Life from the skybox is good. Heck- It’s downright epic! We have just arrived from different portals of this vast domain, out of breath and listening to our hearts beat louder than the accompanying ‘oonce’ familiar with the Latin American club scene. Yet we relish in another fantastic bluebird powder day from our secluded perch atop Club UFO in the Valle de Las Lenas.
With the fiery sun beating down from above through the Earth’s largest ozone hole, we lay stretched out amongst the comfortably inviting couches while enjoying cold Quilmes, the popular Argentine beer. FM 97.7 Radio Las Lenas continues to provide the background beats for our tropical vacation. Looking up at the big blue sky, we can’t help ourselves but to think there could be no better paradise.
Flashback: August 25, 2003. Internet chat room boards are lighting up like wild fire. “I heard there’s no snow in Las Lenas.” “Rumor has it they are closing next week.” “My trip is cancelled. Looks like I’m going to Chile instead.” There are two types of skiers in this world- optimists and pessimists. For the pessimists, it was paradise lost. With so many trip cancellations, the karma wheel had to be spinning in my direction. I am an optimist.
Although snow in the Andes Mountains can be more fickle than its counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, it has a knack for finding its way with unusual timing. I decided to make a call to get the truth. “Hey, everyone says there’s no snow and its closing- is that true?” The slim shady snowboarder on the Lenas end replies, “I doubt it. The snow is lacking down low, but it’s in good shape up top- totally ripping dude!”
There are two types of skiers in this world- optimists and pessimists. For the pessimists, it was paradise lost. With so many trip cancellations, the karma wheel had to be spinning in my direction. I am an optimist.
I have to admit, I was a little bit nervous without seeing the coverage personally, but I knew that the annual “Santa Rosa” (a large sub-tropical storm that sideswipes the Andes every September) couldn’t be far off. We were all hoping she’d be in a nasty mood when she arrived.
“So where are you thinking of shooting?” Blair Debnam asks photographer Peter Moynes. “Well, it’s pretty beat in most places but try and make it toward the top of the farthest fin. It’s still untouched and has the most sun.” Piece of cake. I follow Debnam as he starts a boot pack up a rapidly rising spine that lies about a couple hundred meters from the sun coated ridge underneath Entre Rios peak. The plan is to boot pack straight up and then sideways above a few exposed cliffs to reach the top. At first glance, it appears to be no more than a comparable hike at Alta or Jackson. It’s our first day on snow (and rather excited at that) but we soon realized like everything else in Las Lenas, it was a lot bigger and much more difficult than envisioned.
We knock out a short, increasingly steep boot pack to the base of a rocky outcropping, just below a set of towering rock spires. From there, the hectic side traverse begins. Snow beneath our boots is beginning to change from soft pack into a lemon meringue pie. It’s firm and grippe on top, with nothing but sugar underneath. The former Canadian freestyler is taking about 4 kicks in front of me to lay each sideward step into the snow. Slope angles have changed dramatically and we are now clinging to a 45 degree wall. It was so easy to under-estimate the difficulty when assessing our first run.
An ice axe and crampons would have been a welcome sigh of relief, but Debnam (who had just clipped in) replied, “Well, they’re helping a little bit, but not a whole lot.” We continue our chess match across an exposed band of cliffs that was now starting to tower more than 100 feet over an unpleasant 20 degree landing. BOINK. OOFF, UGHHH, SHIT! WATCH OUT! A baseball size piece of volcanic rock hurtled out of control from the cliffs above and came within inches of knocking Debnam upside the head. Shaken, but not stirred- Blair continued to lay the remaining footers left in our ascent. We realize that the next time one of us might not be so lucky. Finally, with a collective sigh of relief, we reached our destination.
The sun was starting to fade into the backdrop as I watched Blair slice into the buttery corn snow. I could think of nothing better than enjoying a cold beer after this scare-a-thon. But first, a few thousand vertical feet of spring corn, if you please.
The weather forecasters had been calling for big storms to arrive for the past three weeks. Logic suggested that the Santa Rosa would never arrive, but should it arrive, it had the potential to create some extremely dangerous avalanche conditions. With the current snow pack rotting and melting, many of the popular off-piste routes developed dubious reputations for becoming dangerous mine fields of rock and ice. Fortunately, it was still possible to find excellent corn snow and pockets of month old powder. Making the most of every day, our group trudged on with optimism and a sense of purpose.
One afternoon, Moynes, Debnam, and I decided to test the waters off the Sans Noms. An area known for its massive vertical and lengthy run out, we figured it to be a grand ending to the day. Sans Noms is a virtual collection of steeps and a fan favorite. To access this far-reaching area requires a short ride on one of Las Lena’s many poma lifts. Nelson, BC-based Moynes sped ahead on the catch-and-release poma with a surprised look on his face. “I can’t remember the last time I rode a poma- it must have been years.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”…..Picking up speed, he graciously arcs through the sun with his shadow playing catch up…. he continues to lace long and powerful turns to the next rock band 2,000 feet below us…..“That was great! Just perfect,” he shouts.
With a lower than average snow pack, it was essential one of us descend gently into the first set of couloirs. This entrance rolled to more than 50 degrees in pitch. While Moynes set up to shoot Debnam, I naturally volunteered to peak over the edge. “Yeah, it looks covered but really takes a dive into the corner- probably 52 degrees or so against the rocks.” The snow felt firm, but grippe- the kind of corn snow you can really carve an edge into without losing hold. With Adrenalina rising stately across the valley floor, it was the perfect place to stop and enjoy the view.
“Okay, let’s do it.” Debnam starts in, cautiously carving some gravy turns and then starts to increase his angulation as he drops over the ridge. Picking up speed, he graciously arcs through the sun with his shadow playing catch up. I watch as he continues to lace long and powerful turns to the next rock band 2,000 feet below us. Moynes is ecstatic, “That was great! Just perfect,” he shouts. We begin to wrap things up with a big smile on untouched, smooth as silk corn snow. Still waiting on Santa Rosa, but things couldn’t be much better. It’s starting to look like the bandwagon folk’s back home who cancelled their trips couldn’t have been more wrong.
As we pick our way through a deserted rock field and switch slopes, we catch up with Mike, a former Tahoe native-turned Los Angeles ER doctor. With all the stuff that’s been happening lately to fellow Gringos, we welcome the extra company (and medical expertise from up North!). The four of us work our way through the thigh-burning gullies at the bottom and complete our descent of more than 3,000 vertical feet. Unfortunately for us, we have a 3.5-mile hike ahead on a dirt road (in normal snow years, it is possible to ski out most of this). Some folks had been calling ahead arranging 4×4 rides, but we gladly welcome the relaxing hike amidst another fully satisfying day.
Debnam and I are fortunate enough to have packed our hiking boots anticipating the long walk. Peter and Mike weren’t so lucky. Especially Mike. He was not aware of the 3.5-mile hike ahead that would be conducted in his ski boots. The hike really wasn’t so bad- it’s mostly a gentle downward sloping off-road jeep trail sandwiched between the mountains.
Things are going smoothly, but we notice a narrow gap in the road ahead. A jeep is approaching fast. We line up single file to the right to allow him ample room to pass, but ever the generous Argentinean, he allows the same to the driver’s right and clips a rock band. His jeep takes a bit of air and settles into a precarious position hanging over a river bed 30 feet below. A rollover was the last thing we expected to see in the backcountry! We look toward Mike, knowing that we could have a serious situation developing. The four of us (two in ski boots) lean up against the front of the jeep as the driver prepares to reverse himself out of the mud. The back tire is skidding and going nowhere. We start to rock the jeep and are able to push it back into safety. Assuming the driver will give us a quick ride to the adjacent Aries hotel, we approach him with our gear- but he just thanks us and speeds off! No big deal, but we are hoping that our good deed does not go unnoticed in the future karma department.
That same night, our Canadian friends decide to host a Gringo party. It’s the second year installment where the rules are simple: One Gringo must bring two Argentine women. Not everyone succeeded but the party allowed a close knit group of 20 blow-off some steam and show appreciation to Ullr for the bluebird days. It was also a chance to request the Santa Rosa. The party was a conglomeration of hard corps fanatics, pro skiers, photographers, and locals. Heather Bowen of “The Ride Guide” was their filming Colin Puskas, Pierre Yves-LeBlanc, and Hugo Harrison for an upcoming special on Canada’s Global television station. Snowbird-Alta, Jackson, Whistler, and Nelson locals were all in the mix. As with everything in Argentina, it was 2AM and we were just getting started.
Looking outside in anticipation of clouds, we saw nothing. The clear skies were a green light to continue the party at the Wine Bar. Once again, Mariano’s cozy Wine Bar became the social scene for North American and European freeskiers. It was “The Ride Guide’s” last night in town and all signs were pointing to a mini-bender. We had been getting up each morning and charging it, hiking until we could not make a second step and now was the time to kick back with others that share the same passion.
You just knew it was going to come. Mot had been up all night for the past week, waxing each board and fixing his gear…..No matter what the weather buffoons were predicting, we all had a collective feeling that “It will come.”
Hours later, we were dancing on bars and stages, relishing the eclectic sounds of the South American underground. “Oonce, Oonce, Ounce, Ounce…” the beat went on. Skies were clear, but hopes were in the air that Ullr would soon bless us with Santa Rosa.
You just knew it was going to come. Mot had been up all night for the past week, waxing each board and fixing his gear. Someone thought he waxed the same board three times in the same evening. You could tell by the way he started to laugh- that sinister sort of giggle you might hear from a person at 6am in the Jackson tram line with three feet fresh and still dumping. Mot fed the stoke and it was there. Each day it continued to get stronger. No matter what the weather buffoons were predicting, we all had a collective feeling that “It will come.” Clear skies prevailed after a rough night out at the Casino and clubs and then BAM!
“You gotta see this!” “Is Marte open?” “No, Informes says it’s been windy and heavy snow there all day.” “Everything’s Red Light!” With that news being digested, we pulled over covers and fell back asleep, hoping for the best.
The smell of fresh ground coffee and a loud knock at the door begged the question. What’s the buzz about? Mot is busy brewing the hardest hitting caffeine jolt west of Mendoza. It was Go Time. With everyone else recovering from a massive overdose of Oonce, Mot and I ventured about on a quick scouting mission at three o’clock when the Caris chairlift reopened. Dropping into Cenador, one of the most consistent 38- degree pitches this side of the Lower 48, Mot entertained a crapshoot. 24 hours prior, the slope had been littered with a variety of rocks, boulders, and mud.
We picked out a patch in the dense-covered fog hidden to the far skier’s right. It appeared to be a vast wasteland recently converted into a swath of fresh snow. Pointing my skis straight down the center fall line, I took a little speed to air over the small rock outcropping that blocked the entrance. Landing a few feet down the slope, I felt my knees sink softly into the ever-forgiving smooth coating of snow. I watched as Mot poked his turns further and further into the snow pack, exploring the depths of the new found glory. We were dropping in sync about five turns apart, pushing the boundary layers of this new snow. A few snakebite rocks here and there that either sent one of us off balance or cartwheeling through the snow, but nothing of the unexpected.
The deeper layer represented a thickness more consistent with Sierra cement, but working its way toward the top, the powder felt lighter. Not just a little bit lighter, but on par with the Rockies. It was exactly what the stability required. Surprised, but exhausted we exhaled a collective sigh of relief and excitement. “That was totally sweet! Did you see how deep it pillowed on the right side?” “Unbelievable,” I replied. “I was following your rooster tail the way down!” Before we could break the news, some additional late afternoon laps were in order. The snow continued to pour down, giving us a day of rest before the bounty.
It’s an early start to a typically cold Monday morning. The winds were quieting down and the sun was shining. The showcase Marte lift appeared ready to take center stage. A vast arena of steeps, chutes, bowls and everything associated with the word extreme, Marte stands proud. For very few lifts in the world can match its terrain or access. More than 50,000 acres of mesmerizing descents were about to reopen.
Mapping out the upcoming day became a daunting task. With so much terrain to choose from, where to go first was the most difficult choice. Anticipating a late start for the upper mountain prize box, we stormed up a few quick laps above the Caris and Volacano chairlifts. The powder was unbelievably deep. It was light and feathery. The kind of snow that you can gently brush off a car window, leaving no trace behind. The first run shifted our gears into overdrive. Pushing waist deep under a bluebird sky, we felt that this was The Perfect Moment. Uncrowded, untouched, and all ours, we shined in the spotlight. With few gringos to share the windfall, we knew it was going to become a day of the ages.
Reaching the Marte lift with a big grin on my face, I meet up with Bryce Phillips. As luck would have it, Bryce had an unplanned change in his travel plans and ended up arriving in Las Lenas the night prior. A long time fixture in Las Lenas, he was quick to point out that the snow was the lightest and deepest in recent memory, if not in years. Scouting out the Marte Bowl beneath us, we decide to pass up the tasty leftovers from this 2,600-foot centerpiece. There were bigger fish to fry.
Eduardo’s beckoned like a large Birthday present. We took great pride unwrapping this present. Eduardo’s greeted us with about 3,000 vertical feet of couloirs, rock drops, chutes and open powder fields. Following Chuck Loeffler, we merged left to reach a consistant pitch. The snow felt stable and light. Mother Nature had done a great job the previous days and we were about to judge her quality of work. No complaints from Chuck as he danced his way straight down the fall line, disappering under massive clouds of snow. Almost like the club scene from previous nights, my body started to ‘ounce’ to the Latin American beat. My first turns sensed the stability and lightness of this incredible snow. Relaxing to the rythem and beat, I let my skis run.
The run of your life.This was my moment. The stage has been set. We all have them, but this one was special.
Gaining speed and a plethora of face shots, I felt like there was no other Cloud Nine. The clock stopped moving. It was just my friends, the mountain and me. The beautiful sunshine reflected off the crystalline layer of light powder. Watching from below, Chuck could see nothing but long-arced turns and a shadowy figure dancing in and out of the rising snow clouds. A moment frozen in time.
After a day of raiding the lift-serviced vertical, our attention turned to a much-anticipated bigger prize- Torrecillas. A distant glimmer from below, the Torrecillas and its majestic rock spires hover atop the Andes. It’s not only a huff and puff, but a momentous journey. Letting go of the Iris poma, our legs acknowledge the next three hours will be via sheer foot power.
It’s a veritable whose who of Utah skiing. Brant Moles and Chuck Loeffler lead the trek, but are followed closely by Brian Barlow and an assortment of other characters. Although the Wasatch might be green, these Snowbird skiers were getting ready to taste one of the most impressive powder feasts in recent memory. Already, local Argentines were calling this storm the lightest powder in years.
The beautiful aqua marine skies help to relieve the constant pant as we make our way over shale rock falls and treacherous boot packs. Off to the distant, the horizon touts a large collection of volcanic craters dotting the Argentina-Chile border. With a stiff calf muscle or two and several depleted Camelbacks, we lunged toward the top. Rewarded with one of the most spectacular views in all of skidom, the adrenaline keeps pumping once the goods are revealed.
Staring down the gigantic curtain, Brant dives in. Seize It, Live It, Rip It! Charging harder than a thoroughbred on Red Bull at the Kentucky Derby, Chuck starts on cue. Careening down the massive face, you can barely see him in a cloud of smoke. When it’s all over, the only traces left behind are the marks of a few turns that seem a couple hundred meters apart.
Brian and I are reflecting on a previous day’s screening of a French film, “The Perfect Moment.” We are standing atop an Alaska-type wall of snow with nothing between us other than 2,000 vertical feet of bliss. Large cliffs, open bowls, and couloirs frame the scene as we make the final preparations to take our cue. Brian enters center stage as he drops. It only took the first resounding “YES!” to realize how incredibly lucky we were. Barlow sinks to his waist in light fluff, creating a huge rooster tail on his second turn. Soon, he disappears off into the distance as he comes into view for Brant and Chuck. It was another 40 seconds or so until we could see him screaming out of the fall line below.
The perfect moment- you can just feel it. The sun shining, powder resting deep below tired, weak knees, thoughts of the unknown, a sense of excitement and thrill. The package was there…. Wanting to make it the perfect run- the run of your life….This was my moment. The stage has been set. We all have them, but this one was special.
Staring down the fall line, I knew it was time to reap the rewards. A long difficult climb was about to end in solitary bliss. Looking up at the sky and then again down below, I adjust my goggles and recheck my transceiver. I look toward Mot and Tara and get the green light. A surge of adrenaline takes over my nerves and my legs seem to forget the torturous climb. A picture perfect ridgeline drops steeply into a curving couloir. I focused again on the line, took a few breaths, and finally…let my skis loose. Time stood still. Large pillows of powder blanketed me in a sort of Angelic dust. Shining underneath the powerful sun and a stellar group of friends, Las Lenas delivered me into my “Perfect Moment.”
For more information, go to laslenas.com.