Las Leñas

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."

Valle 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 Alpine proportions.

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 of Cerro.

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 Andes.