Friday, September 6, 2013

Boarding Las Leñas Day 1: rain, sleet, and smiles

I came to Argentina for one reason: Las Leñas.

Woke up to this email of encouragement
from my Ph.D. advisor. 
My original plan to go to Nevados de Chillán, just a few hours from Santiago, to stay and snowboard with a group of mountain guides there, were thwarted by a big storm that was supposed to dump snow (see my post on arriving in Santiago), but turned to rain instead. So, I checked over the snow reports for all of South America, and Las Leñas was the one place that looked like it still had a good forecast. I packed my bags, hopped the bus, crossed the border at the top of the Andes, and a long bus trip later arrived at 1am in Malargüe, Argentina, where I checked into a hostel and slept a few hours before my 7am ski bus wakeup call.

I groggily crawled out of bed, shoveled down a quick hostel breakfast (little portions of toast, butter, and jam), packed my day bag, and was about to leave to walk to the bus when Ramón, the hostel proprieter, stopped me, scolded me for being late, and drove me to the bus terminal (I returned with wine later that day to make up for it). The bus from Malargüe to Las Leñas leaves at 8:30 from the central bus terminal, takes about an hour and a half, and costs $50 Argentine pesos round trip (<$8USD if you use the official exchange rate). It's possible to stay at Las Leñas, but lodging at the village starts at ~$300/night and I obviously wasn't going to cough up that kind of money.

Las Leñas is like the Aspen of South America: big mountain, big snow, big price. The target clientele at Leñas, as with many of the other better mountains in Chile and Argentina, is wealthy foreigners, so the prices they charge are similar to the more expensive U.S. resorts. Bad news for me. The good news, and the reason I risked coming, was that Leñas is famous for powder and mind-blowing off-piste and backcountry terrain.

Mountains! With snow on them!
That's a good sign, right?
The bus ride up was spectacular. The plains gave way to hills and canyons, and I could see mountains in the distance. I was excited, especially when the roadside bumps turned from dry foothills into increasingly big and increasingly snowy mountains. When raindrops started to appear on the bus windows I took that as a good sign that it was snowing up on mountain.

Ooooh, optimism, how often you have broken my heart.

Rain. Rain rain rain. And rainy patches of slush over mud on the slopes. Apparently in the 48 some hours since the last time I had had internet access, the forecast had turned to Noah's Flood and all of the snow was washed right off the mountain. But the first bus back down the mountain wasn't until 5:30pm, and the restaurants were too expensive to spend the day drinking beer and eating, and I sure as hell wasn't going to sit outside in the rain and wait for a bus for 7 hours so off to the ticket counter I went. I closed my eyes, handed over the credit card, and cringed while they charged the $70USD for a lift ticket (for late-season skiing in the rain? the vultures!).

Oh yeah, let's DO this!!
So, I strapped on the board, pulled down the goggles, checked out the mountain map, found the lifts that would get me up to the highest possible elevation (snow? please? snow?), and up I went.

Again optimism -> heartbreak. The upper lifts were all closed.

Sad face.
Well, whatcha gonna do. In my case, laps on the dinky beginner slopes, which were more like ramps between mud patches. After about 20 some laps on one run, it was time for lunch (and late enough that I could finally call my bank about the lost ATM card from the previous post), so I slopped my way into the lodge, leaving trails of filthy mud and dripping water as I went. I tried hard to find a payphone (apparently they don't exist there? that is what customer relations informed me), and then attempted to weasel my way into some free internet access, but no dice, and had to pay another vulture $10USD for 2 hours of internet access (have these people no shame?) so that I could skype call my bank. Bank wouldn't do anything until I mailed them a handwritten letter, so I skype called my dad and got him to fax one over for me. I then paid another $50 to have a replacement card sent to me emergency express, and assured it should arrive in a few days. Relieved, got myself a cup of insta-noodles ($8USD! Blaaarrrgh!!) and wandered on back into the rain. Expensive rainy crummy day.

But then! I rode the lift up and at the top, the rain turned to sleet. Optimist re-awoke.

Sleet? Does that mean snow somewhere? HOORAAAY!!
(taking selfies and playing with the fancy new GoPro graduation present kept me entertained in the rain)

Determined now to find snow, I took the board off and started to hike. And hike and hike and hike. And, about an hour into the hike, the snow started to fall. About the same time, I saw what looked like halfway decent ski-able terrain. In the far distance I saw a group of black spots on top of a ridgeline, and as I hiked the started to drop one by one into a big ice cream bowl of untouched snow. And there was hope.

So I kept hiking. I spotted a line I wanted, down a steep couloir that ended in a cloud of mist, and did something not very smart (but it sure cheered me up) and bootpacked it, alone, wishing more than once that I hadn't left my crampons and ice axe in Oregon but using my board as an anchor when I could, made it up into the mist cloud, turned on the video camera, and down I went. And it was super fun. So I did it again, going up higher into the chute the second time by scrambling my way up an exposed rock spine and dropping over an into the couloir.


 And then it was time to go back to the bus. So despite the rain and the mud, I had a great first day at Las Leñas. Worth the lift ticket. Worth the trip.


And it kept getting better... Continued in the next post: Boarding Las Leñas Days 2-3: Hiking off the thesis belly and a day so exciting I almost pooped myself

GoPro video footage from the day (my first attempt at stitching together a video from GoPro footage!) is up on YouTube! Check it out. It was originally set to the end of "Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin, but YouTube wouldn't let me use it. In the comments here, give me suggestions for other songs to use and I'll see if they're available for copyright clearance!