05/08/2011 | by duthie
Taken from Issue 96 March 2011
Words and Photos: Phil Tifo
I wake up with a stiff neck as we near the end of our red-eye flight, and take a peek over my snoozing neighbours to see where in the world are we. Having followed the west coast of Central and South America for many hours, the lights of Mexico City have been replaced by the shadow of giant mountains.
“Our guides propose to pick up their jet ski and introduce us to tow-in surfing down the coast. DCP agrees that it would be a great way to wash away the jetlag”
The Andes span the entire length of the continent, starting in Columbia and continuing through Peru and Chile, all the way south to the tip of Tierra Del Fuego. Their towering peaks are freshly covered with a blanket of snow – a surreal sight at first, since the date on our boarding passes is nearly the end of July. But it’s winter in the southern hemisphere, and while the snow might look alien, the landscape below is definitely part of our beautiful Planet Earth. Even from this height, we can clearly see the lines of swell hitting the coast – swell which was generated by Antarctic storms and pushed halfway around the globe. Massive windlips and tall plumes of snow blowing off the peaks indicate the direction of the dominant southern winds. This incredible looking playground is what the YES crew – composed of David Carrier-Porcheron, Romain de Marchi and JP Solberg – have come to find. With cinematographer Paul Watt! along for the ride, their Chilean escapade will also feature in an upcoming team film, ‘YES, it’s a movie’. My task, meanwhile, is to bring the annual snowboard catalogue to life, with help from a dozen fresh prototypes Romain is bringing tomorrow. JP, still in full summer mode back in Baja, will have to trade his board shorts for his boots and catch us up in a few days. Come on JP, let’s go snowboarding!
Upon our arrival on a crisp, clear morning in Santiago, our hosts – the Mekis brothers – explain that despite the recent snowfall, high winds have battered the mountains and they are in dire need of new snow. Not exactly what we were hoping to hear, but since we have a full day ahead of us, they propose to stop by their parents’ house to pick up their jet ski and introduce us to tow-in surfing down the coast. DCP, stoked as always and fresh out of the warm waters of Costa Rica, agrees that it would be a great way to wash away the jetlag. On the drive from the airport, Pato (short for Patricio) tells us some more about the company he runs with his brother Fede (Federico), which offers snowboard, skateboard and surf lessons to kids in the city. They make their school affordable, pick the kids up at their house and drive them to the beach, mountain or skatepark for a day of coaching. This way the niños can learn to shred at a young age and have the chance to make it a part of their life from then on.
The Chileans, we soon learn, are all about sharing the love and helping those in need. The Mekis are no exception: they are actively involved with Save The Waves, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting seas, beaches and surrounding towns that are in danger of exploitation or have been affected by natural disasters. Over the past year the charity has been kept particularly busy in Chile. In the early hours of February 27th 2010, a mega terramotto, or earthquake, struck the country, measuring 8.8 on the richter scale. After the initial shockwave, a subsequent tsunami swept through the coast destroying many villages.
“The strong winds have turned the ocean into a huge, rolling mogul field, and DCP has started to question the wisdom of his decision”
Pato gets a report from a friend on the coast who says that the conditions are not great, but our guides are determined to get DCP into some waves with the help of the jet ski. Two hours later, after driving through green pastures and several small villages, the guys are out in the water and David is being towed around the surf, getting the bicep workout of his life without much joy. The strong winds have turned the ocean into a huge, rolling mogul field, and DCP has no doubt started to question the wisdom of his decision. It doesn’t take long for the lactic acid to do its thing, and he’s soon back on the beach, exhausted, watching the brothers show us how it’s done.
The water toys eventually get packed up and we agree that a cervesa fria (cold beer) would be nice right about now. The last hour of the day is painted in orange, purple and blue, and we spend it with the local brew, Escudo, in one hand. Although the warm reflection of the sun on the ocean is like a summer’s day at the beach, the cold breeze and the fact we’re wearing down jackets reminds us that we’re here to go snowboarding. It’s time to get on the road! We have a three hour journey back to La Parva, one of the resorts outside Santiago, where we’re planning to get rad for the next few days.
Foam boards and wave runner are left in the city, provisions are stocked and we begin our ascent of the seventy or so switchbacks that lead up the mountain to the village of Farrellones. La Villa De Jolgorio is an old house owned by a friend of the Mekis brothers, and serves as the crew’s shred shack during winter. The Andes are tall, steep mountains, and it’s not long before we’re surrounded on all sides by huge snowy peaks, illuminated beneath the moon. Slip sliding our way through the last hairpin bend at 3000 meters, we finally make it to the villa – tired, salty, and excited to strap on our shred sticks. The little wood cabin could almost be in Switzerland, making us gringos feel right at home amongst the southern mountains.
“You can take some huge powder runs all the way down to the road which are the length of full heli drop”
The view we get the following morning is stunning. Down on the plain, between the sea and the sky, sits Santiago, where millions of citizens are going about their daily lives. As rush hour marches on, a blanket of smog closes in over the city, eventually isolating us above the cloud. We spend the rest of the day blasting around the resort and getting to know the mountain before retreating to the villa for some pre-dinner Escudos. At this point Romain pops in the front door hauling two board bags full of new decks, and the party can finally start.
“You guys want some Piscola?” asks Pato, though he doesn’t wait for an answer and is already pouring glasses of the foreign liquor for everyone at the table. Pisco is a grape brandy introduced to Chile by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and mixed with Coca Cola it makes Piscola, a real firecracker of a drink that’s enough to turn the most introverted, Marilyn-lovin’ Goth into a dance machine. If you’re already a wild man (like Romain!) then… well, it turns you even wilder. There’s a mellower version made with juice, called a Pisco Sour, but Fede explains that it’s strictly for the girls, and that full strength Piscola is the only thing Chileans drink when they party – which is almost every night. For snowboarders, the biggest nights of all are when it’s snowing, because at this altitude there are no trees on the hill to see anything so no one goes riding during a storm. Which is exactly the case right now. Peering out into the gloom I see that the moon has disappeared, leaving behind a thick soupy cloud that’s begun to dump the ocean moisture it picked up down the hill. Eventually, when the morning light brings no respite from the storm, we decide to return to the coast to visit one of Chile’s prime surf spots and wait until the whiteout turns to sunshine.
“It really is a trip to go back and forth from the sea to the slopes in a matter of hours”
Judging by Romain’s white-ish tint on the way down, the switchbacks aren’t doing his first Piscola hangover in five years any good. In fact we’re all in survival mode after last night’s blurry episode, and none of us – crammed as we are into the back of the brothers’ pickup truck – are exactly enjoying the ride. We get our first introduction to empenadas (a kind of Chilean pasty) outside of Santiago, and feeling a little better with food in our bellies we gaze out at the green landscape as the mountains recede behind us. David remarks on how good it feels to be able to visit other places when conditions are bad. Before he and his two friends started YES, team managers and other pencil pushers would direct their every move until they were back on the plane for another shoot. “What’s the point of going to all these far-off countries if all you ever see is a mountain with some snow, trees and rocks, and don’t spend any time absorbing the local culture?” he says. Now that they’re at the helm of their own snowboard company, things have changed for the best. They’re free to do what they like, and it feels good.
After a few days of dancing with the ocean, eating great food and soaking up the sun, we hear tales of new snow and soon-to-be clearing skies. JP Solberg has finally dragged his ass down from Mexico, so we head back to Santiago and meet him at Mall Sport, a huge shopping centre dedicated to all things sport that helps sponsor the Mekis brother’s shred school. With a store for every activity you can imagine, and facilities like an artificial wave, climbing wall and race car simulator, it’s the coolest shopping centre we’ve ever seen. JP just got worked on the fake wave as he waited for us to arrive, and is ready for a celebratory drink. Back at the villa, we’re welcomed by the actual owner Jolgorio, who’s joins in games of cacho (dice) and listens to the stories of the reunited compadres.
Since this is the first official team shoot at which all three founders of YES are present, the plan is just to catch up and have fun with some relaxed snowboarding. The riding on the slopes next to La Villa looks a lot more promising after the fresh snowfall, but there are signs that the base is still shallow. Elsewhere, the dominant westerly winds sweeping into resort have formed countless banks and windlips just begging to be slashed. These rolling white waves are where most of the snow has accumulated, leaving the open slopes peppered with hidden death cookies like a minefield. As we set off from the lift, it’s a case of riding on egg shells until we hit the windlips.
“We spend a day with the Save The Waves crew, helping to rebuild greenhouses in a small coastal village right near the epicentre of the February earthquake”
In colder years when the snowpack is thicker, the area is a mountain goat’s paradise. Farrelones-El Colorado boasts 19 lifts, 22 runs and a peak at over 3,300m, while over on the backside you can take some huge powder runs all the way down to the road which are the length of full heli drop. The neighbouring resorts of Valle Nevado and La Parva also offer some great freeriding, and the simple joy of snowboarding in July adds to the pleasure – knowing that your friends north of the equator are still dreaming of winter and their next line. For freestyle lovers, the set-up at El Colorado is pretty good but the vast terrain park at Valle Nevado is really the place to be.
After only two days of riding off-piste, our brand new YES prototypes have accrued a season’s worth of rock damage. We’re getting some good windlip slashes and whatnot, but the landings are way too shallow to risk any bigger jumps. We decide to check out somewhere else, and our guides propose we migrate south to the resort of Termas de Chillan, about six hours from Santiago. Word has it they’ve got a more generous snowbase, and if it hasn’t been hit by the wind yet we could be lucky and find some sweet deepness.
“Our Chilean super-guides seemingly only require three or four hours of sleep a day, and along with 14 snowboards, a quiver of surfboards and a jet ski in tow, they haul our asses through the night”
Our Chilean super-guides seemingly only require three or four hours of sleep a day, and along with 14 snowboards, a quiver of surfboards and a jet ski in tow, they haul our asses down to Termas through the night. The mountain that meets us is awesome, covered in forest and hot springs which belch out sulphuric smoke, but after just two runs, we’re happy we brought the ocean gear. The wind did get here first; the snow is bullet proof.
Pato and Fede are prepared for plan B, and have reserved a house a few steps from the Pacific where we meet some more of their friends for another surf session. They also organize for us to spend a day with the Save The Waves crew, helping to rebuild greenhouses in a small coastal village right near the epicentre of the February quake. These glass houses will be used to grow flowers which the women of the village can sell to feed their families. After the widespread destruction we’ve seen along the coast, the project seems like a drop in the ocean. There’s still so much to do. But the locals that have been affected somehow keep smiling and carry on with their lives, rebuilding the community one brick at a time. We’re glad to donate a bit of our time to help out. After all, Chile has been great to us; it’s only fair to give something back when the chance presents itself.
After four days of surfing some of the best waves we’ve ever seen, we return to ride Valle Nevado and El Colorado, where a fresh dusting brings just enough snowflakes to fill in our favourite slashes. It really is a trip to go back and forth from the sea to the slopes in a matter of hours. We’re happy to be back on the snow one last time, riding these great resorts and stealing a few more days of winter before going back to flip flops. Some serious Piscola-fuelled dancing marks our last night in resort, ended as always with a late, late game of cachos at the Villa de Jolgorio. Pato, Fede and their friends have adopted us into their tight family; it’s hard to believe, as they invite us back again to stay in their homes, that a few short weeks ago they were strangers. We know we’ll see each other next year, for when the snow melts and the flowers begin to appear in my yard, another invierno is starting again, just south of our summer.