Beer and Hockey

Oh, the joys of sports in June on high-definition television!

For the past few weeks I have shouted myself hoarse and disturbed my neighbors alternating between broadcasts of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League finals. On off days and nights there’s always baseball, tennis and golf to tide me over.

With LeBron James and the Miami Heat having repeated as N.B.A. champions in a tough seven-game contest against the San Antonio Spurs, I can now focus on the Stanley Cup matchup — currently tied at a couple of wins apiece — between two of the six original N.H.L. teams: the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins.

But I wonder if I would be writing this had I stayed in Montreal instead of moving to the United States. When I was a teenager I once gave my grandfather Max a lift to New York City, where he would stay at the men’s “Y” and take in a few operas. Couldn’t he satisfy his operatic cravings back home, I asked? No, he explained. “Canadians only care about beer and hockey.”

At the time that sentiment didn’t really bother me. During the 1960s and ‘70s the Montreal Canadiens hoisted the Stanley Cup no fewer than 11 times. As we fancied ourselves the world’s most enlightened hockey fans, my friends and I even chose second teams to cheer for. Mine was the Bruins, led by one Bobby Orr, whom a select few (myself included) consider the most talented player in N.H.L. history. For the record, this year I’m pulling for the Blackhawks. It just seems unfair to me that residents of a metro area about the same size as Montreal’s should have so many glamorous teams.

Lord Stanley's Cup of the N.H.L.

Lord Stanley’s Cup of the N.H.L.

Bostonians host baseball’s American League Red Sox, the National Football League Patriots, the N.B.A. Celtics and the Bruins, all of whom have been champions in recent memory. Montrealers have the Canadiens, who haven’t brought home the Cup in two long decades. The National League Montreal Expos left town in 2004 to be reincarnated as the Washington Nationals yet never won a World Series in 25 up-and-down years. Need I even mention the Alouettes of the threadbare Canadian Football League?

I can’t speak for Torontonians, who have the American League Blue Jays and N.B.A. Raptors along with those perennial N.H.L. losers, the Maple Leafs, but many men of my generation in Montreal live in an isolation of former glories. The Habs, as Les Canadiens are fondly known at home, play beneath 24 Stanley Cup banners hanging in the Centre Bell – “more championships than any other professional team,” a fan informed me on a recent Quebec trip. Not one to let a false claim go uncorrected, I pointed out that the New York Yankees boast 27 World Series titles. Despite their recent struggles, the Bronx Bombers are a good bet to win more. But the small-market Habs, I fear, might not be triumphant again while I’m still around.

On a more positive note, in a city where the sports sections of both French- and English-language dailies contain mostly hockey stories – even in August – younger fans appear to have broader interests. After all, there are few things more beautiful than basketball’s three-point shot, like the one Ray Allen made in game six to quash the Spurs’ near-certain victory in the N.B.A. finals. Up there too is great baseball defense, notably the well-turned double play, as my late uncle Sonny would tell you, together with the long passing game in professional and college football.

Still, I understand that a lot of my compatriots to the north aren’t interested in the Stanley Cup finals because no team based in a Canadian city is contending. That kind of parochialism I’m only too glad to have left behind.

Japan in Winter

Despite my best intentions, this seems to be turning into a travel-and-photography blog. I’ll always try to publish posts on other subjects, but if I fail (for a while) then so be it. I recently spent the better part of two weeks in Japan, a few days in historic Kyoto to adjust to the time difference (14 hours later than New York in February) and the rest on the northern island of Hokkaido. There were several reasons for this winter voyage: to enjoy the cultural delights of Japan’s former royal capital, which happened to be dusted by an unusual snowfall at the time; to experience the renowned powder skiing in the trees and bowls of Niseko and thereabouts; and to show my support for the Japanese people in the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami two years ago.

Kyoto's Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine

Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine

Kyoto’s pleasures include exquisite Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines, the Imperial Palace Park and the charming Gion (Geisha) district, as well as wonderful gardens and markets. I won’t provide a blow-by-blow of the visit, but an assortment of pictures is available on my photography website:

Niseko and other ski areas on Hokkaido have become an international destination because of the flakes that appear to fall continuously, thanks to the proximity of the Sea of Japan and cold winds from Siberia. (Sapporo, a charming mini-Tokyo in the snow, hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics.) The mountains’ top elevations are not particularly great – Fujiesque Mount Yotei reaches less than 6,300 feet high – and the terrain is hardly steep enough to satisfy most extreme skiers. But the combination of untracked pow and neatly spaced trees is pretty palatable to an old warrior like me. To see a compilation of some of my favorite runs, play this YouTube video:

Chile Today, Hot Tamale (or Avalanche in the Andes)

Atop the Chillan Crater

Atop the Chillan Crater

Returning from the South American winter to the heat of New York in late August, I imported a vicious cold, which I can just partly blame for the delay in publishing this post.  My other excuses include a large backlog of work and personal duties, a small kitchen flood and other domestic irritants, time-consuming photo editing, and general procrastination.  Still, the 11 days I spent traveling around Chile and skiing in the backcountry of the world’s highest mountain range outside of Asia were the experience of a lifetime that I won’t ever forget.

Day One  I arrived early in the morning, stored most of my luggage at the airport, and took the local bus to downtown Santiago.  Founded by the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, this metropolis of more than five million inhabitants lacks the colonial charm of Quito.  Yet, unlike the lofty Ecuadorean capital up north, Santiago occupies a basin near sea level, separated from the Pacific Ocean by a coastal range of mountains and treated to views of the snow-capped Andes that would awe even the proud residents of Salt Lake City, Calgary and Denver.  Its roads and other infrastructure are fine by regional standards, although the city could stand more urban planning and some California-style emission controls.  (The Mediterranean climate and seismic risk reminded me of the San Francisco Bay area.)

Santiago and the Andes

Political graffiti on run-down buildings in central Santiago invoked deposed socialist president Salvador Allende, while the fascistic uniforms of the Carabineros were reminiscent of dictator Augusto Pinochet.  But Chilean politics were not on my agenda, so I toured the historic Plaza de Armas, peeked into the grand Catedral Metropolitana, and boarded the hop-on-hop-off bus for a spin around the urban sprawl.  The malls and tony neighborhoods we passed held scant interest for me, and I had precious little time for museums (except the one specializing in pre-Columbian art, which was damaged in the earthquake of 2010 and shut when I tried to visit).  But a sweaty, muddy hike up to the Virgin Mary statue atop the Parque Metropolitano rewarded me with spectacular vistas of the city.  Exhausted, I retraced my route back to the airport, where I reclaimed my bags and checked into the ultra-convenient Holiday Inn.

Days Two to Four  The resort town of Farellones is less than 25 miles from Santiago, but because of the narrow switchback road the trip took more than an hour for our group of seven skiers, two guides and driver, hauling a trailer full of ski equipment and other baggage.  We still had most of the afternoon left to warm up on our skis in the flat light of Valle Nevado and undergo the necessary avalanche training.  Lucky for us, a recent storm had salvaged a hitherto woeful season – seemingly a continuation of what we suffered in much of the United States last winter — covering enough rocks for enjoyable skiing.

With elevations and vertical drops similar to large resorts in the northern hemisphere, Valle Nevado, El Colorado and La Parva featured wide-open European alpine slopes (that is, above the tree line but sans glaciers) and the heavy snow associated with North America’s  Pacific coast.  My comparatively narrow all-mountain K2s and aching lower back would soon be put to the test, I feared correctly.  Aside from the sluggish fixed-grip chairlifts that looked like hand-me-downs, we would depend on T-bars and Pomas.

A Backcountry Descent

At El Colorado the next day, however, we made use of another conveyance: our Mercedes-Benz van.  Beneath sunny skies, our lead guide Mo shepherded us under the rope and outside the ski area proper to some of the most wonderful terrain I’ve ever descended.  Snow conditions were highly variable, ranging from dense powder to crud and crust, as we worked our way down to the paved road.  There, our driver Fernando waited to shuttle us back to the base lifts.  The highlight of the following day at La Parva was a steep ascent to ski some chutes and look for powder at higher elevations, made even more challenging by the need for most of us to carry backpacks laden with skis and avalanche equipment.

Day Five  We spent the prior night at a 19th-century hacienda turned hotel in Los Andes, about 50 miles north of Santiago on the main route to Argentina.  The good news: another storm was tracking toward the mountains.  The bad news: the road to Portillo was closed due to snow and wind.  Instead of skiing at the legendary Chilean station, we went horseback riding at a mountainous local vineyard, viewing ancient native petroglyphs along the way.  And ate a hearty traditional country lunch.

Chile’s cuisine favors meat, although the country’s long coastline provides ample seafood for ceviche (a Peruvian import) and other dishes that I prefer.  The churrasco, grilled beef on a bun, is a guilty delight with or without cheese; my order tended to feature chicken, plus tomato and avocado.  Their fruits and vegetables grace North American tables during the winter, but the Chileans don’t appear to bring in our summer produce.  The local carmeneres and cabernet sauvignons are good all year round to wash down the most filling of foods.  We ate all of our meals as a group, including the sole “pescatarian,” and drank plenty together.  The pisco sour (another gift from Peru) was our cocktail of choice.

The Road to Arpa

Day Six  Arpa cat-skiing more than compensated for our Portillo disappointment.  The trip of scarcely more than 20 miles by four-wheel-drive vehicles brought us through an otherworldly landscape of cacti coated in fresh snow, followed by a white-knuckle climb of hairpin turns to the Arpa lodge at an altitude of almost 9,000 feet.  With Aconcagua – whose summit elevation of close to 23,000 feet makes it the Americas’ tallest peak – in the background, we combed the all-natural snow on five cat runs (with most of us opting to pay extra for the fifth).

Days Seven to Nine  The trip from Los Andes to Chillan, more than 200 miles south of Santiago, took all day.  In a country nearly 2,700 miles long, we traveled less than half the way to Patagonia.  The deeply rutted side road to our hotel hadn’t been cleared of the latest snowfall, forcing our driver to hook up chains on the drive wheels.  But the minor ordeal was well worth it.  Although significantly lower in top altitude than its Farellones siblings, Nevados de Chillan boasted contoured lift-serviced terrain, smoking fumaroles and treed runs at lower elevations.  I dare say that, under proper ownership, it could be one of the great ski resorts of the world.  A local shop even repaired my rock-damaged bases overnight at a very reasonable cost.

Mo’s Avalanche

In the morning, we rode the old, slow lifts and explored the groomed and off-trail acreage under a warm sun.  Then we hired a snow cat to ferry us up the side of one of Volcan Chillan’s two active cones, where we hiked up to the rim.  This, and the descent of more than 5,000 feet that followed, must rank as the highlight of the trip.  We posed for a photo on the edge of the crater, volcanic fumes and Andean peaks as our backdrop.  On the way down through out-of-bounds land, Mo triggered an avalanche on one of the steeper pitches but managed to ride it out.  With some trepidation, we detoured around the slide debris and carried on safely to the base.

Our last day of skiing was slightly more mellow yet still involved a remarkable out-of-bounds circuit that I pushed myself to do twice, despite the chills and aches of a nascent viral infection.  Nearing 56 years of age, would I ever ski here again?

Day Ten  The group of seven skiers, all but one native to North America, ranged somewhat in age (from 36 to 60 years old), physical fitness, and technical ability.  With a little patience on our part, this caused no problems on the mountain that the guides couldn’t manage.  Yet the sole female in the group had taken a disliking to me, and fortunately waited until the voyage back to Santiago airport before erupting.  After stopping to visit the colorful Chillan market, we traded barbs at lunch.  She proceeded with a full-blown lambasting, calling me “skinny,” an “ugly American,” and wishing colon cancer on me.  Well, at least I don’t have to worry about her and her husband looking me up on their next trip to New York.  Needless to say, the van’s cabin was quiet until we reached our destination and (selectively) bid our farewells.

Valparaiso Houses

Day Eleven  Having stored my ski equipment at the airport the night before, I was picked up at my hotel by a local guide for an excursion through the Casablanca wine country to the Pacific coast.  After I visited Pablo Neruda’s fascinating homestead at Isla Negra, we talked about his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, of the Chilean Roberto Bolano and other South American literary greats, en route to Valparaiso.  The colorful, hilly neighborhoods of this port city, whose decline began with the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, make it one of the nation’s cultural treasures.  Tear gas was in the air from the student and worker riots that day, so we left for the more bourgeois pleasures of nearby Vina del Mar, with its casino and luxury residences.  Depleted physically and otherwise, I was quite ready to board the aircraft for my long overnight flight back to summer.

To see more photos of Chile visit