There are few great places to ski in the summer, putting Las Lenas at the top anyone’s list. With the famed Santa Rosa storm coming in September, sometimes leaving dozens of feet of snow and the infamous Marte lift, a sketchy two person chair that drops riders above ass puckering 3000 foot couloirs that feed back to the groomed runs below, the $160 reciprocity fee and two day journey are a small price to pay to find yourself in this summertime, winter paradise.
While this year Las Lenas was experiencing one of its best seasons in a decade the wind and warm spring weather that comes from the desert to the east leaves uncovered rocky shoulders and thin dirty couloirs, making a first timer like myself wonder where is all the snow? It turns out that Las Lenas is just the end of a very snowy road that is the Andes and just behind the resort the snow blankets this massive range even in late spring before the Santa Rosa, and according to locals for some time after it has left.
For most skiing around the resort, there is little chance to see into the valleys behind; the 13000 foot peaks of Tore Cillas and Antre Rios blocking the view, but for those with some solid backcountry experience and the will to leave the almost endless, epic lift access terrain to ski these incredibly esthetic peaks, the view from the summit reveals the Andes cloaked with snow the way you’d expect.
According to the locals and those who come here looking to keep winter going year round, like Dorian Desmore, the masses of frothing Gringo skiers that used to flood the valley have dissipated in recent years, due to lower than average snowfall and the rising popularity of Chile. With everyone I know and almost the entire industry working in Chile this year, I was surprised to run into any other Americans in Lenas, but only days into the trip I would wind up at dinner with one of the best female skiers in the world, Elyse Saugstad, here to ski with clients looking for some tips and inspiration. With the tininess of the “town” (just a collection of old shitty hotels and apartments) I see Elyse and her group a couple of times a day and one day get invited to join them to go cat skiing.
Paying money to go cat skiing when the Marte is more akin to a helicopter than a lift, accessing better terrain than almost any cat I have been on, seemed like unnecessary expense, but when they tell me that the our day will be in Valle Hermoso behind the resort my interest in the area took precedence over the money and likely mediocre conditions and I agree to meet them early the next day.
The morning starts with a leisurely 9:30 ride up the Marte to the top, where the cat is waiting for us. The group includes Elyse the client Scott a commercial realtor from the San Francisco, Robie an engineer who designs batteries for, Tesla, and Fabian the mountain guide who put their trip together.
For Elyse the trip is a chance to take some time off filming and keep her love for the sport all consuming; “Its so enjoyable to not ski for the camera, it’s getting back to the roots of skiing, why we all do it in the first place.” Elyse says coming off a win for best female performance at the 2014 IF3 Film festival, and a winter shooting for Conquering the Useless, a new film staring her and her husband Cody Townsend. Shelled from a big year she proclaims, “The one thing that is great about summer trips is that you don’t feel guilty about not filming. You can just ski for yourself.”
While Elyse is here to ski for fun without the cameras, the work never stops; entertaining the clients with stories of her adventures and helping them take their skiing to the next level. “They can learn a lot from you. I relate it to surfing, which I love so much but I’m not that great at. If I went with a pro I could challenge myself, and get some pointers. You can’t watch yourself and you might not know your doing something wrong.” she says, “It might open your eyes to the mountain in different ways.”
For the clients their eyes are opened more so than just being inspired by Elyse. “It’s really the first time in my life I’ve been able to get feedback on style and technique from anyone that has more than a self-taught free skier background.” Says Scott who is no slouch for a city guy, or anyone for that matter. “The ability to watch two pros (Fabian skis for Solomon) for six days straight, as well as the ability to ask questions about my form and try to emulate was invaluable and undoubtedly the biggest jump I’ve had in my skiing over the last decade.”
As we make our way behind Lenas the Andes, covered all the way into the valley are a stark contrast to the resort with it’s scree covered shoulders and dirty brown couloirs and an even starker contrast with the peaks just east of the resort which have no snow at all. “Your in lenas skiing and it has snow but the opposing side doesn’t then just behind it it’s so different again.” Elyse says with the same amazement we all must fell seeing the completely different climates separated only by a big ridge and a few miles.”
The ride on the cat to our first run takes forever and with the diesel fumes filling the cabin of the old Argentinean machine we get out higher on fumes than the mountains. “The cat was great besides the hole in the floor that was letting in carbon monoxide and putting us all to sleep.
Fresh tracks are fresh tracks” says Scott who cares less about scoping the zone than getting some untracked turns that are probably hard to come by on his days off in Taho. “It was so bad!” says Elyse “I get sleepy in cats anyways with the movement and sound, but I was so sleepy! But that’s what the gas does right, put you to sleep”. The great scenery as well as good snow keeps us awake as we spend the day skiing fun mellow runs, each planning our own return to the incredible valley with our sights set on skiing the unbelievable terrain that lies just across the river from the cat area.
For Elyse, Scott and myself the day was an experience we won’t soon forget in a country that we all hope to return to. “I’ve been five times I think I’d love to come back.” Elyse says of Argentina “That’s what’s so great about skiing, it takes you to foreign places with different food, different culture, different languages.” A statement that resonates with everyone who travels to ski, and with a laugh she makes a declaration that sums up the real meaning of what it’s all about, “Yea it’s just fun!”