Just pray the legendary Marte, Las Leñas, is open so you can access Argentina’s mind-blowing backcountry, says Arnie Wilson – the most famous chairlift in the Andes
Life on Mars (the most famous chairlift in the Andes) is mind-blowing – as long as it’s open. And as long as you enjoy a challenge. Many, many challenges in fact. If ever a single lift (it’s a double actually) could be said to illustrate the difference between skiing mediocrity and mind-blowing terrain it’s the Marte (Mars) at Las Leñas, As one devotee put it, Marte is the “master key for freeskiing” in the Andes. You will never tire of the runs it serves.
Las Leñas, 1200km west of Buenos Aires, in Mendoza province, is a Jekyll and Hyde resort – and it all depends on this lift. When it’s shut, due to high winds, poor viz or avalanche risk, and the upper mountain is closed, the skiing here loses much of its appeal.
Thanks purely to this lift, which feeds what amounts to a separate advanced ski area, two-thirds of the resort’s runs are designated advanced or expert. Taking a mountain guide makes a lot of sense: some of the couloirs off the top end abruptly above cliff faces. And although avalanche control is conducted regularly in the freeride terrain immediately accessible from the lift, there is none in the backcountry.
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All that doesn’t mean to say all the terrain the Marte accesses is too tough for a reasonably strong intermediate: in fact there are two groomed pistes, popular with Argentines, which take you back to its base – Apolo, a blue, and Jupiter, a red. (The resort’s lifts and hotels – built in 1983 – are named after heavenly bodies.) But it does mean you need to take care with route selection.
The steep and sometimes windswept chair reaches a high plateau at almost 3400m, from which an array of about 40 skiable chutes fall away in many directions. Some bring you back to the base area; others take you miles into the wilderness to such alluring-sounding places as Laguna Escondida, El Collar and Juno Bowl. Sin Nombre (No Name) and Eduardo’s Couloir provide some of the most challenging descents.
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A mountain haunted by disaster
The slopes of Las Leñas – the first in the southern hemisphere to host a World Cup race, back in 1985 – are not far south of the spot where a plane-load of Uruguayan rugby players, accompanied by family and friends, crashed between Cerro Sosneado and the Tinguirica volcano in 1972. Only 16 of the 45 passengers and crew survived, partly thanks to their reluctant decision to resort to cannibalism: their epic tale was told in the book Alive and the subsequent film of 1993.
With an enterprising mountain guide or a GPS you might be able to locate the few bits of wreckage still remaining there, depending on snow levels.
Chris Lizza, a ski patroller who spent a month in Las Leñas working with the pisteros, once described the terrain to me like this: “The Marte accesses more expert terrain than any other lift on this planet. Forget the rest of Las Leñas. No skier could ever find – let alone ski – all the possibilities. Even the fittest World Cup racers could never complete a non-stop run from the top. Airy powder, velvety wind-pack and granular corn are available somewhere. It’s so vertical, so narrow, it defines extreme.”
Nothing much has changed. Joe Lammers, a Canadian freeskier and avalanche expert who skis Las Leñas most winters, says: “I’ve had a conflicted relationship with the Marte chair since 1994. It services, without question, the most bad-ass expert terrain in the southern hemisphere, and although not all the runs are that difficult, they frequently have tricky entrances which can put skiers off.
Unfortunately stormy weather has a way of shutting down the lift with regularity. With each trip to the resort I feel my chances of getting a lift to freeskiing Mecca are uncertain. But it must be worth it, because I keep coming back year after year, and I’m not alone.”
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So who frequents the gnarliest chutes off the Marte? Lammers says: “Historically, the harder off-piste lines have been mainly skied by North American and European ski bums. Over the last 10 years or so, however, there’s been a boost in South American freeride culture and locals are getting after it more and more.”
Read more on Andean skiing:
Seven of the best resorts for summer skiing
HOW TO SKI CHILE ON A BUDGET
Six ski resorts worth schlepping to South America for