Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ski Trip to London

London taxi

I'm on a ski trip to London. To the site of the 2012 winter Olympics. To the shades of the Tower of London, the highest peak in the country. To the powder fields of Paddington and the couloirs off the Big Ben.

Dream on. But I am on a ski trip to London. It turns out that there is a tiny indoor ski hall in Hernel Hempstead, an hour's drive from the city. And I have two and half hours for a visit. Three if I show up late for the cocktail reception that I'm expected to attend on my business trip.

Inside the Snow Center

The main slope

The Snow Center

The ski hall is The Snow Center. It is a tiny place, the ski slope is only 160 meters long. Still, the slope is steeper than typical indoor slopes and as such, skiing here for a while is fun. The snow quality seemed also more interesting than in other places. They had a fair amount of loose snow on the slope, so it was not hard/icy as most other indoor slopes are. But I don't know if that is a typical condition for this place or if snow cat work just happened to be overdue.

I spent most of my time skiing a bumpy track that had formed in the snow. This was fun.

The bumps track

Details, details

Lift tickets cost 29£ per two hours, for adults on weekends. However, unlike almost all other indoor ski places, The Snow Center has a reservation system. You are expected to make a reservation for a specific time on the slope. Coming without a reservation is possible, but in theory they might have filled the place to the maximum capacity and you'd be out of luck. When I made a visit on a weekday afternoon, the place was far from full, however. Your mileage may vary, particularly during weekends.

It takes 18 seconds to ski the main ski slope. Luckily, the ski lift is fast.

Indoor weather forecast

Squeezing Fun Into Business Trips

You can reach the Snow Center with public transport; use trains from London, and then take a short taxi ride to the center. However, I did not have time for that. I took a taxi straight from the airport to Hemel Hempstead, and also returned by taxi to London. The Snow Center has storage lockers for your luggage.

Funnily enough, the taxi driver from Hemel Hempstead was unable to find Paddington station in London, so we ended up going around the local traffic jams for an extra half an hour.

I often end up using taxis. In the western world this can be expensive. But if the alternative is not having any fun on a trip, maybe it is still a better option. I travel a lot, perhaps not every week but certainly every second week. If I work at the office, the days are from 9am to 5pm. But on a business trip the days tend to be filled with breakfast meetings, dinners, talking to interesting people, and after-hours preparations. Or an occasional coding session. Easily from 7am to 11pm. Don't get me wrong - I love my work. But I have also made a decision to arrange some fun on every trip. Even if it is just 45 minutes of skiing indoors.

The Snow Center from the outside

Skis and Arlines

They hate each other. The airlines really do not want luggage at all, let alone an extra bag. Or - gasp! - special luggage. And the skis would really rather stay with their owner, not lost on some airport for days or weeks.

There is a lot to complain. But I wanted to tell a story about my return trip, because, for once, the story is a happy one. As usual, I'm flying on a British Airways flight. And as usual, they occasionally demand extra payment for the skis. According to the rules I'm expected to pay. But this time they waived the cost. Mostly because I ended up talking to a nice ticket agent who believed the only skier to travel to London this summer needs his equipment. Thank you, Sue!

Being a One World frequent flier helps a bit, too. And I usually keep trying after an initial failure. I often try first with the check-in agent. Then their boss. Then the lounge desk. And on the gate. You'd be surprised how often this eventually succeeds.

London, the Video

Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mud Skiing

Muddy skis

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday was a sunny, powder-filled day, touring the backcountry of Cerro Catedral (2405 m). And evening in the famous Bariloche after-ski scene. In five different bars, all the way to 4AM. But today I'm not feeling so good. A headache. Breakfast that wants to return. I must have caught some illness. And did I mention the powder? It is raining and the powder is gone. There's only mud in the ground. And that might be fine otherwise, but we are still two kilometers away from the base. Not that we weren't warned about this, repeatedly, but I really did not want to start taking ski lifts down. That would have been unnatural. Tero chooses to walk down, but I came here to ski, snow or no snow. Oh well. I cruise through the slopes covered with grass and mud.



More muddy skis

It is kind of fun, if a bit messy. It is obvious that skis slide better on snow than on grass. But did you know that dry grass is better than fresh, green grass? Fresh grass is downright sticky. But it is nothing compared to mud. On mud we need a much steeper slope to ski properly.

Luckily we have that steeper slope here, so at least I'm moving downwards, even if I'm not going fast. But I make it to the base, and we call it an early end for our second ski day. And head for Mute, Cerro Catedral's best after-ski bar.

The Mute bar

Below you find two videos from our journey. The first one is short, the second one tells the full story.

Cerro Catedral Alta Patagonia

There are numerous ski areas around Bariloche, but with its 40 ski lifts and 120 kilometers of trails, Cerro Catedral Alta Patagonia is the largest and most interesting one. The ski area is half an hour's drive away from Bariloche.

Lago Nahuel Huapi

The main lift lines in the ski area map are Princesa I, II, and III to the left and the interestingly named Sextuple Express and Cable Carril to the right. The highest ski lifts take you to 2180 meters. Interestingly, there are still 1150 meters of vertical difference between the top and the bottom. This ensures varying conditions. Lower down, the slopes are rather mellow, and as we found out, the snow can easily melt away. The mid-mountain slopes are in forests and bush-covered areas. Higher up, the slopes become a bare, windy mountain area.

I found the skiing in the forest areas was most interesting; there is a lot of playground. In addition, in bad weather the winds are softer and the visibility is better. We did not have the opportunity to test all the slopes, but I personally found the most interesting slopes to be under the Condor lifts (to the right in the map).

Great snow and great views

The WHAT express?

Off-Piste Routes

We skied mostly outside the official ski slopes, on the right side of the ski area map, in the forests and open slopes to the skier's left from the Condor ski lifts. The easiest entrance to this area is by skiing a bit to the left as you come down from the top station of the Condor II ski lift. Do not go all the way to the bottom of the valley on the left, as it can be dangerous. And as you near the bottom station of the Condor II, keep more to the right than to the left. Otherwise you'll end up on the wrong side of the Chusquea Culeou (bamboo) bushes, and will have a hard time heading back to the ski area. This happened on our first run.

Crossing the bamboo forest

Despite Tero's warnings, I did not believe that these bush-like plants are tough. But they are solid, wood-like material. As I tried skiing through a bush, I was lucky to be only whacked in the face and not get any more serious injuries. I did fall, however. But what is most important is, of course, that we did get a photo of the fall.

It is not a good idea to ski through the bamboo bushes

A second entrance to this off-piste area is from the top of the Condor III lift. Ski alongside the lift line until you see a progressively narrowing gully lead to the left, close to the top station of the Condor II lift. This gully can be skied, if you know what you are doing. The gully can be avalanche prone under the wrong conditions. Also, we took a route to the right soon after entering the narrow part of the gully. By keeping level you can exit the valley and enter to the same part of the area as the first entrance leads to. We saw many tracks lead further into the gully, but as far as I can tell it leads to a dangerous cliff area that requires downclimbing.

The further-away off-piste route (the third entrance)

The third entrance offers the best skiing, but is also furthest away from the ski area, requires a self-sufficient team in case of any accidents, and you'll need an hour to hike back to the ski area. Take this route only if you know what you are doing. In the ski area map this route is clearly outside the ski area boundaries.

The route begins from the top of the Condor III ski lift (see above picture). There is a sign showing the current avalanche danger level at the beginning. Continue the ridge to the skier's left. You'll be skiing above the forests. Once you come to the end of the forest and the ridge, make a steep right turn (see again the picture). Ski in the area where the forest ends and head towards the deep valley that is visible in the middle of the picture. There may be a small jump when you enter the steepest part of the valley wall. At the bottom of the valley there is a stream that you have to cross. Here you have to start walking to reach the ski area (dotted line). Soon you'll reach a traverse that runs from the top of the Esquiadores ski lift. This traverse is almost flat, and there's a point where you'll have to carry your skis up for a few minutes as well. But eventually you'll reach the base area.

Turning before the bamboos

"Luckily it is not so steep here"

Route finding in a bamboo forest

Walking back from the off-piste tour

Ski Area Food Options

The best place for lunch on the slopes is at the El Barrilete, which is near the top of the Sextuple ski lift. Their menu is very short, as it contains only pizzas and hamburgers. However, here is where the crowds are, the service is friendly, and the food is good.

The mud skiing slope


For a quick drink, I can recommend Riders Point, a small cafeteria under the top station of the Condor II ski lift.

There's always coffee in Argentina. Cats like it, too.


There are many ski areas and destinations in Argentina. But there is no comparison when it comes to after-ski: Bariloche is the place to be. The porteƱos (people from Buenos Aires) flock here to party. Every student in the country comes here for their graduation trip. Some of these visitors take themselves to the ski slopes, but all of them spend good time in the city.

Here are the primary bars and restaurants to visit:
  • Mute, the best after-ski bar in the Cerro Catedral ski area. It is right under the Sextuple Express ski lift. Instead of a coat check on the door they have a snowboard check; very useful. And downstairs there is a ski rental place with a bar. Why hasn't anyone invented that elsewhere?
The Mute DJ
  • El Nuevo Gaucho (the new cowboy) - a "parilla" (a grill restaurant) serving typical Argentinian grilled food.
El Nuevo Gaucho
  • Wilkenny's, an Irish pub that serves excellent food as well.
  • After 7, a small but nice bar, with friendly staff.
  • Dusk, a nightclub. It was closed the day that I wanted to visit, however.
  • Konna, a tiny beer place where the locals go.

There are obviously too many places to visit in a large party town such as Bariloche. But I would recommend a dinner at Wilkenny's, followed by a bar evening in After 7, and if you are still up for it, some more beer at the Konna.

Drinks at the Wilkenny

Important Parameters

Lift tickets cost 45 to 65 € per day at Cerro Catedral, depending on season. Argentina is by Western European standards an affordable tourist destination, but ski lift tickets are still relatively expensive.

There is plenty of accommodation at the base of the ski area, but I would definitely recommend staying in town, for the better entertainment options. And town itself is very nice. We stayed at the Softhotel, at a very reasonable room rate.

Streets of Bariloche. Or is this San Francisco?


For most skiers, Bariloche would probably be the #1 ski destination in Argentina. There are plenty of ski areas, a lot of slopes for every skill level, plenty of reasonably priced hotels and restaurants, and of course, bars. Some of the most hardcore skiers should venture also to more pure ski destinations such as Ushuaia, Caviahue, or go after the greatest Argentinian snow in Las Lenas. But even those skiers probably want to experience Bariloche as well. I certainly did.

Views on the Cerro Catedral off-piste

Ski lift

More Pictures

End of the snow, beginning of the walk

Snow cover is getting thinner

Buy some great clothing?

Skiing in the forest

Skiing into the canyon

Mud skiing slope


Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko and Tero Kivinen