Over the weekend of Aug 24- 26, 2007, I skied Valle Nevado and La Parva in Chile. I was in Buenos Aires on business the previous week and had to be in Montevideo the next week, so it was convenient to drop by Chile for the weekend. Given the need to fly on Monday, I didn’t feel comfortable staying on the mountain for fear I might get trapped there if there was a storm, so I stayed in Santiago and used KL Adventures for ski rental and transportation. They were reasonably priced (about $32 RT transportation and $36 for “performance” ski and boot rental), reliable (with one exception, noted below), and very nice,, but the transaction cost getting to the slopes was very high. They picked me up as promised at 7:30 in the morning from the hotel, and we went to the shop to rent gear. An hour and half ride took us to Valle Nevado. I was clicking in at 10:30. But just poling to the slope I fell down and one of my skis clicked off. Oh well, so I’m a bit out of practice… I clicked back in and started down, but on my first turn, I fell again and the other ski came off. Uh-oh. Have I completely lost it? I walked back up the slope and started to click in again, but noticed that if I even moved my feet a little bit, the skis fell off! The technician in the shop had set the bindings' size entirely wrong. It’s been so long since I had to rent equipment that I hadn’t even thought to take the simple precaution of trying out the boot-binding interface in the shop where I rented.
Of course, by this time, our driver from the shop had disappeared, and I was afraid that the repair technicians in the shop at the resort wouldn’t make any adjustments on skis that I hadn’t rented from them. But as it turned out they were very nice and made an adjustment that served me fine for the rest of the day. My other equipment problem was that the top latch on one of the boots didn’t close very well (it seemed to be OK in the shop) and the boots had no strap around the top, so that foot was kind of flopping around all day, but it was serviceable at least for conservative skiing. Once I got started (between 11 and 11:30), I pretty much skied continuously -- with 30 minutes out for lunch (a hotdog “italiano” with guacamole and diced tomatoes and mayonnaise – sounds a little strange, but was quite good) – until 4:00, when heavy fog set in. Normal closing time is 5:00
I spent much of the day skiing off the Andes Express, the only high-speed they have, and the Mirador, a regular quad lift. Both had some nice long runs. The best thing about this resort (and from what I’ve read, the same applies to others in the Andes) is that they’re above the tree line. So you should in principle be able to pretty much pick a line you like and go anywhere. Unfortunately, since they haven’t had snow in about 3 weeks, the skiing off-piste was a tooth-rattling experience, as I discovered when I tried it a few times. So for the most part I ended up skiing on the marked runs, which they’ve done a good job of maintaining. I never hit any ice. But if you have higher tolerance than I do for hard-pack – or are better than I am at finding sun-softened snow -- you can definitely enjoy a huge amount of off-piste terrain. You have to be a bit careful, since the coverage on some of the steep stuff is marginal so there are some tips protruding from the snow and they don’t mark rocks off-piste, but most of these were visible as long as you kept your eyes open. Since there aren’t any trees, a lot of the off-piste is easily visible from the lift, so you can see what you’re getting into.
The mix of boarders – skiers was about the same as at a US resort – maybe a few more skiers. They have a couple of terrain parks, but neither was within sight of the runs I was on, so I didn’t see them. The half-pipe was decent size and looked to be in pretty good condition, and I saw a lot of boarders enjoying the natural half-pipes formed where some of the slopes came together. I ran into Shawn White and some of his buddies in the lounge on the way back, and they had been to VN and seemed pretty happy, so I guess the place has some appeal for boarders! Shawn very amiably signed an autograph for my son the boarder, and I’ve never seen the kid so excited as when I gave it to him.
I was riding up the lift with a guy and we started speaking to each other in Spanish, then realized we were both from the US. He just finished his college, one year of which he spent in Chile, and he’s now trying to get a job as an instructor at one of the ski resorts around here to take a little break before he starts grad school. He told me that the neighboring resort – La Parva – is more of a family place and doesn’t have as “challenging” runs as Valle Nevado. I thought that a bit strange, since Valle Nevado seems pretty tame compared to the ones out west in the US. But then he told me he’d never skied the Rockies, and I understood ?
I had read that Valle Nevado is the most crowded resort around here, but there was never a lift line, and only a few times did I even have to slow down or take evasive action to avoid anybody on the runs. (But I should note that this was a weekday. People told me that it was a somewhat different story on weekends, but from my experience at La Parva on Sunday, I still doubt the lines ever get very long by our standards.) Clouds – which generally manifested themselves as fog -- came and went all day, so my changeable lens goggles were worth their weight in gold. But of course, clouds don’t block the UV, and I had stupidly left my sun screen in the hotel, so my face got beet red. Finally, at 4:00, just as I was getting ready for my last run (we had to be back at the parking lot by 4:30) the fog settled in for good, so on this last run I was flying blind. But I came off the slopes at the end of the day a happy camper. Then ….. We spent almost an hour in the van waiting for some people who hadn’t ridden up with us, but were supposed to ride back. The ride back down the mountain on the long and winding (and very narrow) road -- with sheer drop-offs on the side -- took around 2 hours due to all the traffic as everyone left the 3 resorts simultaneously in heavy fog. Then we spent another 30minutes or so at the shop returning equipment, THEN another hour or so dropping off other guests, fighting the incredible Santiago weekday traffic. So I didn’t get back to the hotel until 8:20, a bit over 4 hours after I quit skiing. By this time I was no longer a very happy camper. In fact I was so unhappy (plus I had a cold and was really dragged out), that I skipped skiing on Saturday.
On Sunday, I went to La Parva, one of the other resorts close to Santiago. In fact, this one turned out to be a bit closer than Valle Nevado, and due to the pick-up route, we could stay later. So I got to ski from about 10:30 til 5:15. Equipment problems weren’t as serious today -- I made sure to test the bindings at the shop and to get boots with a strap to tighten up the top – although the top of the boot was still too large for my ankle and so the boots were quite loose. I ended up liking La Parva a lot – maybe even giving it a slight edge over Valle Nevado, contrary to my initial expectations. It somehow seemed a bit bigger than VN, although according to a snowboarding video they showed on the flight from Santiago to Montevideo, VN is the largest in the southern hemisphere, so I guess my impression must be incorrect. I really did not think that the information from the guy I met at VN – that LP had less challenging runs – was correct, even considering the marked runs, and of course you could ski or ride at any level you wanted just by going off-piste at either one. VN and LP each have only around 9 lifts (about 6 of which are surface lifts) and 25-30 runs. But they cover a lot more area than you would guess from these numbers. The real downside of both VN and LP is that they rely a lot on surface lifts, which move as fast as chairlifts, but only take 1 skier at a time. As you can imagine, this can result in lines. I tried to avoid the surface lifts, but they serve a lot of terrain and the one time I found myself unavoidably using one, it was the only significant line I encountered in the 2 days –must have been 15-20 minutes. For a day or so, you can find plenty to entertain you without using the surface lifts, but for longer, I think you’d just have to suck it up.
The return drive down the mountain was even longer than the previous day because of some traffic jam on the very narrow road. It was never clear what caused the jam, but it got me thinking that it wouldn’t take much (avalanche, traffic accident, rock-slide) to completely close this road down, since at many places it has virtually no shoulder. Gracias a Dios, the traffic in Santiago wasn’t so bad, since this was a Sunday, so got back to the hotel about 3 hours after I left the slope.
Bottom line: This was a helluvalotofun. Conditions were not ideal, but they were much better than Colorado or Utah this time of year :-) At the worst, the off-piste surface was hard-pack, not ice, and the groomed runs were in good shape. They could definitely use a dump or at least a refresher, but it seems that the temps have been low enough to avoid large-scale melting and re-freezing. Because of my situation, I had to stay in Santiago, but if I were not constrained by business, I would definitely stay at one of the resorts or in Farellones in order to avoid the VERY time-consuming transportation to and from the resorts (not to mention the fear factor of that road!). Also, if I were coming here on a vacation trip, I would bring my own boots at least. Whether it’s worth it to bring your own skis, I’m not so sure. The ones at the shop were Salomon Screams, which I guess aren’t top of the line, but not too bad. Re. the third resort in the area – Colorado – I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but a Chilean couple with whom I rode up the lift at LP said that they liked both LP and VN, but would never go to Colorado because it was full of disrespectful boarders.