LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 13
Pags.: 24 - 35
Text & Photos: Guido Chouela
Translation: Maita B. De Sanchez
CHAPELCO, PLEASURE SKIING
The runs cut across enchanted forests and overlook in the distance an endless landscape of lakes and snowy peaks which shape a dazzling horizon. The summit of the imposing Lanin volcano stands out crowned by a circle of clouds. Its presence is felt throughout and is sighted with clarity from almost all the high runs.
"This is quality of life", says Nelson Williams, head of the ski school, as he deeply inhales the landscape from the top of the ridge. "Can you believe there are people who do not appreciate it?", he adds. From the place where we are standing, the highest point of the mountain, as well as from the top of Mount Teta, one can admire not only the horizon of Lake Lacar and the Lanín, but the splendid rugged re
lief of the precordillera which resembles an ocean petrified during a tempest.
The trees of the forests are lengas, many of them centenarian, with their grown devil beards, bizarre lichens that give an air of mistery to the trees and are not a disease of the forest, as is often believed, but the result of the extreme pureness of the air.
Ski-lifts are moving panoramas, ideal means for watching skiers' falls, the enchanted figures of the woods and the snow on the branches, which every now and then topple as if they were the cream cakes of The Three Stooges.
It is the enthrallment of the scenery, the mastery of nature what forges the vital experience of the skier, and in Chapelco one is bound to grasp the mountain
spirit. The literature in the brochures is correct: the runs are suitable for Alpine and Nordic ski, monoski, snowboard alike. But, above all, it is an enjoyable place.
The mountain is full of paths, ideal for wandering peacefully across the woods from one run to another or to captivating nooks. From the top to the foot of the mountain the runs are 5 km long, there are five chair-lifts, five pomalifts and state-of-the-art cablecabins. The ski-lifts have been recently renewed to avoid
waiting lines and thus maximize skiing time.
Chapelco is ideal for beginners as there are plenty of easy runs. It is recommendable for families and groups, not being the show-off trendy type of resort. The easiest runs go from the base up to 1,600 metres, where there are crossroads leading either to the more adventurous ridge, or a quadruple chair-lift to Mount Teta. Except for a brief ravine which urges for a deep breath and higher speed, the runs of the Teta offer no major difficulty. The reward is the breathtaking view and the possibility of reaching Mount Mocho and the heavenly Prairie of the Puma.
Chapelco also offers slopes and runs to challenge the fearless: La Pala, Patrulla and Tobogan. To venture to La Pala, one must notify the patrols beforehand. Nelson Williams took me along with some ski-instructors to take pictures, and there I discovered that although instructors do not torture pupils, principals do torture instructors. With German discipline, they were ordered to descend the icy morning runs at their principal's beck and call, to my relish, a delightful scene of accurate ballet.
If you are a loyal reader of "Lugares", you might recall Alfred Auer's name (#6): he is the Austrian guide that organizes horseback expeditions across the mountains in the summertime. For several years he came south every winter season as a migratory bird. Little by little he fell in love with the southern winter and decided to stay for good. The efficient and numerous ski school is his making. "It was the Austrians who turned Nordic skiing into Alpine Skiing", points out Gringo Reviriego, member of the school staff.
"We teach the Austrian technique and that gives us a sense of coherence". The characteristics of the runs and the quality of the teachers make it a successful enterprise.
One of the many trails leads to Los Techos, a dreamlike set of cottages, where one can stop for a tasty barbecue and even lodge there. This is a very recommendable option, as you wake up and put your skis on and can ski with no stop till sunset, an alluring offer. You can also have lunch, but not overnight at the Prairie of the Puma: pizza and champagne for the skillful skiers.
At the Rancho de Manolo, at the cross roads of Los Italianos and del Bosque runs, youngsters gather to listen to rock music. This place is named after a venerable character, a pioneer of the region, who still nowadays, in his eighties skies the trails offhandedly. Locals still remember him in the times when they used to climb the mountain for a unique daily descent, Manolo would literally carry more than one straggler down the Cuesta del Indio.
Refuge Graef, in the middle of the mountain, is also full of memories. There is a fast food restaurant, serving delicious lentil stew, frequented by sun-lovers, next door to the old refuge built by a German pioneer in the forties. Nowadays, half buried in the snow, Herr Graef's cabin reveals an enigmatic chimney with several small
doors: the way out into the open air on mornings after heavy snowstorms. Recalls Berta Campos, also a local pioneer with deep Indian features: "Once I was with a group of forty children and it snowed so copiously during the night that we had to use the highest door to get out". In those times, Manolo made his skis with lenga wood and the creole forerunners would slide downhill haphazardly. "In 1965, the first chair-lift was installed and everything changed", quotes El Gringo. "Many Argentine champions were forged in Chapelco: Willy Reynal, Quito and Nancy Astete, Mario Alvarez and Marisol Ibanez, for example".
The choice of Chapelco as a ski resort was more due to the beauty of the scenery and its closeness to San Martín de los Andes, than to the quality of the snow, which was better in other places. San Martin, nowadays a mountain village with modern city features, is located in a privileged spot, at the head of Lake Lacar, and preserves its characteristic atmosphere. It is the Patagonian town which has grown the most in the last years. "It has doubled its stable population in a few years. "It mushrooms", says Mayor Luz Sapag, a keen skier. "Many visitors end up staying here, but we strive for that growth not to harm our mountain identity".
With this aim, picturesque houses were erected with local materials, similar to those of Chilean Patagonia: painted wooden walls and larch tile roofs, real craftsmanship. Taco
Rey, an architect from Buenos Aires who has established himself in the area, believes that Alejandro Bustillo "in his southern phase, set the standards of a style which was complemented with the German currents of Southern Chile.
We are trying to retrieve that sense of harmony and create an architectural style of the region". "I cannot live without aestheticism", claims Luis Etcheverrygaray, chef of El Raulí, another happy newcomer: "Wild boar feed on pine nuts and the deer love certain leaves and colours", he explains, "it is a natural interaction". A variety of hotels and restaurants, cozy bars crowded at night, shops offering almost everything, including jams, preserves and other regional delights, even a cinema housing premieres, are examples of the urban characteristics that complement the mountain spirit of San Martin de los Andes.
Meanwhile, the captivating snow is a constant invitation. The Snowboard National Championship, the Interschool Ski Competition, the Triatlon, the Pentatlon and the renowned Mountaineer Party, at the beginning of August, with torch descents, woodcutter competitions, free-style events and huge bonfires, are some of Chapelco's landmarks. Also, every Wednesday there is a Torch Descent from Graef Refuge, after card games and backgammon, when darkness wraps the mountain, we set out on a marvellous, ghostly, dazzling descent, an unforgettable venture.