Top ski resorts of the world

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The World’s Top Ski Resorts
(Published by New Holland, 2002)

Those who ski or snowboard regularly will need no explanations about what an extraordinary and exhilarating experience it can be. Those who have never tried it may wonder what all the fuss is about. The “fuss” cannot be over-stated. There are very few outdoor pursuits which, with the help of that all important component, gravity – plus the awe-inspiring feeling of being in the mountains – reward participants with such extreme pleasure. And few that you would want to pursue from dawn till dusk. At one Japanese resort, Naeba, for example, skiers are so keen to pack in as many hours on the slopes that they sometimes start skiing at 4.30 in the morning. Whether you emerge from a cosy chalet after a hearty breakfast to find yourself cruising down pistes groomed to “corduroy” perfection, gulping in fresh mountain air beneath a cornflower-blue sky – or floating through deep powder like an almost weightless astronaut, you can hardly fail to be elated. Sometimes it can come very close to being a spiritual event. Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men on the moon, learned to ski long after his moonwalk, and wishes he had started younger.

First, of course, you have to learn. Just as a would-be astronaut cannot just take a space-walk without being thoroughly trained at NASA, anyone who wants to ski or snowboard must learn the basics – fortunately nowhere near as daunting as preparing for a space mission. Finally the embryonic Hermann Maier or Jonny Moseley needs to acquire as many skiing hours as possible before skiing or riding becomes intuitive and effortless. Then let the space walk begin!

You can ski in all five continents. So there are, of course, many breathtaking mountain ranges where you can practise this enthralling sport – year round if you want to. All you need to do is travel between the two hemispheres and you can have as many winters as you care for.

There is, in my opinion, no such thing as a bad ski resort. As Freidl Pfeifer, the great ski pioneer once told me when I tried to draw him out on which of the ski runs he had cut long ago at Aspen, Colorado were his favourites: “They all got something for someone”. Some “resorts” in America’s deep south for example – in Tennessee, Maryland and Kentucky – are undoubtedly limited, and in Alabama’s case, severely so. Yet they all have “something” to offer.

So not all the world’s mountain ranges, by any means, have major ski resorts – particularly in the obscure regions of central Asia. . But there is first-rate skiing in the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Andes, the Japan Alps, New Zealand’s Southern Alps and even Australia’s Snowy and Blue Mountains. Even in India and Georgia (in the former USSR) where ski resorts tend to be small, patchy or antiquated, there is magnificent helicopter skiing in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and the Caucasus. Also well off the beaten track, there is some excellent skiing to be had in Iran, the Lebanon and Korea. China has a growing ski industry. In the Andes, where organised skiing is pretty much confined to Chile and Argentina, there is an astonishingly high ski-lift at Chacaltaya, soaring at more than 18,000 feet (around 5,500 metres) above the Bolivian capital, La Paz. There is skiing in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and – to many people’s surprise – the Drakensberg Range in South Africa, which reaches 11,425 ft (3482 m) is home to one of the oldest ski clubs in the world, even though they do not always get snow!

The ski areas we feature in this book cover some of this astonishing global diversity. Some, such as Manali, in the Himalayas, Valdez, Alaska and Blue River, in the wilderness of British Columbia are not ski “resorts” at all, but mountain communities from which helicopters take skiers soaring to virginal peaks where, far from the madding crowd, they can spend, hours, days, weeks, skiing in untracked snow. Some resorts, such as Verbier, Val d’Isere and Kitzbuhel are old favourites which feature in every major tour operator’s brochure. Others, such as Las Lenas (Argentina) and Perisher Blue (Australia) are less likely to be on the average family’s skiing shopping list. We hope, therefore, that our presentation of these superb ski locations will appeal to “real” skiers and armchair skiers alike.

© Arnie Wilson

Las Leñas, Argentina
When the snow has all-but melted in the Alps and the Rockies, skiing is just beginning to warm up in the Andes. And if any resort in the southern hemisphere can claim to mirror the exhilarating challenges of a Chamonix or La Grave, it is this remote and intriguing ski area three hours south of Mendoza and 42 miles from Malargüe airport, a 1 hour and 40 minute flight from Buenos Aires . But it all depends on one absolutely crucial lift: Marte, or Mars. This long, steep, windswept chair reaches a high plateau at 3,400 metres (more than 11,000 feet) from which chutes of all shapes and sizes fall away in many directions. Some bring you back to the base area, others take you miles into the wilderness to such places as the Laguna Escondida. El Collar and Juno Bowl are major attractions. Sin Nombre (No Name) and Eduardo’s Couloir are spoken of in hushed tones. One snowboarder, who enjoyed the Snowboard Park reported that the out-of-bounds terrain was “outstanding” with snow “so deep and powdery that crashes were a pleasure!”

If the Marte lift is shut, however, either because of high winds or avalanche danger, the ski area is reduced to a fairly unremarkable mountain: the remaining 10 lifts serve terrain which has nothing much to distinguish it from any other average, mainstream resort. There are, of course, good beginner slopes, but these are not what makes Las Lenas so sought after by skiers, particularly national ski teams who sometimes train here during Northern Hemisphere summers.

Although the idea for World Cup ski racing was first inspired in Portillo, across the border, during the Alpine Championships in 1966, Las Lenas was the first area in the Southern Hemisphere to host a World Cup event, in 1985. The resort continued to be a World Cup host for several years.

With skiing as high as 3,430 metres (11,253 feet), the resort has a very healthy vertical drop of 1230 metres (4,035 feet). Like any rugged resort with steep slopes, Las Lenas gets its fair share of avalanches. Probably more than its fair share.

Extreme avalanche danger often keeps much of the mountain closed. In September 1999, two lift operators were killed by an avalanche which took out two lifts in the Vulcano-Minerva area. Luckily it happened just before the lifts opened or there could have been many more casualties. Hardly had the resort set about replacing the lifts, in July 2000 when another avalanche destroyed parts of same lifts. It would be unfair, however, to single out Las Lenas as being avalanche-prone. Who can forget the terrible avalanches in the French resort of Chamonix and Galtür (u umlaut), Austria in 1999?
The remote Las Lenas Valley is at the southern end of the Alto Cordillera opposite the Chilean City of Curicó, and the ski area is just south of the spot where a plane-load of Uruguayan rugby players accompanied by family and friends crashed between Cerro Sosneado and the Tinguirica Volcano. Only 16 of the 45 passengers and crew survived, partly thanks to their reluctant decision to resort to cannibalism: their epic tale was told in the book Alive and the subsequent film.

The Las Lenas Valley’s name is a reference to some of the bush-covered lower slopes. (There are few trees).The shrub is adesmia pinifolia, called coli mamul or “yellow wood” by the indigenous Mapuche Indians. The botanist Peregrino Strobell named the valley “Valle de Las Lenas Amarillas” – Yellow Wood Valley.

Ever since it first appeared on the drawing board as a brand new ski resort, it has had an intriguing history, as Chris Lizza, a professional ski patroller who spent a month in Las Lenas working with the pisteros, describes in his excellent South America Ski Guide. In 1975, the original developers, two brothers who were directors of an Argentinean food and manufacturing company, were kidnapped by Montoneros guerrillas who demanded a US$60 million ransom – to be distributed among their poverty-stricken fellow-countrymen. After nine months, and a partial payment, including truckloads of consumer items left in rural districts, the brothers were released unharmed. However they were so chastened by their experience that they immediately sold out.
French advisors were called in and in 1983, just a year after the Falklands War, the resort was conceived, somewhat in the image of some of the (then) more futuristic French ski stations. Built almost entirely from a brick-red, wood look-alike material, the main buildings were constructed in 1983 with a French team acting as consultants. The principal hotels and lifts (Marte, Apolo, Jupiter, Neptuno, Venus, Urano and Mercurio) are named after heavenly bodies. Piscis, with a European-style casino and indoor-outdoor pool, is the best hotel in town. The Marte chair-lift feeds what amounts to a separate ski area, with 40 challenging chutes.
Even today the area’s finances are unpredictable. Like so many resorts which are part of the Andean ski industry, Las Lenas has struggled to stay solvent, and was technically bankrupt for five years, when the banks took over. However after a record-breaking winter in 2000, the resort set aside an investment of more than $1.5 million (US) for a variety of new projects.
These included the creation of a tubing park and the extension of the
rental stock and facilities.
Las Lenas, for ski purists, is arguably the Holy Grail of the Southern Hemisphere. Lizza himself is unequivocal on the subject, and I have no hesitation in quoting his remarks – almost an ode – about the terrain made available by this crucial, avalanche-prone connection : “The Mars chair accesses more expert terrain than any other lift on this planet” he says.

“Forget the rest of Las Lenas. No skier could ever find – let alone ski – all the possibilities. Even the fittest World Cup racers could never complete a non-stop run from the top. Airy powder, velvety wind-pack and granular corn are always available somewhere. Marte: so vertical, so narrow, it defines extreme.”
After all this hard-core skiing, there is definitely a need to relax. The in-places this century seem to be the Innsbruck pub, The Bash Bar, UFO Point, and the Ku night-club. There is also a casino. The biggest gamble, however, is whether Marte – in this case, perhaps, the god of glorious terrain rather than war – will be open in the morning.

© Arnie Wilson