Altura resort 3.025 metros
Altura maxima 3.670 metros (Cima Tres Puntas)
Altura minima 2.860 metros (Base Prado)
Horario de Pistas
Todos los dias de Lunes a Domingo de 9:00 a 17:00 horas
I read this in the information column, and then looked across at the Mapa de Pistas. There in front of me were the 39 kilometres of ski runs, mapped out on the Mercator projection of Valle Nevado mountain range. I looked to my left and frowned as I absorbed the view of the service station fuel pump.
I checked my watch. It was 9.23am.
Three and a half hours earlier, I’d expectantly bounced toward the desk of Hotel Gran Palace, a misnomer if ever there was one. A man in a tired, threadbare green blazer stood there straightening the gold tassels on his shoulder.
“Hello,” he said, without looking up. A tassel was caught in a knot. His tongue contorted to the left, as his eyes strained to the limit of their range.
“I’ll be up in the kitchen eating breakfast when the bus arrives,” I said. He stopped, his hand still on the knot. A puzzled look slipped across his face.
“But sir, the kitchen doesn’t open until seven.” I looked at my watch. It was 6.55am.
Okay pedant. “Okay, in five minutes.” He kept the puzzled look.
“It’s not open for one hour.” He pointed beyond his tassel at the wall behind.
There hung an array of clocks, one telling me the time in Brazil, another in Sydney, even one in Moscow, as if every second guest is from Russia. I then saw the one labelled Santiago. I managed to distract myself from the fact that none of the hands were within five minutes of each other long enough to see that it read 6 o’clock in the morning.
Point one: When you cross an international border, always check the local time.
“Gracias,” I said, feeling rather foolish. I turned, resisting the temptation to fix the clocks, and returned to my room. I read a bit and wrote a bit, listening all the while to the whispered musac through the speaker on the wall that couldn’t be turned off. Michael Bolton was touring Chile in October. The hype was reaching fever pitch.
As I hummed along to his terrifying rendition of “Murder my Heart,” I crossed myself mentally, thankful that in crossing from Argentina to Chile we gained an hour and didn’t lose one. This was my one day of skiing in the Andes before flying out. This was the whole reason for being in South America. Forget the conference.
I whistled the hour away, and headed to the restaurant, where I stuffed my face in preparation for the day. My lift turned up at 7.20am: a little on the late side, but again, no problem. Plenty of time. I’d been informed that it takes an hour to get to the top of the mountain, give or take. Piece of cake.
Pedro grabbed me by the arm the second I exited the lift and frogmarched me to his van. He was a man in a hurry; I liked his style. He pushed me through the side door, forgetting the niceties of lowering my head as the police would have done. We then proceeded a wordless drive from Hotel Gran Misnomer across town. I stared out the window, a lump growing on my forehead, as I stared towards the Andes, the perfect backdrop to this city. After about half an hour, we arrived at a hotel without guests. Pedro waited there for a number of minutes, checking anxiously at his watch. He walked up to the door several times, but never knocked. Eventually he jumped back into the van and sped off.
We then headed back across town, the Andes now on the other side, making several trademark Chilean 270 degree left hand turns, right hand turns having been outlawed for their disruption of traffic. God help this place during the years they were still allowed. We crawled back to a block of flats just near my hotel where we picked up a mother and daughter, and then proceeded to creep across town again, past the guestless hotel, and into a service station. This whole process took ninety minutes.
* * * * *
The furrow became etched to my forehead at the twenty-five minute mark in the service station. I looked around, trying to massage it away, desperate for an answer. Sixteen of us sat in a bus, waiting to be sent up the mountain. The thirteen locals relaxed, patiently picking their fingernails in unison, like some weird local ritual. Three of us did not.
A huge black hand appeared across my shoulder, as Sam lent forward to introduce himself. He was an African-American skier from Florida. I know: these eight words have never before been written in this sequence. Sam was fifty-five and charming, but clearly had less patience for custom than the locals. He was my kind of guy.
“I was at my hotel room,” he began in a languid tone not dissimilar to Morgan Freeman, “at 7am. Seven…in…the…a.m..”
“Me too,” piped Barry from the back, a 40 year old guy from Boston. You get the idea Barry pipes a lot. He grabbed at the beak of his cap in a nervous tic – there was a slick of grime across it from years of such behaviour. “My wife’s a Chileno, and I’m from Boston.” He paused for a second, potentially waiting for applause. “And she told me to expect this.” He stopped once again, and took a breath. “I’m from Boston,” he repeated. Barry made up for the stereotype that Sam lacked.
“I’m Mark, and I’m from Australia,” I said in my best Alcoholics Anonymous voice, “and right now, I’m going to see what is going on.” I walked to the front and exited in search of Carlos.
Carlos has been introduced to us as the man who would see us right. He was perched on the edge of a planter box, picking at grass.
“Hey Carlos, what’s going on?” He looked up and shook his head, screwing up the edge of his nose.
“No, Carlos, wrong answer. This is not friendly small talk. When is the bus leaving?” A puzzled look slipped across his face. This was getting to be a trend. “We’ve been here for fifteen minutes. Is there any reason why the bus hasn’t left yet?” He pondered this question for a moment, staring into the middle distance. Eventually I walked away; I’d already studied the fuel pump.
Eight minutes, 37 seconds later, he boarded the bus. He approached and asked me to come with him. He led me out of the bus and back over to the plantar box, and then whispered, “I have an idea.” He looked around again. “If you swap buses, the trip to Valle Nevado is only seventy-five minutes. Not two hours.” He grinned, nodding his head knowingly. I found my head shaking in time.
“And why have you just told me this?”
“Because I thought you want the quicker bus,” he trailed off, dejectedly. He picked at grass.
“No, Carlos,” I paused, “that is a great idea. I just…” He looked at me with confusion. It was times like this that my world and his world seemed cramped on the same planet. “Where is this other bus?” He pointed. “When can this bus leave?”
“Can everyone get on this bus?”
He thought for a second. “Sure,” he said eventually, “no problem for me.” Cramped in the same universe.
Carlos seemed confused by the thought that everyone would want to reach the mountain in the shortest possible time, and was open-jawed at the speed with which the transfer occurred. Before he had the chance to slow down natural progress, the bus had left. I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas and looked at the opening times of Valle Nevado. I calculated. Maybe we were an hour away.
Maybe I forgot I was in South America.
* * * * *
Everything went smoothly for a while. The bus drove in a forward motion; the driver pointed it towards the Andes. He accelerated up hills and braked on the way down. It was all very Western in its philosophy.
We wound the curves, and the snow came into view. Sam, Barry and I made decreasingly interesting small talk, increasingly captivated by the pristine snow of the Andes. The traffic began to build – the majority of skiers seemingly happy to arrive three hours after the lifts start for the day.
On one side of the bus the windows began to fog; on the other they steamed from the intense sun. The road started to get icy, but that didn’t worry our driver. And running as late as we were, there was a collective agreement to try our luck without chains. But when, on one turn, the bus began to slide backwards toward the edge of the mountain, it became clear to us that it was time for something to be done.
This wasn’t so clear to Carlos. Sure, he stopped the bus. We all got out to stretch and take in the view while the chains went on. A couple of us even delighted in the yellow slurpees we created in the pristine roadside snow.
Meantime, Carlos took out one set of chains and laid them on the ground. The bus driver flipped it over, carefully smoothing it out. Then Carlos flipped it again.
Sam and I strolled away down the road, returning five minutes later. The chains remained there, dejectedly, on the ground beside the bus. Sam and I watched the driver as he watched Carlos watching the chains. It was like some weird MC Escher picture or something. After a couple of minutes of this, I broke the spell in Neverland.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Sorry?” Carlos said, still staring at the chain.
“Is it broken or something?”
I paused and watched. The two of them remained there, crouched, their eyes fixed.
“Do you need a hand?”
“No, no, it’s fine.” They continued looking at the chains, urging them to levitate to the wheel by themselves.
I walked to the other side of the bus, and saw that this chain hadn’t even been pulled out of the side cabin. It was 10.45am. I blew smoke out of my ears, before opening the side compartment and pulling the chain out.
“What are you doing?” Carlos yelled from his position on the ground.
“Getting the chain ready,” I said, laying it out.
“No necessary,” he cried. I frowned, unable to contain a scoff.
“Can you put the chain on?”
“Relax, just relax.”
“But this one hour trip has now gone for nearly four hours. I kind of want to be skiing. It’s ten forty-five.”
“Just relax,” he said once more, rolling his eyes.
I put the chain down, and walked away. This was, after all, the last day of my holiday. Murder would likely delay things. As I took the step to re-enter the bus, I looked back to see the duo still staring at the chain. These two, who drive this route every single day.
Thirteen Chilenos sat on board, staring out the window. No one seemed perturbed, no one seemed surprised. The ritual continued, only interrupted by Sam. He sat there, shaking his head and saying “Oh, man,” over and over. Barry sharpened a knife.
I stuffed my iPod headphones in and counted to one hundred, feeling my ulcer squeeze. Finally, after about five more minutes, and no discernible change in the vapours, the chains were on. A watched Chileno never works.
Within seconds, the bus revved dramatically, and finally lurched forward to the sound of metal breaking. We travelled about five metres more, before there was another loud metal clank. The clank returned, and again, and again. After a few seconds it settled into the rhythm of the bus, the rotation of the wheel. Each time it turned, the cymbals clanged as a piece of chain smacked against the undercarriage of the bus.
I looked toward the front of the bus. Carlos picked at his nails, catching up on the ritual he’d missed, blithely disinterested in this 90dB den. As we sped up, Sam clicked his fingers around his ears, dancing a flamenco. The rest of the passengers seemed not to notice or care. I checked and at least two of them weren’t dead. Barry continued sharpening his knife. Aware that the bus was a Mercedes, I figured whatever damage it was doing would be unlikely to stop us over the final 3km.
We pulled into to Valle Nevado at 11.19am. Right on time.
As we disembarked, Carlos announced to us all that the bus would be departing the mountain at 4pm. With that, I resolved to return half-an-hour late.
* * * * *
The day was truly magical. After gathering skis and stocks, a lift ticket, and a locker, I headed out. Valle Nevado Ski Resort peaks at Tres Puntas, 3,670 metres above the water, with Valle Del Inca, its smaller sibling, just across the way at 3,521 metres. In the valleys nestled between and below, are a meandering link of runs that take you through green, blue, red and black runs. On this day, the sky was blue, dotted with clouds, and there was a whiff of wind in the air but little more. The sun was out, and the snow was perfect. In the lower valleys, it was warm, but as you headed towards Tres Puntas, the wind swept up the powder and slapped it hard against your face like sand.
Like a kid at a carnival, I lavished in the rides on the various lifts and pomas to these peaks, chatting to bewildered strangers, trying as many runs as I could, sucking the juice out of the experience. Who needs Spanish? Here we talked snow. I didn’t once think of Carlos. The runs were wide and ranging, the snow thick enough to be open and untainted by rocks. They were long in comparison to Australia; in fact there is one run, Sol, which descends 625 metres over several kilometres, without needing to stop for a lift.
It was on this run, nearing the end of the day, that I got myself into a bit of a bind. I’d made tracks all over the mountain, skiing solidly, stopping only for a brief lunch of a burger, oil and fries that I think were made of potato. In the early afternoon I basked in the gorgeousness of the views, and hit upon my favourite, the Andes express chairlift. For the last hour of the day, I ran it over and over, hitting the mountain’s solitary moguls, calculating exactly how many more runs I could do, and then adding two more. Carlos could wait. I pushed it right to the edge.
Eventually satisfied, and happy with my fashionably-late timed return, I took my last run of the day along Sol, to end right at the bottom of the resort, before a sneaky lift across to the bus. The run was several kilometres long, and with such an open, full cover of snow, at times you get lost in this white oasis. They mark out the runs, but like everything South American, you wouldn’t rely on them.
Unless you’re me. As I finished the run, I skated in towards the dude in the black jacket. Mmm, different colour to the other towies. He stood there, frowning beneath his goggles, as he looked at my day pass. I smiled back, keen to get on the poma to head back up. Wasn’t this meant to be a lift? Whatever.
I put my hand out to take the poma bar, and he waved his hands.
“Que?” I felt like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.
“El Colorado,” he said, pointing at his chest.
“El Colorado?” My head swam. I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas. There on the edge of the map was an arrow away from the widest run, Sol, pointing out of frame, towards the next ski resort. El Colorado. I’d skied all the way to the next Ski Resort.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was already 4.11pm. Shit.
“Donde esta Sol?” He pointed in the other direction, seemingly towards the sky. I went a whiter shade of pale. I took a breath, and off I went.
For the next twelve minutes, I proceeded to pull several abdominal muscles and blister the webbing of my hands as I traversed my way towards several osteopathic treatments. I congratulated myself on a personal best over the two hundred metre uphill slog, not likely to be an Olympic event anytime soon.
I caught the Prado lift, bolted down to Vaiven, and spent the interminable ride to the top looking out for a departing Turistour bus. The chairlifts hadn’t seemed this slow all day.
At 4.26pm, I unclipped my boots and ran up the final hill, only to find Carlos standing there, looking slightly agitated.
“Sorry, Carlos,” I said, between heaves, “I just came from El Colorado.” The look of agitation disappeared.
“Wow,” he said, “are you Superman?” I felt my neck crick.
“Nope, no, I’m not.”
When I got on the bus at 4.34pm, Sam and Barry were smiling. Amazingly, the entire bus had been there at four on the dot, breaking with national tradition. The nail picking went on.
“You owe me a Foster’s,” Sam said, slapping me on the shoulder, causing a knot to harden.
The driver seemed surprisingly keen to return home, speeding the entire way. On the home stretch, at the end of the day, he’d found his mojo. All the way we listened to golden oldies, a video playing the best of Michael Jackson, while rigor mortis set in.
By the time we said farewell to Sam and Barry, I was barely able to move. I was thrown out at Hotel Gran Misnomer, the bus slowing slightly for my departure. I waved Carlos into the sunset, who was already preparing himself for the repeat farce on another unsuspecting group in the morning.
I took the stairs, and the bellhop fetched my bags. The day before I’d attempted to negotiate with the Good Palace Misnomer about having a shower on my return, but they’d baulked. I understand their position, but after a day on the mountain, prior to a 19-hour leg home, I was pretty keen to wash.
Again they sidestepped my request, like the slick dancers they are. So, I proceeded to their public bathroom, blocked the door with my bag, stripped naked, and had a birdbath.
Those little hotel towels have trouble soaking up an entire drenched floor, but they can do it. I exited the dunny, a wet rag on the bench the only evidence of my cleansing ritual, the staff none the wiser.
Other than the three people who barged in. But they were public.
And one of them, I swear, was Carlos.