Cat Skiing in Chile

While the Northern Hemisphere settled into summer in early June, the mountains in northern Chile received over two metres of snow in less than a week. The Chilean resorts could not wait to open and ticket sales at Ski Arpa Snow Cats, South America’s only cat skiing resort, were through the roof in the first week of operations. writer Vince Shuley was invited to cover the proceedings.

Cat Skiing

Plenty of fresh tracks in lower Sacaconchos

I’ve never had to drive like this to go skiing. The road up to the Arpa Valley is rugged, only accessible by 4X4. After an hour of challenging switchbacks and dodging herds of goats we arrive at Ski Arpa’s refugio and base of operations.

The owner and operator of Ski Arpa is Antoni ‘Toni’ Sponar, an Austrian born ski instructor who works in Aspen. He purchased this land (2,300 ha, 5,600 acres) in the early 1980’s with hopes to open a ski resort. He had a T-Bar running for two seasons until a massive snowfall in 1984 avalanched and wiped out the entire structure.

After almost 20 idle years in the Arpa Valley Toni decided to purchase two snow cats and open a backcountry cat skiing resort in 2003. By working closely with the local tour company Santiago Adventures, bookings have been growing steadily over the last five years.

Toni, who is in his seventies, is honest about the complications of owning a remote operation that depends on the reliability the snow cats.The mechanics here in the Chilean Andes fix problems as they arise, rather than having a regular maintenance schedule, so “when you live in a country like this, the mechanics work out of necessity”

The Piston Bully 200D is loaded and we start climbing towards our first run. Ski Arpa’s first clients this year are Steven Koch from Chicago and his 19 year old son Jacob. I ask them what brought them to ski in Chile. “I’m a huge fan of Warren Miller films” says Jacob. They usually take their skiing vacation in Jackson Hole or Steamboat Springs, but after seeing footage of the film maker’s adventures in South America, Jacob convinced his father that cat skiing in the Andes would be an exciting change.

We unload at the summit of Cerro Blanco and we’re surrounded by the countless peaks and valleys of the Andes. Jutting out of the range is Cerro Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas. Our guide is Patrick Graham, an American ski mountaineer who works in the Idaho backcountry. He’s only been here for a couple of weeks and already knows the terrain inside out.

“You can’t really get lost here, it all pretty much takes you back to the refugio”.  The navigation of these valleys is not difficult, but Patrick is employed to ensure safety of the guests. We start our descent down the first bowl of Plateau Alto. The snow is quite firm, a result of being battered by the harsh South American wind, but not icy. Patrick assures us the snow will get better as we descend.

We drop into the bowl and I doubt his words for the first few hundred feet. As we ski down we find the snow getting softer and softer until we’re able to make long powder turns. The rest of the run takes us through steep chutes and challenging couloirs. The cat is waiting for us at the bottom, ready to take us up for another run of Andean powder.

Ski Arpa’s terrain is privately owned, the only people that ski there are paying clients. A full day with four runs in high season is significantly cheaper than cat skiing in North America. Bookings are required as they operate by appointment only. The terrain ranges from intermediate to expert and conditions will dictate which areas are safe to ski.

The packaged accommodation with Ski Arpa tours is at the rustic yet luxurious bed & breakfast Casa San Regis in nearby town of Los Andes. After a full day of skiing you can relax in front of the fire drinking delicious pisco sours while your hosts prepare you three courses of authentic Chilean cuisine. A selection from one of the local vineyards is included in your meal.

The Arpa Valley is located near Los Andes, 80km north of Santiago. The access road is challenging (requiring 4×4) and the facilities are minimal. With extensive alpine terrain and lack of crowds, Ski Arpa is a unique backcountry experience and a great day trip from Santiago or the northern Chile resorts.

Ski Arpa package

Ski Arpa offers a full pick-up and drop-off service with Santiago Adventures

– Round-trip tranfer from Santiago in a modern 4×4 and experienced drive
– On mountain guide with avalanche certification
– 4 runs in the Snowcat offering a total of 8,000-10,000 vertical feet of skiing
– Bottled mineral water and skier’s lunch
– An unforgettable day’s skiing or snowboarding in Chile!

Santiago Adventures will book accommodation and arrange transportation for Ski Arpa clients.

Ski Arpa Statistics

Summit – 3,740m (12,000ft)
Base – 2,700m (9,000ft)
Vertical Drop – 1,040m (3,000ft)
Ski Area – 2,300 ha (5,600 acres)
Expert – 40%
Advanced – 40%
Intermediate – 20%
Average Snowfall – 600 cm (240inches)
Season Start – Late June
Season End – Late September

Other Information

If you have beacon, shovel and probe Ski Arpa requests that you bring them.

Be aware that Ski Arpa is NOT a traditional ski resort and there are simply two mountain huts situated at the base area. It is not possible to ski the terrain without hiring guides. Avalanche conditions can stop the resort from opening after heavy snowfall.

Vince Shuley

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