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High Society: Skiing in Portillo, Chile

High Society: Skiing in Portillo, Chile

This mountain outpost is a living tribute to what skiing used to be.
By Everett Potter
posted: 02/22/2010

Swimming above the Lake of the Incas provides an incredibly scenic place to relax after a day on Portillo's slopes

Way up in the Chilean Andes, Henry Purcell watches the U.S. Men’s Ski Team running gates on the treeless slopes of Portillo and wistfully recalls first coming here in 1961.

“I needed a map to find Chile,” says the 74-year-old Purcell, whose rugged face mirrors the granite spires that dot the Andean terrain. “Like most Americans of that time, I had no concept of geography. Portillo was a six-hour train ride from Santiago, with no road access and no communications. My uncle, Bob Purcell, and his business partner, Dick Aldrich, had put in a low bid when Portillo was auctioned off by the Chilean government. It turned out to be the only bid.”

They hired Purcell, a recent graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, to run South America’s oldest ski resort. In the near half-century since then, Purcell has built it into a legendary destination. He bought out his uncle and partner years ago, but he seems more like a flinty gentleman farmer from upstate New York than a typical CEO. A taciturn Yankee capable of fixing machinery in the morning and speaking knowledgeably about the merits of Chilean wine that evening, Purcell regularly charms his guests—a cast of international characters that might include an Argentinean doctor, the former Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations, supermodel Bridget Hall or the hundreds of Brazilian, Argentinean, Peruvian and American families who have visited Portillo dozens of times.

Purcell’s son from a previous marriage, Miguel, 46, was raised in the hotel and is now its general manager. Which is why the older employees, who measure their tenure in decades, refer to him as “Miguelito”:­ They’ve known him since

he was a boy racing down the hallways. Employees like Bernardo Munoz, in charge of the lifts for 45 years. And maître d’ hôtel  Juan Beiza, and Jaime Cantillo, who runs the bar, who have each been at Portillo for more than 40 years. Or Heidi Knauss, a ski instructor with four decades of tenure who has been coming from her winter home of St. Moritz since ski instructors took ocean liners from Europe to Buenos Aires and crossed the Andes by train. She still leads yoga classes four times a week and rhapsodizes in her Schweizerdeutsch accent about Portillo “because everyone is tossed together here.”

Portillo has a 60 percent repeat-visit rate and runs 90 percent full even during these recessionary times. It’s not just the superb skiing, or the parade of world-class athletes from the U.S., Canadian, Austrian and Norwegian ski teams training here. It’s not the raw, beautiful views of the nearly 20,000-foot Andes that envelop the resort. No, it’s an oft-repeated metaphor that a week in Portillo is like a week on a cruise ship.

Make that an ocean liner, circa 1949, the year the resort opened. Hotel Portillo is stylish, almost genteel, yet it melds its serious ski history with a dash of class. The walls feature photos of skiing greats from Stein Eriksen (an instructor here in the ’50s) to Tommy Moe, yet afternoon tea is a much-loved tradition among the guests, who number just 450 at any one time. It is a relentlessly social place, a vintage house party. Many guests came as children and return every year, often with their own offspring in tow.

All this in a place that bears little resemblance to a traditional ski resort. There’s no town, just the solitary Crayola-yellow-and-blue Hotel Portillo and a few satellite buildings, set at 9,450 feet overlooking the frozen aqua waters of the Lake of the Incas. Those colors seem playfully defiant against the stark

Chilean Andes, which rise like monoliths in an absolutely treeless landscape, as singularly alpine as you can get.

There are no other hotels. No shopping. No quaint ski village. There’s a Chilean army base across the road and a former truckers’ brothel called La Posada, now a staff bar. Rooms have concrete walls painted a serene vanilla, radiators that clank and no TVs. You may hear the footsteps of kids racing in the hallways, yelling in five different languages.

Outside Purcell’s office are photos of Portillo avalanches, an atypical choice of décor for most ski resort heads. He’s on the slopes when the avalanche guns fire at 6:30 a.m., and his walkie-talkie is always within reach.

“We’re doomed by the Andes to be a small resort,” Purcell points out. “So we have an operation that’s compatible with that. For every guest who asks for TVs in the rooms, 10 guests say, ‘Never do it!’”

Things move with a quiet assurance here. Miguel Purcell may seem good-natured and even less assuming than Henry, but he skied for the Chilean Olympic Team, has summited K2 and worked for the luxurious Explora lodges in the unforgiving Atacama Desert in Northern Chile before returning to Portillo.

“We have old buildings and the rooms are small, but what happens here is very special,” Miguel says. “People make an effort to come here. It’s part of their lives. They have to come back every year for a week or two.”

Yet its popularity hinges on the skiing. “Portillo definitely has the best downhill training track anywhere,” explains two-time Olympian Ted Ligety between runs this past September. “It’s action packed: It has a bunch of big jumps, a steep pitch and compression turns,” he says, ticking off the praises. “But what I like best about Portillo is that when you walk out of the front door, you can go skiing in two seconds.”

He isn’t exaggerating. You can drop your skis, click into your bindings and go. It’s reason No. 1 why people fly 10-plus hours from North America to Santiago, then drive two and half hours into the Andes. It’s why Portillo attracts the national teams to train here in July and August. But skiers like Ligety and Lindsey Vonn are part of the scenery, not the main attraction. Savvy skiers come here because this resort may be more

about pure skiing than anywhere else on the planet.

And that’s largely thanks to the Purcells, who have built Portillo into a true skier’s mountain, one with 14 lifts that access some gnarly terrain. Consider the five Va et Vient (Come and Go) lifts that ascend Roca Jack, the downhill run used by the ski teams. These lifts, which transport five people at a time, resemble a T-bar crossed with a 1930s carnival ride, shooting riders up the mountain as if they’re waterskiing uphill.

These lifts are not for the fainthearted, and the terrain they serve is expert, accessing steep chutes like the famous and sometimes dangerous Super C. Once you’re up there at nearly 11,000 feet, looking down at the now Lego-like Hotel Portillo, there are virtually limitless off-piste opportunities if you’re willing to hike. One unnamed run off the Roca Jack lift skirts some boulders in full view of the roof of South America, then runs into untracked Primavera and ends at the foot of the Lake of the Incas. If that’s not enough, a chopper departs daily from in front of the hotel. But unlike in other ski regions, guests don’t board it looking for solitude, because with just 450 guests and 1,235 acres, Portillo’s pistes are as spacious as pristine heli runs.

At day’s end, the hotel is the beating heart of the resort, and everything revolves around this self-contained village. There’s a gym, a basketball court, a daycare center and even a cinema. Of late, the spartan guest rooms have been updated with wifi and modernized bathrooms. But if you want to socialize, you take the antiquated elevator—operated by a bona fide elevator man—down to the living room. This is the hub of the hotel, a vast space with columns, a coffered ceiling, a large fireplace and nearly a dozen couches for lounging, reading and game-playing. And there’s plenty of time for all three, because in these sophisticated times, dinner won’t commence for hours. The first seating is at 8; the second at 9:45, when most skiers in the U.S. are sipping a nightcap—or already sleeping.

Which explains why much time is passed in the legendary bar, with its white vaulted ceiling and an entire wall lined with wine barrels. Created in 1965 by Patricio Guzman, a decorator from

Desilu Studios (where I Love Lucy was filmed), the bar is manned by the venerable Jamie Cantillo, king of the pisco sour, Chile’s national drink.

“The first day,” Henry says, “Americans think it’s too late to eat dinner. By the second day, 8:30 is fine. As the week goes on, they come in later and later.”

The dining room is Old World—and old school. Guests are assigned a table and a waiter, both of which will be theirs for the week.  And nightly the Purcells can be found at the second banquette on the right. That usually includes Henry’s Minnesota-raised wife, Ellen, who came to Portillo as a young instructor, returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard Business School, worked for Michael Eisner at Disney, and called Henry on a whim when she was in Santiago on business.

“We started talking at lunch, and we haven’t stopped talking since,” he says. Ellen, 52, now heads Portillo’s marketing department and raises their 8-year-old son, Henry Jr. The Purcells’ dinners are frequently interrupted by passersby, to whom Henry the elder is polite to the point of being courtly.

“I can see everyone,” Henry says of the booth he’s occupied since 1961. “I can see if they’re happy, or I can say hello or deal with a problem.”

The three-course meal is served by an army of red-jacketed, bow-tied waiters. One night it might be curanto Chileño, a classic seafood stew. Another night, filet mignon or leg of lamb. The wine list is heavy with a smart selection of Chilean labels. After dinner, guests wander into the living room for coffee and more conversation, or head to the bar or downstairs to the disco, which stays open until 3 a.m. Others walk across the road under an inky sky lit up with the Southern Cross. Destination: La Posada, the former brothel turned staff bar where you rub elbows with ski instructors, waitstaff and other curious guests. You won’t find this cross-class conviviality at most resorts in North America or Europe.

The Purcells recently expanded their brand of hospitality to the Atacama Desert with Tierra Atacama, a sleek desert lodge. There is talk of something similar in Patagonia. And they may add 40 rooms to the hotel, perhaps in the modernist style of the chalet Henry and Ellen keep on the edge of the Lake of the Incas.

“We know Portillo is very delicate,” says Miguel. “You could easily break the balance.”

But even if they do expand, don’t expect much to change, Henry says, adding, “Miguel and I have the same idea of where we want to go.”

Indeed they do. One morning after Ligety and the ski team finish GS training on Plateau, the Purcells, father and son, stand at the top, laughing, challenging and finally racing each other through the gates. Each skis with the grace of someone lucky enough to do this nearly every day, yet one thing is obvious: Who finishes first isn’t nearly as important as how much fun they have getting there.

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