By Nick Russell, Smartwool Athlete and Pro Snowboarder
Upon a groggy sunrise landing into Santiago and a classic duffle shuffle into two obnoxiously painted rental campervans, we set off down the highway. The crew consists of Smartwool athlete Griffin Post, team babysitter (and Smartwool Athlete Manager), Alex Pashley, cinematographer Adam Weitzel and myself. Chasing a cold storm, we opt towards Nevados de Chillán, a mountain resort roughly six hours south of the airport. Located along a string of active stratovolcanoes, their chairlifts provide easy access to world class backcountry terrain.
After a half dozen or so tollbooth miscommunications whilst following Pashley and Adam’s van (Author’s Note: Pashley’s Spanish skills are about as useful as a knife in a gunfight), we creep into the small town of Las Trancas by nightfall. Rainfall down low equates to high optimism for a powder day on the mountain the following morning.
Weather down here is notoriously fickle. Uncontrollable forces such as gale force winds and fluctuating freezing levels are the ultimate deciding factors of where one ends up. However, that next morning it seemed the mountain Gods were feeling abnormally generous and graced us with sunny skies and cold, fresh snow. Grateful to have my first day back on snow be a chairlift accessed bluebird session, my love for this range grows deeper with each turn.
With a stable high-pressure system in the forecast for the next few days, we load up our backpacks with tents and freeze-dried meals to head out into the field. In order to truly get a grasp of the mountain’s energy, there is no better way to get in tune with the elements than to sleep in the alpine. You get a more solid idea of avalanche stability, when the ideal light hits the faces you intend to ride. Most importantly, you get to ride from sunup to sundown.
Joined by Chilean pro skier and local legend, Chopo Diaz, our splitboards and skis transport us away from the crowds and into an untouched oasis. I’ve snow camped all around the world, but never have I made a camp in such a surreal setting as this. Situated beneath the ash laden summit of Vulcan Viejo, a boiling thermal river runs down from the mountain and into the valley below. Just far enough away from the sulfuric steam vents, we set up our tents on a flat knoll. We bask in the sunlight, attempting to comprehend the beauty of our temporary home.
We’re surrounded by a plethora of open flanks on all aspects. Just around the corner, however, is the southeast facing lines that are out of sight which tempt curiosity. Glimpses of the ridgeline can be seen from camp, but a further investigation is required. After establishing our living quarters, Griffin, Chopo and I traverse around the bend to scope lines for the following morning. Despite the somewhat technical runouts, we’re pleased with what we find and return to camp with grins and anticipation. After soaking in the springs whilst sipping a cheap bottle of whiskey, we admire the stars above and drift off to sleep.
Coffee the next morning takes longer than usual, perhaps due to the fact that Pashley thought it was a good idea to bring full beans out with a hand grinder (Pro Tip: grind your coffee beans before getting out into the cold). Lucky for us, Chopo is kind enough to share his mate along with a flute serenade before booting up for the day. It is a splitter morning without a cloud in the sky. The snow is perfect in my eyes: smooth, soft and stable. I’ve had several trips down here where I’ve waited weeks for conditions to line up like this. It feels like we’ve won the lottery.
Just as the mountains can open windows of light for brief moments of glory, they can quickly slam the door in your face. As the clouds return and temperatures rise, we hit the road once again to follow the sun. Cajon Del Maipo is an area in the central part of the range in close proximity to Santiago. More than just a freeride and climbing mecca, the water held in the Embalse de Yeso provides precious drinking water to millions in the greater metropolitan area.
Over the last few years, the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Maipo valley has sparked major controversy and widespread opposition amongst local citizens and outdoor enthusiasts alike. The water diverted from the dam is being used for energy that is sold to mining companies outside the city limits and creating detrimental environmental impacts. It is inspiring to see the Maipo Libre (free Maipo) movement bring people together with a shared passion for the planet. From what I know, the project is currently tied up in legal battles and is being reexamined.
About Nick Russell
With shaggy hair, a bushy beard and an attitude as laid back as they come, Nick Russell takes his days one exposed line at a time. After a serious bout in the hospital for a streptococcus infection, Nick returned to ride some of the biggest mountains around. A strong proponent of human-powered recreation, you can find Nick skinning up places like Cerro El Plomo in Chile or the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The slower pace of splitboarding gives him an intimate experience with the magnitude of Mother Nature—and makes each powder turn that much more rewarding.
Gear for Snowboarding and Skiing
Whether it’s winter down south or up north, Merino wool socks and base layers will keep you comfortable. Merino wool next to skin helps provide superior temperature and moisture regulation. To maximize the benefits of Merino wool, start with a wool base layer and add some extra warmth with a Smartloft jacket or vest. PhD® Ski and Snowboard socks offer the benefits of Merino wool in a high-performance fit, keeping your feet happy in the backcountry.