Skiing, like golf, was not invented for plebeians like me. As with golf, it’s not only the equipment that will set you back a handsome fee. Mere access to soft, snowy slopes for a day comes close to half of what I was earning in Santiago. And there is also the matter of where to stay. Camping is unrealistic, so you either have to shelve out for transport from the nearest town with budget lodging, or bite the bullet and book into that resort hotel, which, let’s face it, is just an overpriced bed and shower (all extras are, it turns out, extra). There are the matters of what to wear, where to eat, how to walk, how to talk and with whom to do so, and when, what telephone to own …
But when journalism is your trade, every now and then you’ll find yourself impersonating the people you write about. Sometimes you’re a French cuisine expert, casually sipping your langoustine bisque as if you’ve done so since infancy. Or you’re a wine connoisseur, fine tuned to differentiate between terroirs and tannins and tastevins. You may even walk in the shoes of a fashionista, confidently preferring a Gucci scarf over a Prada shawl.
Sometimes as a journalist, you have the dubious honour of walking among the privileged, the blue bloods, the sophisticated clans of the world and hope that for just one hour or just one day, everyone around you will mistake your R20 knockoff sunglasses for a pair of Ray Bans. Ray Bans? That’s shooting low.
Of course, you never quite get away with it. If there’s anything this jet set is more skilled at identifying than perfect conditions for nine holes or quick, easy runs, it’s spotting an imposter. But for those few short hours when everyone is wearing the same thing – bulky ski pants and jackets and helmets and goggles, in this case – no one knows what or who you are. And when I went skiing, for a moment no one knew that I am just a normal Afrikaner girl from the platteland who is intimate with sand dunes, not snow banks, who grew up in the rollerskate era when rollerblades were a thing of the space-tech future. But damn, I was good on those skates.
For most Africans, simply rolling around in a small, shallow patch of muddy snow is a life-altering experience. My first and only experience of snow was in South Africa in 1996. I have vivid memories of being holed up in a hotel with my family right at the top of the sprawling Drakensberg mountain range. That winter, the central and eastern parts of South Africa came to a standstill – roads were closed, towns shut down, journalists filed hourly reports on television, helicopters were dispatched to distribute food, panic and awe set in. I’m just grateful that that was the one year my parents decided not to go with the usual camping-in-winter routine. The whole thing lasted about five days, but it was a phenomenon a typical, non-traveling African experiences oh, once in a lifetime.
So imagine what was going through my head when a PR company invited me to the premier ski resort, Valle Nevado, just a hop, skip and a slide from Santiago, as the first real snow of the Chilean winter hit at the end of June. I was beside myself.
Our tenacious driver Kristina had doubts about the viability, nevermind the safety, of making it up the 15 or so hair-raising hairpin bends that lead to the slopes of “the largest skiable domain in South America”. Like the intrepid adventurers that we are, though, come hielo (ice) or high snow banks, we were going up that mountain to ski if it was the last thing we did.
To be honest, I felt that I had had my fair share of adventure way before we even got to the top. It started with just a few snowflakes. Straight away I was a child seeing something for the first time, eyes wide and mouth gaping in wonder. But I had the benefit of adult awareness, so I tried to look everywhere at once, to absorb every sound. It was deafeningly quiet out there as the snow intensified.
The terrain changed from brown and green to white at an alarming rate as we crawled up the winding road. An endless expanse of snow to the left and the right. Glaring sun making depth perception a challenge, to say the least. A winter wonderland. A fairy tale. And we had our very own Snow White moment when roughly seven Brazilians ahead of us took out their snowboards to clear a snowbank so that the cars queuing up behind us could pass a truck that had gotten inconveniently wedged between one side of the slippery road and another, blocking traffic.
It was a pretty scary ride up there and we spun out several times, chains on the wheels or no. Many hopefuls were turning back. Kristina was a machine. We all had white knuckles.
There was a young couple with me on the trip, a journalist from the UK and her fiancé, both of whom were terribly posh and terribly excited, dahling to warm up their “ski legs”. I liked them, I swear, even though it was terribly obvious that they had temporarily sacrificed Pimms and polo for Santiago’s smog and snow. They saw right through me and I have never felt quite so platteland.
It was bloody cold when we stepped out at the hotel, 3000m above sea level – my brochure said -9 degrees Celsius (minimum and maximum) but any potential discomfort was quickly drowned out by an intense excitement. Not just my own, but also that of the scores of skiers and snowboarders who had rushed at the chance to take advantage of the great powder of the weekend.
I gazed out over the vast network of ski-lifts and runs, totally weird and new to me – tomorrow I would be on those lifts, wearing skis, perhaps even skiing. It was literally something I had never seen and definitely something I never thought I’d do.
The altitude got me, bad. Real bad. Everything was going groovy after we checked in, had a great lunch, a little nap. Then at the bar that evening I had a pisco sour and things started going south very quickly. Within 30 minutes of sitting down at the bar I was back in my room, pale and shaking and throwing up and cold and hot in turn with the constant background noise of a skull-splitting headache. Fun!
I was fine the next day, so I am not too nervous about hitting the mega-altitudes of Bolivia. A Bolivian gave me some great advice – no eating in the evening, lots of water, no alcohol, stick to yoghurt.
There I was the next morning, nervous and waiting for the two-hour crash course in skiing to start. My coach could not have been kinder or more patient, though, and his enthusiastic encouragement made me feel like was a total natural. “Muy bien!” (very good) he would exclaim, “Ahora, sonreír” (now, smile). And I did. Inside and out.
After our lesson I was so emboldened that I went around and around the baby runs on my own as many times as I could. And I only fell once: Right before getting on the ski lift, right in front of scores of waiting skiers. Getting up from a fall on skies is an ordeal, to say the least, and of course I declined help from the anonymous hands and arms reaching down to me, but I took comfort in the anonymity provided by the ski goggles – good thing that with all that gear you’re pretty unrecognizable later in the common rooms and restaurants.
I guess this is how ski resorts work, then? Bars and restaurants and spas and gyms and movie theatres and slopes. People come for days and weeks on end, and I really do get it. Skiing is thrilling. The gliding, the puffiness of falling, the speed. I believed I was going very fast until I saw this video:
I do regret forgetting my swimsuit (Who in their right mind would take a bikini to a ski resort? Everyone except me, it turns out). This heated outdoor pool is where I would have opted to spend my second night.
I say I only fell once, but that is not entirely true. After lunch, I was keen to do some more skiing. I was going very slowly earlier in the day, but now I found myself on a considerably longer run and I thought, ‘Let’s see how fast this puppy can go!’
That’s when the trouble started. I could barely stay up when I wasn’t actively slowing down, so too many times to count I found myself wobbling and yelping, which was inevitably followed by falling flat on my bum. But all was not lost.
After all, an African is happy just rolling around on a small patch of sleet. So imagine how content I was, on my back on a sunny day, on a gorgeous wing of the Andes that was covered in the finest, puffiest snow as far as the eye could see.
A crowning moment
Driving out of Valle Nevado and back down to Santiago, blue skies and white everywhere else, I saw a big black blotch in the sky. At first I dismissed it. Doubted my own eyes. But as it came closer there could be no doubt about what I was seeing: The mystical bird, the king of the Andes. A soaring condor, giant wings only moving for the occasional, powerful, lazy flap, solitary and mythical and iconic and coming out of hiding, I thought, just to remind me how charmed this life is.