May 1, 2001

Cry for Me

THREE p.m. and, nearly 24 hours after leaving my home in New York, I was almost there: on top of a mountain in Argentina. In August. Poised to make my first turns in the untracked snow on either side of me while my friends back home were sweating on hot city streets. The catch was that, first, I had to make it to the top of the Poma lift.

Snowboards do better on chairlifts, but the wind on top was so strong that the operators were closing the uppermost chairlift just as I arrived. The Poma, which is sort of like a T-bar, was the only option left. There were other bad signs. The lift ticket I had spent so much time figuring out where to buy, down in the rain at the base area, was slowly dissolving. Only about half of it was left, clinging to one side of the hand-bent wire that served as a ticket hanger. This despite the fact that it was cold enough up top that the quiet rain had been replaced by stinging little pellets of sleet.

With the Poma disk firmly between my legs, I put my unfettered rear boot down on the board and tried to adjust my center of balance. But riding a Poma on a snowboard is like being pulled up a roaring river on a single water ski with your front foot turned sideways. Trouble loomed just past the fourth tower: The skier in front of me fell on a particularly steep and icy section. She was scrambling to get out of the way when I eased past, pleased to have made it–and then promptly landed on my butt, just like her.

The snow to the side of the track was wind-packed and deep. We shrugged at each other and made our way separately through the chop to the packed slope, which actually wasn’t too bad. I resolved to try again.

And again.

By the third time I fell, the wind had whipped up. Embarrassed to be seen sitting next to the lift, covered in snow, I was nevertheless exhausted and cold, and for a moment I simply sat, wondering just how big a mistake I had made in taking on this sweet-sounding assignment. That very morning I’d felt a thrill at being here in Patagonia, land of Bruce Chatwin and Butch Cassidy–South America’s own Wild West. But now it appeared that I had flown 6,000 miles just to find myself mired in ski conditions far worse than would ever be encountered in my childhood home of Colorado. The week stretched out dismally before me.

As I moped, a young German shepherd with a red bandanna around his neck bounded across the Poma track and up to me, his tail wagging submissively. He was shivering too. I shook the snow out of my glove and patted the dog, which promptly took a seat between my legs, his body half on the board, half on my snowpants–misery loves company.

Cerro Catedral (Cathedral Mountain) at San Carlos de Bariloche (the town’s official name) is Argentina’s premier resort, the largest ski area in South America. With 32 lifts and 1,600 skiable acres, the area is comparable in size to Breckenridge, Colorado. The mountain is actually a 15- to 20-minute drive out of town, something akin to, say, the distance from Aspen to Snowmass. Skiing begins in June here and is usually at its best in July, with spring skiing arriving (and the season concluding) in September. Town and mountain are situated in the heart of Argentina’s lake district, only 40 miles from the Chilean border and on the banks of pristine Lake Nahuel Huapi, the center of a large national park of the same name. Bariloche is a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Buenos Aires, which is itself about ten and a half hours from New York, eight from Miami–but with only an hour’s time difference, a great advantage over east-west flying.

I was there early last August, and the conditions, to quote an instructor I met, were unusually feo (ugly). From the base, on the days you could see anything, the view was mainly of the muddy slopes traversed by the lower lifts; to get within range of snow, you had to go up at least one chairlift. And because the lifts above that seemed subject to constant closure due to high winds, getting on that first lift required a certain leap of faith.

On the other hand, the base area was always slick, and showed that we in North America have been skiing in a world of blinkered commercial possibility. For here, a really free market reigned.

As I walked from the parking lot on my first day, expecting the large main lodge (and integrated corporate oneness) of a typical American base area, I found instead a bazaar. An agglomeration of small buildings, many built of logs, housed nine or ten places to rent skis and snowboards; eight or nine ski-school offices; a juice bar; other bars and restaurants; and a showroom with a new Jeep. Two guys standing near a St. Bernard and her puppy urged me to have my portrait taken, a local radio station broadcast from a trailer, a mobile bank machine dispensed cash from another trailer with a satellite dish, and a guy renting snowmobiles beckoned from one that was firmly ensconced in mud–a vision of hopelessness.

If there was an overarching corporate presence, it was that of Lucky Strike cigarettes, whose red-and-black circular logo emblazoned every café umbrella, seat back, poster, and window. The oddest small structure was a plastic igloo for kids, and the strangest large one was a bustling two-story indoor mall, complete with escalators and palm trees.

My goal was simply a lift ticket.

This was complicated, I knew, by the fact that there were two separate lift companies, each of which offered access to a different part of the mountain. I dutifully followed signpost arrows for información until, quite literally, I ended up at exactly the same muddy intersection where I had started. Finally, I asked. A woman from Brazil, speaking in Spanish and English, explained that the area on the left was called Robles. Its lift tickets cost less (about $25 in peak season). The area on the right, Alta Patagonia, had the fastest, newest lifts, the base area that was actually the indoor mall, and the ski school with snazzy yellow outfits. Tickets there cost about $40. I should be careful not to unwittingly cross from one area to the other (easy to do, she said), because neither area would honor the other’s ticket. You could buy a combined ticket for about $50, but nobody seemed to know where. (A consolidation of the facilities is scheduled for 2003.)

With some misgivings, I bought a ticket at Robles, which was closer. At day’s end, after my Poma experience, I returned there in an aprés-ski frame of mind, confident that I’d earned a warm alcoholic drink. But no place seemed right–I couldn’t find the roaring-fire, snow-bunny scene I was after.

The town of Bariloche is described in out-of-date guidebooks as “picturesque” or as a “village,” and indeed, if you look hard, you can see how it might once have been exactly that. Here and there, hard against the modern multistory concrete, persists the lone lovely wooden house with shutters and a shingle roof, suggesting the dislocated Scandinavian who settled this area and lent the region a European flavor. There’s a clock tower with a tiny door that opens at noon to reveal a slowly revolving carousel with four little statues–a priest, a conquistador, an Indian, a peasant. Architect Alejandro Bustillo, who studied in Paris and Buenos Aires, designed the graceful stone-and-lacquered-beam buildings of the Llao Llao hotel and the park headquarters. But Bariloche has squandered this heritage. A gate on one side of the plaza opens onto Mitre, a long and tacky shopping street of a sort that, with slight variations, can be found all over the world; there is lots of traffic, and, on top of that, there are the Visiting Students.

To the students, most of them in high school, the senior-year Bariloche trip is a national tradition. They are a real presence in town, traveling en masse, wearing identical rented ski suits, and staying in certain hotels from which you may, on Mitre Street, see them leaning out the windows overhead, playing Metallica and hollering to friends at other windows or down on the street. At night, they get very drunk and sing school songs. Rick, a friend who joined me partway into my stay, quipped that if they were to update the clock tower, one of the statues would be of a student holding a bottle of grain alcohol and a pack of Lucky Strikes.

Rick and I had no intention of crossing paths with the students when we decided to attend an event of the misleadingly named Snow Festival. There had already been fireworks and skiing with torches at the ski area and a bicycle race around town; tonight, there was to be the annual crowning of the Chocolate Queen. Chocolate is a very big deal in Bariloche–shops sell it in quantities that might suggest it is some kind of local product, but in fact it is simply beloved. On the official schedule, the coronation was to convene at the plaza, but due to rain it was moved to Bariloche’s top disco, the ByPass.

In the process, we discovered, anyone who was not a student had been secretly disinvited. Lacking the yellow ticket that scores of teens waiting at the doors were clutching in their hands, Rick and I proceeded to a kind of box office, where, by muttering something about needing to cover the event for a big New York magazine, I got us admitted. A runway had been laid out on the main disco floor, and there, over the next two or three hours, to the accompaniment of music and lights, two dozen candidates, all aged about 16 to 18, strutted their stuff, twice, to cheers and catcalls. Their first appearance was in club clothes–mostly hiphuggers and midriff shirts–and their second was in what a restrained person might call “come-hither nightwear,” tiny skirts and boots or heels and little on top.

The next day’s newspaper pictured Her Highness, a crown of chocolate on her head, sitting on a great scale opposite an equal weight of chocolates.

The skiing didn’t improve, but I didn’t give up. A third curse of Bariloche skiing, after the rain and the winds, turned out to be the clouds. They didn’t stop the lifts, but they were so thick that you often couldn’t see the chair in front of you. On one cloudy day, Rick and I chatted almost desperately with Sergio, our sole seat-mate on the wide, six-person Alta Patagonia chair; conversation seemed essential to fighting off the unease of having almost no sensory bearings at all. He said he had grown up in Bariloche but had only learned to ski two years before. His employer, a software company, was headquartered in Utah, and he would love a transfer there but didn’t speak English and thought it unlikely. Argentina’s economy was hugely precarious; his last resort, should everything collapse, would be to emigrate to Italy, which would take back the descendants of its own emigrantes. But he didn’t speak Italian, either, and didn’t think the transition would be easy. His family missed the days of Perón; the president, he said, had been a great friend of the working man and had bought his father a house.

The day was colder than the one before, when even up high it had rained; as a result, the slopes were very rough and icy. We descended to a point where it was finally warm enough that we could get an edge into the slope, and we skied under the Militares lift onto a nice, curvy, contoured run with soft, gradual moguls. A good run at last. The clouds lifted a little, and the day was looking better. We decided to chance a meal at the restaurant near the lift.

Viento Cero (Zero Wind) is, I think, what every ski area needs. Seen from the chairlift, it was an unprepossessing shack with a metal pipe chimney, but everything about it got more interesting the closer you got. The extrawide front door was hand-carved. Inside, instead of the steam bath so many warming houses offer, the air was quite cool, warm only near a pair of woodstoves and an electric floor heater. The custom woodworking extended to the rough-hewn booths, stools, tables, and chairs, and to a fanciful staircase that spiraled downstairs to the washrooms. The floor was stone. The light was almost entirely natural, through large windows. Sergio, Rick, and I ordered a pizza napolitana, a house burrito, and banana licuados. We watched as a pair of instructors, backlit by one of the windows, bent over bowls of soup; the steam from the soup, enhanced by the cool air of the restaurant, mixed with their breath and formed a lovely tableau. The crowd was young and friendly. We followed our meal with coffee that came with a gob of real cream floating on top. I was feeling pretty close to heaven when two guys dressed in Lucky Strike ski coveralls sashayed in. They surveyed the scene and then, looking troubled, conferred with the waitress. She came near us and unplugged the floor heater that had been marginally warming our area; she then plugged in the animated Lucky Strike sign posted anomalously on the wall. The two men looked satisfied and left.

“The Lucky Strike police,” said Rick.

We waited what seemed a decent interval–ten minutes–and then plugged the heater back in.