Georgia Boscawen finds blissful solitude and untouched powder in Patagonia...
With a surge of power, the helicopter soars up and over jagged peaks and clears the summit of the highest mountain in view, which falls away to reveal the white-cloaked Andes stretching as far as the eye can see. Looking down at the mountains around Palena, in the Los Lagos region of Chilean Patagonia, there is no sign of human life at all, just mountains, unblemished blue sky and untouched powder offering more than one million hectares of potential skiing.
While there are conventional ski resorts here in Chile (including Valle Navado, just east of the capital, Santiago, and Portillo, which lies further north in Valparaíso), the real draw for adventure seekers is heli-skiing in total seclusion, while benefiting from all the comforts of a superlative chalet or lodge afterwards.
The snow in Los Lagos is light and powdery – different from the wetter and denser high-alpine snow in Europe. High up in the Andes, you can glide through powder with little effort. And, the landscape being so empty, it feels as if we’re the first people ever to venture here.
“You’d be right to think so,” says Andres Silva, our guide with Eleven Experience, the specialist and adventure tour operator that runs Eleven Rio Palena Lodge. “Much of these mountains remains unexplored.” Within this seemingly undiscovered white wilderness, Silva points out long sweeping routes of varying difficulty, each more spectacular than the last, but each an option for today’s pursuit. Since 2019, when Eleven welcomed its first guests to Rio Palena, its guides have forged more than 90 routes of varying difficulty around the mountains (approximately the same number of runs as at Courchevel in France). From open bowls and steep couloirs to mellow glaciers, there’s plenty to keep guests busy until the dimming light means it’s time for the helicopter to return.
It is easy to lean towards the usual suspects when booking a ski trip. Head to somewhere like Zermatt, St Moritz or Courchevel, or to North American resorts like those in Colorado, and it’s a guaranteed success. In these places all the necessary ingredients of an exemplary ski holiday are within arm’s reach, including heli-skiing. But you may be missing a trick. Isolated spots, like this one in Patagonia, promise adventure while offering the chance to learn about new cultures, indulge in local Chilean food and try other activities such as fly-fishing and white-water rafting – experiences that a conventional ski resort cannot offer. Plus, there’ll definitely be no queueing for ski lifts.
Swooping back from the mountains to the lodge in the helicopter, passing over lush green lawns and thick forest, it seems as if we are flying into a different season. There is a chill in the air, but it’s only the high mountains that are cloaked in snow; the sky is as blue as on a summer’s day in the Mediterranean. In fact, the ski season extends over the mid- year months, running from July to October – opposing the northern hemisphere’s season around November to April.
On arrival back at Eleven Rio Palena Lodge, the comforting smell of wood fire infuses the open-plan downstairs. I sink into a deep tweed sofa and listen to the crackle of the fire and the distant sound of water from the nearby river. The decor points to adventure, with walls embellished with trophy antlers and trout, and bookshelves filled with accounts of exploration and the art of fishing (the lodge’s summer draw). Thankfully adventure doesn’t mean forbearance – après is very much a part of Chilean ski culture, and drinks are served by the fire.
The lodge is built on the banks of the Rio Palena, which I can hear from my open bedroom window the following day. Stretching for 240 kilometres, the river is prime for exploring, even during the ski season. Having ventured 10 miles upstream, I spend my morning in a kayak, being carried back down by the gentle currents – and the odd rapid – past forest, cliffs and the occasional wooden lodge (there is still little development in these parts). As a keen skier, it feels strange to have opted for a day on the river on such a bright and dry morning, but once we set off in our kayaks, I’m wowed by the grandeur. And there’s more time for skiing in the afternoon, when we’re bundled into the helicopter and whisked up the Andes – the largest mountain range in the world – once more.
Against the snow, hidden within the mountaintop, lies a glacial lake. In the clear air, the water glows a luminous blue, almost turquoise. It’s a sight that few have been privileged to witness. “You’re the thirteenth person ever to come here,” says our second Eleven guide, Sarah-Jane Wood. Lunch and drinks are taken by the side of this ethereal body of water, and there are paddleboards for the afternoon. “It’s the minerals found in glaciers that contribute to its luminous colour,” adds Wood, “but we’ve never found one this bright before.”
As the sun beats down, I find that my environment is having an unusual effect. Normally I’d be raring to get my ski boots back on, but today no part of me feels that I am missing out, that I should be whizzing down the mountainside (although I will do so tomorrow). Surely this is the charm of skiing in solitude in such uncharted territories. I guarantee that after such a visit to Chilean Patagonia, your concept of the perfect ski trip will be very much altered.