By Greg Fitzsimmons
From our vantage point at the top of Portillo, Chile’s 4,000-foot Super C couloir, the hairpin turns in the road leading up to Hotel Portillo look like a precarious Jenga tower, ready to fall to pieces at any moment. Originally a trail etched into the Andes by indigenous tribes, it became a railroad in 1910. Now it’s the main thoroughfare between Santiago, Chile, and Mendoza, Argentina, clogged with semis schlepping goods over Uspallata Pass and vans carrying skiers to the 9,450-foot-high base area of historic Ski Portillo, South America’s oldest ski area.
The mirrored surface of Laguna del Inca, an alpine lake at the top of the switchbacks, reflects an amphitheater of jagged peaks and steep, rock-peppered lines, while nearby Aconcagua—the largest mountain in world outside of the Himalaya at nearly 23,000 feet—looms above all. It’s a harsh landscape, especially in winter, and the hotel’s bright yellow exterior walls shine like a beacon on the lake’s southern shore.
Getting to the top the Super C requires work. We started the two-hour bootpack early in the morning after sliding off the Roca Jack, Portillo’s notorious, carnage-causing five-person platter lift. The crux of the climb—a puckering traverse across a no-fall closeout chute—was made that much more difficult by the fact that just yesterday we were stuffing ski gear into luggage in 80-degree Colorado. But the promise of powder in August prompted us to catch a red-eye south. If you’ve never tried it, falling asleep in summer and waking up in winter is quite possibly a skier’s best dream.
Portillo has beckoned skiers into the Andes from around the world for more than 80 years. They’ve always come for the skiing and the Chilean sun, but increasingly, in a time when other resorts are constantly expanding, building high-speed chairlifts, and erecting slopeside condos, they’re coming for something else.
In the early 1960s, an expat businessman named Bob Purcell bought the Hotel Portillo from the Chilean government with a lowball bid in an auction. To run the place, he immediately sought out his 28-year-old nephew, Henry, who had studied hotel administration at Cornell and was working for the Hilton Hotels Corporation.
“My uncle called me,” remembers Henry Purcell, a quiet and humble 79-year-old. “He said, ‘This is what we’ve done. Would you be interested in leaving what you’re doing and coming down?’ I was sick of working for a big company, so I agreed. It was a good decision.”
But early on, it became clear that Chile ran on a different set of rules from those taught in the Ivy League. The Purcells had to adapt. In those days, a six-hour train ride was the only way guests could get to Portillo. Frequent avalanches closed the railroad, and guests sometimes skied down along the railroad tracks after checking out.
When the hotel was cut off, Henry would organize boxes of food to be dropped by airplanes. A single telephone line, “Portillo Uno,” was the only connection to the outside world. Many, it seems, were drawn to that simplicity.
“The people in South America live a little differently than we do up here,” says ski legend Stein Eriksen, who began visiting Portillo in the ’60s. “It’s a little more relaxed. There was good camaraderie and a lot of fun people and great food and wine.”
For the first few years after Bob bought the hotel, Portillo remained an undeground haunt for globe-trotting skiers like Eriksen and a few wealthy South American families. In 1966, however, the ski world’s attention focused squarely on Hotel Portillo. Henry had managed to convince the International Ski Federation to hold the Alpine World Ski Championships on Portillo’s slopes. The event was challenged by avalanche danger and insufficient infrastructure, and to this day it’s the only World Championships to be held in the Southern Hemisphere.
But it put Ski Portillo on the map. Ski-film maker Dick Barrymore documented the 1966 championships in his classic movie The Secret Race, which starred the likes of Jean-Claude Killy, Guy Périllat, Léo Lacroix, Willy Bogner, and Jimmie Heuga. The film captured a scene in 1966 that seems little changed today.
That’s no accident, according to Henry, who has owned and operated the hotel and resort since buying out his uncle. “We decided years ago that we were not going to develop here, that we were going to leave it without condominiums,” he says. “We worked hard early on to create the character and atmosphere. It’s not hard to retain it anymore, though, because most people—guests and employees—like it this way. But there are people who come here and just hate it. They’re the ones who want more glitz and shopping and restaurants.”
Henry’s commitment to keeping Portillo real has preserved a level of authenticity uncommon in today’s bustling ski-resort world. His team now has snow safety under control and internet service available in every room, but preserving the ambience has been a communal effort. Veteran employees who watched Henry’s son Miguel grow from a toddler running through the halls to the hotel’s general manager still refer to him as Miguelito. Juan Beiza, the charismatic maître d’ hôtel who greets guests at every meal with a familiar smile, has been a Portillo fixture for more than 40 years— just like bartender Jaime Cantillo, who has mixed decades’ worth of pisco sours.
And it was Portillo’s early ski pioneers—like those featured in The Secret Race, as well as Othmar Schneider and Pepi Stiegler—who clicked into bear-trap bindings and paved the way for modern heroes (and Portillo regulars) like Chris Davenport, Mike Douglas, Daron Rahlves, and Shane McConkey.
“We’ve watched the evolution of skiing happen right here,” says Henry. “Little by little, it seems like everyone gets down here.”
“Portillo is a small mountain that skis huge,” says Chris Davenport, who has been coming to Portillo for 13 consecutive years to host his Superstars Camp every August. During my visit, Davenport had close to 35 clients and celebrity coaches like Douglas, Rahlves, Ingrid Backstrom, Wendy Fisher, and Chris Anthony skiing with him.
Portillo offers inbounds terrain for beginner through expert skiers and recommends guides for anyone choosing to tackle its abundant off-piste terrain. Its backcountry is a big draw for North American big-mountain skiers.
The late McConkey, who spent numerous seasons in Portillo with Davenport as a coach at the Superstars Camp, was fond of saying that when you looked at mountains, what you saw depended on which goggles you had on. But he wasn’t talking about Oakley or Smith. As Davenport explains, McConkey meant that who you were as a skier dictated how you saw terrain. While casual ski vacationers might look at Portillo’s trail map and see just a few groomed trails, “that’s not what we as big-mountain skiers see,” says Davenport. “We look across the valley at the Roca Jack side wearing our ‘freeride goggles’ and see endless opportunities for skiing. So this place that looks so small to some looks absolutely huge to us.”
Portillo has also been a place where two seemingly distant corners of the skiing kingdom—big-mountain freeriders and gate-bashing racers—come together.
“Portillo is a training ground for national teams,” says World Cup veteran turned big-mountain skier Rahlves. “I’ve been down here 11 times. The quality of training in Portillo is better than anywhere, but the best part is the lifelong friends you make during one week here. You’re seeing each other all day long, in the dining room, on the hill. There’s a perfect flow down here.”
Stand on the deck with guys like Davenport or Purcell and they’ll point with a ski pole at lines that have been skied over the years. There’s the frozen rock buttress to the looker’s left of the lake that McConkey used to ski-BASE from. There’s the seemingly unskiable shoulder-wide chute that Mike Douglas successfully navigated during a photo challenge years ago, and the infamous left-footed turn into La Garganta chute, which competitors barreled through during the ’66 Worlds. Seminal moments in our sport’s history took place on these slopes.
Two lounging St. Bernards, Portillo’s longtime mascots, often flank the hotel’s heavy wooden doors. Just inside, there’s one dining room (white-tablecloth), one bar, and one ski shop. Families sit in circles by the fire, laughing and playing card games. Meals morph into multi-hour affairs over bottles of Carménère, Chile’s signature wine. The pace is simple, uncluttered, refreshing.
It’s not uncommon to see the U.S. or Austrian ski teams playing Ping-Pong in the afternoons or singing along to the ’80s cover band in the bar at night. Freeskier Pep Fujas was once spotted slamming shots with Austrian he-man Hermann Maier. There’s Julia Mancuso dancing in the discotheque, Rahlves tossing his twin kids onto a beanbag, and Colby James West playing soccer against the ski-shop employees after a day of charging Portillo’s terrain.
A weeklong trip to Hotel Portillo, the standard visit length, feels a bit like being on a cruise ship that ran aground in the Andes. The hotel staff even refers to guests as pasajeros, or passengers.
“This is how skiing was,” says Henry Purcell. “I think that people are looking for more places that are old-style skiing.”
One by one we drop into the Super C, Chilean powder rising like smoke with each turn. Vertical rock walls define the couloir’s entrance, so once you’re in, you’re committed. After the blind rollover entry, the slope steepens to a 45-degree pitch. It’s like looking down the barrel of a gun as we link turns in the tight, seemingly endless couloir. Eventually we get spit out onto a wide-open, untracked apron and arc super-G turns in knee-deep powder back to the hotel’s dining room.
“There isn’t anything in the world like the Super C,” Davenport tells me over a plate of empanadas. “It’s an amazing visual experience. You’re looking down on the Hotel Portillo and the switchbacks, and it feels like you’re being pulled down into the valley below.”
And me? I felt like I had been pulled back in time.
See more Portillo here.