Can we please take a moment in acknowledging the Norwegians, for without them an Andean snow heaven might not exist. They were the first to bring skis to the Andes, whilst trying to find a pass between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina. If you see one, please thank them for finding Portillo, a “little pass”, that also happens to average seven meters of snow each season. Thank them for deciding that the ‘little pass’ should skirt the deep inky Laguna del Inca, whose depth is a mystery and full of Incan secrets. Thank them for finding a diamond lovers heaven, if you too are a fan of diamonds of the black variety.
Accessible by direct flight from Sydney and just two hours outside of Santiago de Chile, Portillo is a serious skier’s resort, a place where it’s totally normal to be riding a lift, eating a meal, and skiing alongside the world’s best skiers and boarders, including a multitude of Olympic teams in training. It’s not all medal winners though, Portillo’s epic freeride terrain attracts the best of the world’s big mountain skiers, like Chris Davenport, two time extreme skiing world champion and Angel Collinson, basically the embodiment of a big mountain, badass, dream ski babe. The resort also attracts its fair share of adventure loving celebrities. Ask the restaurant host Juan about the time he had to return a pistol to Fidel Castro, that he had accidentally left at the dinner table. Because of the size of the place, you are living and playing right alongside everyone as equals; if there was ever an opportunity for ‘jacket chasing’ (ski team groupies), this is where it would happen.
Portillo has the feel of an adult summer camp. Everyone moves in together on a Saturday and is there until the following weekend – no day-trippers here. The price includes meals, accommodations, activities, and lift access, making it a wonderfully carefree week. The people you ski with are the same you eat with, ride the lifts with, drink and dance with, and maybe even sleep with. The Chilean word for partying is ‘carretear’, something the guests tend to take seriously. Lifelong relationships are formed over corduroy and wine. Thankfully the entire place keeps a leisurely pace. Lifts open at a gentle 9am, ensuring plenty of time to sleep off the Escudos and stumble across the 100m snowfield to the lifts. Pisco sours (the national drink of Chile) plus elevation (you sleep at about 3,000 meters) are a wonderfully lethal combination.
Just in case I still haven’t proved my point, let’s get mathematical. Four hundred and fifty is the magic number; 450 guests, spread among 14 lifts makes for some of the best math I have done recently. To save you the mental anguish of arithmetic, this ratio means there are no lift lines, no crowds, and ample space on the slopes to carve. Even more remarkable is the staff’s ability to learn your name, your boots, your skis, and your meal preferences within a day or two of arrival. Boris, the boot guy, has your boots ready before you even ask for them (some say he learns them by smell only). It’s this friendly, personal touch that keeps people coming back year after year.
But how did the first South American ski area get its true start? Knowing he was sitting on a gold mine of conditions and world-class runs, Bob Purcell, uncle of current owner Henry Purcell, lobbied the international ski federation for the opportunity to host the World Championship in 1966. Nature, however, wasn’t having any of it, and a 1965 South Pacific typhoon dumped so much snow on Portillo that the corresponding avalanches knocked out all but two of the lifts. The federation found it in their hearts to give Portillo a second chance at hosting if they could get things fixed by the 1966 start date. Purcell brought lift engineers from Poma, in Poland, down to Chile to custom design lifts that serviced the avalanche chutes, home to the world cup runs, lifts that, to this day, are unique to Portillo. They were rebuilt in time and the World Championship ended up being a great success, with France taking all but one gold medal. This was the first World Championship in the southern hemisphere, putting the resort on the radar of those craving powder year-round. Just a few years later, extreme skier Steve McKinney broke the 200kph speed barrier on skis. If that wasn’t enough, Warren Miller, maker of many a cult ski film, soon added to the allure by filming on location at Portillo soon after and for many years to follow, the most latest entry being 2015’s “Chasing Shadows.”
Despite all the history, not much has changed here in the past 50 years. The hotel is the same yellow hotel, the owner is still the owner, the restaurant host is still the host (ok, so his tenure has only been 46 years) and condors are still a common sight soaring high over the peaks. The only real noticeable changes have been the Wi-Fi connectivity, the new grooming equipment, and transportation to the mountain. As charming as it must have been to take a single gauge train up to the big yellow hotel, the new road and its 29 hair-raising curves is much less prone to snowouts. No condos or shops have been built and there are zero plans to add any. There are no outside distractions, no towns, no restaurants, and no bars besides those found on the property. The Purcells got the intimate formula right on the first go and have stuck admirably with it for half a century.
On the off-chance you aren’t a natural born off-piste killer, Portillo also happens to be where the northern hemisphere’s best instructors spend their ‘off season’. Pick a world-class European, North American or Japanese resort and it’d be a safe bet their best people are teaching at Portillo each summer. Their enthusiasm for winter sport is infectious, and their experience is unmatched. Whether you’re a newbie, just getting started, or an old pro, this is where you should be learning. If your plans don’t include spending 8 hours a day shredding, there are heaps of other activities like movie screenings, yoga classes, wine tastings, a rock wall, a gym, basketball court, multiple hot tubs, and game rooms to keep you occupied. If that’s not enough, 3,400 meters up on a cliff overlooking the Laguna del Inca lies the most beautiful aprés ski spot imaginable – Tio Bob’s complete with food, bar, and some of the finest Chilean wines.
If you are looking for adventure, Portillo has to be on your list. Portillo has some of the most challenging and quickly accessible freeskiing on the planet, world-class heli-skiing, epic hikes to avalanche chutes full of freshies, the renowned Super C couloir, plus the creature comforts of hot tub happy hour. I have tried to do it justice, to express how special it is but the words are simply not enough. You have to experience it for yourself.