WORDS: Matías Ricci
The clock strikes 7:52 a.m. The night winds subside and the last stars fade into the emerging blue sky. The first beams of the rising sun sprout between majestic peaks covered with white gold. The silhouette of Cerro Las Leñas draws itself inside my eye’s retina with hypnotizing grandeur. Mountainous shapes take shape in this corner of Mendoza, Argentina. The explosion of avalanche bombs is music to my ears, and I can hear the sound of metals and bearings colliding as chairlifts start to roll. The Las Leñas valley has come to life, meaning another day in paradise is just about to begin.
While I prepare my morning mate, more than a ritual for us Argentinians, I check the snow report closely and take a deep look at the forecast. Weather can be very tricky at these high altitudes, and a clear sky may turn into a furious storm with the blink of an eye. Wind gusts can reach speeds higher than 90 miles per hour, relocating snow from one face of the mountain to the other like condors gliding from peak to peak. Hopefully, there will be no wind today, and that means that the iconic Marte chairlift could open. And in Las Leñas, if the Marte chairlift is open, then that means it may possibly be the best day of your life.
I step outside, shoulder my skis and walk to the base of the ski resort. I carry essential backcountry tools with me—an airbag backpack with skins, water, some food and, of course, my beacon, shovel and probe. It’s a short walk; Las Leñas’ town, if we can call it that, is tiny. There are a few hotels and apartments, a small hostel, some restaurants, a rudimentary but reliable supermarket and… that’s pretty much it.
Along my way, I encounter a variety of people. Charly, a bus driver in town for many years, waves at me with an indelible smile on his face. On the other side of the street, Sophie and her dad, John—both of them ski instructors—hurry up in an effort to avoid being late to work. Kids do what they can, clomping toward the lift wearing their ski boots, and first-time skiers struggle until exhaustion hits trying to find a practical way to carry their skis. Everyone is cordial and friendly. There’s something magical about this place… the positive atmosphere can be felt everywhere.
The base of Las Leñas ski resort stands at 7,350 feet above sea level. Its top, on the other hand, rises to over 11,250 feet, making the quality of the snow superlative in terms of dryness. The entirety of the ski area lies above the treeline.
The hands of my watch now point to 25 minutes past 8 a.m. I start my day with a warm-up run on Ceñidor, one of the easiest, yet most classic off-piste runs in Las Leñas. It’s a steep, 1,000-foot long, huge, wide wall with no obstacles at all, that delivers big sensations. I end up at the bottom of Neptuno chairlift, where I meet my buddy Eugene. The Neptuno lift is our access key to Marte. Now, the day is really about to begin.
We hop on Neptuno, which moves slower than a pregnant turtle, as a friend of mine would say. We’re inside a huge canyon, surrounded by gigantic cliffs that make it shadowy and cold. After several minutes, I see it. Imposing and intimidating. Massive and majestic. Unique and unmistakable. It would be a lack of respect if I wouldn’t call it exactly what it is: a stairway to heaven. Or the Marte chairlift—to me, they are synonymous.
Every feature of Las Leñas derives its namesake from either Greek or Roman Gods. In Spanish, “Marte” translates to Mars: The God of War. It’s a fitting name, as it accesses some truly consequential terrain. Regardless, we hop on. Just sitting here, hanging on a cable supported by columns screwed into the rocks forming an angle of 45 degrees with the valley, and feeling the wind scream like a banshee at full song, makes the ride an adventure itself. It’s surreal.
We disembark the Marte chairlift and ski a few feet till we reach the short, but necessary Iris poma, which gets us to the very top of the resort. Once on the summit, I take a minute to contemplate the immensity of the bordering mountains; I’ll never get tired of the Andes. From this place, there’s access to an unimaginable amount of out-of-bounds lines—210 to be precise—and most of them are registered and detailed by legendary skier and mountaineer Thomas Perren in his book, Thomas Maps. The options are endless; not for nothing, people tend to call Las Leñas the ski resort where you can heli-ski from a chairlift, referring to Marte. Las Leñas offers simple access to some of the most extreme skiing on the planet, featuring chutes, cliffs, canyons, steeps and more.
It’s 9:27 a.m. We decide to hit the dazzling cornice of Cerro Martin, the 11,900-foot, gargantuan rock formation that stands in front of us. The hike takes us around 35 minutes. A 50-degree eastern face filled with wind-blown powder makes every single turn worth the hike. We ski all the way down to the Marte chair and take another ride up. What a way to start our day.
Back on our “heli-chair,” we discuss what our next line will be. Next to Cerro Martin are other iconic and monstrous peaks, offering dozens of breathtaking runs each. Cerro Entre Ríos (12,460 feet) is the closest one. A little bit further are the enchanting Cerro Torrecillas and Cerro Negro. Behind them, Cerros Ponce I and II. All of them can be accessed from the crest of the Marte chairlift. Getting to the top can take between two and four hours of skinning or climbing, depending on the chosen line. If we were looking for something closer and more straightforward, we could head to Cerro El Collar—certainly a vintage descent.
We arrive at the summit, but we can’t agree on what to ski. Eduardo Couloir is probably the most famous run in Las Leñas, named that way in honor of Eduardo Gutierrez, an instructor who lost his life skiing there in August 1986. It is long, technical and fun. We don’t have to walk, climb or skin to get to its entrance. And… it ends at the bar. However, we postpone it. We have plenty of choices; don’t forget the fact that there are more than 200 out-of-bound itineraries in Las Leñas.
I look into my friend’s eyes and despite our polarized goggles, we know what each other is thinking: Mercurio always delivers. We adjust our boots and take off. First, a flat and bizarre section of skiing at an altitude of more than 11,200 feet that constitutes the gateway to this line. Then, a narrow, sometimes tricky, steep entrance that opens the way to an amusement park: 4,000 vertical feet of pure freeskiing. We descend all the way down to the base of the resort and decide to take a break to soothe our heavy legs. It’s been a formidable morning.
We enter Condor Point, the best on-mountain restaurant in the resort, we sit outside under the sun and order two cold beers. We raise our eyes and look at the towering mountains we have just skied. Our tracks are still there, as proof for those who may query our accounts. But our morning’s achievements are merely adornments in the expansiveness of the Andes. Skiing in Las Leñas offers a simple reminder of how tiny we are, and how fleeting our passage through Earth is. The scale and beauty of the mountains provide an opportunity to expand outside of our comfort zones; skiers who visit here often leave with perpetual, mighty memories of surpassed fears, unprecedented emotions, unparalleled joy, unwavering friendships and everlasting moments of happiness. And that’s what skiing is all about.