Donny Roth, a ski racer-turned-writer and backcountry guide, lives a life full of travel, exploration, and skiing. As the founder of Independent Descents and Chile Powder Adventures, he can often be found knee deep in powder at some of his favorite peaks around the world. When he’s not on the road, he spends his time in Boulder, CO. But for the next three months, he’ll be calling Chile home. The Ski Channel talked to the guide as he prepares to head south to lead Chile Powder Adventures’s next great journey, skiing down volcanoes in the backcountry of the Andes.
The Ski Channel: Tell us a little about your background and how you got to this point.
Donny Roth: I started teaching skiing in the early ‘90s. And before that I was a ski racer. Gradually I started working at bigger and bigger mountains…at bigger and bigger ski resorts. And eventually… I started to guide people out of the ski resorts for a variety of operations. From ski touring operations to heli-skiing operations. And eventually I really found the most happiness in sharing a human powered experience with people. A quieter experience.
TSC: What makes your upcoming trip with Chile Powder Adventures unique and exciting? What are you most excited about?
DR: For the month of September I’m supposed to ski the volcanoes in Chile. And, to me, it’s such a great ski mountaineering experience for a lot of reasons. For one, obviously, the skiing is great. It’s a great time of year down there. There’s good snow, and it’s not too hot. Beyond that, it’s just rewarding for people to get to ski these really big mountains and I think that most people are sort of amazed at what they can do. You get up in the morning and you look at the peaks from the valley floor, and it could be 7,000 feet above your head to the summit. It gives you the feeling of “Really? We’re going to go up there? That doesn’t look possible!” And then we drive up to the snow line and ski from there. And people stand on these beautiful peaks and look around. They can see the peak they were on the day before and they can see what they’re going to go do the next day; it’s really rewarding. Another great part about it is that it’s a true Chilean experience. People make a big effort to go all the way on the other side of the world in August just to ski, and it’s not like the North American ski resorts or European ski resorts. We stay in local lodging and meet people who aren’t in the tourism industry or who are just starting in the tourism industry. They’re families who are farmers and craftsmen. And they get to meet these people and converse with them.
TSC: You obviously enjoy spending time in South America, especially Chile. What are some of the things you love about their culture?
DR: The people are really open and friendly. And genuine. They want to interact with people. It’s a warm society. You go…whether you’re indoors or on the street…you meet people, and they want to know what you’re about. I’ve been to a lot of places over the years and am overwhelmed by how people will invite me into their homes and want to hear more about where I’m from and what I’m doing. And it’s not showy at all. The people don’t have a lot, and yet they’re really proud of their lives.
TSC: As someone who loves food, I have to ask… If you could recommend one Chilean meal to our readers, what would it be?
DR: Well, you have to have an empanada while you’re in Chile. That’s a given. That’s their national dish. There’s a big national holiday that is their equivalent to our Fourth of July, which is called Fiestas Patrias. It’s on September 18th, during our trip. That’s like a big contest as to who can make the best empanada. Of course, going to a typical Chilean asado (a type of barbecue). That’s a treat. You’ll have empanadas there as well. And if you go down south to this area that we’re skiing, the real barbecue—the real Chilean asado. It’s really good. And then of course, my favorite dish in Chile is ceviche. They have more than 3,000 miles of coastline, so the seafood is out of this world.
TSC: That’s a big compliment from someone who’s been all over the world. What are some of your favorite places, and what makes them special?
DR: Well, I ski South America a ton. I’m really partial to Chile. I’ve been to Argentina as well; I just connect to the Chilean culture in a special way. I tend to gravitate back there. And I’ve really loved all my trips to Asia. I’ve skied China and Japan, and those always end up being really fascinating trips. Now, here—in the United States—I’m obviously partial to Alaska as a destination. It’s kind of an easy answer, you know? Of course it’s great. It’s the steepest mountains and unbelievable snow and all that stuff. What I really love is traveling off the beaten path.
TSC: Speaking of off the beaten path, Chile Powder Adventures usually offers a crater skiing trip, but it was canceled. What happened?
DR: A little over a year ago, Cordón Caulle volcano erupted from about two kilometers down it’s ridge, so that cone is still intact, but it spent all of last year erupting and with lots of ash. One of the nearby ski towns is basically decimated from all this ash. So, while I’m really excited to take clients back there, I took a year off. I don’t want to offer it to anybody until I go in and check it out. In late September, I’m going back with two friends, and we’re going to go make sure everything is in good order and it’s still viable. And if so, it’ll be back on the docket for 2013.
TSC: It’s not every day you hear about people dropping into a crater on the side of an active volcano. You describe it as “otherworldly” on your website. Can you expand on that?
DR: The summit has a big huge summit cone. And you can ski into its crater. It’s about a 500-700 vertical foot run—you ski into the crater itself—and there are dozens and dozens—you can ski almost all the way around the ring. So it’s not like there’s just one run. It’s almost like Alaska, but miniature. And going into this crater. It’s about a kilometer wide but perfectly flat. And perfectly circular. So you ski down onto this thing, and it feels like you’re skiing down onto a frozen lake. It’s great. Everybody just drops in and drops your bag and your jacket and your lunch down there. And you just spend the whole day just hiking up to the top and skiing back down. It’s like being a little kid, but you’re skiing on the inside of a volcano. It’s pretty hard to be there and not be giddy and blown away by what we’re doing.
TSC: The volcanoes you ski are active. How much is it a concern that it might erupt when you’re on the side? Is there warning for those types of things?
DR: It’s generally a fairly daunting event. When you’re in the area with possible tsunamis or floods, there are usually warnings signs. They’ll tell you that the warning is a little elevated and where you might have to go. But the major eruptions are usually pretty shocking. We’re only at the top for maybe twenty minutes. So the odds of us standing there and this thing just going are crazy odds. It’s pretty slim. But some of them are extremely active. And on some days, there’s a stream of smoke coming out. When we get to the top—if it’s not smoking too much—you can look down into the crater and sometimes you can see lava. And some nights when the clouds are just right, a couple of hundred feet above the volcano, an overcast night with high clouds, they’ll be a glow on the clouds above the volcano, lighting it up. So, yeah. It’s an active environment. And it’s cool, because you can feel it. You can feel that energy. It’s my favorite time of year. I love taking people through that experience.
TSC: How much planning goes into guiding a trip like this?
DR: For me, I’m already planning. I’m not just doing things like reserving hotel rooms and renting vans. But at this point, I’m making sure everyone is here and that everyone has his or her gear and is getting everything in order. I’m looking at snow conditions. There’s already preparations happening now; it’s not necessarily a full-time job. As far as guiding it, though, it’s a long day. I’m up before the clients every morning and I’m up working at night making sure that I’ve got a handle on the weather and getting everyone’s equipment issues in order. And if anyone has any aches and pains. Really though, it’s not like climbing Everest, where people need to dedicate months and months or years of training to be fit enough for it. The peaks we’re exploring are only 8,000-9,000 feet above sea level at most. Altitude isn’t really a factor. And the days are really around six hours round trip, including stopping , lunch, skiing down, and photos. There’s plenty of opportunity to rest. People that can go out and go or a hike for four hours and not have it kill them are ready to do it. If you can ride your bike for an hour and a half at a reasonable pace, you’re probably fit enough to do these trips. We don’t run; we walk.
TSC: Is there anything else people should know?
DR: It’s gearing up to be a great snow year in South America. La Niña has ended. That is a phenomenon based on temperatures of the Pacific Ocean. We really don’t have a good correlation of what la Niña means in North America. This year was a la Niña year, and most of the United States had terrible snowfall. And it was a la Niña year the year before as well, and it was a phenomenal snow year. So in North America, it’s hard to tell what that means. In South America, it has a direct correlation. La Niña was actually noticed first by a fisherman from Northern Chile in Peru that noticed that on la Nina years, fishing was harder. They didn’t even understand global warming or water temperatures or anything else. They just knew that some years, they didn’t catch any fish. And they blamed it on the “little girl”. Now that it’s over, the Andes have already gotten more snow than they had most of last year. A bunch of steady, consistent storms. It’s snowing right now in the mountains near Santiago. So this year is going to be a good snow year. And if people are waiting, now is the time to get your ticket.
TSC: Well, it sounds like it’s going to be amazing. Wish we could go. Thanks for speaking with us, and I hope you have a fantastic trip!
-End of interview
There are two spots left for the trip in September. Don’t miss a chance to join Donny on the trip of a lifetime! For more information, go to Chile Powder Adventures.