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In the Andes, surprising twists

Unexpected and exotic highlights of a South American ski trip include a moss-covered forest reverie and nighttime flames.

June 20, 2004|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

Los Penitentes, Argentina — I first rode a South American ski lift last year, on a sparkling June night in the Argentine Andes.

The sun had set only a few minutes earlier, but the Milky Way was already arcing from one end of the valley to the other. Below were the glistening slopes of Los Penitentes, a tiny ski resort where I would soon fulfill my nearly lifelong dream of skiing the Andes.

I should have been enjoying the view.

Instead, I was staring at my hand.

More specifically, I was staring at what was in my hand: a diesel-soaked ball of fiber impaled on 1 1/2 feet of rebar.

I was about to participate in a form of night skiing that a Los Penitentes staff member had described as a "bajada con antorchas." I understood that bajada meant "descent." But I had thought that antorchas meant "flashlights." Actually, antorcha means torch, as in a flaming object you carry in your hand while skiing down an unfamiliar mountain with about 30 other torch-wielding people you have never seen in the daylight. Although such activities are apparently not uncommon in Europe or South America, for an American the concept seemed a personal injury lawyer's dream.

But at Los Penitentes, just a few miles from the Chilean border, the torches were lighted with gusto and abandon. Soon a line of skiers was creeping down the Andes by firelight, and some people had begun to whoop. I was laughing.

Then, after our first turn, I looked at my torch and discovered that the flames were lapping over my glove. Rule No. 1 for skiing with fire: Become one with the mountain, not the torch.

Fulfilling a dream

Since I was a kid, I'd wanted to ski South America. When I was younger, it was because I liked the idea of skiing during the North American summer. Then, after earning an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies, I became fascinated with the Andes. So when I realized that a 10-week trip through South America would land me in ski country in June -- the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere -- I came up with a plan.

Well, sort of. My plan was not to plan, to search out snow, take buses and travel cheaply. I hoped to ski the lofty peaks in northern Argentina and the lower, wetter mountains in Patagonia, the southernmost part of the continent. Besides that, I had no itinerary.

My girlfriend, Laura, met me in the Chilean capital of Santiago, and we spent several days in Chile's arid north before heading southeast. Although Chile has several world-class ski resorts, Argentina's recent economic crisis meant that prices there were cheaper.

Still, I wasn't sure what to expect from Los Penitentes. I'd read about South America's big, ritzy resorts -- Chile's Portillo and Argentina's Las Lenas, for instance -- but the only thing I knew about Los Penitentes was that it was easily accessible by bus, just across the Chilean border and on the highway linking Santiago with the Argentine city of Mendoza.

As it turned out, Los Penitentes was the closest thing to a roadside ski resort I've ever seen. Its small base area sits opposite a gas station, next to a two-lane highway used mostly by heavy trucks carrying freight across the border. Overall, it felt like a good place to build a gulag or hide weapons of mass destruction.

This does not mean that the resort is ugly -- only that it feels hidden and remote. Built on one side of a sparkling, treeless Andean valley, Los Penitentes is surrounded by soaring peaks and stunning rock formations.

The resort's name pays homage to the most distinctive of these, a 4,000-foot-high rock wall whose jagged contours are said to resemble a line of penitent monks walking to prayer. Aconcagua, South America's tallest mountain at 22,834 feet, is also nearby.

Although impressive, the scenery did not inspire me to open my wallet. No, I booked Laura and me in the least expensive place I could find, a hostel called Refugio Cerro Aconcagua, next to the gas station. There we got breakfast, dinner and our own room of bunk beds for just under $10 each.

The next morning, we headed to the mountain -- and Laura's first ski lesson.

Los Penitentes is small by Sierra Nevada standards, with two chairlifts and five surface lifts to ferry skiers uphill. It claims about 740 skiable acres, and its lift-served slopes begin at 10,499 feet and descend to 8,465 feet -- a respectable but unspectacular vertical drop.

Still, most of its terrain is too steep for beginners, so Laura and I headed to a short "bunny" slope. South American slopes are generally rated green, blue, red and black, with green as the easiest, black the most difficult.

Although I've skied for nearly 20 years, I was nervous because everyone -- from other travelers to a hot-dog vendor -- had warned me against teaching Laura, predicting total relation- ship meltdown if I tried. As it turned out, my biggest problem was persuading her to practice stopping and slowing down.

"But going fast is fun," she said.

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