With passion comes responsibility. Skiers, at some point in their lives, need to glide down the black peaks of Portillo, Chile, to be complete.
Portillo, at 9,350 feet, may be located in the most dramatic ski valley on the globe. An old Chilean adage claims that a night spent above treeline doesn't count against your life. If that is the case, then Portillo-entirely above treeline-is the fountain of youth. The resort sits on the shore of Laguna del Inca, a lake formed in a hollow between soaring peaks, some reaching 19,000 feet. One ridge away, 22,841-foot Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, stands watch like an ancient Andean god.
Like other summer ski destinations, Portillo is a training area for the world's top ski teams. But unlike the cramped, slushy glaciers up north, it's a world-class resort, with 2,500 vertical feet running full-throttle all summer.
The resort's welcoming literature notes that "most guests start skiing around 10:30 a.m.," which tells you about Portillo's pace of life. Skiing is taken seriously, but there isn't the American obsession with first tracks and big vertical. "First chair" means a favorable seat at breakfast. Welcome to the Chilean paradox: The high Andes are revered by local skiers, but also can be dismissed with a shrug. "The mountains were here when we went to bed," the thinking goes. "They will be here when we wake up. What's the rush?"
Humor the Americans who rise at dawn so as not to miss a minute on Portillo's slopes. The resort trumpets its grooming to the Santiago market, but the soul of the place is its rugged chutes and long, treeless pitches. The Roca Jack slope is so steep it requires the resort's signature Va et Vient lift, which is like a giant five-platter slingshot. If you can stay on the lift, you can ski the slope. Hike-to skiing is part of the culture here, and you'll discover that your limits are beyond what you imagined. When the lake freezes, locals ski the pitched madness of Laguna or Primavera, which spill onto the ice. At run's end, you skate across the frozen lake back to the lifts in a single glorious act that justifies your pilgrimage here.
Portillo is known as "the cruise ship of the Andes," which captures the layout of the place, if not its old-world service and elegance. Life centers on the bright yellow, 140-room Hotel Portillo, a self-contained world that guests often never leave other than to ski. The complex, first built in the Forties, includes lodging, an elegant dining room, an après bar, cinema, pool, disco, daycare center, shops and spa.
Portillo seems more like a private club than a resort. Occupancy is limited to 450 guests, with an equal staff of 450 to see to their needs. Breakfast starts at 8 a.m. The dining room does not open for dinner until 8:30 p.m., and the resort discourages guests' staying for less than a week. Packages are all-inclusive: lodging, skiing and four meals a day (high tea), and are affordable, at about $1,200 per week.
Lunch at Tio Bob's (Uncle Bob's) is a must: It may be the finest on-slope restaurant in the Western Hemisphere. Or at least it can feel like it when you sit at one of the outdoor tables enjoying a grilled lunch under a limitless blue sky, watching a giant condor riding updrafts overhead.
The on-snow atmosphere here often resembles a World Cup race, with national teams wearing their colors, and rows of skis lined up on the snow. Yet these competitive sharks aren't out for blood on sunny August training days.
At the foot of Va et Vient lift, Austrian star Hermann Maier chides U.S. downhiller Daron Rahlves. Americans overtrain, Maier says, and "use up their legs." You can't tell if he's serious or tweaking a rival. "We Austrians don't work hard and still beat you Americans," he seems to be saying. Whatever. Both of the athletes laugh, breathe in the clean air, touch ski poles and ride the lift side by side. In Portillo, in the summer, life is to be enjoyed.
Guests typically fly into Santiago, which is 100 miles from the resort. Car service is available. The season runs from June to October. Hotel Portillo is the heart of the resort, but bargain hunters may choose the adjacent Octagon and Inca lodges. Ski-week packages include seven nights' lodging, seven days' skiing and four gourmet meals per day, starting at $890. The hotel is packed during the last two weeks in July, when South American schools are on holiday.
INFORMATION 800-829-5325; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.skiportillo.com
Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick and Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/