At Catedral Alta Patagonia you get the big mountain lines in spades, but also the most amazing old forest, which local powder fiends will tell you is their favourite, with good reason — this is hands down the best resort tree skiing in the Southern Hemisphere. People tend to associate skiing South America with big mountain lines, longer verticals and an experience befitting the mighty Andes, but the trees are really special.
Barreling through the birches in J-land is an addiction, no question, but lunging into the ancient lenga trees in Argentina soon becomes compulsive when you spend any amount of time here. These are big trees, and you can get big snow – it’s a lot more variable then Hokkaido, but every season turns on some spectacular tree days.
Spending 2 to 4 months a season living at Catedral for the past 14 years has given me the local knowledge to know when and where it’s on during and after a dump most of the time, and the ability to find clean lines last thing on a hectic pow day when most of the mountain is trashed.
Unlike places with a continous defined tree-line, here the main slope clearing years ago was pretty haphazard, whole swathes of forest were cleared without much thought to drainage, erosion, aspect or common sense. Neither is the native lenga forest usually that suitable for pine forest style glading, as the young trees grow in a wiry scrub fashion till some dominate. And I have never seen any summer clearing work to improve things in the trees in that regard, so you need to be 100% aware this is a natural environment with plenty of hazards – one year we saw a snowboarder smash both lower legs hitting a log right under the gondola line.
When it dumps though the lengas are big enough – up to 30 or 40m in the best spots – that the snow often collects at least double the depth in the forest as it does on the exposed slopes, and in the southerly aspects it usually stays nice and dry for a few days after a storm clears out.
In bad weather you can get some great skiing in the trees when the alpine may be totally shut down for wind – like off the long t-bar, the last lift to skier’s left on the mountain that mainly gets used for race training. On a howling, low visibility day with nothing much else open and most people packing it in after a couple of runs on whatever chairlifts are open you can be lapping the forest just off the side of the t-bar all day.
The Nubes (Clouds) express quad to the summit rarely operates during a storm, so it’s usual to make a short 15 minute hike up from the Punta Nevada quad, that almost always does run, to access the chutes along the top ridge. From here you can bomb a line down from the top, through the chutes, down the bowl line under the lift, which gives you similar vertical to Crackenback chair at Thredbo, 1800 feet or so already, but then at the treeline you duck skiers right of the Nubes chair base for a short but steep 150m or so plunge that is usually left untouched all day. Unless there’s a huge amount of snow, enabling a get out exit along the creek at the bottom, you have to hang a hard left or you’ll be clambering over logs and stumps for quite a while (yep, I learnt that lesson the hard way).
You can take a sneak peak of the conditions riding up the old Princesa 2 double chair, a great go to in a storm as it’s never wind affected and lets you lap steep terrain with a choice of open &/or tree shots. The lines under it used to be good too, but they put a toboggan track across it!
With 1150m vertical, split about 50 – 50 above and below treeline, the lower trees can be working or not depending on the state of the season. When everything is good there are endless options just diving off and cutting the zig-zags on the road trails, especially across any south facing lines.
Most people arriving in the morning rush from downtown Bariloche get straight on the gondola next to the carpark, and on a typical pow day you can get a few lines in on the chairs above that, then as it tracks out go hit the chutes to skiers’ right at the top, before bombing on into the forest below the gondola. Whether it’s the creek line or the way the younger lenga trees hold the snow, something always feels very Japanesy in there to me.
All the way over the other side of the mountain, past the last line of double chair lifts and the t-bar, are the famous off piste slabs of Segundo Lomo and Palmera. In between them are the probably the biggest and best trees on the whole mountain. If Condor 3 chair to the top is working you just cut out past the warning sign – but not when it’s slidy, a boarder died in the gully get out from Palmera a few seasons back. The native bamboo below the forest can be fun to get out of too, but in another similarity to Japan the local brews are just reward, and kicking back with a Patagonia amber lager or two checking out where you have been is a great end to your day. Unless you’ve still got something in the tank and fancy your snow rugby skills..
Catedral has been undergoing a metamorphosis under new owners for the past two years, with over $USD 6 million already invested in new groomers, a new hi-tech snowmaking system and magic carpet lifts for the base this year, and a host of other improvements at the base & on mountain.
getting there: www.lan.com
Cerro Catedral Snow-forecast (Bariloche)