Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Chilean Ski Scene: Interview with Brian Pearson

Brian Pearson is the founder and CEO of Santiago Adventures, which opened in 2003, in the city borough of Providencia. One of the things that most attracted him to Chile was the snows of the Andes, so I recently asked him some questions about the Chilean ski scene. He appears on the right in the photograph below, taken by Kevin Chartier of the cat-skiing company Ski Arpa.
WBB: When we spoke in your office a few months ago, I recall your mentioning that skiing was one of your main reasons for relocating to Chile. Where did you come from originally, and why did you choose Chile? Did you consider anywhere else?

BP: I'm from upstate New York originally and spent time growing up in Colorado and Vermont. I've skied my entire life and when we decided to live in South America being near a resort really mattered to me. The mountains around Santiago have the highest concentration of resorts in South America so it was a strong draw. We were trying to make a calculated risk when we decided to live abroad and we always considered Chile as our first choice given its stable government and strong economy.

WBB: What’s the ski season looking like so far? Where is the most and the best snow conditions, and which of the resorts is busiest? I understand there’s a real invasion of Brazilians this year.

BP: It has been a tougher season than normal. After two dry winters in 2010 and 2011 many people decided to wait and see before booking. When the snow didn't really show up, neither did the reservations. Brazil has always been a big part of the winter tourism in Chile and Brazilian visits are up 40% this year, so a real boom. The rest of the market is principally from the US and Canada. There are some Argentines that come as well.

WBB: In general, what are the conditions on the Chilean side of the Andes? How would you distinguish the central Chilean ski areas (such as Portillo and Chillán) from those farther south (Pucón, Antillanca, Osorno, for example)?

BP: We are in the middle of a big storm cycle so I'm happy to report the conditions right now are powder. We expect some great skiing over the next week and another storm is right behind this one. The central region resorts are much higher in elevation - the base elevations are 9,000 to 9,500 feet and skiing up to 11.500. This is much higher than the resorts in the south, which have max elevation below 9000 feet. From Chillan and further south all the resorts are on volcanoes. These resorts have less vertical feet of skiing and much mellower terrain. Although, more adventuresome skiers go ski touring to the top of many of these volcanoes including Villarica, which is one of the most active volcanoes in South America.

WBB: How is hotel occupation at the Chilean resorts? I understand Valle Nevado has undergone a major upgrade. Do most people stay in Santiago and commute to the ski areas?

BP: Occupation is pretty good with over 80 percent at Portillo and Valle Nevado. There is definitely a large percent who stay in Santiago and drive up to the resorts. Prices are much more reasonable in the city and it is only 50 minutes to La Parva or El Colorado. There is also better restaurants and nightlife in Santiago and on the days you don't ski you can visit wine country or Valparaiso. Both are within an hour of the city.

Valle Nevado is in the middle of a major expansion, principally adding new
condominiums. They are also adding lifts, including a new gondola, parking
and a new base area. This is all part of a five-year expansion plan in which
they are investing over US$100 million.

WBB: Do you have anything to say about the Argentine ski resorts? The ones in Patagonia had a rough time last year because of last year’s eruption of the Puyehue volcano.

BP: Sorry, don't know them. I hope to go to Las Lenas one day but we are always so busy with our cat skiing resort that it is hard to get away. Bariloche is having a much better year after the volcano eruption last year.

WBB: Can you elaborate on heli-skiing to me? I understand it’s a new concept in this area.

BP: With a helicopter you can fly deep into the Andes and access better snow conditions on untracked slopes. You go in a group of just four riders with a professional guide that is highly trained in snow safety, route finding and emergency medicine. Of course they are also pretty good skiers. The runs are long and sometimes you ski for 30-40 minutes before you get back to your helicopter waiting for you at the bottom. You keep doing this until your legs just can’t take any more. Definitely an experience every skier should try at least once in their life. There is somewhat of a misconception that it is extreme skiing when you go heli-skiing - what you see in all the ski movies. But the idea is to enjoy the mountains and ski on safe terrain which is typically has less than a 30 degree pitch.

It's more expensive in Chile as the flying conditions are more demanding on the helicopter. A full day in Chile is about US$1,800 per person for a group of 4. But you can do single runs at Portillo and Valle Nevado for under US$300 if you want to try it out first.

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