Portillo is on every serious skier’s bucket list, but this resort in the middle of the Chilean Andes is more like sleepaway camp for adults who also love pisco sours, teatime, and staying put
On a bluebird day at Portillo, when the sun’s warmth is inescapable and the snow is soft and light underfoot, you look out at Laguna del Inca, a celestial indigo lake reflecting the sharp peaked mountains without a ripple, and you think, This is one of the most gorgeous natural bodies of water I will ever lay my eyes on. Of course, it would be hidden in the middle of the Chilean Andes, requiring a two-hour drive from Santiago up a series of winding switchbacks. But when you’re staring at it from the top of the Lake Run on a grim overcast day, gripping your edges on an impossibly steep face, you think, This lake, which has turned a dark blue I can only describe as genuinely malignant, may be the end of me.
“We pulled out five vicuñas from there yesterday,” says Portillo’s operations manager, Mike Rogan, who offered to take me, my husband, and a few others here, including a Slovenian astrophysicist and a software engineer from San Francisco, despite less-than-stellar snow conditions that day. “Were they alive?” asked someone who had drunk one too many glasses of vino tinto at lunch. “Nope,” Rogan said. “Okay, now we have to take off our skis and very carefully walk across this shale in our boots.” I’ve skied most of my life, on varied backcountry terrain, in blizzards, and in freezing temperatures. But this was a first for me.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I heard about Portillo, but I definitely recall listening to too much Ani DiFranco, wearing a hemp necklace, and owning a pair of absurdly long Salomon skis I would click into almost every weekend at Alta, a throwback mountain in Salt Lake City’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, near where I lived. Sometime after my sixteenth birthday, I began flirting with the idea of going flat-out ski bum, partly to impress boys who were largely unresponsive to hemp-accessories-loving Ani DiFranco fans, but mainly to agitate my parents. I pretended to like Warren Miller films, plastered my bedroom door with neon stickers that blasted affirmations like “Next Year I’m Advancing to K3S!” and tried to tune my own equipment in my bedroom, only to have to pay a deadlocked tech to remount my bindings.
Despite my bush-league attempts at going full disciple, I spent a lot of time with people who ski more than most of us vacuum, and quickly learned where snow falls in the Southern Hemisphere during North American summers. (Similar to the way Angelenos obsessively talk about traffic, powder acolytes inevitably turn the conversation to this in hopes of breaking 100 days on mountain in a year.) Chile – and more specifically its most storied resort, Portillo, plunked in the middle of the Cordillera near the Uspallata, a frontier pass on the border of central Chile and Argentina – is one of those places where you might experience a nine-foot dump in the middle of August. It’s legendary for other reasons, too. It was the first South American resort to host the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, in 1966, when Jean-Claude Killy became the sport’s unofficial rock star. The U.S., Norwegian, Austrian, and Canadian national ski teams typically train here every August among mere mortals, meaning guests seeking bragging rights can hurl themselves down the same Super G course that Julia Mancuso does. And then there’s the treeless, intimidatingly vertical Andean terrain, where Incan tambos, or shelters, are still found. Even in a photograph from a crappy ski magazine, it radiates a palpable ancient aura. All to say, Stowe it is not.
I never became a lifelong mountain jock, but Portillo stuck with me. It was one of those bucket list trips I always imagined myself taking when I was firmly in AARP territory, jump-turning out of ankle-deep powder with my new bionic knee replacements. Because really, skiing in Chile isn’t something you think you’re actually going to do, like, right now. Hell no. How could you? There’s work, the kid, the laundry. The kid’s laundry! Plunking a destination into a bucket list is a form of well-intentioned procrastination: It means you’ll go there before you die, yes, but later in life when you’re a silver-haired lithe fox who’s got it all figured out, like one of those women in the Cialis commercials.