Portillo: Los Grandes Andes

Splendid isolation meets old-world glam and this all-in-one Chilean resort

Nov 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
The Facts

Summit Elevation: 13,900 feet
Vertical: 7,000 feet
Skiable Area: 800 acres
Annual Snowfall: 252 inches
Price: See "Where to Stay"
When to Go: mid-June to early October
Contact: Hotel Portillo, 800-829-5325

ANOTHER BLUEBIRD MORNING in Portillo, Chile, and the five-seater Llama—a dragonfly of a helicopter, all tail—lifts off from the swank old Hotel Portillo. I gawk out its buggy eye as 22,834-foot Aconcagua rises to the southeast. "Watch that lever," says Mario Espinoza, the pilot, pointing to the handle wedged beneath my arm. "The door could fly off." But Mario is grinning as he says this, and I am, too, as the morning clouds race over the Andes.

My guides—tall, suave, and Swiss Pierre Tagliabue and ruggedly boyish Canadian Matt Wylie—are impossibly heroic, because all the instructors and guides from the Northern Hemisphere who compete for spots in the powder capital of the Southern Hemisphere are impossibly heroic, and I think to myself, By God, I would follow them anywhere. Matt jumps up and down on a cornice —¡ué macho!—and pronounces the snow bueno but "variable," which I fear is guidespeak for everything from "crust over concrete" to "skin of ice over abyss," but my brain is already an addled soup of hero worship and Latin romance, and off I go anyway, over the lip and down the steep eastern slope of the Mardones Valley. I'm heli-skiing in the Andes, and there's still carne and cabernet for lunch. Portillo wasn't always this way, and by "this way" I mean the world's best mix of New World snow and Old World glamour, a one-hotel wonderland at 9,350 feet, 40 miles beyond Los Andes, the last town before Argentina. Owner Henry Purcell was 26 in the summer of 1961, when he first saw El Grande Hotel Portillo, the 1942 building beached on the western shore of Laguna del Inca, its only guest the caretaker's black sheep, Lumumba. That winter, a single storm dumped 17 feet, stranding 200 guests and employees for a month. They survived on beef air-dropped by the Los Andes flying club; those with pressing engagements postholed out, with valets carrying their bags.

The hotel still retains that The Shining-meets-Titanic vibe, as if the ship's crew, instead of drowning, had rigged up a few lifts on the iceberg and told the chef to keep on flambéing. In the paneled dining room, you might be seated next to an elegant Brazilian family, the Austrian downhill team (was that Hermann Maier dancing on the bar last night?), or Warren Miller's film crew—all dressed for dinner. "Skiing used to have a lot of romance and sex appeal," Warren Miller's director of photography, Chris Patterson, said one morning over a café con leche. "This place brings that out in people."

It also brings out 800 in-bounds and 12,000 sweetly out-of-bounds acres—all to yourself. (The resort holds only 450 guests, though Chile's not-so-elite ski troops train here, executing laborious stem christies in full camo.) Some of the runs on 13,900-foot Ojos de Agua are so precariously perched on avalanche chutes that permanent lifts are out of the question. Instead, everybody roars up Roca Jack on ingeniously reckless five-man Poma lifts anchored to the mountain with cables, catching air on the uphill.

And by the last run—a powder shot down Primavera ending in a hike back over the frozen lake—you've still got time for Carmen the massage therapist to work on your back, and perhaps to drag yourself over to La Posada, the employee bar, where the muy serioso bartender, Oscar, pours pisco sours as the lifties and local policía toast over heaping bowls of carne.

But for now, up in the Mardones Valley it's clouding over, and everyone thinks, Why doesn't Mario just drop us off right at Tio Bob's, the old slopeside stone refugio, for lunch? And condors are wheeling on thermals as the Llama thwacks rotowash over the hut, and there's a fire in the fireplace and pescado on the grill, and the Andean afternoon stretches before you.

Masochists will want to take a shot at Super C, a 7,020-foot couloir that's a three-hour hike above the Roca Jack lift.

Lucky for you, Hotel Portillo (800-829-5325, www.skiportillo.com) is your only option. Prices, which include seven days of lift tickets and most meals, range from $990, for a shared four-man in the hotel's Octagon Lodge, to $1,690, for a lakeside double. Lowballers can stay at the hotel's Inca Lodge, a bargain bunker with shared bathrooms, for $420 a week, including lifts and cafeteria fare.

In Hotel Portillo's grand dining room, of course, where red-coated ma”tre d' Juan Beiza has served guests since April 1968. Dinner's not till 8:30, so fortify yourself with a predinner pisco in the hotel bar.

Portillo heli-skiing is fabulous and relatively affordable: Trips to the Mardones Valley and surrounding peaks start at around $100. Reserve in advance at www.skiportillo.com.

GETTING THERE American Airlines offers direct flights from Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth to Santiago for about $800. Portillo Tours and Travels (011-56-2-263-0806) runs a shuttle service the 102 winding miles from Santiago up to the hotel.