Snow Place Like the Andes in Spring

The veritable playground of the Andes stares down from the east of Santiago and is especially striking in winter with the white, razor-edge peaks against the (more often than not) blue sky. From Santiago, world-class ski areas are a mere two-hour drive, including Portillo on the highway to Mendoza, the resorts up the Farellones valley, and in Cajón del Maipo. And it’s not just skiing-- snow shoeing, extreme sledding, and snow barbecues are all popular activities for folks wanting to explore what the Andes have to offer in winter. But for some, maybe especially the northern hemisphere ski fiends looking to get a head start on their season, a spring backcountry trip in the cordillera shows off the beauty and vastness of these mountains so close to Santiago.

 photo by Lori Mathews
photo by Lori Mathews

Backcountry ski enthusiasts dream of the "spring corn," or the perfect temperature snow that softens up just right so it feels like your skis are cutting through butter at each turn. September and October in the southern hemisphere are the ideal months to take a trip into the mountains as bigger snow storms are fewer (theoretically) making the snowpack stabilize. Of course, backcountry touring requires appropriate equipment and risk assessment; so if you’re heading far into the mountains, a good ability to assess terrain is a requisite: wet-slide avalanches can happen on southerly aspects as the sun beats down from above.

 photo by Lori Mathews
photo by Lori Mathews

There are many places to find solace and adventure in the Andes, but one place worth checking out is just a few kilometers past Baños Morales in the Cajon del Maipo, approximately 92kms from Santiago up the canyon. The sign of arrival is a dead-end into a snow pile.

From here the options are endless and depend on what you are looking for. There are 5000 meter peaks for the extreme junkies, and multiple slopes of different angles and aspects that exist within a 30-90 minute skin from where the road ends. There's ample opportunity for serenity and peacefulness with just the sound of your feet gliding across, or crunching through, the snow providing a rhythm to your pace, no matter your end-goal. Though the occasional snow-machine whizzing by may heighten the reality that you are panting and sweating your way up an angled slope, you'll truly be earning your turns.

 photo by Lori Mathews
photo by Lori Mathews

Getting into the backcountry is easiest if you have your own transportation, but grabbing a colectivo is an option. If you can get yourself to Cajón del Maipo by bus, for example, strike up a conversation at a roadside empanada stand and see what locals might be heading farther up and snag a ride. Bonus: new friends! The road is generally clear in good weather and shouldn’t require a 4x4 automobile, but a big spring storm could change all that, so be sure to check out a weather report before heading into the mountains.

If you’re here with your own gear (snowshoes, randonee/alpine-touring ski set-up, splitboard) you’re ahead of the game. There are a few places to rent equipment, check out KL Adventure or Patagonia Sport. There are lots of second hand shops and street-side sales around Santiago, so if you’re diligent, you might be able to find a deal on ski clothing, as well as equipment. There’s always the Chilean version of Craigslist:

Get out there and enjoy some winter wonderland while the snow sticks around!

Location: There's lots of opportunity to explore the Chilean backcountry; the above area is near Baños Morales in Cajón del Maipo.

Price: Depending on where you go, there could be park entrance fees; but the beauty of backcountry is that it's generally free - save for the gas to get there, or a bus/colectivo charge and any equipment rental.

Peak season: Springtime in Chile goes from September to November

How to get there: To access Cajón del Maipo, take Américo Vespucio Sur towards La Florida and take the La Florida exit to head east towards the mountains.

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