NATE MENNINGER: Sitting here, with a laptop that’s not mine on the balcony of a penthouse apartment that overlooks Santiago, Chile, I’m finally starting to realize just how absurd my life is.
As I mentioned in my last post, an American I met in Bariloche, (let’s call him Jim) recently invited me on an expedition to ski in Chile. Jim promised to cover the costs of our sleeper van and only asked that in return I helped him with gas, food, and most importantly driving.
He couldn’t drive manual but I could. Thanks for that Pops.
I seized my first opportunity to shred and bought a bus ticket to Santiago, Chile the following Wednesday. Twenty hours later, we arrived at the rental shop in downtown Santiago.
The fluorescent, Star Wars van Jim rented came complete with a sink, kitchenware, a cooler, three chairs, a camper stove and free blankets! We stuffed as many quilts as we could into the back of our van then shipped out into the city for our first order of business: finding weed.
Now, I don’t smoke – of course, I’ve tried it a few times – but Jim on the other hand did, and he really wanted to get his hands on some Mary Jane for the mountains.
Considering he paid for the van, I had no right to object.
I waited as he texted a number a friend of his in Bariloche had forwarded him. But it wasn’t until five hours later, after navigating the crowded streets of Santiago and struggling to withdraw cash from over 15 ATM’s that we finally found weed.
How, you may ask? Simply put, Jim texted someone who later met us in the city center, got in our neon van, brought us into the ghetto of Santiago (very dangerous), exchanged Jim´s money with a 15-year-old drug dealer, then got back in the van and handed over the weed.
Yea . . . that happened.
With Jim´s weed safely tucked away, we fled the scene and began our journey to Portillo, Chile: a mountain known for its high peaks and difficult terrain. We weaved through the mountain pass of the Andes and arrived around dusk, but after only a glimpse of the ski area, we retreated back to a nearby mini market where we purchased some provisions (sausages and eggs) and set up camp for the night.
That first night in the van wasn’t bad at all: in an empty trucker’s parking lot we enjoyed beers, cookies and of course Jim’s weed. Sleeping was a bit cold but definitely nothing to complain about; it was free. I awoke feeling restored and ready for my first day of snowboarding in almost two
Let’s just say, it took a few face plants before I felt comfortable snowboarding. By lunch, however, I felt my ski legs returned and by the afternoon, I decided that I wanted to ski Portillo’s Super C: one of South America’s most iconic chutes.
I asked around and learned that the hike to Super C consists of an icy 4000-foot climb and a deadly traverse across the mountain ridge. According to the ski-patrol, hikers require either crampons or an ice axe to complete the journey, two tools I’ve never used in my life. Nonetheless, I figured everyone has a first time so why can’t this be mine?
I spent the afternoon searching for someone who’d lend me their tools but found little success. Fortunately, when I asked Jim if we could drive an hour to the nearby town so that I could buy the necessary equipment, he happily agreed.
Around 9 p.m. we settled back into our spot at the trucker’s lot. We cooked sausages, scrambled eggs and drank a few more beers, but instead of hitting the hay like usual, I took an extra hour to prepare my equipment. With Jim’s help, I attached my newly purchased ice axe and crampons to my bag which already contained water, two pre-made sandwiches, a helmet, my snowboard and various other essentials.
Nothing could stop me now.
I began my hike at 8 a.m. and arrived at the highest lift within half an hour. I handed the lift attendant a beer in exchange for a free lift, but halfway up the rickety T-bar I hit a lump in the snow and fell over. Not cool.
I wiped off the accident, unstrapped my board, and continued on by foot. Strangely though, the guides who I was told to meet at 9:30 were nowhere in sight.
Then I realized why.
10 minutes later, the ski patrol found me and explained that the Super-C was closed because of an approaching storm. No guides were summiting and they strongly suggested I too turn around.
To be honest, I don’t think I was ready for it anyways, but at least now I have an ice axe and crampons for my next adventure!
Unfortunately, the approaching three-foot snowstorm would shut down the mountain pass for two weeks, and since Jim had a bus to catch in 5 days, staying was not an option. Luckily, we rerouted our destination to La Parva, a ski area only a few hours south with a similar forecast and guaranteed passage.
We arrived at La Parva that afternoon and grabbed a beer in a nearby restaurant. There, we met Cristian, a well-mannered Chilean man who told us that Valle Nevado, another ski area only 4 miles away, was bigger, better and had room to camp.
So, we shipped out yet again.
As we began our dinner ritual of sausages and eggs in the parking lot of Valle Nevado, a red pickup truck whipped up beside us. Out jumped four men, two dressed in soccer jerseys and two in green uniforms. They approached us and instinctually I offered them a beer. That was not a good idea however, because while the soccer jersey guys were hitchhikers, the other two men were police officers.
They starred at the crazy stencil of Yoda and Darth Vader on our van and immediately assumed we were outlaws. First, they asked if we were drinking. We said no. Then they demanded our passports, drivers’ licenses and other details. We complied. Finally, a third man arrived in another pickup and asked us if we had cocaine.
As you can imagine, we were thoroughly scarred.
Eventually, the police forced us to relocate to a different parking lot, which in reality was just a dirty turn off from the mountain pass. The police told us that if we left the spot, they would arrest immediately. So with no other option, we hunkered down and buried ourselves within the warmth of our blankets. For hours the wind howled against our van and rocked us back and forth. Needless to say, the next morning we returned to La Parva, and what a good decision that was.
Over the next 24 hours, La Parva received nearly three feet of fresh snow, which would have been a dream come true had it not been for a massive enveloping cloud of fog.
Imagine closing your eyes but instead of seeing black, you see white. Nothing but pure white. There are no trees, no rocks and no people to contrast the snow; only the sensation of floating on smoke can guide you.
And if you can’t follow that well then you end up
skiing straight into a wall like I did. Still, even though I was drenched in snow, I felt terrible leaving the powder behind, so I stuck at it as long as I could.
In the early afternoon I found myself snowboarding beside two skiers.
“I can’t see shit.” I yelled.
“Follow us.” They hollered back.
They took me off the trail, over cliffs and into back bowls, and while I never saw more than they’re black jackets, I loved every second. The snow felt like heaven: a heaven that made your legs really sore, but a heaven nonetheless.
At the end of the day, they asked if I wanted to come over to their ‘Refugio’ to relax, and without hesitation I said yes. Any opportunity to escape the cold was a gift.
To my surprise, their Refugio was the exact opposite of what I expected. Instead of a 40-person hut, what awaited me was a million-dollar apartment with heated floors, direct slope access, a cleaning lady and an extremely kind family.
They fed me lunch and offered me my first shower in a week. Then, we played Super Smash Bros for hours and when dinner arrived we baked the most elaborate cake I’ve ever seen in my life. Just as I was leaving, the mom even offered me a bed to sleep in and breakfast the following morning.
As much as I wanted to accept her offer, I felt bad leaving Jim alone in the van. Plus, I had an allegiance to the force (Star Wars reference).
I snowboarded with the brothers again the next day and enjoyed clearer skies and untouched powder fields. When I got back to base camp around 5 p.m. and joined Jim for a beer, a text message from Cristian, the well-mannered Chilean from earlier, awaited me.
When I met him Cristian he asked what my plans were after La Parva, so I told him the truth: I had none. He told me that if I wanted to stay in Santiago for a bit, he had some extra space available. I insisted to pay for the room but he refused my offer. In fact, he corrected me and said ‘its not a room, it’s an apartment. Theres a bed….kitchen…..refrigerator…’
Turns out, Cristian is perhaps the nicest man in the world. He has not only given me sanctuary in an unoccupied, Santiago penthouse apartment on the 21st floor of a 22nd floor building, but he also been a great friend.
At this point, I honestly believe that while a free place to stay and a hot shower can put a smile on anyone’s face, what becomes infinitely more valuable and therefore unforgettable are the everlasting bonds you form with the people you meet along the way.
With two people offering me free board, one a free van and several others free meals; I can honestly say I’ve met some amazing people.
For that reason, I want to personally thank Gerardo, Cristian, Kat, Mike, Julian, Juan, Evan and many more to come.
I’ll check back with you in a week but so far I’m in love with Santiago. Yesterday at noon, Cristian took me out for a coffee at Café con Piernas or Coffee with Legs. He insisted that it was like a Hooters, but in reality it was just a flat our strip club. The only difference: the girls weren’t dancing and you could only order coffee…Gotta love Chile.
Live Without Limits,