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Chasing snow in Chile

Whistler youth ski racers wrap up successful South American camp

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While their classmates back home were hitting the books and settling into a new school year, several youth racers from the Whistler Mountain Ski Club were instead hitting the slopes in Chile last month, preparing for a new season.

And with a closed mountain, near-perfect snow and even some powder skiing mixed in, local coaches are calling the trip to La Parva one of the best the club has ever had.

Nearly 20 Whistler skiers aged 15 to 19 left for the camp in mid-September, returning home last week after getting in 12 busy training days and a few extra days exploring the Chilean coast.

"I wasn't really sure what to expect," said Alex Gershon, 16, who was on his first trip to South America. "I've been to ski camps before and they've all been pretty good, but this one was really good just because of how nice the snow was there and how nice everyone was.

"It felt pretty weird but after the first few days it almost feels like home, with the exception of another language being spoken around you."

Helping to make it feel like home was the winter-like snow the group was treated to at La Parva, which wasn't something Rob Boyd was expecting. The club's athletic director said the great snow was a bonus, but the overall timing of the trip ended up being ideal on a couple of fronts.

"It was a bit of a low snow year and they'd actually closed the mountain to the public because the lower slopes were so bare, but they kept the upper mountain open for the racers who had booked in there, which worked out excellent because there was no public interference, no line-ups, no nothing," said Boyd.

The empty mountain meant skiers were able to maximize their training time, completing more than 140 slalom, giant slalom and super-G runs over the two weeks and countless more spent free skiing.

The group was also fortunate to be at the resort at the same time as several elite-level teams, getting a chance to draw on their experience. The Austrian women's speed team, the Canadian men's development squad and provincial teams from Alberta and Ontario were among some of the other outfits making use of the mountain.

"You could watch them and say; 'That's what their line was, I should try that next time,'" said Whistler skier Kelly Steeves, who has now been to three camps in Chile with the club.

"You always want to see what that next level is and try to achieve that. It's nice to have them right there, training beside you."

It's still several weeks until the mountain opens here at home, and several more before the winter race schedule will really get going. However, the camp provided a great chance for racers to get a head start on perfecting their technique.

"During the summer, we break down our skiing and work on parts of it, but at the Chile camp is where it starts to all come back together again," said Steeves, 17. "You put the timer on and try to go fast again while still considering all the things you've been working on in the summer."

Although the skiers also kept busy keeping up on homework in between training sessions, it wasn't all hard work for the group. They woke up to a 25-centimetre dump one morning and didn't pass up on the powder, while the trip ended with a couple of days on the Pacific Ocean after leaving the resort.

"We went out to the coast and enjoyed a little surf and sand. The kids really deserved that and it was a well-earned little recovery break at low altitude before returning home," said Boyd, adding that the time spent away from the ski hill was also a great cultural experience for the campers.

Steeves said her first trip to Chile is her most memorable one. Gershon said he won't be forgetting about his first time skiing in the southern hemisphere anytime soon, either.

"Getting to see Chile a little bit was pretty cool, on top of all of the skiing we got," he said. "It was all just a great time."

And with two weeks of top-notch training now under their belts, both skiers said they're eager to get the race season underway.

"I think it's going to be a fairly good year," said Steeves. "We've had some really good training so far and I'm looking forward to it."

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