Ski Arpa cat skiing sounds like the perfect lazy boy’s way to lap Chile powder. After all, the usual catskiing equation is pretty sweet: more terrain, less effort. But not this day early in a late season. With no cat roads set at the only way to get the full width view of Chile, from mighty Mt Aconcagua all the way to the Pacific Coast, was a killer 4½ hour skin to the ridgeline at 3800m reports Owain Price.
Bigger is usually better in the mountains department, and in our hemisphere mountains don’t get bigger than Aconcagua at almost 7,000m. I had heard the view of it from Ski Arpa was pretty awesome, so the thought of checking it out kept me going more than the ski prospects on the long skin up.
To put that in a full Southern Hemisphere’s highest perspective, New Zealand’s #1 Aoraki/Mt Cook is 3724m, or lower than the ridgeline here, while the summit of Australia’s mighty Mt Kosciuzko at 2229m is lower than the Ski Arpa base.
It’s high, the air is dry, and after more than 4 hours of zig-zag plod upwards, over what’s normally just a cruisy 20 minute cat ride, I was feeling like the main vegetation on the rocky access road – totally cactus.
The skinning was bad enough, but then a couple of hundred metres below the ridge line we hit an exposed scree slope. Scrambling over the loose rock lugging and carrying skis was another level of effort, and quickly becoming too much for my depleted energy reserves. So much so I was just getting ready to dump the skis on the edge of the snow and just hike on with only my camera pack when super fit guide Aaron Diamond offered to lug them for me – along with his own split board and his fat guide’s pack. What a legend!
Thanks to Aaron I made it with skis to the top, and scored the view and the full ski down. To the east are the highest peaks of the entire 7,200km long Andes mountain chain, marking the frontier with Argentina. To the west you can see the Pacific coast on clear days. Haze made that impossible for us, but it was the eastern view I had come to see.
Despite its height the north face of Aconcagua was almost snowless, just a mighty granite monolith dominating the horizon. It’s possible to virtually trek up it in summer, with no technical mountaineering experience required, though you’ll need a tad more stamina and acclimatisation than for a Thredbo to Kosci hike. To summit Aorangi check NZ’s Aspiring Guides for climbing trips.
Our viewpoint on the ridgeline was around 3800m, and not surprisingly there was plenty of bare north facing ground around us too. But our efforts weren’t totally in vain. The south west aspect of Tony’s Bowl offered at least one decent long run, with some boot deep fresh snow down the middle. In fact we skied all the way back to the little base lodge, 15 minutes or so reward for our 270 minutes hard yards hike.
Tony’s Bowl is named for Ski Arpa founder, and Aspen legend instructor, Tony Sponar. At 80 Sponar shows no signs of slowing down, more proof that skiing is good for you. His connection with the region, and the story of how Arpa came about, goes back 50 years.
“In 1980, after almost 20 seasons as a ski instructor in Portillo and up north, plus three years working in neighboring Los Penitentes (in Argentina), first doing research on the possibility of ski area then mountain manager there, I got a job from a Sr. Arturo Scalize, the Kawasaki importer for Argentina, to find him an area in Argentina equal to something like Penitentes or their other ski areas. I worked for him the winter of 1980, starting up in San Juan, north of Aconcagua, working my way down towards Bariloche. He supplied me with maps from the military, a pick-up truck, the rest of what I needed I had myself. When I found something interesting he came by helicopter. The cost of building roads, and of ski area itself, finally convinced him to give up on the project.
“My job was over, I returned to Chile and kept looking just for the heck of it. I concentrated to the south of Santiago, but when a former employee of mine from Penitentes, Juan Carlos Sanchez, told me of an area north of Los Andes, in the land of Campos de Ahumada, I gave it a look.
“At first El Arpa, more or less a quebrada (canyon) with steep slopes spewing avalanches into it, discouraged me. On my second visit up with Sanchez, now also seeing the La Honda valley and even more possibilities towards the east, I thought – why not try the impossible and buy all this land? The owners, la comuna Campos de Ahumada, a very proud, vigorous mountain people, herding their animals everywhere a little grass sprouted, liked the idea of better employment nearby, but didn’t really trust the Gringo very much. There was all kinds of back and forth negotiating for a while, but when I agreed to give them some sort of guarantee I really only wanted only a ski area, letting them have their goats, cows and mules grazing there, I became the owner of the land, not knowing yet how many years of little advances and set-backs this would bring me.”
It’s hard to think of more opposite ski environments: from America’s most fashionable ski town to this slice of Chile’s wild side, but Sponar enjoys it.
“I love contrast. In February and March I’m listening to the problems a billionaire might or not have. Then in July I’m feeling sorry for my friend Rafael who is losing some goats to the puma.
“I love Aspen, and the Aspen Skiing Company. It’s a ski area where a ski instructor can raise a family with what he makes, you don’t find this so easy.
“Arpa being the complete opposite – so far I haven’t made any money there yet! It’s my dream and my challenge, and something I can leave my son Anton.”
I had to ask him his fitness/longevity secret, is there something in the cactus juice?
“A dream doesn’t exhaust you as long as you keep dreaming. This beginning of the season (in Aspen) I had the worst crash of my life. Snowing, very bad light, too fast skiing, I hit a bump, ejected out of both skis, landed on my head, unconscious, hospital four days, having at least one operation waiting for me, I could use some sort of juice, but I am convinced I will make it back on skis without it.”
The location has certainly proved a challenge for Ski Arpa, and the area struggled to get traction till American ex-pat Brian Pearson, who had recently set up a new travel company, Santiago Adventures, saw the potential and came on board in 2005.
“When I first discovered Ski Arpa I was so excited to find a unique skiing adventure in Chile that was so close to Santiago” says Pearson. “Yet the challenging access and remoteness made it really unlike anything I had seen – truly a hidden gem. It was the perfect type of product we were looking for as a new ski tour operator looking to grow our business. We provided all the logistics with transportation and hotels and Toni was finally seeing his business grow.”
Hosting big freeride events and film crews helped get the ball rolling. Which is all great for Arpa’s international image, but don’t let that side scare you away – the bottom line is there’s plenty of cruisy bowl terrain here also, so it gives anybody heading over to Chile the opportunity to experience something totally wild without being a legend skier. Not to mention checking out that incredible Aconcagua view, hopefully without the hike.
Ski Arpa Getting there and info
Ski Arpa is 2½ hours / 140km north of Santiago, a long day trip; better to overnight in Los Andes or San Esteban.
Cost from $USD 350 per person for a full day cat skiing, or include it with Santiago Adventures’ multi-area tours & accommodation options in the local area like staying at the historic Casa San Regis (pictured below), a 200 year old hacienda hotel.
more info/bookings www.santiagoadventures.com
It’s a good add on to a week at either Portillo or Valle Nevado – Aussie clients can book those & Ski Arpa with South America experts Travelplan