Los Penitentes is small. A collection of hotels and condos and restaurants on the side of Highway 7 between the Chilean border and Mendoza, it’s humble enough that if you’re driving fast and blink, you’re probably going to miss it. The more observant might slow down, notice an old double chairlift climbing out of the base and then mash the go-pedal as they head on to the more popular—and glamorous—destinations of Las Lenas and Bariloche.
Even if you stop to take a second look you might just be tempted to keep on going, The restaurants don’t take credit cards, there’s no ATM, and many of the accommodations are privately owned, their windows shuttered against the icy winds that blow down from the heights of the Andes.
But if you take a third look you’ll start to see things. Perhaps you’ll notice that above that creaking chairlift, there’s another that climbs even higher. Or maybe you’ll note the ski touring potential, Or perhaps the crazy couloirs across the valley from the ski area will be filled in and those narrow, sinuous lines will tempt you to stay for a day or two rather than blasting on down the road. Or maybe you’ll end up in this valley on a late August weekend with a posse of friends to check out what is quickly becoming a top level Freeride World Qualifier event, and the experience will blow you away.
South America is no stranger to big mountain competitions. There’s been comps on the Santa Tere zone off of El Colorado, Chile and nearby La Parva has also run events. But the competition at Los Penitentes, now in its second year, is the only event that appears to be putting down roots with an eye to the long run, with a committed crew of organizers led by event founder Kevin Castillo and this year’s co-organizer Fede Bortoni.
But there’s nothing like a bit of experience under your belt or making a few mistakes that you learn from to get your act together. Today, that discordant first year seems to be firmly in the rear-view mirror as this year’s installment is checking all the right boxes, from utilizing the expertise of top level UIAMG Mountain Guides to oversee venues and mountain operations to the addition of Bortoni, who has brought a new focus to the competition with his organization and passion.
“The most important thing is to give the opportunity to the South American riders to be more a part of the Freeride World Tour and to have more of a chance to get to a higher level and to improve,” says Bortoni.
The Penitentes FWQ event seems like it will be the first in South America to do this, with Bortoni and Castillo already talking about locking in 2017 dates. And, in addition to building an annual event in Penitentes that local and regional athletes can count on each season, they’re taking it one step farther, using the experience of putting together the Penitentes competition to organize events at other ski areas in Argentina with 2* FWQ comps at Chapelco and La Hoya in the works for September 2016 and again in 2017.
It’s the start of big things, all made possible by that first funky weekend back in 2015 organized by Castillo. And if he and Bortoni’s plans for the future crystalize, that first step will be a giant leap for freeriding in the Andes, the event that changed everything