Best ski lifts down south #3: La Laguna Cerro Catedral

snow action team 18.06.2017

La Laguna at Cerro Catedral above Bariloche in Argentina is so spectacular a location, so steep – 45° plus on the top section – and the terrain it opens up so good, never mind the de rigueur dogleg derail corner, that it’s a definite coulda-been-champion in our best Southern Hemisphere lifts with soul category, except for one minor detail we’ll get to later.

La Laguna poma was steep © Owain Price

First lets go with the positives. Cerro Catedral is South America’s largest single mountain ski resort, with by far the biggest infrastructure, so they already had plenty of terrain.
But shifting an old poma to a location accessing the giant amphitheatre shaped, glacially sculpted bowl of La Laguna was a step into the unknown. Bringing the wild back and side country in-bounds, with initially just a warning for experts only with a helmet to ride the lift, was a pro-active freerider-friendly move worthy of Verbier. But lacking Swiss precision on the installation.
For years if you wanted to ski here you hiked it, either a short 15 – 20 minutes to the saddle, or another 45 minutes or so to the rock spires along the ridgeline at the top.
The saddle became the dogleg corner, the lift cutting back from a moderate gradient at virtually 90° to then head straight up, getting steeper and steeper to the top.
Locals like me got excited watching the progress, and as the snow dumped and dumped the first season it looked like the problem of the exposed rocky section at the start would be solved by the coverage. After watching tinkering and the occasional firing up of the motor from the chairlift that goes past the bottom station for weeks excitement mounted when a cat put in a road, fences went up for the liftline, and the pomas started twirling.

Nice terrain out here © Owain Price

But then nothing.
Another year, a similar sort of snow season, similar preparations – test firings, the road put in etc, but then nothing.
And repeat. Groundhog day for the next several springs. I ski every day there if I can, and apart from watching a patroller ride it once I never saw anyone on it as a punter. One guy on the chairlift claimed he had ridden it, but I didn’t believe him. Then nothing happened at all the following year or two, then the resort changed owners, and then the trail map changed – from La Laguna lift and on the map it became the ‘Zona La Laguna’ off-piste area.

Look closely at the pic on the preceding spread and you’ll notice those aren’t skiers on the lift, they’re hiking – actually the competitors for a Red Bull freeride event that ran there a few years back, the terrain being more than good enough.
Hiking up the old lift line to the top to get the left hand picture last year I was surprised to see how quickly things had deteriorated; the dogleg bullwheel had suffered its last derailment, and the corner anchor tower had fallen over.
Decaying lift infrastructure can leave great terrain untouched, as so many places in Japan illustrate, from now cat ski accessed areas like Hanazono Weiss and Chise-npuri, to those like Shizukuishi where some lifts still run, but the old trails offer better powder opportunities.

How it was on the map for a few years

How it is now

The line I’m first into here is an example – if the La Laguna lift was running it would likely get enough traffic in this chute to build up moguls underneath, so you would need a big dump to get nice clean bottomless lines like this. But as it is, with 10cm or more, that always collects deeper in the centre anyway, there are plenty of great days to be had, and first lines remain easier to score.

Yes, so every time I drop in as here on balance I’m glad it never ran, and the whole zone has reverted, or remained, earn-your-turns freeride terrain. It’s popular enough as it is – on good days there’s a constant stream of people heading out the recently installed avi beeper checkpoint gate. Yes, you want to have the basics of beeper, shovel, probe and go with a friend who knows how to use theirs as well. After 12 seasons there I have got a bit blasé about that, and if conditions are stable and good I head out on my own – nothing really beats the full run down from the top, or the view out the back between the spires where they anchored the cable holding the top tower of the lift.
But if you aren’t feeling up to the full hike to the top just the short version to the saddle accesses the best steep chutes that face due south, so the snow conditions are often awesome days after a dump. Just remember to straightline the bottom third at least to get up speed to cross the flat lake surface.
You can argue that not running is a disqualification, but remember the Yellowbeard pirate movie’s great line, “Yellowbeards are never more dangerous than when they’re dead”? Well, old ski lifts are never more soulful than when they’re dead either, so this is definitely one for the list. The rest of the resort is great too off the other 30 odd lifts.
more at www.catedralaltapatagonia.com packages www.travelplan.com.au

Worth the hike to the top © Owain Price