Feature: The Rocky Road To Chile's Ski Arpa
By Brigid Mander | September 28th, 2011
In 1982, during a flight over the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, Anton Sponar spotted something that caught his eye. It was a bad drought year in the central cordillera of the Andes, but from the plane Sponar spotted a swath of peaks and bowls blanketed in snow.
Sponar, who goes by Toni, inquired about the land and discovered it was for sale for $5,000 — the exact amount of money the Austrian-born, Aspen, Colo.-based ski instructor had saved. It was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse — a purchase that ultimately became Ski Arpa, the only cat-skiing operation on the continent.
The location posed unique challenges to building your run-of-the-mill ski resort, beginning with “GRINGO GO HOME” signs that appeared all along the road up to Sponar’s mountains. Local farmers put them up in fear they would not be able to graze their animals on the land over the summer, as they had traditionally done. But Sponar settled the issue by writing grazing rights into the land titles.
After Sponar bought the land, he built a rope tow and an A-frame base lodge in ’83. But just a year later, 30 feet of snow fell in four days, causing an avalanche that destroyed the A-frame and blasted the lift with such force that the remnants were never found.
Hard work and long distances forced Sponar to take a break from the project. He went on to raise his family in America until 1999. That year, turning back to his dream, he hired local Chileans to build a couple of small stone buildings nearly flush to the hillside for security against avalanches.
Sponar again used his savings to buy a used snowcat and hired a mechanic in the nearest town — Los Andes — to fix it up. Noting the keen interest in cat-skiing, he shortly got his hands on another used Pisten Bully snowcat with help from some of his clients in Aspen.
Ski Arpa was finally coming together in its own special way: It had uphill transport and a base area for skiers to get geared up and later, après. Sponar’s son Anton, an Aspen-based ski guide, became a part of it, too.
Publicity, however, was an obstacle. No one knew the ski area existed.
Then Brian Pearson of Santiago Adventures saw opportunity and offered to help put the word out about the new operation. The American expat started bringing skiers to mountain — not an easy task.
A steep, gnarly, switch backing, rock-strewn, seemingly never-ending dirt road is the only way to Ski Arpa. The access road just might be one of the toughest lines on the mountain.
Over the last few years, skiers, photographers and film crews have shown up to ride. It’s $225 for four 3,000-vertical foot snowcat runs with a guide and $30 per additional run. Most recently, Ski Arpa hosted the Chilean Freeskiing Championships, the second stop of the 2011-12 Freeskiing World Tour.
In addition to the snowcats, Ski Arpa lets you tour all over the mountain on your own. You can stay in the recently built refugio — which operates in a bring-your-own-food-beer-sleeping-bag-style — for $35 a night. Some of the massive, powder-filled terrain is for touring only, so you are not fighting for lines with the snowcat — not a bad deal, not at all.
After ten years and rising visibility in the ski world, the Ski Arpa crew is looking toward the future. The mountain plans to bring slightly improved on-hill lodging and another snow cat.
“We don’t totally plan to stay very small,” Sponar said. “But until then, we are OK with staying the course with what we are doing.”
- Brigid Mander
For more, visit skiarpa.com and santiagoadventures.com
Location: Chile Keywords: Ski Snowboard Resort Features Backcountry Features Travel