Fans of Kiwi heli-skiing might point to the wide range of heli-drops available on New Zealand's South Island; but aficionados of South America can riposte that the amount and quality of lift- served skiing in Chile and Argentina make the expense of heli-skiing unnecessary (although it is available).
Practically all the resorts of South America are dotted along a thousand- mile stretch of the Andes, at latitudes between 30 and 45 degrees south. There is a handful of resorts farther south, but they are only of local interest. The season runs from June to September, with the best conditions in July and August.
The principal resorts lie on both the western and eastern slopes of the mountains, in Chile and Argentina respectively, but the best of them are on the western side, at the northern end, east of Santiago.
The Andes are impressive mountains. Although they form a narrow range, the high point is almost 7,000m above sea level. The skiing doesn't go quite that high - but it goes high enough, at least in the northern resorts: the four major Chilean resorts close to Santiago all have top heights between 3,300m and 3,700m, as does the one major Argentinian resort in this area. And when I say close to Santiago, I mean close: three of Chile's most impressive resorts are within 30 miles of the capital. The three might one day form a linked ski area, but for the moment they remain resolutely separate.
Valle Nevado, created in the past six or seven years, is the premier resort for foreign visitors and actively discourages locals with a high price for day passes and a limit on how many are sold. With its smart hotels and centralised management, it resembles a compact US resort, despite heavy French involvement. The skiing suits intermediates and there is plenty to challenge the expert, including areas accessed by heli-lifts. The lift-served vertical drop is around 800m, with a top height of 3,670m, and the resort's south-facing slopes (a good thing here, remember) enjoy a long season.
Next door is El Colorado, with a slightly bigger vertical, a very slightly lower top height and rather more lifts than Valle Nevado (although the latter has expansion plans). The skiing, on the south and east faces of a conical mountain, suits novices and experts best. There is accommodation on the mountain at Villa Colorado, and at the straggling lower community of Farellones, but most skiers at El Colorado are day visitors based in Santiago.
Third in line is La Parva, traditionally an upmarket second-home resort, but with its sights now set on development as a 'destination' resort. Most of the skiing is intermediate, but there is challenging terrain for experts prepared to hike a bit, and a thriving heli- ski operation. At 960m the vertical drop is the biggest in South America, but in practice you're likely to spend most of your time on the upper part of the mountain. A distinctive feature of the area is that there is a more or less self-contained zone of lifts and runs above the mountain restaurant at 3,100m, so the season can be a long one, usually extending into November and sometimes into December.
The other resort of note on this side is Portillo, some 40 miles to the north. The name means 'narrow pass', and the resort owes its existence to the construction of one of the few transport links between Chile and Argentina. First came a spectacular railway that for many years was the only means of access to the resort; then, in the Sixties, a road pass which is something of an adventure in winter, because of the risk of avalanches, but which has nevertheless put the railway out of business.
Portillo put itself on the map by hosting the World Championships in 1966 - an inspired piece of marketing by the resort's North American owners. It is basically a one-hotel place, namely the Forties Hotel Portillo at 2,890m.
The lift-served skiing extends 450m above the resort and almost 400m below it, though the heights are reserved for those prepared to ride a unique, amusing but rather tricky form of four- person drag-lift specially designed to suit the powder-filled avalanche chutes high above the pass. Novelties of this kind have helped to give Portillo something of a cult status with expert skiers, but the lower slopes have plenty to amuse the less ambitious. The skiing is in two separate sectors facing east and west, with the resort and road between.
The sole Argentinian resort of international interest in this northern group is Las Lenas - reached most easily by internal flight from Buenos Aires. It was opened only a decade ago, launched internationally with World Cup races in 1985, and remains a favourite training ground for the World Cup circus.
With a top height of 3,340m and a vertical of 1,100m, Las Lenas is a ski area to rival the best of North America, if not the Alps. It does not have huge numbers of lifts, but the few there are serve plenty of varied terrain. The ski area has the reputation of being closed often by storms or avalanches. By South American standards there is a wide choice of accommodation, much of it offering skiing from the door.
The most interesting resorts in the southern group are also in Argentina, in the wonderfully scenic wooded mountains around the lakeside town of San Carlos de Bariloche. And much the most interesting among them is Gran Catedral, about 10 miles away. With a vertical drop of 1,000m and the most extensive lift network on the continent, it can't be ignored. But with a top height of only just over 2,000m, snow reliability is not a strong point.
Anyone planning to ski in South America should start by obtaining a copy of South America Ski Guide by Chris I Lizza, which looks dreary, has useless piste maps and is now getting rather dated, but is full of fascinating detail. Published by Bradt Publications (0494 873478) at pounds 10.95.
THIS IS my last column of the season. I hope to be back in September, by which time my new guide, Where to Ski, will be in the shops. You can get a free copy by reporting on a recent ski holiday. You must request a resort report form within seven days, then send it back completed within 10 days. Writers of the 50 best reports will get a free book; all other reporters will be able to buy a pre- publication copy at a 25 per cent discount. Write to Where to Ski, The Old Forge, Norton St Philip, Bath BA3 6LW or fax to 0373 834756.
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