Portillo : The warmest kind of winter

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My father and I arrived at Portillo Hotel on a Saturday in July amid full blown arrivals and departures chaos in the chalet style hotel lobby which felt more reminiscent of summer camp than anything we had ever seen at a ski resort.  Although my father had been following the snow forecasts closely for weeks in anticipation of our trip (it was one of the worst seasons on record) we knew little about the resort culturally, other than the obvious.  Portillo has long Chilean heritage, as it was build in the 1940’s and sits at 9,450feet in the Andes roughly two hours from Santiago Chile, making it one of the prime southern hemisphere ski destinations in July – August, which usually is peak snow season.

Standing outside the hotel in the steep chasm between the Andes in which the bright yellow and blue hotel sits quite alone, and is dwarfed by, watching people come and go, hugging as they departed, I realized this wasn’t going to be my usual dirt bag ski week in Montana, during which the sum total of my social scene was usually grabbing a few beers and wings at the brewery with friends who work in local seasonal outdoor sports after skiing.

Instead, try in your mind combining, the social vibe of the resort from Dirty Dancing, add the heritage of the grand old hotels of the Northeast of the US, back when tradition still lead the way, plus a pinch of a small classy cruise ship or adult summer camp feel (guests stay Saturday to Saturday) and place this mixture on the snow, in 2017, in Chile, with an international collection of dedicated skiers, and you have Portillo.  The hotel floats in the great isolation and beauty of the Andes, almost at sea in the deep valleys, for all it sweet isolation, with the constant thread of trucks on the international road the only reminder of a world beyond winter sports and the isolated paradise.

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I met many Chileans whose parents had brought them, and who now brought their children to ski, and bond in the safety of a place where kids can still road free because everyone is keeping an eye out and by the end of the week everyone knows everyone. 

The ski and boot guys are well known for getting to know all the guests and having your gear in hand before you ask, which somehow comes off like family, not pretentious, and Petra the gangly new Saint Bernard puppy walks through the halls, mauled with pets and love which she ambivalently receives.

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Unknowingly, we had signed up to attend during the beloved Portillo Wine week, with tastings by famed Chilean wineries each night, cheap seats in the back fidgeted and guzzled while the front seats swirled with skill and took notes. Many guests knew each from past Portillo Wine Week for years and bonded, keeping in touch in between hotly anticipated visits.

And Portillo it turns out is well known on both the pro big mountain and national race team training circuits, as well as high up on the bucket list for dirtbag skiers, and so is well known for a great social scene, which revolves first around the hot tubs, with arguably one of the best views in the world, then the living room, dining room, the hotel bar, and after hours La Posada, the staff bar.  (There is also a disco, but I never really saw that happening, and the cinema shows films twice and evening.)

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My dad and I fell somewhere outside of these groupings, as regulars in Big Sky where we have a house, we were used to long days on the mountain and serious rest to get back after it. But what we found at Portillo was what we needed far more out of this trip, it was a vacation. Because of the particularly poor snowfall everyone waited for the sun to warm the ice at 10, and lunch seatings were at 12:30 so our day naturally slowed down.  (You sit at the same table, same times, with the same waiters all week, reminiscent of the grand old era of hotels like the Mount Washington.) And a few afternoons after ricocheting off of rocks on Roca Jack like a ball in a pinball machine, and making a great time out of gnarly conditions, we joined half of the guests and now friends up at Tio Bob’s, the beer and burger shack high above Laguna del Inca to hear stories of past years.

While drinking Escudo and Pisco Sours and watching the trucks painstakingly wind their way up the curves of the road which passes the hotel, and is a main road between Chile and Argentina, we heard stories of the time a wine tasting was hosted at Tio Bob’s, and was more a heavy drinking, with the wine girls dancing on the roof, and guests joining, many of whom skilled but drunk skiers, then had to have assistance skiing down Le Plateau to the hotel. That was never repeated an the winery in question never asked back, but a great story, and Portillo has these by hundreds. Just introduce yourself to whomever you get on the lift with and the conversations take off once you say you are a first timer.

 The longest "Slingshot" lift runs from just above the l in Longest on the bottom left of this photo to two thirds up the face.  The rest can be hiked.  Or you can follow the traverse below across which leads left through the cliff face into the chutes.

The longest "Slingshot" lift runs from just above the l in Longest on the bottom left of this photo to two thirds up the face.  The rest can be hiked.  Or you can follow the traverse below across which leads left through the cliff face into the chutes.

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Every morning people look up Roca Jack, one of the Negro Runs served by a slingshot (back to that in a moment) to see if anyone is hiking the Super C, and in the hot tub in the afternoon pass around stories of who skied what and who injured what.  One morning I saw a Peruvian new to snowboarding slinking around with his face quite bruised, and thought perhaps he had gotten into a bar fight as I had seen him at La Posada at 4am and it was only 10am.  He smiled with some embarrassment and said, no he had gone out on the snow hung over (drunk?) and the snow had taught him a lesson.  He was a bit slowed but undeterred in his dedication to Portillo and the fun.

The slingshot are another humbling very unique experience.  All of the advanced trails are served by these, which essentially are 4-5 poma lifts combined onto a bar, much like what a waterski would be like I imagine, so that 5 skiers fly up the steeps at 17 miles an hour. People fall en route as the tracks are ungroomed and interesting, or often in dismounting backwards, and the 10 step photo cartoons at the bottom only build the anxiety.  But like so much with skiing, a good walk through from any of the awesome instructors or ski patrol (who chill at the bottom of the slingshots) resolves 95% of the worries.

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By the last day I had skied everything but Super C, and hope that someday I may add that to the list. Chris Davenport’s video, who was at Portillo in his 17th season prepping for the following week’s camps, is the best of it I have seen. I plan to take up his offer of some runs sometime in Montana or CO, hopefully work towards that next time I hit up Portillo. But for this trip our mission was a success, fun and total relaxation. When Dad, a first to last lifter since I was in diapers, suggested we cut out early on the second to last day for a beer with friends, I knew my work was done.

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