News from the snow
Heaven on earth for lovers of unpretentious, untamed skiing, Portillo is completely unique. If you enjoy cruising you'll love Portillo. Portillo is Chile's premier ski resort, earnings its name in the history of skiing as the first ski area in the southern hemisphere to host a major World Cup event. The resort itself consists of one large yellow hotel complex which has been likened to a cruise ship because it has all the amenities you could possibly dream up. Holidaymakers have a choice of lake or valley views, thats the Lake of the Incas or the mountains of the High Andes. Legend has it that the spirit of Inca Illi Yunqui haunts the lake which was the burial ground of his Princess Kora-Lle after she died during a hunting accident. Since her burial in the lake the water turned to emerald green, dyed by the colour of the Princess's eyes which the Inca could no longer awaken. The first skiers to cross Portillo's slopes were Norwegian, they came here to carry out a study into the possibility of building a rail link across the Andes. After spending the winters of 1887 and 1888 exploring the area the Transandean Railway was built and opened in 1910. It was mainly skiers who used the railway to access these slopes in the Cordillera de los Andes, 164km/102 miles north of Santiago. Portillo (meaning 'little door' in Spanish) describes the main passageway from Argentina into Chile which would originally have been travelled on mule or horseback. The actual border is crossed through a 4km long tunnel at the top of the Pass. Throughout the twenties and thirties the area's popularity grew and enthusiasts started to dream of building a real ski resort. The Hotel Portillo was no more than a mountain hut which was home to everyone who visited, guests and staff alike. European ski instructors were brought in to teach the mainly European and North American visitors and it was Emile Allais, the French ski champion who was the first ever Ski School Director at Portillo. He stayed until the mid-fifties around which time the Chilean government had tired of struggling to run a ski resort and decided to sell to the private sector. Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich could see Portillo's world-class potential and set about making investments into the facilities. After much redesign and development they attracted the World Alpine Ski Championships of 1966 to Portillo. For the first time ever a major ski event was being held in the southern hemisphere putting Portillo firmly on the world ski map. That year Jean Claude Killy took gold while Erica Schneigger took the ladies' gold which she later renounced to the runner-up Marielle Goitschiel after a sex change operation. The FIS made some changes to their format that year and since then the Giant Slalom has been run on 2 courses instead of one. Some say the World Cup was actually invented in the bar of the Hotel Portillo! In 1999 Portillo celebrated its 50th birthday though Henry Purcell, the current owner, claims Portillo has'nt changed much since the early days, nobody gets up very early, the meals are social events and dinner is late. It is a boutique ski area - there are still no lift lines or too many people skiing up the powder, life is leisurely and lends itself to the making of friends. The latest snowmaking and piste groomers have replaced the boot packing of the Chilean mountain troops, of course, and Portillo One (once the only telephone number in Portillo) has grown with fibre optic cable connecting Portillo's Internet café to the rest of the world. By 1968, the international road between Chile and Argentina was finished, allowing easy access to Portillo by car but the railroad train sadly no longer runs. There are 12 lifts, including 5 chairlifts but the unique Va et Vient lifts designed by Jean Pomagalski in the 1960's still transport skiers 4 or 5 at a time up the high avalance chutes across the Roca Jack and the Condo slopes. Most of the terrain is best suited to advanced skiers, but beginners do have 10% of the slopes to enjoy while 20% of the skiing is for the extreme experts who enjoy the high couloirs. Portillo has lots of sunny days, in fact more than 80% of the the ski season, normally from June to October, enjoys clear skies and brilliant sunshine with the best powder in July and amazing corn snow in September.
Chile's original resort and important in world skiing, hosting numerous international events including the 1966 World Championships. People began sk iing from the Argentina-Chile railway line in 1890. Virtually all of the resort's accommodation and activities concentrated in the huge hotel complex. Today there's one employee for every guest resulting in high service standards. The resort offers easy and intermediate groomed slopes plus some of the toughest skiing in the southern hemisphere, with heliskiing an option, giving views of the Western Hemisphere's highest mountain - Aconcagua.
The slopes are right outside the Hotel door . The beginner area is conveniently close to the hotel and Canarios seems to be a favourite with most learners while Juncalillo is preferred by cruisers and intermediates for its rolling slopes through valleys. The lower section, Los Tuneles passes over 2 long tunnels which the government had to build over the road because the ski run was there first! Nightly grooming keeps the pistes in top condition while the more extreme terrain is left with its natural snowpack.
The Portillo Ski School, with a staff of 35 professionals from eight different countries, assures that the learning will be fun and memorable no matter what language you speak. With specialized programs for skiers of all ages and levels of expertise, this team of professionals offers the latest in technique and instruction to guarantee a great ski vacation.
The recommended way to ski Portillo is to start on the Juncalillo side in the morning. It is possible to watch the sunrise from a bunk in the Inca Lodge as the light descends the east-facing slope and eventually reaches the Roca Jack, the first run to soften in the early morning sun. Roca Jack is a clear favourite among advanced skiers at Portillo and is accessed by one of the famous Va et Vient lifts. The Roca Jack carries 5 skiers while the other one on Condor takes 4 at a time. Conventional lifts were no use because unloading areas could not be constructed on the steep alluvial deposits and a lift tower could never withstand the avalanches which regularly pour down these chutes. Jean Pomagalski designed the Va et Vient and overcame the problem. The lift is a cross between a conventional tramway and a towerless cable tow but has 3 bullwheels. One is mounted at the bottom on a regular lift tower; the other two are attached to wires anchored in rocks high in the chute. The upper bullwheels are then kept suspended in the air by the tautness of the haul rope which makes a triangular shape and can run both forward and back. Two tow bars with platter seats are attached to the haul rope, and an operator starts and stops the lift at designated points. When an avalance hits the lift, the cable drops and is buried so after the storm a crew can locate and cut it. After it has been repaired or replaced the cable can be easily reinstalled. This entire process can be completed within 48 hours after the storm. Getting on the lift is the same as getting on a regular Poma lift and the ride up is fast and steep and feels like waterskiing. Unloading is fairly simple but really has to be prearranged so everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing.
Another recommended advanced run is Garganta just to the north of the Plateau chairlift, it starts off in a narrow steep chute then opens out into a wide bowl. There are usually good moguls on Plateau and free timed race courses and Guest races are held every Thursday with a prize ceremony later on at night in the hotel's Living Room. Roca Jack is the FIS approved downhill run and Plateau where Jean Claude Killy took gold in the 1966 World Alpine Ski Championships is certified for slalom and giant slalom races.
The Kilometro Lanzado has been the venue for 3 downhill speed trials with a new world record being set on each occasion. The latest was in 1987 when Michael Prufer of Monaco set the new record of 217.68Kph. Portillo is not really suitable for cross-country skiing due to avalanche risk which threatens the few flat areas suitable for the sport. The only terrain really appropriate for cross-country would be the frozen lake surface or possibly around the Los Libertadores customs station. Heli-skiing is available in Portillo on a pay per flight plus run basis.
At certain times of the season there are Free Kids' Weeks when each parent may bring one of his or her children of 12 or under completely free (this includes room, skiing and meals). An entertainment team creates a schedule of activities for young children and teens for the after skiing hours, both in the afternoons and evenings.
Kids are safe in Portillo as all the activities and entertainment are contained within the one large hotel complex. Facilities include the giant Games Room where kids have a choice of pool and ping pong tables and electronic games, the high school style gymnasium with scheduled tourneys of soccer, basketball and volleyball, the heated outdoor pool, the cinema, and a variety of other activities.
Kids should not miss out on participating in the Sol de Portillo Guest Race which is held on a Thursday with the prize giving ceremony later on in the hotel's Living Room.