Las Leñas, located in Mendoza
is generally regarded as the best ski area in South America today. It was
dropped onto the wilderness of the high Andes in 1983 and wasted no time in
establishing its international credentials. Founder Ernesto Lowenstein decided
that staging a world cup event was the best means to that end, and the season
began in his resort in 1985 and 1986. Las Leñas is on the same latitude
as Crete and I arrived in warm weather wearing a T shirt. The resort has luxurious
hotels and condos, luxury-goods shops in the Pyramide shopping centre, casino,
gourmet restaurants and a discotheque. It's reputation as the most expensive
place to go in Argentina seems to be borne out by the continuous stream of
wealthy Brazilian, the Agentinian upper classes and well heeled North Americans
through the lobby of the five-star hotel Piscis. The Brazilians are particularly
welcome for their infectious good humour, as well as their fat wads of cash.
Reto, Swiss manager of the Piscis enthuses; "They order their whisky in bottle,
the gringos in tiny glasses."
de Las Leñas
means "the firewood valley" - ironic,
as there's not a tree to be seen in the lunar landscape. There really is absolutely
nothing to see, a strange experience for even the most travelled skier. the
nearest town is 69 km away, there's just a desert-like barrenness.
The focus is therefore on the impressive ski area, which combines French lifts
and German snowcats with the snow, sunshine and service of a Colorado resort.
The south American contribution is the spectacular Andean backdrop. The cluster
of hotels looks like a Martian colony but the lifts access a ski area of top
The ski area can be divided in to three sections. The first is spread out
below the Cerro Los Fossiles (3430m) and encompasses all the perfectly groomed
runs located between 2200m and 2774m which are together served by 7 lifts.
The second sector includes two chairs which ascend a flat and broad avalanche
canyon with steep walls on both sides. The third sector is accessed by the
Marte lift which carries skiers out of this canyon and over to the back side
The Marte lift is in fact Las Leñas' answer to Jackson Hole's Corbet's
Couloir, with 786 metres of vertical and a pitch of 55% - extreme skiing at
your own risk. It's a crazy place for a chairlift really, they're on the second
one already as the first was destroyed by an avalanche in 1987... but then
who cares as long as they keep replacing it? The main consideration is that
Marte accesses more expert terrain than any other lift on planet Earth. No
skier could ever try every option available - there's exposure on all sides,
dozens of ridges, daunting gullies, bowls and chutes - all with the added
bonus of uninterrupted vertical madness.
Less vertically-challenged skiers prefer to ride the short Iris poma at the
top of Marte. It accesses the summit and huge bowls for endless turns. The
Jupiter and Apollo runs lead down in a big, six kilometre long curve.
The only thing that might cut you short on this manicured snow course is the
wind, as Las Leñas suffers from it bad, along with avalanche danger.
The best time to visit is the Spring. The warming sun rays are best enjoyed
on the terrace of the Bacus restaurant, but the view of Marte may send shivers
down your spine. Other places where to find great skiing ar Bariloche
and San Martin de los