Tierra del Fuego, where the southern tip of the Andes plunges into the ocean, is wild and breathtakingly beautiful, but not a place where you would expect to find much in the way of organised winter sports. And yet, in 1999, with an initial $9m investment, a modern ski resort began to take shape here, in what author and explorer Lucas Bridges had memorably christened “the uttermost part of the earth”.
Today, as you gaze out from the summit of Cerro Castor (Beaver mountain) it’s strange to think there is no one in the world skiing downhill further south than you are, except perhaps the odd resourceful soul in the Antarctic. The resort, which opens for the season this weekend, has now had at least $25m spent on it and boasts nine lifts and 26 runs, the lower ones lined with South American beech. There is more to come, as the resort gears up to host the 2015 Interski event – the world’s biggest symposium for ski instructors, with 36 nations taking part.
About 2,000 miles and a three-and-a-half-hour flight south of Buenos Aires, Cerro Castor is 16 miles outside Ushuaia (population 70,000). The capital of Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia sits on the northern shore of the Beagle channel and is the last port of call for ships stocking up with supplies en route to Antarctica, 750 miles further south.
The mountains which loom high above the city are the Martial range – not as high as the main Andes cordillera, but still exquisite, particularly Mount Olivia, whose serrated peak is dramatic in spite of being a relatively modest 1,318m high. The ski resort takes its name from 50 North American beavers introduced during the 1940s in the vain hope of establishing a fur industry. Instead, with no predators, the beaver population grew rampantly to 100,000, invading and laying waste to an estimated 16m hectares of native forest with their dams. In desperation the Argentine government even tried to encourage local restaurateurs to serve beaver meat, but that, too, failed.
Although the Cerro Castor base area is only 195m, the vertical drop from the top of the highest lift to the bottom of the lowest run is a respectable 800m. Roughly a third of the terrain is suitable for beginners, another third for intermediates, and 25 per cent for advanced skiers and boarders. That leaves around 10 per cent for experts – plus some excellent off-piste. There are four good mountain restaurants. During my visit some of the Italian national ski team were training here, and other nations have used its slopes too. There is skiing until mid-October.
Although the base area is scattered with attractive timber-clad buildings which include 15 ski cabins, two large and efficient ski-rental areas, the ski school building, a good restaurant (Morada del Aguila) and two boutiques, most skiers stay in Ushuaia itself, with 5,000 beds to choose from.
We took a day away from the slopes to visit the cacophonous Isla de los Lobos Marinos (Sea Lions’ Island), where flocks of Imperial Cormorants fight for space with hundreds of sea lions. The resulting odour, which resembled wet dogs eating fish meal, was so powerful that we could smell it from our hydrofoil bobbing off the shore.
After a few days in Cerro Castor, I was curious to investigate the skiing that existed here before the resort was built, and took a taxi to the Glaciar Martial, in the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. It was, predictably, a much more primitive arrangement, with an ancient double chairlift to get you within striking distance of the gradually steepening slopes. Apart from a pleasant little beginner area at the base, this is mostly skiing in the wild. A guide is recommended, as the chutes and bowls you’ll eventually trudge to are avalanche- prone. Having scratched around for an hour or two without reaching the really steep terrain, I took the only groomed run down, parallel with the lift, and then walked all the way back to Ushuaia – a two-hour yomp with stirring views of nearby peaks, Ushuaia, the Beagle Channel and Nassau Bay beyond. Somewhere out there was Antarctica. I could have taken a taxi of course, or even a bus, but on a blue-sky day the scenery was so splendid I couldn’t resist walking.
For details see www.cerrocastor.com
Scott Dunn (www.scottdunn.com) offers a week’s package staying at the Hotel Mil 810 in Ushuaia from £1,112, or £2,391 staying at the Cabanas Castor Ski Lodge in Cerro Castor