Heli Ski

I went heli-skiing (technically I guess it should be called “heli-boarding”) yesterday, and it was incredible — without doubt, the best snowboarding experience in my life to date!

The day started early, when the Chilean guide, Miguel, picked me and 3 other snowboarders (a middle-aged Uruguayan guy called George, and two youngish American guys called Jeff and Henry) up from Hotel Tres Puntas at 7:45am. After signing scary liability release forms, we went to the helipad and were issued with electronic beacons/tracking devices, and started playing a game of hide and seek around the helipad to test our ability to find one another in the case of an avalanche. We failed miserably because the tracking devices were rubbish, so Miguel went and got another type that worked much better.

Eventually, after a lot of standing around, the helicopter arrived and we all piled in for an amazing scenic flight over the Andes. After about 10 minutes, the helicopter started circling near a high and steep snow-covered peak. There didn”t seem to be anywhere suitable to land, so we were somewhat alarmed when the helicopter shoved one of its landing skids into a small snow-covered peak and just hovered there for a while. At this point, I became a little nervous, thinking that perhaps the helicopter had got stuck in a precarious position. It hovered like this for a few minutes, as Miguel and the Pilot talked quickly in Spanish and the four of us in the back shifted about, increasingly nervously.

Then Miguel got out and opened the rear door, indicating that we should also get out onto the tiny snow-covered peak. I was nearest, so got out first and crawled away on my belly, conscious of the whirring rotor blades attached to the not-very-stable helicopter not far above my head. I have to confess to being quite terrified at this point!

Once we were all out of the helicopter crouching in the snow on the tiny peak, the helicopter flew away and then came back the other way around so that Miguel could get all our gear out of the basket on the other side, then it flew off, leaving us covered in snow kicked up by the rotor.

While we were putting our snowboards on, Miguel went along a narrow snowy bridge and started clearing snow off a rock on a nearby adjacent peak, which apparently was what had prevented the helicopter from landing properly — the snow would have caught in the tail rotor. Miguel had an altimeter watch, and informed us that we were at an altitude of 4,300 metres(approximately 15,000 feet?).

After we got our gear on, we slowly and carefully followed Miguel one-by-one down a steep icy ravine — just scraping down, because it was too steep and icy to turn. After a few hundred feet, however, the snow became softer and the incline became less steep, and we were able to ride down more easily.

From this point on, the snowboarding was the best I”ve ever done, with beautiful fresh powder filling huge empty sweeping valleys. The only small fly in this ointment was that we had to keep waiting for one of the American guys, who apparently wasn”t as confident a snowboarder as he claimed to be, and was also having some difficulties breathing at this altitude. Still, it gave the rest of us plenty of time to appreciate the incredible scenery of the Andes.

After this first epic run the helicopter picked us up again and took us to another spot, with a much less scary landing site and no steep icy part at the beginning, and we had another great run down, lasting about 40 minutes. I took one fairly major tumble, somersaulting head over heels at high speed about three times before coming to a rest, but the snow was so soft that I hardly felt anything, and was able to continue once I”d retrieved my goggles.

The original plan was to do two runs, but we all agreed to do one more run, so yet again the helicopter picked us up and ferried us to another spot with spectacular views across the Andes in all directions. Santiago to the west was entirely covered in clouds, with the peaks of mountains rising up through them like islands.

On this last run I suffered an equipment malfunction, when the toe strap on one of my bindings broke, but luckily Miguel had a screwdriver and a bit of nylon strapping with a friction buckle, and was able to fashion a makeshift replacement toestrap that worked very well.

We finished the last run following a river down a valley in about 30 minutes, and waited for the helicopter to take us back to Valle Nevado. Miguel checked his altimeter and told us that we had ridden down about 4,500 vertical metres that morning.

The flight back was also breathtaking, as the helicopter had to circle around a few times to get enough height to clear the ridge of enormous peaks, after which the valleys dropped steeply away for thousands of metres before rising again to the point where the Valle Nevado ski resport was perched. The we disembarked the helicopter halfway up one of the ski slopes, and it was just a matter of riding down to the office to pay the (rather large) bill. The total cost per person came to $470 — about $1 for every 10 vertical metres ridden — but I have to say it was definitely worth it.

Afterwards I checked out of the hotel, got my board fixed, had lunch and rode for the rest of the afternoon before getting the bus back to Santiago and landing back at the Hotel Orly, completely exhausted and with my muscles screaming for relief.

Now its Tuesday, and Im in an Internet cafe using a computer with a keyboard mapping problem (hence the idiosyncratic punctuation), before heading off to Argentina early this afternoon to meet Nan at the Palermo House hotel in Buenos Aires.

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