T’was a time when chasing a bucket list did not necessitate cracking an Enigma code of shifting Covid tests and requirements, juggling what’s needed to board a plane, to enter a country, to embark on a boat, to disembark, to return in transit. T’was a time recently where nobody was allowed to travel at all, but it looks like we’re finally done with that bit. There’s still too much friction when it comes to global travel, the legacy of Covid lingering like a suds stain around a student’s bathtub. The good news is that much of the world has collectively decided to move on, focusing efforts on protecting the vulnerable while living with Covid the way we live with other problematic viruses. It just took time and money, which tends to solve most problems. The better news: last month I returned to both my Canadian and Global Bucket List after too long a hiatus, and I returned in style. I’ve always wanted to sail in the Caribbean, and I’ve waited over a decade to once again experience to the deep virgin snow of backcountry skiing. March presented the opportunities, and so I grasped them, tightly, with the wind at my sails, and a smooth path from peak to gully.
Part One: The Caribbean
It started with a thought about sailing as an eco-friendlier form of cruising. Then I got lost in the fascinating real-life history of pirates, and distracted by the pool-clear waters of the Caribbean. Putting it altogether, I found the perfect itinerary on board one of the world’s largest passenger sail boats, a towering old-world tall ship operated by Swedish-owned, Malta-flagged Star Clippers. My experience will get its full due in an upcoming issue of the Vancouver Sun, but I will say this: Star Flyer – a 4-masted tall ship that swivels the head of even the saltiest sailor – is out of this world. It carries up to 166 passengers served by 74 crew, sailing the trade winds and ocean currents in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Central America and across the Atlantic. Unlike cruising, you feel the ocean (sometimes a little more than you’d like, but that’s part of the adventure), visiting bays, islands and beaches beyond reach of the cruise ships. It’s a luxury sailing adventure for those who don’t know anyone with a luxury sailboat, which I’m assuming describes most of us.
Staff and service is fantastic, the meals top notch, the cocktails smooth and the onboard amenities (two pools, a massage therapist, deck chairs, an open bridge, stocked library, water sports etc) most accommodating. Time slows down, and people read books, not feeds. You can do bucket list things like hang out on the bowsprit, sprawled on the netting as it dips over rolling waves above playful dolphins (yep, that happened). You can climb up the rope ladder to an 18m-high viewing platform, gazing over islands and ocean. You can bake in the sun like those fried European passengers who don’t seem to know about skin cancer. You can dance at night, request tunes from the pianist, dress like a pirate, or ask a thousand questions of the patient crew as they pull ropes and release topsails with special names that I forgot the moment I heard them. Pop into the Caribbean’s most legendary beach bars (the Soggy Dollar, Foxy’s etc) for a souvenir headache, nap in your cabin, listen to stories of fellow passengers, snorkel into sea caves, paddle-board, ogle at super yachts parking in St Barts. It’s everything one would expect the good life to be, and a very different kind of cruise experience. The more I travel on a small ship – a luxury river barge in the Amazon, a catamaran in the Galapagos, an expedition ship in the Antarctica – the more I fall in love with boats as a bucket list form of travel. If you can burn just 15% of the fuel of a regular ship, as the Star Flyer does under sail, it feels like the future of cruising, and the responsible way to go. As time progresses, I hope to add more small ships to my growing, curated bucket list cruise collection.
Part Two: Catskiing in the Skeena
The last and only time I cat-skied was on a private mountain in Chile. We were filming an episode of Word Travels, and my single biggest memory of that adventure is nervously watching our cameraman Sean ski backwards while he filmed my descent with a large six-figure camera on his shoulder. It was the only true bluebird ski day I’ve ever had, when the sky is crystal clear after a big dump of white snow. Skeena Cat Skiing in BC would be my second, and this time I wouldn’t have to worry about my TV show crashing with a wipeout (I can do that all by myself, thank you).
I had one day to switch my Caribbean bag for my snow gear, catching a prop flight north from Vancouver to the town of Smithers BC. Here I met a group of elite ski journalists, gathering at the helipad for our memorable ride into base camp. Any day you get to ride a helicopter is a good day. Skeena Cat Skiing is a family-run affair and clearly a passion project of immense love and hard work. Many hours away from anything, guests stay in heated dome tents buried in snow, which is a cool experience unto itself. The comfy, wood-fired heated lodge tent is loaded with fine beer, snacks, worn couches, and a friendly chef who prepared outstanding hearty dinners and desserts. We’re surrounded by the Thomlinson and Gail Creek mountains, 30,000 hectares of fresh powder and skiable glades in every direction. Our ski chair is a customized Piston Bully snow grader, with a large heated cabin for 14 passengers on the back. This ‘cat’ can go anywhere and everywhere it pleases, and it does. Skirting a steep ride, it deposited us at the top of runs that funnel into valleys where we would be collected by the cat for another ascent. Backcountry safety is taken seriously: we’re all equipped with avalanche kits, air bags, walkie-talkies, and given a tutorial in rescue. Veteran guides know what they’re doing and accidents are rare to non-existent. Any nerves dissipate after the first run, replaced with elation and joy and wowzers because this is the skiing you dream about, every time you strap in, and every time you head up a mountain. I was easily the weakest boarder of the group, and I’m no slopestyle expert (especially in the company of Olympic skier Yuki Tsubota). But even at my own pace, I was able to keep up, sharing the pinnacle of what snow sport can deliver. Cat skiing is more affordable than heli-skiing, and you can read more about both in my Bucket Listed column for Can Geo Travel. Suffice to say: it’s going to be hard going up a local ski hill again, but there’s always something to aspire to, and something to look forward to next time.
Three hours drive from the Chilean capital of Santiago is a ski resort without any shops, malls, or promenades. There are no restaurants, bars or hotels either. There’s not even a ski lift. Yet it still attracts clients from around the world, and for good reason. Ski Arpa is the dream of a lifelong ski instructor who scrapped and saved over three decades to open a mountain for anyone in love with stunning views, and untracked snow. Here, two Pisten Bully Snowcats shepherd up to 22 skiers to the top of the mountain, where they have mind-boggling access to 4000 acres of skiable terrain.
Toni Sponar, a veteran ski-instructor of Aspen, Banff, and number of South American ski resorts, bought 5000 acres of land back in 1983. At just $5000, it was a bargain even for a ski instructor. The location was ideal. From atop the peak of Alto del Arpa you can see the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Mount Aconagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, to the east. The south facing slopes receive plenty of sun, protected from harsh winds, with chutes forming in natural abundance. Surrounding you is the Andes mountain range in all its glory - so different from the view in the Rockies, or the Alps.
A year after his dream purchase, Toni installed a ski lift and set to work creating an 8km switchback road to the base lodge. Then disaster struck. A massive storm dumped metres of snow, causing an avalanche that wiped out the lift, the lodge, and all of Toni’s savings in the process. He would still visit his mountain with friends over the years, but it would take another 20 years before he could resurrect his dream of a skier’s ski resort. He purchased two Snowcats, aligned with booking and marketing agents, and finally created the most rewarding catskiing operation on the continent. Clients visit from around the world for the powder, the sweeping vista, and the unlimited fresh tracks.
As we slowly make our way up the switchbacks, the van abruptly stops and one of my fellow passengers throws up. It’s a rough road, which Toni maintains himself, zig-zagging 600m up the valley. I’m feeling a little queasy from the altitude, but the excitement seems to settle my stomach. I only discovered the joy of snow when I moved to Canada in my twenties. When I was 6 years old, a once-a-century freak snowstorm hit Johannesburg. My schoolteacher, having never seen snow, made the class hide under our desks. She thought it was nuclear fall out.
I was retelling the story in the van as the switchbacks became ever steeper. Finally, our Swiss driver announces we have arrived. Next to the parking clearing is a humble, rustic building, built deliberately into the hill to avoid being wiped out by an avalanche like its predecessor. I am blessed with perfect conditions – the sky is clear and blue, and a 20cm of snow fell overnight. I sign a waiver, and get handed an avalanche transmitter by Anton, Toni’s son and partner in the operation. There are a dozen clients today, made up of Americans from Colorado, some French, some German. This is not Whistler or St Moritz or Aspen. We have all packed our own lunch, and accept the simplicity of the amenities. We have come for the snow, not the glitz.
It takes 45 minutes for the powerful snowcat to make its way up the mountain. I am standing at the back of the outdoor passenger area, watching Toni and another skier being towed behind us. The snowcat eats the steepest of inclines, charging like a tank up towards the peak. The air gets thinner and colder, and suddenly, the full might of the Andes appear on the horizon, a true alpine wonderland. After a final push from the powerful cat, my back against its protective rails at a near 45-degree angle, we arrive on the peak and dismount. The groups split up respectively, choosing a wild multitude of lines. Mount Aconagua, nearly 7000m high and dividing the Argentinean and Chilean border, beckons me forward. I let out a Wilhelm Scream, for if you can’t scream at the top of the world, where can you? Within seconds, I begin carving this mountain like a Thanksgiving turkey.
A full day with Ski Arpa includes four runs with a guide. By my third run, I am feeling braver, dropping into a gully to attempt an unsuccessful launch through a chute. It takes a while to dig myself out. Toni joins me on the next run, rocketing down his mountain, enjoying the start of another stellar season in Chile. He whips down so gracefully I find it hard to believe he’s old enough to be my grandfather. Meanwhile his clients are bonding over fat smiles and white powder. Warming up in the sun outside the base hut, we all agree: Who needs malls and promenades when you have a 1000m vertical descent on some of the best powder in the world? Especially when you have it all to yourself.
Ski Arpa is located near the village of Los Andes, 108km from Chile’s capital city Santiago.
Santiago Adventures (http://www.santiagoadventures.com/) provide hotel pick-up and guide service. If you drive, a 4 X 4 vehicle is essential. Reasonably priced gear rental is available through Santiago’s KL Adventures (http://www.kladventure.com) en-route. Ski Arpa’s season typically runs mid-June to mid-October.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.