After a week of skiing with the K2 Back Side team in La Parva, Chile, it was time for Reggie and I to hop over the border to Argentina with the First Ascent crew. It’s a scenic commercial flight that, on a good day, offers incredible views of 22,841-foot Aconcagua.
The Andes are about 4,400 miles long, but it takes little more than 30 minutes to fly up and over from Santiago to Mendoza. Despite the narrow range that divides these countries, Chile and Argentina host vastly different cultures.
I first started coming to South America in the late 1980s when my brother and I were training downhill with the U.S. Ski Team. Since then we’ve made the trip down almost every summer to explore the Andes and enjoy the culture. It’s an easy trip that guarantees adventure.
From most locations in the States, you can catch a casual afternoon departure connecting with a red-eye flight to Santiago. With any luck, Delta will have managed to deliver on the promise of moving your bags from one plane to the next, and you’ll be on your way up to the mountains, skiing by midday. Should you decide to go the extra mile over into Argentina, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts, especially if you embrace the “A Factor.”
I knew about the A Factor long before I learned it had a name. In short, it’s the Argentine way of making decisions without the practical application of logical thinking. Resist the A Factor, and it may cause undue anxiety, though it can just as easily play in your favor if you’re willing to slow down and dance to a different beat.
If you decide to stay on the Chilean side, you’ll mingle with more rational-minded people. You’ll have a more predictable and organized experience. A few too many Pisco Sours might leave you scrambled in the morning, but if you follow the condor into the mountains, you’ll find the path to memorable adventures.
If you choose to make the hop over to Argentina, you’ll be welcomed by an exotic culture of romantic people where the Malbec flows like water, the lomo is lean like the women, and the snow lays down velvet fields of powder between dramatic granite spires.
Upon our arrival in Las Leñas, we could see the tallest peaks flagging, indicating high winds at upper elevations. It’s a common sight in the Andes, where the predominant northwest winds scour high ridge-lines and deposit snow on the more protected leeward slopes. Directional sense is always challenging to calibrate here in the southern hemisphere. The sun moves from right to left over the northern sky—opposite our usual perspective at home. The Coriolis effect swirls the toilet water in the other direction and the A Factor explains why the world’s greatest lift service, the Marte, is sometimes closed on a perfect bluebird day for no apparent reason.
Such was the case our first morning in Leñas. Election day was reason enough for lift operators to excuse themselves from the arduous task of loading the Marte, despite perfect conditions. Don’t get me wrong: I honor the right to vote. But I talked to several locals who managed to vote and ski all day—just not from the top of the Marte.
Keep in mind, tranquility is the foundation of A Factor behavior. Drawing on years of experience and a few key relationships, we embraced this world of opposites and quickly negotiated our way into the back of a snowcat en route to the top of the mountain.
The rest of this story can be told through photographs of First Ascent guides slashing their way through untracked Andean powder with empty, motionless Marte chairlifts hanging above. Las Leñas is a mysterious and stunningly beautiful place.
High in the Andes there are many elements at work, though none more dynamic than the A Factor, which can bring bitter disappointment and absolute stoke in a single day. With a new storm on the horizon, forecasts are projecting as much as a meter of new snow. Surely our Argentine adventure has only just begun.
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