After days of tracking a storm, we drive through the late night darkness hoping to be in the right place at the right time. The bus grinds up a serpentine access road, and the windscreen goes from dripping wet to a sticky mess of heavy snow. Each time the wiper clears the congealing precipitation, I see streaks of white made by enormous flakes flying through the headlights. We park in a lot, shiny with moisture but not yet holding snow, at the base of the ski resort and settle into our sleeping bags.
Restless anticipatory sleep is only disturbed for good by the percussion of avalanche control work in the morning. We step down from the bus into a muffled, snow-coated world and rush to the lift, hearts beating fast.
Early in September skiers Tim McChesney, Will Berman and Duncan Adams, with filmer Etienne Merel and me in tow, were in Argentina traveling and staying in a ’60s-era Mercedes bus called La Chanchita. Our squad spent two full weeks filming a webisode for the athletes’ sponsor, Faction Skis. I had arrived in Bariloche a few days before the snow hit; the final hours of my flight consisted of the flat center of Argentina slowly sliding by as I stared out the window. Where are the mountains? Is there any snow? The plane descended slowly into the tiny airport in San Carlos de Bariloche, and I finally caught sight of some white patches. Then as the pilot tilted the plane and turned to line up with the landing strip, the Andes were revealed, snow capped peaks as far as I could see.
Tim and Manu Fombeurre, our guide, met me at the airport. Manu, a caricature of a quiet, sinewy French mountain man, led Tim and I to a rusty, yellow 1970-something Ford where a gaunt but energetic dog tried to help smash and strap our bags into and onto the little car. We drove through Bariloche on a road along the lake and stopped quickly in town at a T-shirt shop that fronts as a black market currency exchange. Having traded a few dollars for enormous stacks of Argentine pesos, we arrived at the cabin that serves as Manu’s home base and met up with Duncan, Will and Etienne. We loaded our gear onto La Chanchita.
Our first destination was Cerro Chapelco, a small resort only a short distance to the north as the condor flies. We had to navigate through the mountains though, which are broken up not just by valleys but also endless lakes. The journey was not short, but the next day we were greeted by soft, spring snow. The sun shined bright, and we ended up building a jump with our shirts off then sessioning the kicker ’til long after the resort closed. Even though it’s September, spring in Argentina is no different from north of the Equator—the weather is extreme.
The next day brought rain, and after a few runs, we began a fraught decision-making process. The temperatures were supposed to drop and we knew we had to maximize chances for skiing fresh snow. Chapelco has lines that we were psyched to shred, but they’re all above tree line and would be unskiable during the storm. The other option was the biggest ski area in the region, Cerro Catedral, which possesses more vertical and steeper trees for storm skiing. So we fired up the bus and headed back to where we started—Catedral is just a few minutes from Manu’s home.
“Life in La Chanchita is ironic. We’re living the good life, but it ’s kind of disgusting.”
How Manu and La Chanchita became a tandem isn’t a marketing tale. “I saw the bus in the streets and that it was for sale,” Manu tells me in English that, although lightly accented, is jumbled by multilingual grammar. He was raised in France, traveled as a skier and, over the last seven years, gradually transitioned from year-round winter between France and Argentina to permanent residence in Bariloche. “I don’t have enough money to buy it,” he continues. “So I started thinking about what I could do to start making money.” He didn’t dream of owning a bus; a life of skiing brought Manu and La Chanchita together.
A basic translation of La Chanchita could be “Little Piggy.” Like any bus, she has a hoggish lack of agility. Manu has beautifully retrofitted the Mercedes shell in a manner suited for a big vehicle: A modern engine; comfortable sleeping spaces for five people; a kitchen; a fully functioning toilet and shower; batteries for power outlets and bright interior lights; a wood-burning stove for heat; and, of course, storage for all our skis.
Still, we spent two weeks enduring life inside her, and by the end, she felt tiny. Imagine snoring in close enough proximity that physical violence is an option to disrupt the noise; inescapable odors hardly broken by showering in the seemingly 10-inch wide shower; piles of wet ski gear that had to be searched for a wallet, camera or ski pass; meals eaten standing or leaning on your knees; having to step over and on other people; being knocked off the toilet by the jostling of a rough road; and generally just living as six dudes in one bus.
Colloquially, Chanchita translates to “wise-ass” or “joker.” Sometimes that connotation fit too, like when the wood stove smoked out the whole bus as we drove or when the battery died after three days parked during the coldest stretch of the trip. That concept of the name is fitting for our Faction crew as well. Embracing life in La Chanchita-style makes for laughing moments that make it clear why we’re really here together. Pre-ski sessions screaming along to E-40 (yup!) blasting through the sound system. A few quieter nights spent lying side by side in sleeping bags, watching ski movies projected onto a creased white sheet hanging from the ceiling just behind the driver’s seat. All of us pumping fists to Megadeth while Will Berman whips his metal-worthy hair.
“This is just like making Lunchables,” says Tim with a wry smile during a bus-cooked pizza dinner, as he adds a layer of last night’s gourmet leftovers—cold steak and fries—to one of the pies. By the end of the trip, even just looking at my dirty, bearded face in a bathroom mirror at a restaurant seems like the most hilarious thing possible. Life in La Chanchita is ironic. We’re living the good life, but it’s kind of disgusting.
Like we drove our bus back to where our trip began, allow me to go back to the beginning of this story. Because if any day could sum up our trip—shit, maybe the entire skiing experience—that powder day was it. Anticipation, dramatic buildup, ecstatic release, obstacles, perseverance and, in the end, it’s all a memory.