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

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

There is a game that only a minority of skiers can play in their lives. It’s called “ski a run, call a run”. And there I was, winning the jackpot on my first roll of the dice.

As I stared at the ribbon I had cut into an unruled white canvas, surrounded by sawtooth peaks of the Andes, I reflected on my trophy and how a renowned mediocre skier could have found himself among the giants of one of the world’s most cherished wildernesses. now with a first descent to her name.

Skiing in the remotest reaches of Patagonia strikes people as the domain of ski movie stars – and for the most part, it is. The region, which covers more than 400,000 square kilometers of Chile and Argentina, is among the most inaccessible corners of the planet. It stretches from the southern tip of the Andes Mountains, bordered by lakes, fjords, rainforests and glaciers and flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. To truly experience its unspoilt corners, you’ll need a thirst for adventure and a healthy bank balance.

The region’s name is derived from the word patagón, which may have been first used by Spanish explorers to describe the indigenous tribes they believed to be giants. Skiing has long been possible in the commercial resorts close to the major cities (Portillo, 145 km from Santiago; Cerro Catedral, 19 km from Bariloche). But now the furthest reaches of this colossal playground, home to some of the planet’s last remaining trackless mountains, are open to skiers eager to explore further – with no expert experience required.

From its off-grid outpost, Eleven Rio Palena Lodge, operator Eleven Experience breaks the trail with its unique heli-skiing adventures. Founded by American couple Chad and Blake Pike, the company has thirteen locations around the world, with the duo’s concept of ‘going up to 11’ defining the entire experience. Thanks to that idea, I had been in their company for less than 48 hours and had already pushed every limit I had previously thought possible.

As my first flight descended toward Santiago at dawn, the Andes crept like waves on the horizon. From the Chilean capital my route continued to the coastal hub of Puerto Montt, from where the onward journey, by eight-seater propeller plane, revealed the first glimpse of the adventure ahead. As we headed to Palena airstrip and our final destination at the lodge, we flew over snow-capped volcanoes and past jagged peaks that fell away into dense forests.

Rio Palena Lodge, PatagoniaRio Palena Lodge, Patagonia

Eleven Rio Palena Lodge organizes traditional barbecues in an Asado outdoor area – Eleven Experiences

The seven-bedroom property is spread over three floors and enjoys a secluded location on the banks of the Palena River. When I arrived in the southern hemisphere spring – the heli-ski season runs from September to October – I found the surrounding 35 hectares of private land green and teeming with wildlife.

Inside, the sleek interior was a luxurious mix of modern amenities and cozy aesthetics. There were polished wood floors, native stone fireplaces, and bookshelves filled with copies of it National Geographic, ski literature and birdwatching guides – but as this is a five-star adventure lodge, there was also an equipment room stocked with all the toys needed for a week of exploration, a wood-fired hot tub, an outdoor Asado area for traditional barbecues held and there is a gigantic terrace where you can watch the Milky Way. And, parked on the lawn, two shiny helicopters.

Heliski PatagoniaHeliski Patagonia

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

“Try not to let the helicopter take away your energy, try to relax and don’t try to control the things you can’t control,” was the first piece of advice that head guide Mike Barney gave to me and my fellow novice heli-skiers at the safety briefing of that evening. We were shown videos on how to approach the machine (slowly, from the front half), how to crouch as it descended (crouch, eyes up) and how to board (firmly when signaled ). Here’s what to expect from skiing – and my fear that I wouldn’t have the technical skills to keep up filled me with dread.

“People think of heli-skiing as extreme, but there is something for everyone. We don’t jump out of helicopters,” Barney assured. “It could be extreme, but we’re slowing the pace down here.”

The next morning I was out with the birds to watch our pilots prepare their machines. After breakfast we headed straight to the equipment room to try on our harnesses (essential when skiing glacier terrain) and avalanche 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 gear. The nerves settled, it was time to take off.

The lawn of the lodge sank as we ascended from the peace of the valley. What awaited us was the most breathtaking landscape I had ever seen – vaster and denser with peaks than the Alps, closer to the drama of the Himalayas. As our pilots took a daredevil line through the rock towers 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 blankets of white. From their base at the lodge, the Eleven team have a total of 2.3 million hectares of terrain to explore – the sheer scale means there is literally a slope to suit every skill level.

“We’re exploring here, that’s what really inspires me,” Barney said. “As we fly over new ridges to new areas and find ski terrain, we map everything.” And that’s when the game starts.

For someone who has lived his life on the groomed, busy slopes of the Alps, the experience of skiing on virgin snow, on undiscovered mountains, is otherworldly. Barney led the way and I eagerly followed. A soft layer of spring powder kept my skis flowing down the mountainside at my own pace.

Lucy Aspen during the first heli run, PatagoniaLucy Aspen during the first heli run, Patagonia

Lucy on the slopes in Patagonia

The slope was wide and the gradient was no steeper than a red Alpine piste. I became more confident at every turn and tried to take it all in as I descended, hearing the shouts of joy from the group behind me. I laughed out loud in disbelief and the sound echoed through the surrounding mountains. I did it – heli-skiing – and it wasn’t difficult or scary: it was unadulterated euphoria.

I pumped my fist into the air as I calmly came to a stop next to Barney and the waiting helicopter after a 2,000-foot descent. Looking back, I could clearly see the line I had taken. “It’s yours,” said my guide. “We haven’t skied that one before – now you’re the first.” My body was buzzing with feel-good endorphins.

True to the Eleven ethos, the following days delivered more of the same sensory overload. After conquering six descents on our first day, we picked up the pace to tackle eight on our final day. We explored areas mapped by our guides, including runs called Schnitzel, Hung Jury and Excalibur. Barney estimated that we discovered six new runs that his team could document and review for future guests. Only in the pristine Himalayas or remote areas of Georgia can skiers find comparative explorations at their fingertips.

Each run had its own characteristics – from steep and thigh-burning to rolling and gentle – and each day included lunch in the field, sitting on ledges dug into the snow with our shovels, enjoying pre-packed meals and 360-degree views. One afternoon we collected a block of loose glacial ice from our picnic spot and used it that evening in the Pisco Sours, toasting the success of our exploration.

Patagonia not only provided gigantic adrenaline rushes on the slopes. When the weather shut down skiing, the helicopters flew us to Eleven’s river camp for a day of rafting on the Futaleufú River (translated as “big water”, the river starts in Argentina’s Los Alerces National Park and descends through Patagonia). Other excursions included après activities at La Junta’s natural hot springs, paddleboarding the Palena and blazing through dense coigue forests to the base of the thundering El Tronador waterfall.

Rafting experience, PatagoniaRafting experience, Patagonia

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

By the end of my week among the giants of Patagonia, my world had exploded with first experiences. But there was one final challenge: what should I call my run? “Lucy in the sky with diamonds,” I told Barney. “A little British stamp on this gigantic playground, and an ode to the highlight of a ski holiday.”


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

Lucy was a guest at Eleven Experience

South America’s best ski resorts for summer snow

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


Portillo is one of Chile’s best-known ski resorts, with slopes up to 3,310 meters. The resort has 35 slopes for different levels, but many skiers and snowboarders opt for the off-piste terrain. The striking banana yellow Grand Hotel Portillo is located on the shores of Laguna del Inca, high in the Chilean Andes.

Nevados de Chillán

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

Cerro Cathedral

Cerro Catedral is the largest ski resort in Argentina. Just over 20 kilometers from the city of Bariloche, which serves as a base for most visitors, the ski resort overlooks Nahuel Huapi Lake and offers views of the Andes. The resort has 53 slopes of varying difficulty.

Las Lenas

Despite a relatively small lift system (there are only 10), the skiable terrain at Argentina’s Las Lenas covers 43,200 hectares, full of steep slopes and rocky cliffs – not for the faint-hearted.


The Malalcahuello National Reserve in southern Chile is home to the smaller Corralco resort, which is owned by the Spanish. 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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