Words by Rob Hopkins @notrobhop
Photos by Ian Holmes @irrationalcarny
South America, the land of icy hardpack and hurricane force winds. Or so I thought.
For some reason I always thought the riding in South America was less about fun and more about a sort of penance carried out by those who insist on riding every month of the year, but couldn’t quite manage to sneak a regulation-sized turn in on their home micro-glacier in August to count it as skiing.
Needless to say my expectations were low when I booked the ticket for our 10-day whirlwind trip to Chile at the end of August. Don’t get me wrong, I was really excited to ride in the middle of summer with good friends and to explore a new part of the world, but I was not expecting any life changing turns out there. How wrong I was.
After roughly 27 hours in transit, Ian, Roy, and I were strapping into our boards at La Parva, a couple hours outside of Santiago, Chile. Fueled by galletas (Spanish for cookies, except these were way better than North American cookies for some reason), we shredded for half a day before tossing the gear back in our rental camper and making the seven-hour journey south to Chillan.
The next morning we woke up in the parking lot of Nevados de Chillan, a ski resort built on the ancient lava flows of a still very active volcano. It was pretty extraordinary to ride an empty resort, in August, while a volcano erupted over our heads multiple times a day, spewing ash into the atmosphere thicker than any cloud I’ve seen.
The riding was pretty great for the first couple days, but soon things became a bit more like what I had originally expected—the wind picked up, the sun was hot, and the snow quality deteriorated quickly. We kept busy jumping off cornices, racing down groomers, tracking the weather, drinking mojitos, and doing some recon splitboarding. We found an amazing zone with a pretty short approach, if only we would get some snow to soften it up.
Soon our prayers were answered. The storm that Ian and Roy had been tracking, which seems to hit the west coast of Chile like clockwork every year, hit Chillan dumping 30 cm or so over the course of two days, followed by sunny skies for the rest of the trip.
One of the most amazing things about South American riding is that aside from a few guided groups, almost no one ventures outside of the resort boundaries. Most people can be found on the bunny hill or the groomed trails, which leaves endless faces and chutes untouched for those willing to walk for 30 minutes. If you put any of this terrain this close to a North American ski resort it would be tracked out within hours, but in South America you have it to yourself for days.
We spent the rest of the trip lapping the backcountry, painting Hollywood lines down a 1,000-meter face directly opposite the chairlift, and venturing farther out to some pretty epic freeride terrain which finished off at some volcanic side vents spewing steam, noxious gases, and warm water, which is sometimes even warm enough for you to strip down and go for a dip if you are so inclined.
I would definitely recommend heading down to South America to ride at least once in your life. The terrain is fun, the people are great (they are really friendly and appreciative of you trying to speak Spanish no matter what your level), and the snow can be amazing too if you hit it right—just track the weather and book your flights last minute for the best result. And if you do end up heading down there, stock up on galletas, I know some guys who would pay good money for a few boxes of those right now.