Friday, September 20, 2013

Nevados de Chillán Day 1: !&%*$#@ POWDER!

I knew I had found the right bus when I saw international freeskiing champion Drew Tabke waiting next to it. Tall, handsome, carrying a ski bag, from Seattle, friendly and mellow, pretty much like every other PNW mountain enthusiast I ever met before the hipsters and skittle kids started to infiltrate the niche. It was definitely a good sign.

Beyond "tall Seattlite skier" I didn’t know who he was until after he had helped me figure out how to get a ride to where I was going when we were informed that the bus we were on wouldn’t be able to make it all the way up the hill because of the snow (snow!) on the roads. After we had waited half an hour on the side of a dark road in a snowstorm together. After his local friend, a badass in his own right, sandwiched the two of us into the cab of his tiny truck for a bumpy ride out to where I was headed in Shangri-La. After they helped me carry my gear into the cabin, lit only by the headlamps of the still-strangers at that point of the people I’d be staying with, and hugged me goodbye with a “good luck and see you up there”. After they shut the door and one of the guys at the cabin asked me if I knew who that was. “Yeah, he’s kind of famous. Like, really famous.”

And that is how I arrived in Shangri-La at the mountain home of the BackChillan crew.

The BackChillan cabin in Shangri-La, the Nevados de Chillán volcanoes in the background. HDR.

Ending up in Shangri-La was the result of a long chain of serendipity that began when MIT geobiologist Julio Sepúlveda came to give a seminar in the geology department where I was finishing my Ph.D. As I gave him a mini-tour of campus, our conversation quickly turned from science to Chile when I told him my dream of ski touring in Patagonia after graduating. He told me to get in touch with his brother, Felipe, who was starting BackChillan--a Chilean-run guiding company based in Chillán. Get in touch I did and Felipe (Pipe) is ultimately to blame for my still, over a month into the trip, not having been to Patagonia, spending time instead in the central Andes and land of beautiful volcanoes of which Chillán is one of the powdery epicenters.

The original plan was to start the trip with him and his crew in Chillán and then head directly south to Bariloche, then Patagonia. Instead when I arrived in Santiago to a rainy Chillán forecast, I went to Las Leñas, got stuck there, and finally made it to Chillán in the middle of Week 3.

Getting myself dumped off at a dark cabin deep in the woods full of guys I’d never met before (my only contact being a few emails with Pipe) was a definite leap of faith, especially following the deeply uncomfortable experience I had just escaped from. But with my fingers crossed, faith in my mountain people, a good snow report ahead, and a “conditions are great, get over here” email from Pipe, I jumped on that bus from Malargue with my fingers crossed and faith in my experience that mountain people are good people.

My faith was rewarded.

Powder day at Nevados de Chillán

Pipe and the BackChillan guys set me up with a headlamp, bed, and beer (important) and got me pumped for the morning by showing me the weather forecast (powder) and photos from their recent tours. I woke up the next morning to the smell of toast in a house full of skis and nice people with a fresh layer of snow coating the mountains which wrapped around the cabin porch like a giant snowporn poster.

Asado. Along with snow, mountains,
wine, and the people, one of the reasons
Chile is amazing.
Loaded up with breakfast and coffee we loaded our gear and bundled-up selves into a truck caravan and headed to Nevados de Chillán, the local ski area, arguably Chile’s best for powder.

Then we rode without pause for 7 straight hours, hitting every stash of untracked snow we could find, stopping only briefly at the end to rest our legs and enjoy some live entertainment before making one last run before the lifts shut down.

And then my first Chilean Asado. Asado is Chilean for BBQ. Like Chilean wine, which is called wine but is actually distilled straight from the blood of angels and spiced with hellfire and tastes nothing like “mere” wine, Asado is like BBQ only at least twice as awesome.