Snow Road Trippin’ Chile: Leaving Lines on the Andes - Part 1

Words and pictures by Quintin Chalmers
Published January 2006

Volcan Puntiagudo en route between Osomo and Antillanca

As I steadied my nerves before dropping over a cornice high above the lifts, I stared in awe at the untracked bowl below and the volcano high above. This is South American skiing at its very best and something that will live with me forever.

After six months of planning, waiting for lost luggage and picking up the hire car, our party consisting of Mike Richards (a Welshman whom we had met in Montana in the spring of 2000), George Chalmers, Matt Chalmers and myself were on our way south from the capital city of Santiago to Chillan, from where we would head inland to the resort of Termas de Chillan. Chillan, like most other large towns and cities in Chile, was a shantytown and certainly not the type of place I would want to live out my days.

One of the many shanty towns of Chile

We are all skiers and had decided on a South American adventure for a number of reasons. George, who will be 60 in January 2006, had only a few countries left around the globe where he had not skied, and feeling his age, decided that it was time to strike Chile and Argentina off his wish list. We had studied the brochures and while the trips to Vallee Nevado and Portillo certainly looked good, we felt we wanted to see what we considered to be the real Chile and Argentina. Mike, who had been to South America before, was acting as tour guide, although the emphasis of the trip was to see as many new places as possible, and decisions would largely be made as a group on a day to day basis.

The drive south was an insightful experience where we witnessed literally thousands of locals walking with horses and carts on the hard shoulders, bus stops every half-mile, and people selling everything and anything from fruit and vegetables to little bags containing unknown substances, that they swung back and forth to catch our attention. From the size and appearance of these bags, one could certainly assume that it may well have been drugs!

Hams hanging in the bar area of the Parador Cabanas, Las Trancas

We eventually arrived in Las Trancas, a small collection of shops, cabanas (cabins) and restaurants just a few miles short of the ski area. Our cabanas for the next few nights was at the spacious Parador, and as soon as the gear was unloaded from our hired 4x4 Nissan Pathfinder, we headed down to Oliva’s restaurant for our first taste of South American steak, or lomo as it is known in Spanish.

I really had not done my homework before this trip and I was unsure as to what to expect from Chile’s resorts. On reflection they were much better than I ever imagined. I expected small hills with limited terrain and vertical but I actually got massive mountains with vertical on par with the majority of western US resorts.

The resorts themselves reminded me of those I’ve been to in Idaho and Montana, with one or two lifts and the ability to ski most of the area with a short hike from the top. Apart from the T-bar that the race teams were using we never had to queue and the slopes were blissfully quiet. The scenery however was something that I had never seen before. Volcanoes peppered the skyline in all directions and it’s something that will live with me for the rest of my days. As for skiing on them, words simply cannot do it justice.

Termas is a massive mountain that boasts 9 lifts, 28 runs, 820m vertical and a staggering 24710 acres. Consider that Vail, the largest single mountain in North America has just 5289 acres, that puts it into perspective straight away. Anyone who claims to be bored with Termas after a week is clearly not looking, is not of a good enough standard or is simply too lazy to climb a little. It’s massive, and when you consider that by 10am there were less than 20 cars in the parking lot, you know you’re going to have plenty of space to play.

The lifts at Termas are a mixture of slow chairs, Pomas and T-bars with the upper mountain served by a T-bar that takes you onto the lower flanks of the one of the many volcanoes in the area. The scenery is incredible and after a few warm up laps on the upper mountain to find our legs we decided to try a few runs on the resort’s most famous trail, Las Tres Marias. From the top it’s a 13km descent back to the lower parking lot. Matt and George stuck to the groomers while Mike and I dived off and on to the piste. The slopes are rolling with plenty of small cornices to drop, offering excellent skiing amid stunning scenery, and with five volcanoes peppering the landscape, there was an excellent backdrop for photos.

Mike, Quintin and Matt at the summit of the Antillanca resort

The upper mountain was used by the various ski teams out for their summer race training. Although most of the teams we saw were junior racers, it was still nice to see the Canadians, French, Italians, Andorrans and Spanish doing their stuff.

We stopped for lunch in the cafeteria that offered a wide range of snacks. Hamburguesa completa or hamburguesa americano were the choices with some papas fritas. Burger and fries to the rest of us!

We skied until about 4.30pm, then headed to the day lodge for a cold beer to celebrate our first day's skiing in Chile. Cerveza negra, the Chilean equivalent of stout was very nice but my attempts at ordering a second one saw us back onto the cheap and cheerful local lager. Did the trick for me!

We enjoyed the day so much, that we decided to stay for another. Mike and I knew where it was at and left George and Matt for most of the day for lap after lap on Las Tres Marias. We would occasionally catch up and get them to take some shots as we dropped from cornices into fresh, untracked snow (despite it being many days since the last fall). The highlight was Mike's double ejection as he dropped over one such cornice. Luckily his landing was soft.

Again we headed back to the lodge and grabbed a quick lunch before heading back out for yet more laps. Mike and I skied right up to 5pm when the lifts closed and our final decent to the lodge took us to the right of the trail map as you look at it. Fairly steep, lightly treed lower down and with chopped-up powder, my legs were pounding by the time I reached the base. Gesticulating to George who was in the bar to get a couple of beers in, I was annoyed to find out that it closes before 5pm. Disappointing.

Mikes launches off a cornice at Antillanca

We were up early the following morning to pack our car for the trip to Antuco, a small resort with two surface lifts, some 60km south of Termas. Unfortunately that’s as the crows fly, so for us it was a 300km journey.

On good roads this would have been an easy three hour drive, or so we thought, as we headed off back to Chillan. Mike asked if there were any short-cuts and after working it all out I thought that we could head back to Chillan and then instead heading south to the city of Los Angeles we could head inland from Cabrero, north of LA, to Huepil and then onto the ski resort of Antuco, saving I guessed about 60km.

We turned off the road and followed what appeared to be a sign and ended up on a single track bumpy road for a couple of miles before being turned back by a guy cutting trees. God knows where that road went, but back we went and followed his instructions. The first section of the road was ok until we got to Huepil but after that it turned into a dirt track with roadworks.

I joked that we might have been better taking the train as there was a narrow gauge track running beside the road, but we had a good laugh a few miles later when the tracks suddenly shot skyward in a mangled mess of metal. We had all the usual jokes about rocks on the line, but I doubt trains had been running on this track for many decades.

When we arrived at the mountain it was obvious that there were no lifts running. Disappointed, the decision was made that we would take some pictures and be on our way again. If I had been alone I would have got my skis out and climbed the liftline to say I had skied the mountain, but as a group that would not have been fair on everyone else.

The base area at Antuco looked like a mixture between a US ghost town from the gold panning times and a ski resort in Kazakhstan. There were old buildings with smashed windows and some were in dire need of a lick of paint.

One of the funniest moments of the tour came here too. It was blowing a gale and George in his enthusiasm to take a few photos lost grip of his bubble-wrap bag that he keeps his camera in. Mike and I were in stitches at his attempts to put his foot on the bag as he ran uphill. Eventually it was caught and we were back on the road.