateway to the Heavens.
Situated 90 minutes from Malargue, Argentina, is the Valle de Las Lenas. The mountains of Las Lenas rise dramatically above 14,000 feet with not a McDonald’s restaurant within sight. The shear amount of expert off-piste terrain is mesmerizing. It dwarfs even the greatest of imaginations. If you pulled together the best of Jackson Hole, Alta, and Squaw Valley, you might begin to get an idea of what types of treasure lies hidden and mostly undisturbed at Las Lenas. Even the most loyal Whistlerite will proclaim that Las Lenas is the reigning King of the Mountains.
I was in awe as my skis sliced and diced gracefully through the milky leftovers from a recent storm that deposited over 12 feet of fresh powder onto the steep, treacherous faces of Las Lenas.
After a day and a half of traveling from Park City to Las Lenas, The Mountain was just a 30-yard field goal away. After firing up some Limp Bizkit and Nelly on the headphones, I raced to unpack my ski gear and darted down to the chair lifts. Watching my legs pass over the creamy powder snow below, the anticipation peaked as my seat on the Caris quad chair lift crested to its top terminal. My “warm-up” September run began with quick swooping giant slalom turns down a 38-degree face known as “Cenador.” I was in awe as my skis sliced and diced gracefully through the milky leftovers from a recent storm that deposited over 12 feet of fresh powder onto the steep, treacherous faces of Las Lenas. Everything seemed perfect- the snow, the weather, the terrain, and most importantly- it was still green as a pasture back in North America.
With each turn, I started to feel more euphoric- the same way it feels to put the boards back on each November. My excitement factor catapulted off the radar while my Rossignol XXX Bandits went to work- absorbing the fresh South American powder. Faster and faster- I could not get enough. “This place is amazing,” I thought to myself. Even though I had just descended 1,500 vertical feet of light powder, I was still another lift ride away from TS Marte. And then it appeared, like Moses parting the Red Sea- The Marte Lift was in sight.Each feature of Las Lenas derives its namesake from either Greek or Roman Gods. In Spanish, “Marte” translates to Mars: The God of War.
Every one of the Marte’s mind-shattering bowls and adrenaline pumping couliors pits you against the best adversaries a mountain could offer. The Marte is why hardcore skiers flock to Las Lenas. The Poma-built double chair lift wastes no time in clearing more than 1,500 vertical feet during the first five lift towers on it’s way to almost 3,000 vertical feet in less than 10 minutes. Arriving at the summit, you know that this isn’t just another ski resort- it’s another planet.
On one of my many descents down the Marte, I met up with Aspen’s Katie Smith (an instructor with the Las Lenas Ski and Snowboard School). We skied over to the Iris Poma and then after a short 10-minute traverse, we were ripping through some of the nicest powder I’ve skied in months. We had dropped into an area known as the Sans Nom- a collection of steeps measuring from 40 to 50 degrees descending more vertical than the Snowbird Tram. Rock formations jutted out in all directions. Interconnecting chutes offering an unlimited variety of descents. It all seemed too good to be true. The traverse back to the Urano lift was a bitch in the hot sun. But it was worth it. Although one of these laps can take up to 45 minutes of chair time- we didn’t care. We helped ourselves to a second serving.
We had dropped into an area known as the Sans Nom- a collection of steeps measuring from 40 to 50 degrees descending more vertical than the Snowbird Tram. Rock formations jutted out in all directions. Interconnecting chutes offering an unlimited variety of descents. It all seemed too good to be true.
From the base of the mountain, where it is not uncommon to hear Dr. Dre or DMX blasting over the kids ski school area, you can catch a glimpse of Eduardo’s. One of the most famous chutes in the Las Lenas domain, Eduardo’s drops almost 4,000 vertical feet to the village below. Along with some of the many Whistlerites populating the town- Warren, Mitch, and Bryce- we dropped into it’s 45 to 50 degree entry where we discovered about 5 inches deep of untracked, smooth as silk corn snow. First entry went to Bryce and Mitch. Then after enjoying the vertigo, Warren and I hopped in on opposing sides chewing up the tasty sun-baked corn. Right, Left, Straightline, Left. The turns just kept on coming. Then- we just pointed it. Eduardo’s casts similarities to a roller coaster with multiple descents leading up to a finale that’s sure to make even Jackson Hole’s “Hobacks” blush.
To top it off, you can drop off its spine to one of more than 20 different chutes to keep your spice of variety as hot as Kermit’s legendary chili off I-70. It was another perfect day in the paradise that is Las Lenas.Skiing in Las Lenas is like writing new chapters in a book. Each day there are new heroes and stories to be told. What better place to share those than inside the cozy confines of “The Wine Bar?” Each night, small groupies of North American’s from Calgary to Crested Butte gather at La Cava del Esquiador. Skiers toast each other’s descents over glasses of Alta Vista Malbec Clasico ($12US) while mapping out tomorrow’s ascents.
If you are looking to meet up with some of the world’s top freeskiers, a visit to “The Wine Bar” is a must. On one night, Whistler’s Hugo Harrison and Alta’s Chris Collins along with Powder Magazine’s Paul Morrison. So was Sheryl- an ex-freestyle champ from the 80’s that never misses first chair on a powder day at Squaw. Sheryl was also celebrating her 50th birthday- ripping with the best of them. The “Wine Bar” is definitely an intimate classic. Mariano delights all of his guests with the top wines from Argentina’s Mendoza region. Some nights you might catch a rare night of Sushi sampling in this secret stash of the Atenas Condominiums. This new bar has quickly earned favorite status amongst visitors and locals.
When storms cross the high Andes, they can sit for days. But in-between can cause weeks of high pressure. It’s possible to ski more than a week of fresh powder after a storm cycle. The small contingent from Alta was raving about the last storm feeling “orgasmic.” Especially their first tracks down Marte Bowl. They also went on to describe how the recent powder days were amongst the best ever. Best ever? That’s a pretty strong statement, but then again when the snow is good- and with 12 feet of freshies- Las Lenas represents. When the powder disappears, the good news is that Las Lenas trumps all comers- even the best of Squaw’s KT-22.
Although most of Las Lenas’s terrain is accessed by less than a 10-minute traverse or hike off the Marte lift, you can also take a snowcat ride ($10 US) to the top of Cerro El Collar and Cerro Ponce. My companions, Bomber, Scooter, and I bypassed the pay to ride snowcat and trekked up the additional 1,200 vertical feet. Scooter, a cat guide at Irwin Lodge, had his eyes on “St. Exupery”- a 3,500 foot straight-shot to the valley floor. From below, it appeared to be virgin territory with no tracks in sight. He was right. We must have hit the jackpot. Lady Luck greeted us with miles upon miles of untracked silky snow under a blue-bird sky. Scooter led the way, like leading a horse to water, darting out with turns that could carve a Thanksgiving Turkey. Bomber followed with lightning speed ahead, in super-g fashion. Then I spotted a finger chute sticking out to the North. “The Finger” served up a good helping of “pucker factor” special of the day. The three of us continued to twist in and out of rock outcroppings and volcanic rock faces unwinding ourselves from start to finish. It had been the run of a lifetime- and it was only 11:30am.
Another factor in Las Lenas can be the winds. When it’s dumpin’ snow or windy up high, the Marte lift can see quite a bit of down time. Sure there are plenty of other adventures off the Volcano chair, but Marte is like the key to the safe. It tends to unlock the jewels. The fun, however, doesn’t have to stop before the winds do. I ran into Damian Cromwell and Bryce Phillips, of “Parental Advisory” (a recently released Heavy Hitting Films video). Although the disappointment of the Marte closure was tantamount, they were eyeing something a bit unusual. Just off the Urano poma lift was a closed race-training course for the Italian National Ski Team. It was groomed to perfection with good-sized rollers and other terrain features.
It was just too tempting to pass up. We ducked the rope and proceeded to spin laps on the course. We never thought that poaching a groomer could be so fun. Each time we arrived at the finish area, angry lift operators and ski patrollers greeted us. We pushed on with the useful phrase of “I don’t understand!” We were able to make a couple more laps before their grins turned to grimaces. How terrible would that be to get your Las Lenas pass pulled for spinning laps on groomers? Over a laugh, we decided that if our friends back home only knew that we were poaching groomers on the quintessential ski metropolis of Las Lenas- we would be the butt of all jokes at each our local Ski bars (don’t tell Mulligan’s, please!). But there was no denying it. It was fun!
The next few days brought more sunshine and warmer weather. The snow was starting to corn earlier around 11am so late night excursions to Ku and UFO became more limited. That can be difficult in a small town with a female to male ratio of 3-2. Argentine women party like rock stars. They are beautiful Venuses of this universe and dance until 6am. They get 2 hours of sleep and then go to work- teaching skiing or snowboarding. If you fall into these Black Widows’ late night death trap, a “Siesta” may become a necessity (a 4-hour late afternoon nap). One Porteno from Buenos Aires was doing her best to latch onto a few of the North Americans. Then, a Squaw Valley ripper said it best- “I’m here to ski.” “I can get plenty of action back in California.” The hard-core skiers were definitely in town. Some even camped out in the parking lot for the entire season. There were also crews shooting for Powder magazine, Skier magazine (new Canadian magazine) and a Canadian television ski show. ESPN was in town. Even recent cover boy Mike Douglas was in town to join an already stellar cast.
Above the lift-served summit of Las Lenas additional day hikes can be done to such treasures as Cerro Torrecillas, Entre Rios, and Cerro Martin. These hikes range from 30 minutes to 4 hours and almost certainly guarantee you fresh powder, even if it doesn’t snow for 3 weeks. A necessary companion item for trekking is a book that can be purchased in the La Piramide convenience store (“Skiing in Las Lenas” $8US). It contains an encyclopedia of information and maps of the various off-piste ski descents in Las Lenas.
Although Las Lenas does some extensive avalanche control work, it still has some of the most avalanche-prone terrain in the world. It is not uncommon to lose chair lifts to slides. Just 4 days before I arrived, the upper lift terminal of Neptuno was completely destroyed. A major slide ripped down the front face and stopped just shy of my lodge, “Club de la Nieve.” It was then evacuated for safety. Marte, Neptuno, and Volcano have all been rebuilt more than once due to avalanches. Under each of those lifts are large cement structures designed to block or steer potential slides. Portillo wasn’t as lucky- they lost 2 separate lifts to avalanches in the same week.
All skiers should be prepared for any backcountry conditions if venturing off-piste. At times, the Ski Patrol will make you sign a waiver before you pass into the “daredevil esqui estremo zone.” Transceivers, probes, shovels, and the knowledge how to use them are highly recommended. It’s really easy to meet new freeskiers on the mountain, since it is usually only the North Americans that ski with backpacks and shovels. Hang out at Bacus- the huge deck near the base of the Marte. Bacus belts out loud tunes and good food.
There are plenty of more treasures to explore in Las Lenas. Check out Paraisio. It unlocks a whole different side of the mountain. If you ask yourself, “Why should you go here?” The answer is simple: “Because this place takes on all comers and will not disappoint.” I ended my trip with an elated 3,000 foot carvefest down Mercurio. 15 days of leg-burning ecstasy were over. But I’ll be back-next year.
IF YOU GO:
Best time to visit Las Lenas is in August and September, when the peak season crowds start to diminish. Ticket prices also drop in early September. The first day of Spring (La Primavera) is a day filled with Mardi-Gras madness and fashion shows to boot.
How do I get there?
Delta, American, and United offer nonstop service to Buenos Aires and Santiago from the U.S. Air Canada offers one-stop service from Toronto. From Santiago, you will need to take a bus to Mendoza and from there to Las Lenas. From “BA” you can either take a charter plane and bus ride to the resort (badino.com.ar) or the overnight TAC bus from Retiro bus station.
Where should I stay?
Club de la Nieve offers dorm-style rooms for the solo traveller, but is a 1K walk from the town center. La Residencia also offers dorm-style accommodations. Payen has small apartments in the town center and Scorpio Hotel is closer to the lifts than the ticket office. If cash is no obstacle, then Pisces Hotel is the choice for you.
“The Wine Bar” is located inside the Atenas condominium complex and serves Sushi on select evenings. Check with Mariano for details. “UFO” and “Ku” are located in the main resort center and belt out the region’s best dance music. Beware- some nights don’t get ‘started’ until 2am and Ku can rage past 6am. “Johnny’s” is located in La Residencia and offers the cheapest meals in town. It is also a regular congregation for North American freeskiers. Much better grub can be found at Aries Hotel, Huaco, and Innsbruck. The pies at Innsbruck are first-rate. Don’t miss “Chechi’s” at La Residencia’s building #1 for local Argentine parties every Wednesday night around 2am.
For more information, go to laslenas.com.