Ride 'em, cowboy
Yee-hah! In Chile's Wild West the men are men and the mountains are magnificent, with deep, pristine snow. But for added machismo, Eric Kendall couldn't resist the opportunity to try heliskiing
Saturday 22 March 2003
After you've flown for 20 hours in order to go on a skiing holiday in Chile the last thing you want to do is get on another aircraft, especially when your luggage allowance for the next flight is just a pair of skis and poles. Unless, of course, the aircraft in question has wings that rotate, the ability to take off vertically and the propensity to take you to places, physically and spiritually, that you've never been before. Who needs transcendental meditation when you can heliski?
This particular form of skiing delivers a lot of sensations, all at once, on the way up and on the way down. The hydrocarbon frenzy of a helicopter in flight is a worthy match for the gravity-fuelled perfection of a sweeping turn on skis.
It's not just the terrain you fly over and ski through, the danger, or the speed, but the common theme: thin air. Powder snow is 90 per cent hollow, after all. Flying through it, every which way, is the name of the game.
With such exceptional lift-served terrain at Chile's Valle Nevado resort, getting aboard a helicopter for even more powder looks plain greedy. But you would be crazy not to; the deal here is well priced and more flexible than many heliski operations in other parts of the world, and the mountains are some of the world's biggest and best. You're taken to the highest drop-off point that conditions allow, from where you just keep skiing until you run out of powder. This contrasts with the "foot by vertical foot" approach adopted by many heliski outfits in the northern hemisphere where you get what you pay for and not an inch more. And even if the Andes, the world's longest chain of mountains, retain some character of the Wild West – cacti and cowboys on horseback dot the foothills on the way from the airport – Chile is as state-of-the-art as you want it to be when it comes to getting airborne.
For big descents the resort height helps too. Valle Nevado is 55km, and up 50 hairpins, from Santiago – 3,000 head-throbbing metres up on a ridge above the deep chasm that provides much of the heliskiing. It is a compact, purpose-built resort where your daily rate covers board, lodging and skiing.
With a range of restaurants and facilities all covered on one ticket, it's like a cruise ship two miles above sea-level but with better skiing; it connects to two other large ski areas, El Colorado and La Parva, has a great snow record and an extensive modern lift system.
For a taste of Chile's Wild West, Posada de Farellones – 500m lower down the mountain – is a small inn built in the Thirties. It was first used as a horse-rustling staging post and early ski lodge; a basic rope tow was installed nearby at that time. Cosy low-ceilinged rooms, log fires, locally woven wall hangings and a condor nailed to the sitting-room wall remind you that you're not about to ski the Trois Vallées.
Valle Nevado's cluster of buildings perches in spectacular fashion. Drop in from the top of the highest lift, Tres Puntas, at 3,670m and you've got nearly 2,000m of untracked vertical before even seeing the heli. Just the view from the top would convince the meanest skier that they'd got their money's worth before making a single turn.
There's more than one way down, including an intimidating opening pitch of deep powder that moves with you from top to bottom after recent snowfall. There's a difference between this kind of sliding snow and an avalanche, but it still scares the long johns off you as you bounce turns down a moving carpet of powder. Thanks to the altitude and the length of each run, these are "freshies" that leave you feeling quite the opposite – gasping for oxygen and wishing you had remembered to breathe on the way down.
But the sensation is worth almost any physical pay-back. The flow, freedom and exhilaration is overwhelming. And the pristine mountains themselves are just crying out for you to leave your S-shaped mark on them. Every turn is new, not just to you but for the mountain as well, at least for those particular billions of snowflakes you sweep through. The best of it is that you don't even have to be an expert, you just need fat skis and the right attitude: hip-deep powder is as good to fall in as it is to swoop through, though it takes some getting up again.
There's not long to recover at the bottom before the action begins in earnest. A diet of 'Nam films and M*A*S*H is the perfect preparation for this moment: you know exactly what's happening when the guide shouts "Incoming!", and even in Spanish-speaking Chile you huddle over the skis and packs by the "el-zee" (Landing Zone) as the chopper comes in almost on top of you. With the thrashing, snow-filled air ripping into you, it becomes clear that you weren't told to wear your goggles just to keep your hat on your head but so you can see your way through the blizzard to end them all and scramble aboard.
The visceral thud of the rotor blades, whumping through you, builds with your pulse rate on take-off. The soaring flight reveals extraordinary views of these sparkling, massive mountains before delivering you moments later on to another summit, from where the whole thing begins all over again – epic descent followed by magical ascent until either your legs give way or darkness falls.
Just remember, before you start, that there is no cure. If you've got an ounce of aviation fuel running in your veins, and powder snow in your spirit, you'll be instantly addicted.
You can fly to Santiago de Chile on a range of airlines, though none flies direct from Britain.
Through Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108) you would pay £595 return from London for departures until 12 July on the Brazilian airline, Varig, via Sao Paulo; after that, Aerolineas Argentinas has a fare of £623, though you must change planes in both Madrid and Buenos Aires.
You can contact Valle Nevado by calling 00 56 2 206 0027, or visit www.vallenevado.com. The rate for four nights at the hotel Tres Puntas is $768 (£500), including all meals and lift tickets.
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