Summer Skiing in Portillo, Chile

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Summer Skiing in Portillo, Chile

Riding the Roca Jack lift at Chile’s premier ski resort is tantamount to water-skiing, uphill, on snow. You ski up to the contraption and snag one of the eight-inch-diameter discs from where it dangles about four feet from the ground, and pull it between your legs to sit down. That seat attaches to a bar that threads up to another crossbar, which attaches to four other seats, positioning the riders shoulders-distance apart. And that contraption is attached to another cable, which is anchored to another point about 200 yards up the vertical face of the snow-covered mountain.

Listo?” the operator asks. Ready?

A nervous nod will suffice, and with that it’s as if you’re launched out of a slingshot as you fly upwards, your skis bouncing on the uneven snow beneath you.You struggle to keep your balance and try to figure out how the hell you’re going to disembark when everything comes to a stop.

It’s one of two rope tow-style chair lifts in Portillo, a system designed in the 1960s by the French engineering firm Poma to help skiers navigate the upper regions of this famed Chilean ski resort. Traditional lifts could work, but exposure and steep pitch make the cliffs very avalanche prone, and it’s easier to replace these cable Pomas than to rebuild a traditional lift or tow rope.

And Portillo is the only resort that has them—which is why I found myself utterly unclear what to do on the damn things. I’ve been on skis since I was two, but nothing prepares you for the awkward slip-and-slide acrobatics that is riding the Roca Jack the first few times. I’d already fallen before I was able to even link up my first downhill turns.
Portillo, as I would come to find out, is ready to surprise.

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Photo: Nathan Borchelt

The resort sits at a dizzying 9,450 feet, a two-plus-hour drive northeast of Chile’s capital, a route that starts by passing through verdant farmlands that lie just outside of Santiago—grapes, oranges, kiwis, almonds, most grown for export. Then the mountains start to appear. First, you slice through a two-kilometer tunnel carved into a wall of rock, and then you hang a right and pass a train of long-haul trucks on the side of the road, waiting to enter the International Highway, the narrow and only road that links Santiago to all points north. Soon, snow crowds out the roadside as you drive through avalanche-safety tunnels, the roiling whitewater of Rio Blanco on your left flank. Then you start to climb, snaking up the first of more than 30 hairpin switchbacks before pulling off into the shoebox-sized parking lot of Portillo while the road continues its path toward the Chile/Argentina border.

Walk through the doors of the Hotel Portillo and chaos greets you—piles of luggage, groups of students moving like a collective organism throughout the wood-panel room, a motley collection of family members spanning three generations, high-end snowboard bags in plush leather stacked alongside duct-taped hard plastic protective cases the size of a Mini Cooper. You can day-trip to Portillo, but the resort does the bulk of its sales in week-long packages, which includes lodging at the hotel or one of the other few accommodations surrounding the mountain. And chances are—like me—you’ll arrive midday and drop right into the maul of last week’s guests leaving while the future week’s guests arrive.

Thankfully solace from the assault awaits just outside. A porter will help organize your bags, coffee waits in the café a half-flight of stairs away, and the real draw of Portillo itself—that jaw-dropping high-alpine mountain landscape covered in bone-white snow, punctuated by a bluebird sky—practically glows through every window.

A seat by the fire beckons, but step outside onto the deck to bathe in the crisp air and warming sun of early spring in South America. And then get captured by Laguna del Inca, an amoeba-shaped alpine lake still iced over from the long winter, covered in elaborate geometric patterns of loose snow that has been manipulated by the elements into concentric circles and shapes that look like rivers, islands, and white, Pangaea-like continents. It’s so hypnotic that you might not even notice the occasional mini-avalanches that sprinkle down some of the higher stretches of the volcanic peaks, tumbles of snow and clouds of white dust, as if the mountain itself was an adolescent inviting you to play.

It’s an apt suggestion. After all, recreation embodies most of what Portillo promises. The resort boasts a respectable 2,500-foot vertical drop, with 35 named runs and 14 lifts (including those two tricky cable lifts)—stats that may pale when measured against some of North America’s mega-resorts. But here, if you can see it (and you can see practically everything, considering the resort sits above tree line), you’re allowed to ski it. And that includes one of extreme skiing’s most revered lines, the Super C Couloir, a run that measures more than 4,000 vertical feet and can be had only after a two-hour near-vertical hike up from Roca Jack, followed by some treacherous navigation across some seriously exposed ridgelines before reaching the 30-foot-wide 45-degree pitch.

But you don’t have to ski anything that extreme. Portillo takes all comers. In the week I was visiting last August, I saw a veritable slice of every part of contemporary skiing culture: the Austrian Ski Team practicing during the off season; three generations of skiers on their annual family vacation; a group of adaptive skiers from a handful of South American high schools learning to ski for the first time; a cadre of professional skiers and snowboarders there to ski big lines and take action photos for the catalogs of a few big-name outdoor brands; two wild foxes perching on a ridge next to the ski lift; a fur-coiffed woman a few facelifts past 50 who confessed to me that the skiing in the Swiss Alps was just so much more sophisticated (whatever that means); a cache of oenophiles visiting for an annual Chilean wine festival; a division of soldiers from the nearby army base practicing military-ski skiing in full kit (complete with fatigues, full packs and very old, very skinny, skis); and a group of kids who spent their last day racing half-way down the mountain in a resort-sponsored slalom event, which culminates with an awards ceremony in the hotel later that night, complete with an accordion-playing ski instructor who’s taught four generations of the same family to ski at Portillo.

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Tio Bob’s Photo: Nathan Borchelt

And while the model does resemble a cruise ship in terms of logistics—you eat at set times, and then hit the bar for live music after dinner before heading to the basement disco downstairs to party ‘til long after midnight—Portillo feels far from antiseptic or prescribed. Max occupancy taps out at 460, making lift lines the exception rather than the rule, and all the runs are clearly marked for easy access. The food is universally solid, especially if you carve out time to eat at Tio Bob’s a mid-mountain restaurant with pasta, soup, and burgers and a massive sun deck. Après delivers free coffee, tea, and cookies at the hotel—or a stool at the seldom-crowded hotel bar. You also get a movie theater, day care, a full gym, game room and the chance of rubbing shoulders—or dancing on the tables—with some of winter sports most accomplished athletes.

Admittedly, it’s not a pure reflection of Chile itself—you can hang with a few locals that work there, or hit the bar across the street. Hardly authentic in terms of soaking in the local culture. But it isn’t like any other place else on the planet. And to be clear, it ain’t luxe in the way you might find on the Queen Mary. The Hotel Portillo houses most of the guests. It’s a brilliant yellow that practically glows in the high-alpine sunlight—a far cry better than the Pepto-Bismol pink the government painted it when it first opened in 1949, before a U.S. businessman took it over in 1961. And while it’s since been renovated, the hotel is still refreshingly bare bones, with no TVs and the sound of the wind squealing through the windows.

Portillo boasts the kind of character you can’t fake, one born from decades of experience in the foreboding confines of the Valparaiso Mountains. It knows who it is, and it’s committed to staying that way, even against the occasional offer to expand, develop, modernize and become a year-round destination. Sure, Vail—the biggest gorilla in the international ski scene—could come in, build more lifts, maybe add a pedestrian village with more restaurants, shopping and city of lakeside condos. It could expand into adjacent valleys and connect everything with a climate-controlled gondola, and expand the switchback-laced highway into four lanes.

If that happened, Portillo would still qualify as amazing, though in an anonymous way. That wouldn’t be Portillo.

And, by the end of the week, you know Portillo. You know to order the mushroom soup and chorizo at Tio Bob’s instead of the Rolan for the second time, a beast of a burger that comes with bacon, guacamole and a fried egg. You’ve been able to master the Poma lifts, and have lapped Roca Jack to mine fresh turns as the spring sun softens the snow. You’ve stopped to watch the Austrians scream past you, skiing in a form so perfect and angular that you realize you’re just fine being a recreational skier. And while you may not ever get used to the novel feeling of riding the ski lift that passes over three of the switchbacks in the International Highway, looking down on the truck drivers as they assemble tables and chairs beside their rig to wait out another traffic jam, you know that soon you’ll be making the drive back down, plotting the next time you’re going to return.

Top image: senorjerome, BY-CC

Nathan Borchelt, Paste’s Gear Geek is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).