THE MAGIC OF PORTILLO
By Vicki Erickson
Portillo es, ante todo, un lugar donde gozar del esquí. De todos los rincones del mundo han llegado aventureros por más de un siglo a poner a prueba sus habilidades in estas montañas. Sincillo y acongedor Portillo es un lurgar mágico.
On August 10th, 2007 a dozen club members and friends traveled to Portillo, Chile for a unique mid-summer ski and gastronomical adventure in our Southern Hemisphere.
Portillo is just 2 ½ hours drive from Santiago, the capital of Chile, South America's most modern and prosperous country. Located along a natural high mountain pass through the majestic Andes Mountains of Chile, the area was once a part of an ancient set of trails traveled by the Incas. The road to Portillo is now a narrow but modern international highway connecting Chile with Argentina-featuring 30 switch-back turns to ascend the step terrain.
The ski resort and historic Gran Hotel Portillo overlook Laguna del Inca, a stunning fresh water lake, rimmed by gorgeous mountains that steeply soar to magestic heights. Legend tells that the emerald waters entombs the princess Kora-Ilé, beloved by Inca Illi Uunquí, whose soul returns on moonlight nights to wander over the lake to mourn for his lost princess. Portillo is a place of legend, history and a modern appreciation.
Skiing was first introduced to Portillo around the turn of the last century by Norwegian engineers brought to the area for surveying and inspections as work on the much anticipated Trans-Andean railroad began. Soon a small, simple hotel was built. By the 1930's a larger and more luxurious hotel/lodge to attract local and foreign tourists was envisioned. The first mechanical ski tow was finished in 1941. A year later construction on the new hotel commenced. It was privately financed but to be operated by the Chilean government. Following delays and disruptions caused by unusually harsh winters during the 1940's and WWII the Gran Hotel Portillo was inaugurated in 1949 in what became a major diplomatic, social and sporting event. Chile had opened itself to the world of skiing through international press releases, magazine spreads, hosting international competitions and offering modern luxury facilities to attract skiing luminaries from Europe and later the United States.
Portillos' international reputation grew after the war with the presence and promotion by famous French ski racer and first Portillo Ski School Director, Emile Allais. In 1950, André Bossonney of Chamonix arrived to teach in Portillo's ski school and personally oversaw the construction of the resort's first chair lift. It was cobbled together from old pieces of wood and mining elements. Swedish World and Olympic Champion, Stein Ericksen, served as Ski School Director in the 1950's. Three-time Olympic Champion Pepi Stiegler headed the ski school in the 1980's. Today, the ski school is directed by Jesús Puente of Spain and the resort has become a very popular off-season (for us) training site by ski race teams from Europe and the United States.
Portillo's modern era began in 1961 when Chile sought to revitalize the resort and hotel by privatizing its ownership and operations. The complex was sold to Americans Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich. Bob invited his nephew, Henry, a hotel administration major from University of Cornell, to serve as general manager. Austrian ski champion, Othmar Schneider, was recruited from Boyne Mountain to take charge of the ski school. He worked closely with Henry to solve long standing communication and transportation problems, learn avalanche control and the intricacies of organizing internal ski events, and develop and upgrade Portillo's infrastructure and hotel--a solid base upon which rests the success of today's Portillo. In 1966, the Alpine World Ski Championships were held at Portillo, a major step along the way to the makings of a world class resort. Bob Purcell continues today as the principal owner.
What was it like skiing at Portillo? The second week of August is similar to our second week of February. A base elevation of 9450 feet maintained the snow in ideal condition. We were graced with a refreshing light snowfall shortly after our arrival and skiing was fantastic. The lifts were well run, pistas (runs) not crowded and the Va et Vient "slingshot" poma lifts were a thrill to ride. The resort and hotel personnel were very accommodating. We met other skiers from many parts of the US, New Zealand, Argentina, and England, many being high achievers in their life experiences. We hot-tubbed with NYC fire fighters, chatted with Tony Gillespie, former US Ambassador to Chile and Joseph was challenged to a game of chess by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan. Fresno won.
We can never say enough about the food and apres skiing of Portillo. Chef Raphael Figueroa has been with the hotel for 20 years producing 1000 5-star meals per day. Chilean wines and Pisco Sours were a regular feature at the cantina. Gazing at the Andean sunset from the deck of Tio Bob's, glass of '96 Casa de Diablo Cabernet in hand, was a beautiful way to the end the a great day of skiing. We were constantly captured by the stature of the Andeas that were constantly in our presence.
At the end of the trip we reserved a couple of days to tour Santiago and the seaport cities of Valpariaso and Vina del Mar. Chile's economic strength is in its mining and agricultural production. The countryside we experienced reminded us of parts of California and Oregon.
All of us trip participants, Dallas Debatin, Darlene Young, Gordon Pace, Joseph Tezak, Annalee Asbury, Robert Asbury, Mike Garrison, Bob Peluso, newlyweds Jim and Laurie Opplinger, and I wish to thank Bill Asbury for doing the tedious leg work in organizing our trip. It was truly an adventure that I, for one, will want repeat.
Portillo is a place to enjoy the sport of skiing. From every corner of the world, for more than a century, adventurers have come t test their skills against these mountains. Simple and welcoming, Portillo is a magical place.