Pretty much every skier in North America knows that when the snow melts, and summer arrives it’s time to shift gears. The mountain bikes come out, the trail running shoes go on and we go about our summer. Yet, in the back of our minds we all know that somewhere down south… way down south, it’s winter, and winter means skiing. Some of us have a harder time than others shifting gears. Before last summer I had skied 32 months straight, until the Colorado drought put a stop to that. This summer I knew I would need something more than skiing dirty snow on St. Mary’s glacier. So a year ago, I booked a trip to Portillo, Chile, with my friend Marcus. What followed was an incredible, life-changing experience which I will never forget.
Marcus and I left Denver on a Friday night and the next morning awoke in Santiago, Chile. From there we had an impressive 2 hour drive northeast to the tiny establishment of Portillo only 2km from the Argentina border. Establishment is an overstatement, as Portillo consists pretty much solely of a few employee housing units, 2 lodges and its iconic yellow hotel. The drive was dramatic. Marcus and I could barely contain our excitement as we gained the 28 switchbacks that precede one’s arrival to the yellow building we’ve seen in so many ski and YouTube Videos.
It wasn’t long before we were treated to our first experience of South American efficiency. You see, most guests at Hotel Portillo book for the week. Which means that ALL 400 guests arrive at the same time on Saturday afternoon. This result in a complete clusterufuck as the staff needs to clean and prepare every room in a matter of hours in order to get the new guests checked in. Needless to say it doesn’t go very well. The lack of any real line at the check-in doesn’t help either. It became almost comical as we were first told our room would be ready in 20 minutes… then 30… then 45. We quickly became aware that these time-frames had no meaning here and we decided to get a drink and wait. We were a little frustrated since we had planned on skiing, and 4 hours later we were able to check in around 4pm. We had an hour until the lifts closed and we were jonesin’ to ski! We quickly changed into our ski gear and practically ran outside to get some of the goods that had fallen the day before. We left the hotel and skied down to the El Plateau lift which looked fun. After we skied down the lifty told us the lift was closed. Shit. Desperate to ski, we walked back up to the Las Lomas lift and quickly boarded the chair, only to have the lift stop. Then it started… and stopped again. Then it stopped 4 more times. We couldn’t believe it, it seemed like something was trying to keep us from making those turns for which we’d waited so long. As we waited on the sedentary chairlift, the weather quickly turned. The temperature dropped, the clouds rolled in unbeknownst to us, brought with them the storm which would make our trip an epic adventure. We finally reached the top of the lift, hopped off and traversed below El Plateau and dropped into the first of many soft turns for the week. We made our one run and as the lifts closed headed inside grinning from ear to ear as the snow intensified. Hours later, while having a pisco sour at the bar, we could see the snow hadn’t let up… and it wouldn’t.
When my watch alarm inadvertently awoke us at 4am, we peeked out the window to see it was still snowing hard. We knew the morning was going to be incredible and we were there for first tracks at Roca Jack when it opened. One thing that instantly struck me about this place, and something that is hard to capture with photos, is the sheer size of the mountains. In Colorado, say at A-Basin, which is probably one of the more dramatic resorts, the base of the mountain is at 11,000′ and the summit and surrounding peaks tops out around 13,000. for a vertical gain of 2,000′. Here in Portillo, the hotel is at 9,450′ and the surrounding peaks tops out over 15,000′! You do the math! When looking up, you are looking WAY up!
I’ve never experienced this sort of scale before and it is truly impressive. We weren’t the only ones waiting in line. The ski instructors and Patrolmen were all there too, waiting to get the first fresh tracks in 2 weeks. Everyone was pumped, yet there was still virtually no lift line. It was here that I met Andrew Rumph, and Fernando. Andrew was a ski instructor and Fernando took me on a little tour of the mountain later on. We all headed up the Roca Jack lift and I got my first ever taste of fresh powder in July. Marcus and I were overjoyed. Everything we’d hoped for had come to fruition and we knew this was going to be an awesome trip. After laps on Roca jack we ventured skiers right and pretty much had fresh powder for the first 3 days. You see, unbeknownst to us, it was family week. This meant there weren’t many steep-skiing powderhounds on the mountain. Coupled with the fact that the pass was closed the first day, we had most of the goods to ourselves. Later in the week we met a group from Durango. As the snow below the lift began to track out, Marcus and I ventured into the side-country with Matt and Pete, 2 of the boys from Durango.
Both Matt and Pete were in incredible shape and it was a challenge to keep up, but the turns (and views) were well worth it. For the next several days we skied together until the weather warmed up, and after a couple close calls, we decided the snow was unstable and headed back in-bounds. From the video below, you can tell that as the week went on, it warmed up nicely until I was skiing in just my t-shirt… such is life in the Andes!
As always, and until next time… Keep Rippin’!
Aside from the skiing, the hotel life was amazing. The meals were fantastic, the wine and pisco sours flowed freely and the pool made it hard to hit the mountain sometimes. All in all, the trip was incredible. We met new friends and experienced a new place in all its glory.