Ski where the sky's the limit
While Britain bakes, some of the world's finest heli-skiing can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. Leslie Woit samples the Chile season
Saturday 20 July 2013
Uno, dos, tres, off comes the hat, the gloves, the avalanche gear. Like a giant flamingo, I am left teetering on one boney pink foot stuck inside a frigid ski boot, lowering my goose-bumpy bare foot deep into bottomless cold powder snow. It might be August, but I'm on top of a mountain in the midst of a Southern Hemisphere winter, peeling down to my swim suit. Shuddering, I make an inelegant dash from the helicopter through the snow to slip under the steaming warmth of the bubbling hot spring. Ahhh, Chile.
Heli-bathing is the ideal intro to a Chilean ski holiday. Weird, decadent, and fun …. A lot like flying halfway across the globe in middle of August to go skiing. A summer trip to the Southern Hemisphere is on the dance card of every serious skier.
After flying into Santiago, I was due to head to three very different destinations. At Chile's newest heli-ski spot, Puma Lodge, 3,000sq km of high-Alpine powder await, along with the chance to take the hot spring heli-waters, test the challenging mountain biking, watch the condors, and taste the local wines.
Three hours south of Santiago, at the dramatic juncture of Cortaderal, Las Lenas, and Cachapoal valleys, this lavish lodge (opened in 2011) has joined the club of internationally sought-after heli-ski destinations. Up to 24 guests surround themselves with post-and-beam mountain chic, with a fire-warmed greatroom filled with comfy sofas, a long bar and a pool table. There are also wood-heated hot tubs and massage rooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows beyond which herds of wild horses frolick and whinny.
Though on that particular day I couldn't ski due to white-out conditions (hence the heli-bathing), Puma Lodge's position in the central Andes is usually a happy confluence of cause and effect. Humidity moves in from the Pacific, travels up the Andes and dries out to around 10 per cent – spelling light dry powder. "It's normal here to have one to two metres of snow in a strong cycle," says Francisco Medina, UIAGM guide and manager, as we loll in the steaming hot pool, "and we have probably one of the most stable snow packs in the world."
Stretching up to the Argentine border, Puma's terrain includes two massifs within around 18 minutes' flying time. It also includes Palomo volcano, the operation's longest vertical run of 3,200m, pipped by Francisco as a contender for longest possible run in the world. "We've been exploring our range for a few years and there is still a lot that hasn't been skied," says Francisco.
Sadly for me, I ran out of time to remedy that. I had to move on to another of Chile's heli-ski resorts, Powder South Heli. Just 90 minutes by air from Santiago, Powder South's cosy and elegant El Ingenio Lodge has a helipad in the garden. And, just a brief hop from this, you're in a wild, unfathomable treasure trove of glaciers, gullies and ridges. "You will feel incredibly small when you get into these mountains," UIAGM guide and co-owner Rodrigo Mujica told me. "The landing zones are between 2,500m and 4,500m. You can't even land on top; the mountains are too big."
As the helicopter rose above the Maipo Valley, the anticipation was as sweet and drool-inducing as a pisco sour. I'd seen the hi-tech weather forecast in the guide's room: the guests I'd joined at Powder South had endured the same bad weather we'd had. Now, it was payback time. A heavenly metre of fresh snow blanketed the central Andes and the skies were blinging blue: heli-bathing to heli-heaven in one isobar.
Landing in a white dream of whipped cream peaks bathed in sunshine, we piled out of the helicopter and armed our avalanche airbags. And, with the tails of our fat skis wedged into the snow for purchase, we paused to drink it in. Almost two vertical kilometres rolled beneath us like a path of glittering diamonds. Amid the whirr of the receding helicopter, Rodrigo's long Chilean mane fluttered in the wind and our lead guide, Jerry, descended godlike into a giant white canvas. Rodrigo shouted the words I had been waiting for: "Hey Leslie, ladies first."
I was off, breathing silver flakes in great gulps. My turns sank deeper with each pulse – one foot, two foot, three – great diagonal blasts of shimmering powder exploded in sparkling arcs. It was ridiculously long, absurdly perfect, and alarmingly beautiful. Then we flew up and did again. And again. "For most people heli-skiing in Chile is a once in a lifetime thing," Rodrigo told me. "A good story for the cocktail party, a been-there, done-that deal." But, after a day as perfect as mine, I felt you'd be crazy not to do it again.
My last stop was a few dozen peaks from Powder South, an all-time classic destination: Portillo. It's up there with St Moritz and Aspen for pure chic. Exclusive by definition, just one curvy yellow hotel with 500 staff has catered to 450 international guests since 1961. From June to October, while the rest of the world sails, swims and cycles this golden petri dish of alpine romance, racing and relaxation is in full flower.
"We only allow one national ski team at a time," explained Portillo owner Henry Purcell over dinner. We're at his usual table, strategically situated to oversee the action, "so they don't bother the guests." Bother? The resort is anticipating the arrival of US superstar Lindsey Vonn but, this week, its the Austrian men's team and the Slovenian great Tina Maze, who is completely approachable and part of the furniture. The place presents a pantheon of ski gods, and attracts both high society and Hollywood. (In the 1960s Castro came and argued with Henry that Cuba had higher mountains. Then, when Juan the maître d', dashed out to return Fidel's forgotten pistol he was nearly shot.
The ski style remains Latin. Everyone books on seven-day packages, there are no lift lines, and at 10am the legendary hotel bar has only been closed for a few hours and the Brazilians are still in bed. There may be just 35 groomed runs but the off piste rolls forever.
I hopped on the chair, pausing at the top to watch Austrians in catsuits kick-start out of the gate, make one turn, then disappear over the crest. A ride on the slingshot lift, the funky, slightly harrowing five-person T-bars unique to Portillo, is part of the experience. It's a hairy ride that delivers you to the foot of classic steep and deep chutes such as Super-C Couloir above Roca Jack and, at the top of the Condor lift, the stunningly scenic Lake Run. This exhilarating hour-long route starts by squeezing through a narrow cleft then down through the powder, ending as close as you dare to the edge of Inca Lake.
At the foot of the mirror-flat lake, the postcard panorama is wide and wild, the big yellow cruise ship of a hotel is a beacon on the horizon. Slowly, we negotiated a pathway blasted into the side of the rock, face towards home. There was no rush; we were on southern time and there was all day until the pisco hour kicked off at Tio Bob's mountain hut. Everyone who's anyone in the ski world would be there. And if you're a real skier, one day you will be too.
The writer travelled as a guest of LAN (0800 977 6100; lan.com), which flies to Santiago from Madrid, with connections from London on Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) or British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com).
Puma Lodge (00 56 2 2 432 6900; chileanheliski.com) operates between 15 June and 30 September. Three-day packages cost from US$5,400pp (£3,600) including three hours of flights, accommodation, all meals, guiding and transfer from Santiago. Powder South Heli (0800 404 9183; heliskiguides.com) operates between 15 June and 5 October. Three days cost from €5,665pp (based on 8 passengers in the helicopter; bookable as an individual or group), including accommodation at El Ingenio Lodge, all meals, guiding, and transfer from Santiago.
Portillo (00 56 2 2263 06 06; skiportillo.com) is open from 22 June to 5 October. A week's all-inclusive accommodation, including lift pass costs from US$1,950 (£1,300)pp.
The W Hotel in Santiago (00 56 2 2770 0000; starwoodhotels.com) offers double rooms from US$299 (£200) room only
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