Skiing with giants in Patagonia – and why it’s worth the high price

To truly experience the corners or Patagonia, you need a ‘thirst for adventure and a healthy bank balance’ – Jamie Weeks

There is a game that only the minority of skiers get to play in their lives. It’s called “cross-country skiing, name a run”. And there I was, hitting the jackpot on my first roll of the dice.

Staring back at the ribbon I had carved on a trackless white canvas surrounded by the sawtooth peaks of the Andes, I pondered my oddity and exactly how a self-confessed average skier could find herself among the giants in one of the most precious deserts on the planet, now with man. first descent of her name.

Skiing in the most remote corners of Patagonia strikes people as the realm of ski movie stars – and for the most part, it is. The region, which encompasses more than 400,000 square miles of Chile and Argentina, is among the most inaccessible corners of the planet. It stretches from the southern tip of the Andes mountains, bounded by lakes, fjords, rainforests and glaciers and flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. To experience the truly untouched corners, you need a thirst for adventure and a healthy bank balance.

The region’s name derives from the word patagón, which may have been first used by Spanish explorers to describe the indigenous tribes they believed to be giants. Long skiing is possible in a commercial center close to major cities (Portillo, 90 miles from Santiago; Cerro Catedral, 12 miles from Bariloche). But now the furthest reaches of this vast playground, home to some of the world’s last trackless mountains, are accessible to skiers who want to explore further – no expert experience required.

From its off-the-grid outpost, Eleven Rio Palena Lodge, operator Eleven Experience continues its once-in-a-lifetime heli-skiing adventures. Founded by American couple Chad and Blake Pike, the company has 13 properties worldwide, and the duo’s concept of “taking it to 11” defines the entire experience. Thanks to that notion, I was in their company for less than 48 hours and I was pushed past every limit I thought possible.

As my first flight descended at sunrise toward Santiago, the Andes rippled like waves across the horizon. From the capital of Chile, my route continued to the coastal hub of Puerto Montt, from where the onward journey, on an eight-seater prop plane, revealed the first glimpse of the adventure ahead. As we headed towards the Palena airstrip and our final destination at the lodge, we flew over snow-capped volcanoes and past rugged peaks that dropped into dense forests.

Rio Palena Lodge, PatagoniaRio Palena Lodge, Patagonia

Eleven Rio Palena Lodge hosts traditional barbecues in the outdoor Asado area – Experience Eleven

Spread over three floors, the seven-bedroom property sits in a secluded spot on the banks of the Palena River. Arriving in the southern hemisphere spring – the heli-ski season operates from September to October – I found the surrounding 35 acres of land green and bursting with wildlife.

Inside, the sleek interior was a luxurious blend of modern amenities and cozy aesthetics. There were polished wooden floors, native stone fireplaces and bookshelves full of copies National Geographic, ski literature and bird spotting guidebooks – but since this is a five-star adventure lodge, there was also an equipment room with all the toys needed for a week of exploration, a wood-fired hot tub, an outdoor Asado area to hosting traditional barbecues and a huge terrace overlooking the Milky Way. And, parked up on the lawn, two gleaming helicopters.

Heli Ski PatagoniaHeli Ski Patagonia

Heli-skiing is the best way to explore the mountains of Patagonia – Experience Eleven

“Try not to let the helicopter take your energy, try to relax and don’t try to control the things you can’t do,” was Mike Barney’s first advice to me and my colleagues helicopters at an afternoon safety briefing. We were shown videos on how to approach the machine (slowly, from the front half), how to huddle as it descends (crouch down, eyes up) and how to board (steadily when signalled). Skiing was the next thing to be expected – and my anxiety about not having the technical skills to keep up scared me.

“People think heli-skiing is extreme, but there is something for everyone. We’re not jumping out of helicopters,” Barney asserted. “It can be overwhelming, but we slow down down here.”

The next morning I was up with the birds to watch our pilots prepare their machines. After breakfast, it was straight to the equipment room to fit our harnesses (crucial when skiing over icy terrain) and magnet safety gear, while the guides loaded our skis and lunch supplies. We walked through a demonstration of the helicopter etiquette we had learned and then tested our equipment. Nerves settling, it was time to take off.

The lawn of the lodge fell as we ascended from the tranquility of the valley. The one before us was the most impressive landscape I had ever seen – more expansive and denser with peaks than the Alps, closer to the drama of the Himalayas. As our pilots passed through the rock tower of Las Tres Monjas (the three nuns), my heart skipped a beat. The slopes below us ranged from steep couloirs to rolling glaciers and winding white blankets. From their base at the lodge, the Eleven team have a total of 2.3 million acres of land to survey – the sheer scale means there’s terrain to suit all abilities.

“We’re exploring here, that’s what really excites me,” Barney said. “Flying over new ridges into new areas and discovering ski terrain, we’re mapping it all.” And that’s when the game begins.

For someone who has spent his life on the groomed, crowded pistes of the Alps, skiing on virgin snow, on unexplored mountains is a different experience. Barney set out ahead and I eagerly followed. A soft layer of spring powder allowed my skis to flow, at my own pace, down the side of the mountain.

Lucy Aspen on the first helicopter run, PatagoniaLucy Aspen on the first helicopter run, Patagonia

Lucy on the slopes in Patagonia

The slope was wide and the gradient was no steeper than a red Alpine run. ​​​​​​I gained confidence with each turn, trying to take it into account as I approached you, listening to the voices of enjoyment from the group behind me. I laughed out loud in disbelief and the sound echoed off the surrounding mountains. I was doing it – heli-skiing – and it wasn’t difficult or scary: it was pure euphoria.

I fist pumped the air as I calmly carved to a stop next to Barney and the waiting helicopter, having dropped 600m. Looking back, I could clearly see the line I wanted to trace. “It’s yours,” said my guide. “We’ve never skied that one before – now you’re the first.” My body buzzed with feel-like endorphins.

True to the ethos of Eleven, the following days delivered more of the same sensory overload. After tackling six bogies on our first day, we picked up the pace to bag eight on our last – exploring areas mapped by our guides including runs named Schnitzel, Hung Jury and Excalibur. Barney estimated that we had found six new descendants for his team to record and rate future guests. Only in the untouched Himalayas, or in the remote regions of Georgia, can skiers have comparative exploration.

Each run had its own characteristics – from steep and thigh burning to rolling and relaxed – and each day included lunch in the park, sitting on ledges reached on the snowpack using our shovels, feasting on pre-packed meals and 360 views. degree. One evening we collected a loose block of glacial ice from our picnic spot, and used it that evening in the Pisco sours with which we toasted the success of our exploration.

Patagonia didn’t just give big adrenaline kicks on the slopes. When the weather stopped the skiing, the helicopters flew us to the Eleven river camp for a day of rafting on the Futaleufú River (translated as “big water”, the river starts in Los Alerces National Park in Argentina and down through Patagonia). Other excursions included an après in the natural hot springs of La Junta, harpooning on the Palea and proceeding through dense, fake forests to the base of the thundering El Tronador waterfall.

Rafting Experience, PatagoniaRafting Experience, Patagonia

The group went to Eleven river camp for a day of rafting on the Futaleufú River – Eleven Experience

By the end of my week among the giants in Patagonia, my life had exploded with experiences for the first time. But there was one final challenge – what should I name my run? “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” I informed Barney. “A little British stamp on this huge playground, and an ode to the greatest ski holiday ever.”


Eleven Experience (001 970 315 7625; offers heliskiing at Eleven Rio Palena Lodge from 15 September to 31 October 2024. Prices start from £12,543 per night, based on a minimum group size of three, with includes guided helicopter. skiing, equipment, full program including drinks, transfers and assistance with pre-arrival planning. Return flights from London to Santiago with British Airways (0344 493 0787; cost from £780, onward flights to Puerto Montt from £120 with LATAM (0800 026 0728;

Lucy was a guest on Eleven Experience

The best ski resorts in South America for summer snow

When the ski season ends in Europe and North America, these southern slopes are starting to open.


Portillo is one of the most famous ski resorts in Chile, offering slopes up to 3,310m. The resort has 35 runs for various ability levels, but many skiers and snowboarders head for the off-piste terrain. The distinctive banana-yellow Grand Hotel Portillo sits on the shores of Laguna del Inca, high in the Chilean Andes.

Nevada de Chillan

Located a six-hour drive south of Santiago, the Nevados de Chillán ski area sits atop three active volcanoes – Nevados de Chillán, Chillán Nuevo and Chillán Vejo. Located at an altitude of more than 3,000m, the longest run in South America, the 13-kilometer long “La Tres Marias”, is the home resort.

Cerro Catedral

Cerro Catedral is the largest ski resort in Argentina. Just over 12 miles from the city of Bariloche, which serves as the base for most visitors, the ski area overlooks Lake Nahuel Huapi and offers views of the Andes. The resort has 53 runs of varying difficulty.

Las Lenas

Despite a relatively small lift system (only 10), the ski terrain in Las Lenas in Argentina is over 43,200 acres, full of steep slopes and rocky cliffs – not for the faint of heart.


The Malalcahuello National Reserve in Southern Chile is home to the smaller, Spanish-owned resort of Corralco. The resort has one of the longest ski seasons in Chile and is surrounded by a thousand-year-old Araucaria forest.

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