Two weeks before the official start of the Southern Hemisphere ski season, ski resorts in Argentina's Alta Patagonia are being coated from the sky -- but it's not the kind of dump skiers are looking for. A three-mile long fissure in Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex opened up last Saturday, blocking out the sun and spewing toxic gasses and a plume of ash six miles into the sky.
The gritty volcanic ash is drifting to the east over the Andes into Argentina, and putting a damper on ski preparations. The airport in San Carlos de Bariloche is shut down indefinitely. One of the few main passes between the two countries, Cardenal Samore (running from Bariloche to Osorno, Chile) is also closed with several feet of ash and stones. Visitors have been asked to stay away for the time being.
Bariloche, a city of about 100,000 and Patagonia's most popular tourist destination, was coated with almost two inches of ash, with more expected. Cerro Catedral, the major ski destination in Bariloche, is slated to begin its ski season on June 17. "We are still waiting. At the moment things continue normally and the opening continues to be on June 17," said Sofía Ruiz Guiñazú, spokesperson for Catedral Alta Patagonia. "Bariloche authorities said the volcanic activity decreased. Now it's snowing in Catedral and the forecast tells us there will more snowfall for the rest of the week."
Former pro skier and Whistler local Huere Darquier, now living in Bariloche, gave ESPN Freeskiing a report on the situation in the ski towns. "We got around three to four centimeters of thick ash -- like sand," said Darquier. "Everything looks like that; it's weird, the trees, houses, roads, plants, everything is grey."
The last time Puyehue erupted was in 1960, but Chile's El Chaiten sent a load of fine ash over in May 2008, two months before skiing was to begin.
To the north in Villa La Angostura, home to Cerro Bayo ski resort there is more ash than other ski towns, while San Martin de los Andes, where Chapelco ski area is located and a few more hours more to the north, has yet to see any ash. Seven other airports in southern Argentina are closed, and many domestic and international flights have been suspended from Buenos Aires.
While the Chilean government has so far evacuated almost 4,000 people and is expanding its scope, such measures are not currently expected in Argentina.
Darquier said that locals have stocked up on water, batteries, fuel and other supplies. "Trucks are coming in with food, fuel and stuff regularly although with precaution but all buses coming from Buenos Aires, Neuquen, etc., have been canceled," she said.
"I can't say how it will affect the ski season," Darquier continued. "I think the first snowfalls will come down with some ash probably. Now there is ash suspended in the sky so ... I'm thinking snow."
PowderQuest's David Owen said from Chile that the impact of the ash in the snowpack is likely to be neglible, and the biggest problem will be short term tourism, due to airport closures. "If the eruption stops soon, as some Chilean authorities believe will happen, come July and August, the skiers will come," Owen said. "Skiing in Patagonia is just too good to pass up."
According to Owen, a massive storm is dumping snow in the north, moving over the Andes from Portillo to Patagonia, and the precipitation will help clear the air, as long as the volcano stops erupting, that is.