SOUTH AMERICA - Phase 1 - Santiago and the Cajon de Maipo

Words excerpted from an email written 11/5/09

Yesterday afternoon, standing on top of a big mountain under a bright blue sky with about 4000 ft of descent below me, I thought to myself: ¨for whatever it is that lets me be here doing this, I am so grateful.¨ I was in the upper Cajon de Maipo, the canyon of the River Maipo about 3 hours outside of Santiago with some of the most amazing mountains surrounding me: 360 degrees of aesthetic, steep, heart-stopping, awe-inspiring, lung-busting, dream-creating skiable terrain. The sun was overhead, giving us the first real views we´d had in the canyon, and the wind was gusting to remind us that we were in the Andes. At the bottom of the run were the Termas de Colina(hot springs) which flow from the depths of the nearby Vulcan San Jose (5856m) and had, the day before, offered some pretty therapeutic soaking indulgence. If I had to design heaven, I think I would make it look a lot like that place.

But, let me back up . . . because in order to get to such a heavenly place, the nature of travelling is that there are many unknowns to overcome, whims to follow, and ideas to bring to fruition. Where I left off was at the beginning of what became a full-on urban adventure of trying to find a vulcanizacion (tire repair) on a Sunday in a country in which everything shuts down on Sunday. I still can´t believe we found it, but I have learned that asking taxi drivers for directions at stoplights in big foreign cities will generally yield the desired outcome . . . sure enough, we had a fixed tire about 2 hours after undertaking the challenge. Next came finding the Plaza Londresand Les´s hotel so we could kidnap him to take him skiing again . . . this was much less graceful and made me about go postal as I was driving in circles, navigating one-way roads, trying to read tiny street signs, and dodge innocent pedestrians . . . I think it took us over an hour to find this place . . . and then he wasn´t even there! Anyhow, we survived Santiago, and eventually gave up our search, got some amazing food in Bellavista, and then found Les anyhow, escaping the city for good around 8pm . . . it absolutely amazes me how long urban assault can take!!! Oh well.



Lacy had a ton of Marriot points, so we styled out in Santiago . . . I of course made friends with the bell staff, had a few good laughs, and got to practice Spanish!


Sweet success of tire repair shop finding! Good times for sure :-)


We drove south in search of San Jose de Maipo and the small ski area of Lagunillas where there is a Refugio Suizo run by a classic Swiss-turned-Chilean mountain guide. Scott and Erica had discovered the place a few weeks before and highly recommended we check it out. So, we did some pretty decent suspension of disbelief, driving up what was indicated to be a closed road (but which had plenty of traffic on it - seems like such signs are more suggestions than rules in these parts!), into the mountains where there were lights on in only one building. Thankfully that one building was our refugio and, although Fritz wasn´t there, we got him on the phone and he gave us permission to stay. Sweet. We got up the next morning and rallied the rental up the ski area . . . turns out that the adrenaline fix for the day would come from the approach to skiing, but if you´re gonna pay for the 4x4, you may as well get your money´s worth, right?¿? Our skiing ended up being a long ridge walk to find a series of 300 ft descents with whatever snow was left. It was a super cloudy day though, creating a super dramatic effect the expansive valleys surrounding us. Plus, we got to scope some more super big mountains . . . I am utterly shocked at how much insanely beautiful terrain there is easily accessible from Santiago - that place may have the best backcountryaccess of any city in the world . . . bold statement maybe, but likely not untrue. Anyhow, it was nice to be out in the cold windiness and to be in a new place. We headed in after a few hours and were treated to the joy that is meeting Fritz. Truly a personality! Amongst other things, he suggested we check out the Refugio lo Valdes further up the canyon and suggested a place to ski once we got there . . . so off we went.


Good times in Lagunillas - Lacy, me, Les
Extreme! Les and Lacy . . .
We arrived up valley to Refugio Lo Valdes in the late afternoon and decided just to hang out. It was pretty nice to chill after being on the go so much, and especially after the day of urban assault. There were some cool people there too, including a passionate Chilean yogi who insisted that we do a yoga practice . . . it was pretty funny actually . . . !

Tuesday was super cloudy, cold, and windy, but we decided to go investigate the skiing potential anyhow since that´s why we were there . . . we drove up the dirt road to the Banos Colinas and I could have just as easily foregone the skiing thing in favor of an afternoon in hot springs, but I had to ask myself WWSFD (What would Scott Fennell do?) and I knew the answer is that it´s always worth going skiing. So, we crossed the super sketchballbridge and walked up the dirt road to the snow . . . ultimately hiking up the valley to access what turned out to be a super aesthetic LasLenas-style couloir. Since it was pretty low, it was actually holding pretty perfect corn snow despite the cold temps and high winds. So, we enjoyed the loveliness, and then rewarded ourselves with a therapeutic soak! These have got to be some of the most aesthetic hot springs ever, and you can do some serious terrain scoping from them! They´re also run by super friendly and classic Chilean mountain folks . . . always a pleasure to talk to the locals (definitely getting into the Spanish-speaking groove!). With plenty of time left in the day and continuity of foreboding weather, we toyed with the idea of leaving and heading up toward Portillo, but decided to stay in favor of chilling for awhile and slowing things down instead of trying to pack too much in (I barely recognize myself!). So, I spent the afternoon with my YogaJournaland personal journal, while the boys did a gas run . . . what a treat to sit outside in the dramatic canyon with a cool breeze and just take it all in . . . I really can´t do justice to how cool this area is. Pictures may help, but won´t get us there either. You just have to go. That night, we sat up drinking wine with Andy, a Uganda-born Englishman who now lives in the canyon and runs the refugio with his family. He shared his perspectives on Latin American politics (super educational!), as well as sharing the violent and colorful history of the refugio, interspersed with ski conversations, laughs, and our own personal stories. It was truly a gem of an evening and made us all glad to have stayed!

Our beautiful little line of wonderful snow and interesting terrain . . .
Lacy looking for the entrance - dramatic country!
And the lovely soak . . . life is good :-)

So, that takes me to Wednesday - my fly day. I had decided that I could ski until 3pm and still allow myself enough time to get to the airport, return the rental, sort and re-pack all the gear, and make my plane on time. Of course, in true KO style, that turned into a 3:30 departure as the valley we had hiked up continued to unfold and entice us further, ultimately topping out at the peak wherein I had my ¨moment¨ . . . The run started out as a nice steep chute, transitioning to rolling drainages, then to a super long couloir with an apron of perfect corn, culminating with easy turns down the valley and back to dirt. Runs like those are truly the reason I ski, and I was so happy to have had a super sweet day to end that phase of the trip with! Since we skied longer than anticipated, there was no more hot springing, and barely enough time to get food . . . as it was, I found myself in the all-too-familiar mode of rushing to the airport, pushing it perhaps a little closer than I should, but having plenty of time as long as everything went pretty well . . . and thankfully it did!

Andy and the boys . . . Refugio Lo ValdezFind the best deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor
Les and I on the skin . . . upward we go, following the river valley to see what we can find . . .
And what we found was incredible :-)

Les dropping in . . .
Lacy following . . .

On my way down the road and toward the car . . . ready for the race back to Santiago and to the airport! What a day, what a pleasant surprise, and what lifetime of ski inspiration! So, after a whole night of travel and no sleep, I made it to Ushuaia the next morning . . . I have clean clothes and a clean self, and am interested to see what this portion of the trip has in store. I learned last year not to get too excited, lest the boat not actually sail, so I am taking it in stride this year. It has already been great to reconnect with folks from last year, and tonight´s welcome dinner should offer even more . . . bring on the hugs and smiles!

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