Las Leñas; a freeride paradise

For a couple of years now the Andes is one of my favourite places to go skiing. This trip I had the opportunity to ski different areas in this impressive mountainrange for about 2 months. Many runs on my bucketlist were located here so hopefully I could at least ski them and hopefully in nice conditions too!

I left Bolivia near the end of July in order to arrive in Buenos Aires to pick up my equipment, take a bus to Las Leñas and ski possibly the best lift-served terrain in the world for at least three weeks. Unfortunately mother nature was not really cooperating to say the least. Mid-season the offpiste skiing in Las Leñas was closed due to the lack of snow. According to a skiguide in Argentina, who lives in Argentina since 2002, this had never happened before during his stay. Not the best timing for a skiseason in South America…

I decided to stay in Buenos Aires and wait for the weather to change. I stayed in the little bedroom in the travel agency in the center of Buenos Aires again. I stayed here too during the last two weeks of my first stay in the Argentine capital when I studied some Spanish. I enjoyed the restaurants again, went to a jazz performance in The Lonious, tried as many different types of alfajores (these are the delicious chocolate cakes I discussed in an earlier post) as possible and used my running shoes to its full potential. I had to wait so long for snow to arrive that I even enjoyed the start of the football season (read more about my San Lorenzo football adventure here) …

enjoying the atmosphere in the so-called "popular" section

enjoying the atmosphere in the so-called “popular” section

The second week of August the snow finally seemed to arrive. It turned out that a two day storm would deliver between nearly two to almost seven feet of snow depending on altitude all over the Andes, promising developments to say the least. I decided to check out Portillo first for a couple of days before heading to Las Leñas. I have been to Portillo three times before (yes, I know, luxury…) and I really wanted to ski one run there called the Super-C couloir. This is one of the best runs you can ski in South America and was high on my bucketlist. I thought a three day visit would allow me to meet a partner for the occasion and have a window of opportunity to ski it (think about weather and snow conditions). Unfortunately Carolina Acuña, the lady from the reservations desk, made a mess of my reservation which finally lead to me not having a reservation at all. I only found out when Portillo was fully booked. Thanks Carolina!

Portillo was clearly not an option anymore, at least not for the moment. I went to Las Leñas instead. Hopefully a nearly three week stay would deliver the goods!

Las Leñas is a special place. It has one of the ugliest ski towns (ok, Flaine is definitely the winner here!), the lift system sucks, snow is most of the time pretty bad because of the wind and the atmosphere is terrible. The Argentine upperclass comes here to see and to be seen, not really my cup of tea… So, I can hear you thinking; why the hell would you go there? Good question and the answer is simple: it has some of the best terrain in the world (according to Thomas Perren, a Swiss ski instructor who worked in Las Leñas for twenty years and wrote a book about skiing offpiste here, there are over 200 offpiste runs…) and a good day (after some fresh) will easily be ranked among one of the best you’ve ever had, that is, if you’re just as crazy about skiing as I am…

In recent years quite a few runs in Las Leñas had made it to my bucketlist. I heard people talking about it, I saw pictures on the internet or I simply saw them in real life but never actually got to ski them. This visit I had to make sure to ski them all. I took the nightbus from Mendoza with a comfortable departure at 2 am. The idea was to get around 6 hours of sleep on the bus and arrive in the snow around 8:30. However, light in the bus, phones ringing and people moving around prevented daddy from getting much sleep. Luckily, I was capable of skiing a full day in the fresh snow purely based on adrenaline. I started with some classics I had skied before, like ‘Eduardo’ and ‘Mercurio’, before exploring some new terrain. Together with Simon, an Argentine I had met earlier that day in the chairlift, I ended up in a run called ‘Hourglass’ what turned out to be a spectacular run. It starts with a steep face (around 45° to 50°) that funnels down into a narrow couloir that leads you all the way to the bottom. When I arrived back at the hostel in Los Molles (where I stayed the first four days until I was able to move to Las Leñas) the owner was raving about riding a fresh line in his favourite run. It turned out he was the only one that paid Hourglass a visit that day too…

skiing one of the best lines in Las Leñas with Cerro Leñas in the background

skiing one of the best lines in Las Leñas with Cerro Leñas in the background

One of the runs on my bucketlist was ‘Sans Nom’. A run named ‘Without name’ must be special! Actually it is more of an area than solely one run. An area like this only exists in Las Leñas as far as I know. Once you have taken the Marte chairlift and the little poma afterwards you walk for about 15 minutes on somesort of a plateau consisting of some snow and many rocks before you arrive at the entrance of Sans Nom. It can best be described as a V-shaped area with natural halfpipes and all kinds of gullies and couloirs that lead you down to a path from where you, depending on snow, will have to ski (read, push and skate) or walk back to town. Skiers’ right you have a nice entrance next to a big cornice. I preferred the entrance more towards the left from the peak where one will find steeper runs. A couple of days after the last storm I even found untouched snow. After a couple of minutes thinking why it wasn’t skied yet, I decided to drop in…

about to enter some fresh snow in the Sans Nom area

about to enter some fresh snow in the Sans Nom area

After some nice vertical of fresh snow I decided to traverse over to the right and join a more common gully which lead me to a nice couloir. The snow slowly changed from heavenly to heavy. Once at the bottom I found myself pushing in heavy slush. Back at the resort around 5 pm I quickly headed back to the apartment for a refreshing shower!

In the bus from Mendoza to Las Leñas I had met Libby and Mike from Salt Lake City. I knew they were also staying in Los Molles, in one of the hotels, and I decided to try to find them. The powdersnow was history so backcountry tours were on my agenda. In order to enjoy this in a safe way, companions are more than welcome. Los Molles only has three hotels so finding them wasn’t too hard. We enjoyed a dinner and made plans for the next day. Broken Shoulder was the run we were going for and guess what, it was on my bucketlist too!

We booked a 7:45 am transfer to Las Leñas and following the Argentine way of life, we finally left around 9 am. We skinned (skins are removable pieces of nylon fabric allowing the ski to glide forward but not back; skinning is the derived verb) under the first two lifts in order to sneak into the Marte chairlift, where they didn’t check your skipass the previous days. This day, however, they decided time had come to check the passes. However, a lovely smile from Libby got us in the chair for free and about 30 minutes later we were skinning again. True ‘freeriding’ if you know what I mean. We finally started to leave the skiresort which felt great. After a short break at the top of the mountain we continued our search for the entrance of our objective, Broken Shoulder couloir. It turned out to be around two hours of bootpacking, skiing, walking and conquering the wind…

hiking in the amazing backcountry of Las Leñas

hiking in the amazing backcountry of Las Leñas

Helped by the beforementioned maps of Thomas Perren we quickly progressed but finding the correct entrance turned out to be more difficult than we thought. We checked several areas and climbed over multiple rocksections before we decided to drop in. Nine hours after meeting earlier in the hotel in Los Molles, we were finally about to ski the couloir. The snow was compact and hard but was perfectly skiable from the top. Mike carried some impressive photography equipment with him and enjoyed taking pictures. No complaints there!

Halfway down the couloir the snow turned into breakable crust. We had to ski carefully turn by turn now because injuries are nearby skiing this kind of snow. It was more about survival than true enjoyable skiing. Luckily we all made it down without problems and we skied to the road in order to catch a ride. The resort is a couple of kilometers away from this point… Within minutes a shuttle stopped and drove us back to Los Molles. The snow might not have been great this day, the adventure definitely was. Sometimes it’s not about skiing the steeps or deep powder but more about enjoying a day out in the field with good people, thanks Libby and Mike for a great day (and some beautiful pictures)!

skiing Broken Shoulder couloir

skiing Broken Shoulder couloir

Unfortunately there was no new snow coming the next couple of days so what followed was some easy skiing in pretty much tough conditions as far as the snow was concerned. Together with Marcel from Switzerland and Adrienne from Salt Lake City, I went on a nice adventure to ski the so-called Manhattan couloir. A one hour hike lead us to a steep entrance. Once out of the narrow corridor we were treated by some nice springsnow. Another corridor with hardpacked snow followed before we reached the chairlift again. Marcel had to catch the bus and Adrienne and myself finished the day with a tough run (because of hardpacked conditions) in Sans Nom. The next days I decided not to spend money on lift tickets because it simply wasn’t worth it and went skinning instead. I went twice to an area called ‘La Oficina’. It might not have been on my bucketlist but in a way a dream finally came true; I skied in the office!

There was new snow on the horizon and I still had two runs on my bucketlist; E-Dream on Entre Rios and the run from the top of Cerro Martin, named Dedos. Entre Rios and Cerro Martin are two beautiful mountains in the backyard of Las Leñas and easily accessible. I decided to wait for the new snow and finish my stay here with skiing my final runs on my bucketlist. Unfortunately www.snow-forecast.com used incorrect time series analysis and the predicted 30+ cm of snow turned out to be a huge dump of 1 cm. Usually this website is really reliable. Without new snow I started hoping for warm weather instead in order to ski some nice springsnow. Warm weather arrived shortly. However, it became so warm that I couldn´t ski both runs because of rapidly increasing avalanche danger. I had never skied a run on Entre Rios, whereas I did ski several runs on Cerro Martin before, so I decided to go for E-dream.

beautiful Entre Rios is right in the backyard of Las Leñas, E-dream is the red line

beautiful Entre Rios is right in the backyard of Las Leñas, E-dream is the red line

E-dream is named after a guy who had a dream too. According to Thomas Perren (you know, the guy who wrote the book…) this run was first skied by Esteban, the guy who skied the line of his dreams. Therefore the name, E-dream. Now it was my turn to ski the line I had in my mind for four years after seeing it for the first time in 2009. Normally one would take the early lift in order to get to the foot of Entre Rios. Since I´m on somesort of a budget and I was only skiing one run this day, I didn´t want to pay the 414 pesos (around 40 euros) for the lift ticket. I skinned the first part and hoped for a free chairlift later on since they usually don´t check your lift ticket on that lift (except that day I went out with Libby and Mike…). After one hour I arrived at the Marte chairlift and managed to get the free ride. I quickly skied to the bottom of Entre Rios where I put on the skins again. Halfway up Cerro Negro (the mountain on the left side of Entre Rios) my skins turned out to be useless. They need to be waxed because snow sticks to the skins which makes walking uphill rather difficult. An intense bootpack awaited me. Around 1,5 hours later I arrived at the top of Cerro Entre Rios at 3800 meters. I was exhausted but the views made everything worthwhile and the skiing had yet to come!

E-dream as seen from the top of Entre Rios

E-dream as seen from the top of Entre Rios

Once I was sort of recovered from the ascend, I walked around on the ridge to both enjoy the view and look for my entry into the chute. The snow looked good and time had come to enjoy some of the best skiing Las Leñas has to offer. The entrance is 45+ degrees so concentration was needed. After maybe 100 meters the angle decreases a bit before it steepens in the final corridor. The left side, as seen from a skiers´point of view, is mostly in the shadow and therefore consists of relatively hard and compact but still skiable snow whereas the right side had some great springsnow. Because of the inclination snow followed me all the way down. This is referred to as sluff. I had to be careful everytime I made the transition from the compact snow to springsnow or vice versa. Considering it hadn´t snowed for two weeks I couldn´t complain at all about conditions. It must be an absolutely amazing run in powdersnow though. The P-dream…

In terms of freeriding Las Leñas is one of the, if not the best place in the world. It might not offer the steep runs Chamonix has to offer but there is no glaciated terrain so you don´t need a guide for every single run. Options are almost unlimited. Without hiking you can ski new runs for days if not weeks. If you add the options accessible within a three hour bootpack, you´ll need at least a season to explore it all. And then there are also plenty of options around for skitouring. One of the biggest drawbacks of Las Leñas is its volatile snowfall. One year they experience fresh powder until October, the other year they don´t open at all due to the lack of snow (which happened in 1998). I definitely experienced a bad season in terms of snow this year. The season lasted about two to three weeks which is… a bit short! On the positive side I can say I at least skied the best day of the season in Las Leñas when I arrived on the first day Marte opened after a rare snowstorm. I skied most of the runs on my bucketlist but, unfortunately, not all of them. The Super-C couloir and the run from the top of Cerro Martin are definitely runs I´d like to ski one day. It might start snowing later in the season resulting in me going back. Who knows…

I enjoyed my stay in the hostel in Los Molles, even though everybody (including the cat and the dog!) seemed to be stoned constantly. The owner was extremely helpful though and made me feel at home. The town of Los Molles is very rustic and down to earth, some characteristics not applicable to Las Leñas. Regardless of how terrible the town of Las Leñas might be, I had a great time thanks to Fabien Nadal, a skiguide I met years ago, and a couple of great people I met along the way. I left Las Leñas and went back to Mendoza to arrange some stuff. A money transfer and a haircut were needed urgently, and I was looking forward to eat at my favourite Tex-mex restaurant (Tacobox) to enjoy some great fajitas.

Next on the agenda is backcountry skiing in the North of Patagonia. I will have to fix my skins because they will be my mode of transportation for a couple of weeks. Luckily I got some wax from Mike, the guy from Salt Lake City with whom I skied the Broken Shoulder couloir. First I’ll spend three nights in Refugio Frey, a classic mountain hut near the town of Bariloche. The remainder of September is reserved for skiing some nice volcanoes both in Argentina and Chile. Hopefully conditions will be good!

Click here to check out more pictures of my trip to Las Leñas!

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