Text by Sven Brunso, photos by Liam Doran
As my overnight flight descends on Santiago, my eyes dart from the snowcapped Andes mountains looming outside my window down to my shorts and flip-flops. I close my eyes, smell the lingering scent of suntan lotion, and prepare my olfactory senses for the heavenly aroma of freshly waxed skis. During my eight-hour flight, I have gone from the middle of summer at home in Colorado to the heart of winter in South America. This abbreviated transformation between seasons is the reality for skiers who have traveled from the Northern Hemisphere to the South in search of the Endless Winter.
Just more than three hours after touching down in Santiago, I am digging through my luggage in the lobby of the Hotel Portillo, scrambling to find all my ski gear to get out for a few laps of powder before our rooms are ready. I am quickly reminded of the shortfalls of packing gear for a ski trip when it is 90 degrees outside. The concept that it might be cold in August is hard to grasp when packing in the heat of summer, and I quickly realize that I may have left behind a few key items like a base layer and neck gaiter. I zip my shell to the tip-top and step out into a season that seemed so distant just a day ago.
I have come to Portillo hoping to put a temporary pause on summer and get my ski fix to help me limp through the long fall back at home. As the chairlift ascends to a distant snowy perch, I am giddy as I breathe in the first cold-mountain air my lungs have enjoyed in months while my eyes soak up the majesty of the snow-capped peaks surrounding Portillo. At the top of the chair, I stop to buckle my boots, shake off summer, and begin my dance with the mountain. Just like riding a bike, the muscle memory comes flowing back within a few turns, and I am firmly back in the grasp of Winter, my happy place. At this moment, all the sacrifices I have made in life to try and chase the Endless Winter feel very worthwhile!
Mobile users: Rotate your phone horizontally to see full pictures.
The Hotel Portillo is often called a cruise ship in the mountains. Like a giant boat, it has everything you need for an incredible vacation. However, there are a few notable differences from a traditional cruise ship: The gourmet food at the Hotel Portillo won’t be served on a buffet line, and instead of an endless ocean outside the ship you are surrounded by the rugged Andes Mountains, including Aconcagua, the highest peak in the world outside the Himalaya.
The Hotel Portillo was built in the 1940s and, over the last 80 seasons, not much has changed. Most of the hotel staff has been there for decades and you still won’t find a TV at the Hotel Portillo. While you can connect to WIFI, there is little need to plug in as the purpose of coming to Portillo is to leave reality at home and connect with friends, family, and a global community of skiers than make the trip each summer. Thankfully ski technology has come a long way since the old days and long wooden planks of the mid-1900s have been replaced by skis such as the Fischer Ranger 108, which make navigating the steeps and chutes of Portillo a pleasure.
This photo was taken under the Plateau chairlift, a couple of days after a storm dropped a foot of snow. At ski areas in North America, this line would have been bumped out, but in Portillo, powder stashes sit in full view just beckoning adventurous skiers to paint the blank canvas. The nice thing about skiing powder in Portillo is that your powder turns often sit clearly visible until the next wave of moisture descends on the Andes.
While you can find groomers in Portillo, the reason serious skiers come from around the globe is to enjoy some of the most easily accessible steep lines anywhere on earth. With only 450 skiers a day, the snow in Portillo lasts for many days and often a week after a storm cycle departs. From the highest surface lifts, skiers can traverse far and wide to score untracked lines of powder without hiking a step. There is something very gratifying about skiing a long powder line right back to the hotel to find a gourmet lunch waiting to refuel your afternoon ski session.
There are few places on the globe that reward the skier willing to earn turns more than Portillo. If you aren’t afraid of sweat equity and don’t mind bootpacking you will be incredibly content. Everywhere you look are man-made “Stairways to Heaven,” and if a bootpack isn’t already in place, you are cordially invited to break trail for your fellow skiers. The ultimate Portillo climb is more than 2,000 vertical feet above the Roca Jack lift to the fabled Super C Couloir. If your lungs and thighs can handle the ascent to the Super C, the payoff will be a run that you will cherish forever.
The winds that blow above Portillo can work magic with the snow. Slopes that are tracked during the day can often be resurfaced at night, providing a buffed-out, clean slate by the time the lifts spin the following morning. The mountains surrounding Portillo are massive in scale and it isn’t until you start hiking that you realize that what you thought was going to take five minutes to hike up takes 30. The payoff is that the untracked zone that looked to yield 5-6 untracked turns may actually deliver a few dozen.
The terrain surrounding Portillo is incredibly rugged, but if you are looking for tree skiing, you are in the wrong place. The closest tree is probably 4,000 vertical feet below the resort. Also, if you come to Portillo with new skis and expect to leave with your bases in prime condition, you better stick to the groomers. One of the most liberating things about Portillo is you can go almost anywhere you choose, including endless terrain that would never allow skier traffic at home in the states. With this freedom comes the potential for encounters with snow sharks. A helmet and a good sense of humor about your ski bases are a must if you plan to venture off-piste in Portillo.