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The author shows off atop the peak of Alto del Arpa, in the shadow of the highest mountain in the Americas, Aconcagua. (Robin Esrock for The Globe and Mail/Robin Esrock for The Globe and Mail)
The author shows off atop the peak of Alto del Arpa, in the shadow of the highest mountain in the Americas, Aconcagua. (Robin Esrock for The Globe and Mail/Robin Esrock for The Globe and Mail)

Skiing in Chile: Come for the snow, not the glitz Add to ...

An erupting Chilean volcano might be causing havoc for ski resorts in Patagonia, but farther north near Santiago an epic snow season is under way.

Three hours from the Chilean capital is a ski resort without any shops, malls or promenades. There are no restaurants, bars or hotels. There's not even a ski lift. Yet Ski Arpa still attracts clients from around the world - and for good reason. Here, two Pisten Bully Snowcats shepherd up to 22 skiers and snowboarders to the top of the mountain where they have mind-boggling access to 4,000 acres of terrain.

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Ski Arpa is the dream of a lifelong ski instructor who scraped and saved over three decades to open a mountain for anyone in love with stunning views and untracked snow. Toni Sponar, a veteran ski-instructor of Aspen, Banff and number of South American ski resorts, bought 5,000 acres of land in 1983. At just $5,000, it was a bargain (even for a ski instructor), the location ideal. From atop the peak of Alto del Arpa, you can see the Pacific Ocean to the west and Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, to the east. The south-facing slopes receive plenty of sun and, protected from harsh winds, chutes form in natural abundance. Surrounding you is the Andes, a mountain range of lost empires and mystery, the very spine of the continent.

A year after his dream purchase, Mr. Sponar installed a ski lift and set to work creating an eight-kilometre switchback road to the base lodge. Then disaster struck. A massive storm dumped metres of snow, causing an avalanche that wiped out the lift, the lodge and all of Mr. Sponar's savings in the process. Over the years to come, he visited the mountain with friends, but it would take two decades before he could resurrect his dream. He purchased two Snowcats, aligned with booking and marketing agents, and in 2004 finally realized his dream of opening a skier's ski resort.

As we slowly make our way up the switchbacks, the van abruptly stops and a fellow passenger vomits. It's a rough road, which Mr. Sponar (now 74) maintains himself, zigzagging 600 metres up the valley. I'm feeling a little queasy from the altitude, but the excitement seems to settle my stomach. I discovered the joy of snow when I moved to Canada in my 20s. I grew up in South Africa. When I was six years old, a once-a-century freak snowstorm hit Johannesburg: My schoolteacher, having never seen snow, made the class hide under our desks. She thought it was nuclear fallout.

I retell the story in the van as the switchbacks become ever steeper. Finally our Swiss driver announces we have arrived. Next to the parking clearing is a rustic building, built deliberately into the hill so it won't, like its predecessor, be wiped out by an avalanche. We are blessed with perfect conditions - the sky is clear and blue, and 20 centimetres of snow fell overnight. We sign waivers and get handed an avalanche transmitter by Anton, Mr. Sponar's son and partner in the operation, before embarking on the next leg of our journey. There are a dozen clients today, some French, some German, some Americans from Colorado. This is not Whistler or St. Moritz or Aspen: We have all packed our own lunch and accept the simplicity of the amenities. We have come for the snow, not the glitz.

It takes 45 minutes for the powerful snowcat to make its way up the mountain. I am standing at the back of the outdoor passenger area, watching Mr. Sponar and another skier being towed behind us. The snowcat eats the steepest of inclines, charging like a tank up toward the peak. The air gets thinner and colder, and suddenly, the full might of the Andes appear on the horizon, a true alpine wonderland. After a final push from the powerful cat, at a near 45-degree angle, we arrive on the peak and dismount. The groups split up respectively, choosing a wild multitude of lines. Mount Aconcagua, nearly 7,000 metres high and dividing the Argentine-Chilean border, beckons me. I let out a Wilhelm Scream, for if you can't scream at the top of the world, where can you? Within seconds, I'm carving this mountain like a Thanksgiving turkey.

A full day with Ski Arpa includes four runs with a guide. By my third run, I am feeling braver, dropping into a gully to attempt an unsuccessful launch through a chute. It takes a while to dig myself out. Mr. Sponar joins me on the next run, rocketing down his mountain, enjoying the start of another stellar season in Chile. He whips down so gracefully I find it hard to believe he's old enough to be my grandfather. Meanwhile, his clients are bonding over fat smiles and white powder. Warming up in the sun outside the base hut, we all agree: Who needs trendy boutiques when you have a 1,000-metre vertical descent on some of the best powder in the world? Especially when you have it all to yourself.

Get a snowboarder's eye view of the Andes watch a video here.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is moderngonzo.com .

 

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