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

Lucy Aspen skiing in Patagonia
To truly experience the untouched corners or Patagonia requires 'a thirst for adventure and a healthy bank balance' - Jamie Weeks

There’s a game that only the minority of skiers get to play in their lifetime. It’s called “ski a run, name a run”. And there I was, hitting the jackpot on my first roll of the dice.

Staring back at the ribbon I’d carved into an untracked white canvas surrounded by sawtooth Andean peaks, I contemplated my trophy and quite how a confessed mediocre skier might have found herself among the giants of one of the planet’s most treasured wildernesses, now with a first descent to her name.

Skiing in the remotest corners of Patagonia strikes people as the domain of ski movie stars – and for the most part, it is. The region, which encompasses more than 400,000 square miles of Chile and Argentina, is among the most inaccessible corners of the planet. It extends from the southern tip of the Andes mountains, bound by lakes, fjords, rainforests and glaciers and flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. To truly experience its untouched corners requires a thirst for adventure and a healthy bank balance.

The region’s name derives from the word patagón, possibly first used by Spanish explorers to describe the native tribes they believed were giants. Skiing has long been possible in its commercial resorts close to major cities (Portillo, 90 miles from Santiago; Cerro Catedral, 12 miles from Bariloche). But now the furthest outreaches of this colossal playground, home to some of the planet’s last remaining untracked mountains, is accessible to skiers keen to explore further – with no expert experience required.

From its off-grid outpost, Eleven Rio Palena Lodge, operator Eleven Experience is breaking trail with its once-in-a-lifetime heli-skiing adventures. Founded by American couple Chad and Blake Pike, the company has 13 properties across the world, with the duo’s concept of “taking it to 11” defining the entire experience. Thanks to that notion, I’d been in their company for less than 48 hours and had already pushed every limit I’d previously thought possible.

As my first flight had descended at sunrise towards Santiago, the Andes crested like waves across the horizon. From the Chilean capital, my route continued to the coastal hub of Puerto Montt, from where the onward journey, by eight-seater prop plane, revealed the first glimpse of the adventure that lay ahead. As we routed towards 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, Patagonia
Eleven Rio Palena Lodge hosts traditional barbecues in an outdoor Asado area - Eleven Experiences

Spread across three floors, the seven-bedroom property sits in a secluded position on the bank of the Palena river. Arriving in a southern hemisphere spring – the heli-ski season operates from September to October – I found the surrounding 35 acres of private land green and bursting with wildlife.

Inside, the sleek interior was a luxurious mix of modern amenities and cosy aesthetics. There were polished wood floors, native stone fireplaces and bookshelves bursting with copies of National Geographic, ski literature and bird-spotting guidebooks – 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 to host traditional barbecues and a giant terrace from which to gaze at the Milky Way. And, parked up on the lawn, two gleaming helicopters.

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

“Try not to let the helicopter take your energy, try to relax and don’t try to control the things you can’t,” was the first piece of advice that lead guide Mike Barney gave me and my fellow novice heli-skiers at the evening’s safety briefing. We were shown videos on how to approach the machine (slowly, from the front half), how to huddle as it descends (crouch down, eyes up) and how to board (steadily when signalled). Next was what to expect from the skiing – and my anxiety about not having the technical skills to keep up filled me with dread.

“People think of heli-skiing as extreme, but there’s something for everybody. We’re not jumping out of helicopters,” assured Barney. “It can be extreme, but we slow the pace way down here.”

The next morning I was up with the birds to watch our pilots prepare their machines. After breakfast, it was straight to the equipment room to fit our harnesses (essential when skiing over glacial terrain) and avalanche safety gear, as the guides loaded our skis and lunch supplies. We walked through a demonstration of the helicopter etiquette we’d learned and then tested our equipment. Nerves settling, it was time for take-off.

The lodge’s lawn dropped away as we ascended out of the serenity of the valley. What lay ahead was the most breathtaking landscape I had ever seen – more vast and dense 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 acres of terrain to survey – the sheer scale means there is quite literally a slope to suit every ability.

“We’re exploring here, that’s what really inspires me,” said Barney. “Flying over new ridges into new areas and finding ski terrain, we’re mapping it all.” And that’s when the game begins.

For someone who has lived their life on the groomed, crowded pistes of the Alps, the experience of skiing on virgin snow, on unexplored mountains, is otherworldly. Barney set out ahead and I followed eagerly. A soft layer of spring powder allowed my skis to flow, at my own rhythm, down the mountainside.

Lucy Aspen on first heli run, Patagonia
Lucy on the slopes in Patagonia

The slope was wide and the gradient no steeper than an Alpine red run. I gained confidence with every turn, trying to take it all in as I descended, hearing the whoops of enjoyment from the group behind me. I laughed out loud in disbelief and the sound echoed off the surrounding mountains. I was doing it – heli-skiing – and it wasn’t hard or scary: it was unadulterated euphoria.

I fist-pumped the air as I calmly carved to a stop next to Barney and the waiting helicopter, after a 600m descent. Looking back, I could clearly see the line I’d tracked. “It’s yours,” said my guide. “We haven’t skied that one before – now you’re the first.” My body buzzed with feel-good endorphins.

True to the Eleven ethos, the following days delivered more of the same sensory overload. After conquering six drops on our first day, we upped the pace to bag eight on our last – exploring areas mapped by our guides including runs named Schnitzel, Hung Jury and Excalibur. Barney estimated we’d discovered six new descents for his team to record and rate for future guests. Only in the untouched Himalayas, or remote regions of Georgia, might skiers find comparative exploration at their fingertips.

Each run had its own characteristics – from steep and thigh-burning to rolling and tranquil – and each day included lunch in the field, sitting on ledges dug into the snowpack using our shovels, feasting on 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 with which we toasted the success of our exploration.

It wasn’t just on the slopes that Patagonia delivered gigantic adrenaline kicks. When the weather paused ski-play, the helicopters flew us to Eleven’s river camp for a day’s rafting on the Futaleufú River (translated as “big water”, the river begins in Los Alerces National Park in Argentina and descends through Patagonia). Other excursions included après in the natural hot springs of La Junta, paddleboarding on the Palena and trailblazing through dense coigue forests to the foot of the thundering El Tronador waterfall.

Rafting Experience, Patagonia
The group headed to Eleven's river camp for a day's rafting on the Futaleufú River - Eleven Experience

By the end of my week among the giants of Patagonia, my world had exploded with first-time experiences. But there was one final challenge – what to name my run? “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” I informed Barney. “A small British stamp on this giant playground, and an ode to the all-time high 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 heli-skiing, equipment, full board including drinks, transfers and assistance with pre-arrival planning. Return flights from London to Santiago with British Airways (0344 493 0787; cost from £780, onward flights to Puerto Montt cost from £120 with LATAM (0800 026 0728;

Lucy was a guest of Eleven Experience

South America’s top ski resorts for summer snow

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


Portillo is one of Chile’s best-known ski resorts, offering slopes up to 3,310m. The resort has 35 runs for different ability levels, but many skiers and snowboarders go for the off-piste terrain. The distinctive banana-yellow Grand Hotel Portillo is set on the shores of Laguna del Inca, resting high in the Chilean Andes.

Nevados de Chillán

Located a six-hour drive south of Santiago, the Nevados de Chillán ski area sits atop three active volcanoes – Nevados de Chillán, Chillán Nuevo and Chillán Vejo. Set at an altitude of more than 3,000m, the resort is home to the longest run in South America, the 13-kilometre-long “La Tres Marias”.

Cerro Catedral

Cerro Catedral is the largest ski resort in Argentina. Just over 12 miles from the city of Bariloche, which acts as a base for most visitors, the ski area overlooks Lake Nahuel Huapi and offers views of the Andes. The resort has 53 runs of varying difficulty.

Las Lenas

Despite a relatively small lift system (there are just 10), the skiable terrain in Las Lenas in Argentina spans 43,200 acres, full of steep chutes and rocky cliffs – not for the faint-hearted.


Malalcahuello National Reserve in Southern Chile is home to the smaller, Spanish-owned Corralco resort. The resort boasts one of the longest ski seasons in Chile and is surrounded by a thousand-year-old araucaria forest.