The bar tender at one of La Parva's restaurants makes drinks in his ski gear.
Story last updated at 8/22/2012 - 2:13 pm
It was one of those situations that happened too quickly to tease out the split-second of fright leading up to it from the utter confusion of the scene. I was dumped on my butt into a patch of bare, muddy ground, my legs and skis splayed in front of me. It took at least 30 seconds of just sitting, trying to grasp what had just happened, before I looked around. The confusion grew as I looked to my right. Two of my seat partners, free-skiing extraordinaire Ingrid Backstrom and photographer Adam Clark, also sat in the mud, equally dazed, the empty quad chair that had just deposited us halted above our heads. We were in Chile, in the mud. How did I get here? How did I get down here?
There are many answers. First, the ratio of travel time on snow-cleared ground to travel time over snow had reached about 3 to 1, which is generally when I stop skiing. Second, I had recently been through a personal life change and, par for the course in small town life, craved a sense of anonymity that was just unobtainable in Juneau. I wanted distance. And I wanted to keep skiing.
Backstrom and I had attended to a small liberal arts college together more than 10 years ago. She is now an internationally ranked professional skier. When she's not working on films during our winter, she heads south. The first week of August she was guiding a women's free ride camp in the Andes, just a couple of hours outside of Santiago, Chile. I received a Facebook message that she was looking for more people. I've been on guided trips before - with my family, when I was younger. I was self-conscious about going on a packaged trip on my own, at my age. I went through all the justifications for doubt - I'm a competent skier, I speak Spanish, I have friends that can do both, I need to save money. But I also didn't, and don't, know where I'd be, emotionally, financially or physically next summer. I didn't know if I'd be in a position to organize my own trip. Here was a date: August 3. There was transportation. I have savings and accumulated travel miles. There were guides, Backstrom, who I know, and a beautiful Canadian man. Perfect. I just had to show up. Well, that and have a cool boss.
I used a service to expedite the renewal of my expired passport. It came in four days. I threw my gear together and got as far as Dallas, where I found out my flight had been cancelled. After a night with just long underwear, goggles, no toothbrush and 100 degree weather, I landed in Santiago. Another woman on the trip, Heidi Dobrott, of Newport Beach, Calif., had also been on the cancelled flight. Dobrott was smart. She had bought trip insurance, so we had a driver and a van waiting for us. We traveled for two hours up a road with 42 switchbacks to La Parva Ski Center, one of three connected ski areas in the mountains east of Santiago. We joined Lila Manstein, of Philadelphia, Deborah Williams, senior editor at SKI Magazine, Backstrom, Clark and the second guide, Phil Gautier of Montreal. The Southern Cross replaced the Big Dipper, and that was fine with me.
La Parva is a treeless expanse of loose rock and craggy ridgelines. The village at the base consists of about three streets, numerous privately owned chalets and condominium complexes, two restaurants, one store and lots of stray dogs. They wandered freely through the village and over the ski runs. One of them was pregnant, and gave birth while waddling up a groomed run, dropping puppies every few feet. Another two came up to us during some avalanche training and started humping during a beacon test.
Our days started with an hour of yoga, large breakfasts with fresh fruit and homemade croissants, and transitioned into hunting for the toughest skiable lines with adequate snow cover. The first two days were cloudless. The three other women on the group were amazing skiers. We went through tubes of Chap Stick and bottles of sunscreen. We boot packed up to ridges and descended during sunsets. We joked about female-related issues, men, tampons, thinking too much - did I say men? Our housing came with a large hot pool, full of Brazilian men and American high school ski racers. I didn't complain.
Between the second and third days we received enough snow to venture further from the lifts. We skied La Chiminea culair, a steep narrow chute visible from the base. We hiked to 14,000 feet and had our pick of first tracks. We hiked and we skied and we hiked more. La Parva proved to be the kind of mountain where you need a knowledgeable person to ski with in order to find the toys. We found them, and played hard for a solid week.
We had a late lunch on our last day. Dobrott and Williams called it a week. Manstein and I headed out again, with Backstrom and Clark. We took one of the resort's many pomalifts and skied down to a quad chair with five minutes remaining before the lifts shut down for the day. The four of us loaded up for the last run. Though much of mountain was skiable, there was a fair bit of exposed sandy and saturated ground. After 20 seconds on that last chair ride, something happened.
The chair tilted sharply and quickly downward. I didn't even know I was falling off until I landed, just ten feet below, in the mud. My first thought was that I was the only one. Somehow I had just fallen off the chair and would have to try and reload or ski down to our condominium. Then I looked to my right. Backstrom and Clark sat silent on the ground. Manstein was splayed out 10 feet behind us, her skis scattered around her. In the States, lift attendants and other skiers would have rushed to us, made sure we were uninjured, helped us collect our gear and return to the lift line. One Chilean man came over and collected Manstein's skis from the woman who had fallen first. He didn't say a word. There was an empty chair at the base. We silently approached it and climbed on. It wasn't until we were a quarter of the way up the lift until anyone spoke. And then it wasn't speech, but laughter.
Had there been an eject button? Maybe someone's ski tips caught the ground, causing the chair to abruptly stop and swing down. How awkward must the whole episode have appeared? If only the rest of the group had been in the chair behind us to witness the hilarity. It didn't matter. The collective confusion was so intense there was nothing to do but laugh until we cried.
Though I love to ski (I got my fair share) and though I had a wonderful time among a fabulous group of women, I left for Chile feeling down and needing an out. And that chair, literally and figuratively provided just that. I don't know of any better remedy for the blues than solid pure laughter.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.