What do skiing and a copper mine have in common?

So in terms of sports and outdoor activities, Chile is obviously fairly well recognised for its skiing thanks to the backdrop of the Andes and only an hour from the Capital you can be on the slopes. Then economically speaking Chile is the largest exporter of Copper in the world. So in one weekend in June, along with Caitlin (my friend from Oxford) I got to experience both of these aspects of the country.

Early one Saturday morning Caitlin and I, along with another girl from the USA, Courtney went skiing at a small resort about an hour from Santiago up in the mountains. I must say I was a little nervous as my only previous snow sport experience was snowboarding in the Alps which ended with me having to trek halfway down the mountain through deep snow to find a runaway snowboard. With this track record I was a little nervous about heading into the Andes to try skiing for the first time. Caitlin assured me that I would be fine which was good considering I had to be maid of honour for my best friends wedding less than a month later and I doubt it would have been appreciated if I had turned up there with any broken bones.

Trying to stay upright while turning on my skis

We had a slow start to the day as for some reason none of us could get our boots onto the skis when we first got to the slope. There was much laughter, slipping, sliding and holding onto each other whilst trying to get rid of the snow caked on the bottom of our boots. We had a very amused audience considering the place we went skiing was not touristy at all and so we kind of stuck out as the only English speaking people. Eventually we were strapped in and Caitlin tried to teach us how to stand upright (without sliding down the slope), how to stop (very important) and most importantly how to stand up again when we fell (which happened fairly frequently in the beginning). Standing up was no easy feat considering you have these really long things strapped to your feet, but with a lot of body twisting I eventually got the hang of it. We then walked up the slope a little (with skis perpendicular to the slope) to try and ski down a little, and turn and stop etc. By this stage my toes had started to get pins and needles and slowly my feet were going numb. I was not sure if this was normal as I knew ski boots had to be tight and probably slightly uncomfortable at first. So instead of being a wimp, I carried on. Caitlin had faith in us and very soon we were heading to the ski lift to go to the top of the slope (a baby slope for experienced people, but it looked rather daunting to me). The next obstacle was getting up the slope as the lift was not a chair, but rather a disk attached to a rope that dragged you up the slope with the disk between your legs for you to ‘sit’ on. With the first attempt I only made it a few metres before falling and having to let go of the cable. But on the second try I made it to the top! Coming down involved A LOT of falling since every time I tried to turn I was not quick enough and when my feet were pointing straight down I would obviously pick up speed and then panic and fall over. Caitlin kept telling me to wedge the skis on the inside edges and point them towards eachother, but no matter how much I tried, I never seemed to wedge them enough to stop properly. By this stage my feet were totally numb and when I mentioned this to Caitlin she said that it was not supposed to be like that, so I went back to the rental place and got new boots and skis. Now I know one should never blame equipment, but the difference with the new boots and skis was

It felt like we were on top of the world (or at least the Andes) - clouds clung to them mountains far below us

unbelievable. Firstly I could feel my feet again which is always good (gone was the worry of having to have my feet amputated due to lack of oxygen supply) and secondly I could wedge the skis properly and managed to stop and turn without flying straight down the slope at what felt like warp speed. I was so thrilled when I first made it down the slope without falling once!!! So the rest of the day was spent going up and down the slope until my knees eventually decided that they had done enough for the day and I was in agony. It was a fabulous day in a spectacular location (the clouds were below us and just the tips of the mountains were visible. Pity skiing is so expensive or I would happily have done it a few more times over the winter. It also felt really good to get some exercise again as I had been pretty stationary for a few weeks since our hiking adventures in Bariloche. The next day I felt stiff in muscles I didn’t know I had even been exercising.

The day after skiing, we were again up rather early – this time for a tour of the world’s largest copper mine and a historical town called Sewell located at the mine site, quite high up in the Andes. The town is now used as offices for Codelco (the national mining corporation) and is actually a World Heritage Site. It was interesting to hear about the history of the town which is really isolated and high in the mountains and the snow was at least a metre deep in most places. Back in the day alcohol was banned in the town, but as always people will make a plan and women used to hide the alcohol under their clothes and make it look like they were pregnant. It seems the Carabineros (police) were pretty slow to catch on though and it was only after a few years of seeing the same women constantly pregnant that they figured the scheme out. Also, men and women who were not married were kept very separate in the town and if a woman was caught in the men’s hostel then they were instantly marched off to the court to get married. Makes me appreciate the freedoms of modern society just a little more…

Caitlin and I in all our mining paraphenalia

Since Caitlin’s PhD research involves mining and I have done work with various mining companies in South Africa, it was a really interesting day out. We got to go underground and see some of the tunnels and the process of crushing the ore before it is sent to the processing plant etc. To go into the mine we had to get kitted out in reflective orange suits, hard hats, safety boots and even had a gas mask and a carbon monoxide gadget thingee. We looked quite a site as you can see from the pictures. Underground we saw loads of miners as it was the change in shifts and a bunch of them were singing Waka Waka (the World Cup song), so it seems that football is always on people’s minds here. I think the tour guide was a bit confused about us at first as we didn’t ask the typical tourist kind of questions, but were more interested in working conditions, safety, the reputation of the government owned copper company etc. Not what is normally asked on the tour it seems. Looking back on this experience now makes me think of the miners trapped in San Jose mine near Copiapo in the north of Chile. After only an hour underground I was really happy to get back into the sunlight. I can’t imagine how they felt for 69 days…

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