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Skiing 'The Needles'

Listed under Skiing in Cuyo, Argentina.

  • Photo of Skiing 'The Needles'
  • Photo of Skiing 'The Needles'
  • Photo of Skiing 'The Needles'
  • Photo of Skiing 'The Needles'
Photo of Skiing 'The Needles'
Photo by flickr user Andre Charland
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Observing the weather from the Plaza Hotel in Esquel it appeared it was going to be a nasty day. After experiencing the mountain in a full fury of wind and snow the day before, today looked as if the mountain would be shut down. Thick clouds blanketed the valley and strong, gusty Patagonian winds swirled dust and paper in the streets. Although I am not one to shy away from weather, skiing by brail in milk jug conditions is a not my idea of a good time. Fortunately my guests Jim Cherry, Michael Mack, and Fernando Pereria were just the group of folks who wanted to go have a ‘look’ regardless of the ongoing unpleasantness in town.

We packed the van with a carefree, ‘hope it works out’ attitude and headed up the 13 clicks to La Hoya. Soon after climbing the steep switchbacks, we broke out of the clouds and realized we were about to be treated to a bluebird day. The wind was not whipping the flags at the base area much and yesterdays storm deposited a fresh covering of miniature-sized lottery balls of dry Andean powder. La Hoya receives some of the lightest and driest powder in all the Andes and with the right wind grooming can deposit copious amounts of snow in its protected couloirs.

Giggling with anticipated excitement the 4 of us rode the lift together scouting the conditions in the ‘needles’ chutes, the area I particularly wanted to guide them to. Getting to spend time with a guy like Jim Cherry is inspirational and exemplifies why skiing/snowboarding is a lifetime sport. Jim is 77 and owned a pair of skis for 72 years. His drive to keep it going is infectious and we all marvel in his ability to charge. Last year with skis on his back he ascended the 4 hours to Chile’s Volcan Villarica and preceded to carve up the 3000 vertical feet below. Jim may be exceptional but he shows us skiing is a sport enjoyed at different levels for a lifetime.

Michael and Fernando are pretty impressive themselves. Both in great shape and full of ski energy, they embody the saying that today’s 50 year olds are like the last generations’ 40 year olds, in fact I would put these two up against many of my 30 year old friends. Like Jim, their spirit for being on the mountain is contagious.

Sitting on the chair together with approximately a combined 222 years on this planet we acted in delight as if we had 22 by what was unraveling before our goggled eyes. Town was still shrouded over in a thick grayness and La Hoya was carpeted in fresh powder, beneath azul skies, and nearly empty.

The ride to the top of La Hoya involves 3 lifts and a short sidestep to its extended bowl ridgeline. From this traverse there are options galore. We had one mission in mind and that involved our group getting first tracks down the ‘needle’ couloirs. So we cruised along the ridgeline and eventually contoured into the ‘needles’ entrance. Due to their southerly aspect and general protection from blasting winds, the ‘needles’ collects, holds and preserves snow exceptionally. In combination with this vital aspect location the ‘needles’ are aesthetically gorgeous. With piercing jagged shark’s teeth poking out the snow and a continuous 37 to 42 degree pitch stretching a good 800 meters below, the ‘needles’ are stunning to the eye. With 3 main couloirs and a plethora of other nooks and cranies to poke into the terrain options are incredibly engaging.

I dropped in to make a ski cut and position myself to capture the guys on video. Without hesitation Jim followed and steadily made his turns down the steepest part of the line. Michael Mack dove in next and took the line all the way down. Skiing with Michael over the last couple of years it was awesome to see him so fluid and taking his fall line in one continuous gulp. Fernando then leap frogged with Jim, both making solid turns throughout the chute and around the piercing rocks.

Stoked watching these guys lay down fresh tracks and feeling the vibe, I decided to poke into a narrow corridor with a nice straight line. Screaming with speed out of the hallway and hollering in full-blown excitement, I came into the open pitch making gigantic rooster tails in my wake. We gathered at the base of the ‘needles’ looking up to admire our doings. Filled with a wild energy and an age irrelevant feeling of stokage there was no uncertainty on where our next run would be. We still had more fresh ‘needles’ to attack. With big shit eating grins we rallied to the base lift, rode up laughing, our minds’ video players replaying our lines and envisioning which needle to get after next.

Our second helpings were just as pleasurable. We skied the skiers’ left side of the ‘needles’ and were gifted with virgin tracks as latecomers riding the base lift watched with jealousy. Forever this day will be a gift I shared with Jim, Michael, and Fernando. One of those days that brings you together in a shared experience and provides a lifetime memory.

(August 24th, 2007)

Written by  Dave Johnson.

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