Skiing In Las Lenas
The adventure of "a road less traveled" began for us when we packed our ski bag in the beginning of August for a trip to Las Lenas, the premiere ski resort in the Andes of Argentina. The comments from non-skiers ranged from an ignorant "They have snow down there?" to an incredulous "How can you give up summer?" Non-skiers cannot even begin to fathom the joys of winter since their idea of a vacation is to escape it. On the other hand, although our skiing buddies were envious and curious, they felt had to find an excuse for their stay-at-home attitude. Oh sure, they love to ski but not enough to travel 7,000 miles in the off season. Why can't we be satisfied with the 60 days of skiing we get every year? Aren't there other things to do in life?
We don't think of ourselves as particularly unique. After all, the slopes of American ski areas are full of competent middle-aged skiers who handle groomed double diamonds with style and revel in champagne powder. We are certainly not material for a Warren Miller extreme skiing feature. Indeed, out-of-bounds skiing has never been particularly enticing. In North American resorts, flouting the rules and leaving the trails is not only illegal but downright dangerous. We satisfy our craving for first tracks by getting up early and seeking corduroy. The singular lure of Las Lenas is that off-piste skiing is readily available to skiers like us. And so we packed our bags.
Las Lenas is located on the eastern side of the Andes at about the same latitude south as North Carolina is north. The average temperature is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit with an annual snowfall of 250 inches. Forget the boot warmers and extra sweaters. The resort opened in 1983 on a huge tract of 556,000 acres with a base elevation of 7,349 feet, an upper elevation of 11,253 feet, and a vertical drop of 3,904 feet. Twelve lifts (7 chairs, 5 surface) can move 9,200 skiers an hour to more than 32 miles of trails which are 5% green, 30% blue, 25% black, and 40% double black with lots of steeps of 45 degrees and more. The lifts also service 7,600 acres of off-piste terrain. Las Lenas is advertised as the largest ski area in South America, comparable to Vail and Snowbird combined. It doesn't look that big because above the tree line there are no landmarks (except for rocks) to give some reference for distance. But, trust me, it is. Gregg Wardle, a world-class skier from the Aspen Ski School, has spent the last ten summers at Las Lenas taking runs every 100 yards, methodically working his way around the mountain, and he is still finding new runs to ski.
The modest daily price (about $25) of a lift ticket at Las Lenas includes accident insurance. Coverage, however, does not extend to off piste. Before you go out of bounds, you must check in with the ski school or one of the huts on the mountain and sign a waiver taking full responsibility (as well as letting them know where you're going). This doesn't mean that you won't be rescued if you get into trouble; it only means that you have to pay for it at a price that can run anywhere from $400 to $1,000. No matter how fit you are or how expert a skier, a guide is advised for off-piste excursions. Las Lenas veterans often fax ahead to reserve a place in one of the small groups put together by the top-notch mountain guides. Of course, whether or not you go out depends on conditions. And that, as they say, is "the rub."
The Las Lenas season runs from June 15 to October 15. We figured our best chance for good snow was the second week of August. Unfortunately, we were out of luck. As die-hard New England skiers, nothing deters us and we did ski every day with differing weather conditionshigh winds, very warm spring conditions, rain, and heavy, wet snow. Fog and snow above the treeline are perfect whiteout conditionsan eerie disorientation where you can feel as if you're skiing uphill while you frantically search for the poles that define the trail. We did have a few days of great snow at the top of the mountaina strange hard-packed, wind-blown surface something like Styrofoam that actually comes close to freshly groomed packed powder. The snow was so good that we ventured down Martetechnically an off-piste canyon below the upper mountain lift that leads into a very steep chute that is an unforgiving place. Expert skiers have been killed here after falling when they slammed against the rocky wall. With good snow, however, it is one thrill of a runfor length and steepness there's nothing even close in North America.
Under ideal conditions, out of bounds on a run called Paraiso (Paradise) can be miles and miles of great skiing without the terrors of the Marte chute. But it can also involve a variety of techniques. Conditions can vary greatly from packed powder at the top to pristine powder to cartonpowder with a frozen crustin the lower fields to deep heavy wet snow near the bottom. Before heading for the back country, a guide checks out your skiing ability and coaches you on techniques for handling the different snow conditions. Carton, for example is usually traversed and turns are made so that the crust is not broken. If several skiers in a group break the crust in different places, they can set up an avalanche. (Mountain knowledge of avalanches, a common occurrence above the treeline, is another reason to use a guide.) Very deep, heavy snow on steep inclines can be handled with exhausting jump turns or by repeated kick turns after long traverses. Is it worth it? A two- or three-hour run over virgin snowfields, no lift lines or crowded slopes, a picnic lunch overlooking an awesome vista, a sense of communion with the mountain, and, for someone long past her prime, bragging rights to the off-piste experienceI wish it had been mine.
Las Lenas is a 40-mile bus ride from Malargue, a small city an hour and a half by air from Buenos Aires. We checked our bags on Austral Airlines in B.A. and next saw them in our hotel room. Very convenient. We stayed at the relatively new Aries Hotel, an inviting place where every effort was made to accommodate us, their only North American guests. In the past year, the various hotels and restaurants have been sold to different concessions, so there is no reciprocity between establishments for meals. We ate all our meals, including lunch, at the hotel which was conveniently located to ski out, ski in. By far the best thing about our trip was meeting so many interesting and friendly English-speaking Argentines, who cheerfully overlooked our ignorance of their language.
As we said good-bye, it looked as if the weather was clearing, and the new arrivals would have the benefit of our three days of snow. If we had only planned to stay ten days!
If You Go
Peak season is the last two weeks of July. The week before and three weeks after are considered high season. The end of June and the beginning of September are low season. Packages from the U.S. are for the different hotels and include round-trip airfare from the U.S. to Buenos Aires with connecting fare to Malargue and transfers to Las Lenas, seven-night hotel accommodations, breakfast and dinner daily, full use of lifts, and personal accident insurance. The cost of an all-inclusive package can range from about $1,900 to $3,600 per person, double occupancy, depending on the hotel and the time in the season.
Hotel Piscis: Five star hotel with 99 rooms, heated pool with Jacuzzi, sauna, two restaurants, and casino. Ski storage and boot warming.
Hotel Escorpio: 47 rooms, ski storage, and boot warming.
Hotel Geminis: 34 rooms, ski storage, and boot warming.
Hotel Arias: The newest hotel with 72 rooms, Jacuzzi, sauna, and direct access to the runs.
Condos are also available.
Contact Calcos Tours at (800) 333-0276.
In Buenos Aires: 011 54 (1) 313-1300
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication