Austral Aspirations: Alex Taran dishes on food, snow and safety in Chile

The Northern Hemisphere is well into summer and most backcountry devotees have swapped their skis out for dirt-oriented gear. But there are a dedicated few who never want the backcountry ski season to end. These are the die-hards who travel south where the snow is just beginning to accumulate.

For the latest installment of “Austral Aspirations,” we caught up with Alex Taran, founder of the South American Beacon Project (SABP), to talk about what the backcountry and avalanche safety scenes are like in Chile and why she has spent the last nine years heading south for the summer months.


Alex Taran goes on a sunset tour in Valle Hermoso outside of Las Trancas, Chile. [Photo] Spencer Francey

Backcountry Magazine: Do you travel to Chile every year for skiing?

Alex Taran: I was forecasting last winter in Idaho, and I have been guiding every year in Chile until this year. I am still going down, because I am doing Beacon Project work down there, but I am taking classes at San Francisco State University—I am studying pre-med.

BCM: Why did you start traveling to South America?

AT: Nine years ago was my first season in South America, and it was spent patrolling at La Parva. I knew I wanted to go down there—I was dating a Chilean—but we broke up within a month of me arriving. Despite all that, I made some of the best friends of my life that summer, and I have been heading down for a few months a year ever since. After [I stopped patrolling at La Parva] I did some freeskiing events down there, and then I started the South American Beacon Project, which I have been working on for the last six years.

Taran explores terrain in the Pirigallo Valley, Las Trancas. [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

Taran explores terrain in the Pirigallo Valley, Las Trancas. [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

BCM: What regions do you love skiing in Chile?

AT: For the first four years that I was in Chile, I lived near the central cordillera near Santiago. That area is really cool because there are a lot of couloir-like features and some really big mountains like Aconcagua. That area has some of the tallest mountains in South America. But as you get farther south there is more soul, a heart that emerges. And there are pockets of the [cultural] heart in the central region, but I eventually moved to Las Trancas [where I resonated with the people]. It helped that there are hot springs and volcanoes in that more southern region, too. I lived in Las Trancas for four years where there is a rad community and a lot of amazing lift-access out-of-bounds skiing.

Even farther south, I did a lot of guiding where there is more volcano skiing, and I did a lot of avalanche work in Patagonia too.  There is some steep skiing in Patagonia, and then as you get even farther south there are long approaches to these huge towers. You are not down there to get extreme, although I am sure you could find extreme terrain, but it’s more about skiing around these big rock monolith walls.

Taran makes turns under the blue skies of Valle Hermoso. [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

Taran makes turns under the blue skies of Valle Hermoso. [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

BCM: What is so special about being able to go down and live in Chile in the summer?

AT: So much of it is the friends that I only get to see four months out of the year. And the thing about the culture is that when someone is really your friend, they will give you the shirt off their back. People say that, but I have gone to my friend’s houses and they say, “Sleep in my bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.” And I think, “Are you crazy? Wow.” And they say, “Nope, you sleep in the bed,” and they go grab a pillow and sleep o the couch.

When I am patrolling with my friends, if someone has a apple and there are six people, that apple is getting cut into six even slices, and everyone is getting a slice of the apple. You might get the most minuscule slice of apple, but everyone is getting one. If you don’t know someone, they are a bit more reserved, but friends are close.

Also, the food’s amazing; the steak’s amazing, I feel like there is a general attitude of “Why not?” Chileans, when they do anything, they do it 100%, whether it’s calculated or not.

Taran lectures for SABP training in the Barnechea Municipality . [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

Taran lectures for SABP training in the Barnechea Municipality . [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

BCM: Tell me about the South American Beacon Project.

AT: What we do for the Beacon Project is two things. First, we try to get rescue tools to organizations that can’t afford these tools and to rescue personnel whose employers don’t deem it important enough to provide them with those tools. One part is to get the beacons down there. The second part is that we want to create an environment where there is talk about avalanches, there’s awareness, there’s education that’s going on. Everyone we give beacons to, we do training with. We also do training with the public. It is nothing crazy, just outreach, avalanche presentations or beacon training that your average avalanche center might host [in North America]. We want people talking about avalanches, learning how to recognize them and then learning how to recognize basic ways to avoid them and to recognize when they don’t know enough to go [into the backcountry].

The Municipality Barnechea SABP group. [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

The Municipality Barnechea SABP group. [Photo] Courtesy Alex Taran

BCM: How has that program evolved over the years?

AT: We see bigger and bigger turnouts as the years progress. When we started events, we had maybe seven people come. Now we have events where we see over 100 people show up. A lot of the [participants] are very impromptu, because, unfortunately, Chile can struggle with organization. So an event turnout is generally [unexpectedly] huge. They are asking questions, and they are engaged. If there is an accident, we want people sharing the information about the accident. We want people talking about things that go on during the winter, because they never were before. Before, when there was an accident, they wanted someone to blame so no one would talk about it. Now, people are starting to talk about avalanches, realizing that it is an opportunity to learn and share this knowledge and experience with other people so that maybe other people can avoid similar situations.

As far as organizations go, something that’s great is seeing that this is growing the avalanche industry in a way where we are now seeing organizations buy beacons for their employees. We see organizations help people pay to take courses. Our goal is to make it so that the people performing the rescue have a higher level of education as well. A lot of times it’s not that people don’t want that information, it’s just not available to them.

Before the SABP, a lot of people didn’t realize they needed this education. I would often hear, “Gringa, relax. No tenemos avalanches en Chile,” And that’s clearly not the case. And it has gone from “No tenemos avalanches en Chile,” to people getting caught in avalanches and sharing the stories and videos of this happening to raise awareness. And people are talking about courses and trying to get educated.

Tara takes a selfie on top of Volcan Nuevo, Las Trancas. [Photo] Alex Taran

Taran takes a selfie on top of Volcan Nuevo, Las Trancas. [Photo] Alex Taran

BCM: What are you looking forward to this summer when you head back down?

AT: As always, I want to go ski a bunch of mountains. I have some lines picked out already. I am excited to go back to Argentina for a moment—I’m headed to Bariloche. And I am just excited to see a bunch of my friends, eat a lot of roasted meat, drink red wine, piscolas and maybe go hit up a discotec mixed in with some skiing. That’s what I want.

To find out more about the South American Beacon Project, visit

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