Greeting Santa Rosa

Responsibility sort of happens to you. Or, at least it did me–when I wasn't looking or something. But I was always looking. It comes up on you like that old hitchhiker cliché: a girl on the side of the road flashes some leg, sticks out her thumb, and you pull over. Who wouldn't? The blond (or, if you're in South America, the brunette) in cut-off jeans or better yet, lace-up leather pants, climbs in and you're set. But as you come to a stop on the shoulder, you don't notice the two hicks scrambling out of the bushes and hopping into the back of your truck.

What you see is not always what you get, and while you're seduced by things like steady paychecks, more stability, and a nicer pad, other factors–those two guys in the back–are often included without you knowing it. You take less chances, act on fewer whims, and slowly forget about the dreams that, until you picked up that hitchhiker, shaped your whole life.

Seasons go by in which you ride a little less–even miss a few powder days–but make a bit more money. It gets harder to find a friend to rally with; there's always something–the girlfriend or boyfriend back home, the home itself. But there comes a point where each of us has to make a choice. You either embrace the fact that those clowns in the bed of the pickup come with the package–that for almost every possession comes two parts responsibility–or you dump that hitchhiker at the next truck stop and hit the gas.

* * *

On a one-hour commuter flight to Mendoza, Argentina, the taste of pizza starts crawling up the back of my throat–pepperoni and cheese from the Miami airport a full twelve hours earlier. With every flavorful burp, another bite revisits. Looking for a steady horizon, I grope for a barf bag. How could there be no barf bags on this flight? I always make a point of not eating before the over-the-Andes Alive stint of the trip, and didn't have breakfast for just this reason. But still I'm on the verge.

Safely on the ground in Mendoza I meet Marco, a French rider whose passport reads “Chamonix-Mont Blanc” on the place-of-birth line. We travel the rest of the way to Las Leñas and end up rooming together in the resort's own house of ill-repute, La Resedencia Dos–a hangar-like bunkhouse usually reserved for employees.

Saturday, 9/4/99: Snowing–hard. And windy. Gusting flurries and no visibility at all. Around midday I saw a weakness in Santa Rosa's armor. The clouds lifted and broke into a hole. It was a mystical, Himalayan scene. High peaks with sifted powder. Partly veiled in a lingerie mist–what you can't see even more alluring. Cars are buried. When they bomb, the blasts echo through the valley.

Las Leñas lies at the end of the road in a broad, three-sided valley a thousand miles across la pampa from Buenos Aires, on the western edge of Argentina. I arrive just ahead of “Santa Rosa”–Argentina's annual version of El Niño. In a few days, no one will be able to come or go from the village.

Santa Rosa usually appears around the first week of September. As temperatures warm into the springtime range, she stockpiles storm clouds against the mountains, enough to last for days and weeks.

Sunday, 9/5/99: It's windy. Can't tell if it's snowing now or blowing snow. The village is buried, six feet deep in spots where a week ago there was dirt. You should hear the wind … that and the bombs–in the morning it's like thunder.

Dropped off some laundry today, four pesos a kilo. Dinner at Innsbruck–our local digs and the closest thing to a base lodge– consists of a jamon y queso sandwich and fries. No one around. You almost can't go outside.

&;I've seen Santa Rosa before, otherwise I wouldn't buy into it. I've sat through her ten days on these exact dates in years past. At first, it's a blow not being able to ride, especially as I'm counting down the days I have left. But after settling into a rhythm, there's satisfaction enough just being part of a storm like this, witnessing it and walking in it.

Monday, 9/6/99: Uneventful day, aside from the 100-year storm. This guy from Idaho keeps saying, “It's the last great storm of the century, man.” Woke to blazing wind, another blizzard. Not a break all day. The village is a burrow, the first floor's gone. Tunnels and neon lights melt through the snow. It's hard to measure, lots of wind. Another low off the coast of Chile.

They've stopped the bombing now–out of detonators or gas or something. Temporarily? It's piling high–fast. Outside Innsbruck it's a snowy wasteland, a white apocalypse. It's up to the top of the light posts around the village. Lighting the pitting torrents. Quilmes cigarette banners snap in the wind. Everything is for sale.

When was the last time I brushed my teeth?

At times the stone buildings of the village, with their red sloped roofs, feel more like tents at a high-altitude base camp. We huddle inside at the mercy of our surroundings, scurrying from building to building for a soccer game on TV here, a meal over there, then maybe a nap. It's amazing how little you can do, even when you have nothing to do.

Charging the discos is an option, but not a very safe one. It's a well-known fact that if you go out, the next day will be sunny, all the lifts will be running, and you'll be asleep. It's a battle we wage every night. Go out and risk it? No, I can see some stars–could be clear tomorrow. And there's no halfway. Once you enter the world of remixed Cher, painted-on pants, and punctuating strobes, you won't be in bed until four or five. For sure.

Wednesday, 9/8/99: Today's kind of a hopeless day. The wind woke me up. It howls and whines. I got a knock on the door. An avalanche. The sky is clearing, but two people are dead. Seems like sorrow is always around joy's corner.

So it is sunny today, but it means nothing. Through the low clouds I could just make out the mangled Poma, the wrecked shack at the top of another lift, and a downed tower on a run named Vulcano. There's been a constant wind of 50 to 100 miles an hour on top, with three to six meters of new snow in ten days.

I wonder if they heard it coming. Why didn't I hear it? You can't hear anything in the wind, and you can't see anything through the blowing snow, even during the day.

Santa Rosa breaks, or at least takes a breather. I've waited it out. I have a whole slew of new friends to ride with, but the avalanche has put everyone on edge, and rightly so. Patrolmen are all eyes, and it's not like anyone really wants to hike around, anyway. It'll take some time for the snow to stabilize. Then, hopefully, we'll get what we all came for–the goods as only Las Leñas can deliver them. That is, if the high lift, Marte, is still standing.

On my eleventh day in Las Leñas, the morning crew assembles at Innsbruck out of habit. A dulce de leche and creme-filled crepe, and we're on the lifts for the first time in a long time. Marte isn't open due to the wind, so we start hiking from the highest point we can get to. There are five of us, from almost as many countries, working a bootpack into the hill.

It's been a long trip, a long wait. From the top, we see more clouds to the west. But for now, for half of a sunny powder morning in September, that hitchhiker–the one in the skintight leather pants–can't hold a candle to what we've got.

an't hold a candle to what we've got.