Summer skiing in South America
It’s summer in Aspen but there’s deep powder south of the equator in Portillo.
In August 2002, my friend Inge and I visited Portillo, Chile, as part of a ski clinic organized by Aspen’s two-time world freestyle champion, John Clendenin. We were champing at the bit to ski during the “summer,” hone our skills and get ready for the coming North American season.
Thanks to airlines like American, Delta and Lan Chile, which all offer flights into Santiago, it’s easy to get to Portillo. But the 102-mile, two-and-a-half-hour van ride to the resort turned out to be practically as challenging as the skiing.
When we reached the Andean foothills, the road abruptly began to wind upward in a series of steeply sharpening switchbacks. The van swayed from side to side while negotiating 29 hairpin turns with no guard rails. As we penetrated the heart of the Andes, craggy gray peaks rose out of the treeless terrain like the backs of giant dinosaurs. Near the pass between Chile and Argentina, where one mountain range blends into another, tiny Portillo popped into view. The resort’s sole structure is a yellow and blue crescent-shaped building tucked into a snow-covered bowl at 9,350 feet.
Unlike other resorts that offer ample shopping and a choice of restaurants, Portillo is a self-contained resort with one utilitarian gift shop. It may tide you over for a few items you left at home, but don’t plan on an Aspen-style shopping spree.
The Portillo complex is large, but the check-in lobby is unimpressive. The floor is puddled with snowmelt and cluttered with the luggage of departing and arriving guests. And watch your step, because the owners’ friendly dogs, Madelena and Mochilera, routinely lie in the busiest possible spots, gazing up with sad eyes and waiting for a pat on the head. A few nights later when I wandered the hotel unable to sleep, these two furry friends kept me company.
Big bowl of snow
After we explored the hotel’s charming and gracious common rooms, our group hit the slopes even before our rooms were ready. We changed into our skiwear in a makeshift theater near the lobby, pulled on our boots in the lower-level ski rental and storage area, and stepped straight out to the lifts for our first practice runs.
As we rode up the lift, one of our instructors pointed out Portillo’s vertiginous Kilometro Lanzado, where he said the world speed record has been broken three times. Though we were skiing at about 10,000 feet, the tallest peak in South America, Aconcagua, rises just behind the resort to 22,841 feet.
Portillo has 800 acres of skiable terrain and 12 lifts with a maximum vertical drop of 2,664 feet. The longest run is two miles and the highest ski point is 10,900 feet. There are plenty of green and blue runs for practice, but the grooming doesn’t compare to Colorado corduroy. Of the groomed runs, 10 percent are rated beginner, 70 percent are intermediate and 20 percent are expert “on-piste.”
Upper lifts offer access to ungroomed steeps and vast, uncrowded bowls of uncut powder.
As I looked around the alpine bowl that surrounds the resort, I was impressed by the starkness, the breadth of the powder and, well, the very fact that we were skiing in the Andes in the middle of summer!
Old World comfort
On our first day, the clinic participants skied together on the lower terrain. The sky was bright blue, the weather was warm and there was a 19-foot base. What more could we ask? We skied until the lifts closed and it was time for dinner.
On the first night, our ski group met in the cozy bar made of stucco and stone, where there is a large fireplace and live music. Since we’d requested the second seating for dinner, we had time to enjoy delicious “pisco sours,” a mixture of grape brandy, lemon, sugar and crushed ice.
We later learned that the World Cup was conceived on a bar napkin in this very location, over the same pisco sours. Owner Henry Purcell told me that in 1966, coaches and officials with the International Ski Federation (including French journalist Serge Lang, French coach Honore Bonnet and then-USA head coach Bob Beattie, an Aspenite) refined what was then just an idea – to stage races every year instead of every two years between the Olympics and the World Championships. Thus, the modern World Cup was born.
In good spirits, we retired to the leather-paneled dining room, which has all the amenities of a fine old European resort. Though jackets and ties aren’t required, guests dress fashionably for dinner. Head waiter Juan Beiza seated us at a round table for 10, which served as our table for the duration of our stay. Our waiters were friendly, funny and accommodating, which made dinner an enjoyable and festive event. All meals in the restaurant are included in the room price, and the menus are varied and ample. If you don’t like the selections for any particular meal, the chef will prepare whatever you like for a nominal surcharge. Be sure to sample the delicious Chilean wines, including “Los Vascos” from the Rothchild Laffitte vineyard in Chile.
There aren’t many resorts where you can still have afternoon tea in the dining room, but Portillo is one of them. Though the fare is simple – small rolls with sweet butter and jam, tea or coffee and a cookie or two – teatime is a welcome respite after a long day of skiing.
The Hotel Portillo complex includes a bar, dining room, cafe, disco and a small theater, which shows a different movie each evening. One night we enjoyed watching the Banff Extreme Sports Film Festival, which showed athletes skiing terrain similar to some of the expert off-piste runs in Portillo. In the network of tunnels under the hotel there are pingpong and pool tables, a full basketball court, a game room, exercise, yoga and stretch rooms, a large pool, a whirlpool bath, sauna and spa.
The Purcells, who have managed the resort for four generations, are excellent hosts and offer a cocktail party for guests on Sunday evenings.
The resort cannot be called modern or luxurious, but it does boast a timeless Old World elegance. There are no televisions and no radios in the rooms (if TV-watching is a must, there is one in the lower-level disco). To keep guests apprised of world events, a daily newssheet features lead stories from The New York Times. The mood and tone of Portillo are relaxed and low-key, with the emphasis on skiing and social activities. When guests are not out skiing or snowboarding, most rest, read, socialize, or play backgammon and other games in the stately, wood-paneled living room, which is connected to an outdoor veranda. Many members of our group took advantage of the spa and workout room, and treated themselves to wonderful massages and yoga and stretch classes after skiing.
For two people, the cost of a week in Portillo (including room, board and lift tickets) ranges from $1,820 during early or late season to $3,770 during high season. The ski season runs from June to October. Standard rooms are small and spare, but the suites are lovely. Don’t forget to bring electrical adapters for the European outlets.
Though Inge and I came with a private, Aspen-based ski clinic, Portillo’s ski school also offers clinics and private lessons. Mike Rogan, who worked with our group for a day, directs Portillo’s Ski School.
From bright sun to blizzards
After our initial afternoon foray onto Portillo’s slopes, the next few days dawned bright and sunny – so warm, in fact, that we could ski with our jackets tied around our waists.
However, one day the lifts were closed due to a fierce blizzard and avalanche danger, and another day we skied in whiteout conditions.
Most of the clinic participants skied on the right side of the Lake of the Incas on the El Plateau and Los Lomas lifts, where the terrain is generally groomed and excellent for practice runs. High above the intermediate lifts, more accomplished skiers can take the so-called slingshot lifts, which were designed expressly for Portillo and provide access to the high avalanche chutes across the Roca Jack and Condor slopes. For those who crave waist-deep powder, the four-man Condor Poma lift offers access to Plateau Superior, a field of untracked powder.
The powder tends to stay untracked because the resort can only accommodate 450 guests. Gazing up toward those high slopes, often we could not even see the skiers as they descended in clouds of snow. Skiing the slopes below, it wasn’t unusual to look up and see small avalanches let go and then finish just above the skiers’ tracks across the powder field.
On our last afternoon we had lunch at the tiny, rustic, ski-in Tio Bob’s, where we ate gourmet-quality grilled chicken sausages, fresh garden greens and vegetables, and robust Chilean wines. As we sat outside in bright red chairs, on a cornice suspended above the lake, the sky a brilliant blue and fresh powder everywhere, we all agreed that life doesn’t get any better. As if staging an exhibition just for us, the ski patrol set off charges just across from our outdoor dining area. As we watched, huge avalanches came pouring down in seeming slow motion onto the lake beneath us.
Each skier in our clinic enjoyed the last run in better form than ever before. Some of our off-piste, extreme-skiing friends laughingly described how they had “lost their inner grandmother.” I hadn’t lost mine, but I did feel that I was on the verge of moving to the next level with more balance and grace.
At dinner that evening, Inge and I agreed that Portillo offers hospitality, fun, relaxation and great skiing. For those not ready to call it quits at the end of April, Portillo is one answer to extending the ski season throughout the summer.
Susan Beckman is the president of a legal search firm, a writer and advanced intermediate skier who lives in Aspen.
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