It’s 11:30 p.m. I’m deep in the Chilean Andes, sashaying to a cover band’s Rolling Stones playlist with my alpine posse, a crew of spirited Argentines, a Brazilian who arrived by helicopter after lunch, and two fellow University of Michigan alums (all met hours ago in the hot tub) as Ralph Lauren models and a cross section of international ski aficionados take in my group’s Pisco Sour-infused antics. Later, over shot skis in the 70s-style discoteca, I realized that tiny Ski Portillo, even without a charming alpine town or any state of the art bells and whistles, had accomplished the unimaginable: usurping Aspen, at least in my mind, as the most epic party scene at 9,000 feet above sea level.
In August, while most Americans were basking in the final sun-drenched days of summer, I packed up my ski gear and flew to South America to see if the terrain was as terrifying, the views as staggeringly beautiful, and the lost-in-time-looking resort (a six-story canary yellow building that looks more Caribbean cruise ship than an iconic ski resort) as enchanting as friends and colleagues had reported.
But mostly I wanted to know if I, a passionate but solidly blue skier, could actually schuss down the legendary pistes without killing myself.
This spot emerged onto the world ski stage when it was chosen as the site of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championshipsin 1966. Since, it’s served as off-season training terrain for the U.S., Austrian, and Canadian ski teams. It’s so hardcore that a friend, upon learning of my plans, asked if my insurance plan included medivac coverage.
While marquee ski resort towns like Jackson Hole, Aspen, and St. Moritz have a variety of luxury accommodations, shops, and restaurants, Ski Portillo is a single building (there are two much smaller, less expensive options next door) with one restaurant, one bar, a disco room that doubles as luggage storage by day, a large living room-style salon abutted by a wee library. A terrace provides the perfect place to take in the dreamy snow-sheathed Andes and their reflection in Laguna del Inca, the shimmering grey-blue lake at the base of the Aconcagua Valley. The other nuance is that at Portillo, you sign on for an entire all-inclusive week, not for a few days. There aren’t alternative offerings like dog sledding, fat tire bike riding, or evening meals in a candlelit cabin. Nobody wears fur. And with just 123 rooms, there are never more than 450 guests at one time. Therein lies the charm.
This is a place for serious sport, drinking wine, and relaxing the old-fashioned way. There are red jacketed waitstaff in the leather-walled dining room, and limited technological diversions (unpredictable wifi connections, no televisions in rooms). The 5 p.m tea time tradition and weekly Pisco Sour welcome party, held when new guests arrive each Sunday, are carefully maintained by the property’s owner, Henry Purcell, who is 83 and skis almost every day. And with one building and a finite number of guests, you’ll never have to jostle your way onto a chairlift, wait for a seat at dinner (you’ll have the same table for the entire stay) or even tell the ski valet your name (Alejandro will remember your face). Since the lifts remain open until 5 p.m., the stress of maximizing slope time evaporates, a good thing since breakfast doesn’t even open until 8 a.m. and dinner is on the late side, with seatings at either 8 or 9:30 p.m. At those meals, by the way, chances are strong that you might cross paths with, say, Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety or Mikaela Shiffrin. The rooms are Sheraton-in-the suburbs feeling—I had twin beds, a wooden bedside table, and simple dresser topped with a basket of welcome trail mix. But when the curtains open, with sweeping panoramas of the mythic landscape, the no-frills room is but a minor detail.
Camaraderie develops each night in the bar, where a different band specializing in 80s and 90s cover hits plays until midnight, but it’s in the gurgling hot tubs where true bonds bloom between Argentines, Brazilians, Peruvians, Europeans, Canadians and a dusting of Americans like me. From millennials to spry sixty-somethings, these fast friends, made in the shadow of a mystical mountainscape and united by a daredevil spirit, became my cocktail compadres, meal mates, and partners in crime at the disco (after closing down the bar, of course). The communal ambiance—and never-ending flow of killer Chilean wine—is this resort’s secret sauce.
And the skiing? It’s equal parts unnerving and exhilarating. Balanced on the lip of Plateau, a blue run above the tree line at an elevation of 9,450 feet, I almost wet my neon orange Obermeyer ski pants (purchased for easy identification in case of a face plant in a snow heap). Eventually, with a ski instructor, I carved my way down intermediate groomers (made more challenging by the Chilean Army doing practice drills) and eventually conquered Condor, a black run, that was still child’s play compared to the crazy steep terrain—Roca Jack, Garganta, The Lake Run—that my friends were shredding. My proudest moment may have been surviving one of Portillo’s legendary Va et Vient “slingshot” lifts, a five person crotch-pull Poma rope tow that drags five skiers at a time, standing, through ice and over bumps up to the steepest terrain. The dismount was the real challenge. To avoid wiping out, a strategic perpendicular ski maneuver is required. Not surprisingly, I wiped out. By the third try, I managed to stay vertical for the entire run, taking in the glory that is gliding down the face of the Andes with an obstructed view of the shimmering Laguna Lake. While I was more than challenged on the groomers, most guests drool over the expert stuff, namely the Super C Couloir, a half-day endeavor requiring a steep two-hour backcountry hike—often in thigh-high powder—from the Roca Jack Va et Vient lift up to the Ojos de Agua mountain, followed by a 5,600-foot skiing descent down a narrow rock-walled gully. The rest of us were content to lounge over burgers at Tio Bob’s, the rustically fabulous mid-mountain lunch spot, comparing our mornings as the Andean peaks reflected in everyone’s sunglasses.
To know before you go: Each season, the resort hosts Wine Weeks (for no additional cost) featuring daily apres-ski tastings from some of Chile’s notable vineyards. There are also ski camps helmed by celebrated athletes like Chris Davenport, a two-time world championship skier who also became the first person to ski all fifty-four of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in less than one year and Keely Kelleher a former member of the U.S Ski Team whose all female camp focuses on improving technique on steeps and powder.
After a 10 + hour flight, you may want to stay the night in Santiago before taking on the two-hour hairpin drive to Portillo. Hotel Santiago, now South America’s first Mandarin Oriental property, is perfectly situated to explore the city.