Best ski lifts down south the winner is Roca Jack Portillo

snow action team 08.01.2021

Roca Jack Portillo takes the title!

Yes, there were a lot of great contenders: the Aussies gave it a shake, the Argies & Kiwis more so, but our southern soul lift winner has to be Chile’s Roca Jack Portillo va-et-vient, for it’s unique modus operandi and accessing amazing terrain like this.

Powder day off Roca Jack lift Portillo
Back on the menu after Chile skiing was shut down last season – aesome terrain and view off Roca Jack at Portillo © Owain Price

What are those 5 people in the background in the image below doing you wonder?

Hanging on, hard, as when Roca Jack Portillo cranks up it flies along at two or three times the speed of a normal drag lift. The simple, but ingenious, triangular tower free cable system is anchored to a rock that (normally) keeps it above avalanche harm’s way. The 5 poma-button bar has a dangling rope you grab to pull it down to ride height. When it stops at the top, on the same 40° plus angle of the main slope, those on the outsided peel off first, the last person in the middle releasing the rope as they peel off.

Roca Jack lift © www.skiportillo.com

Which sounds easy enough, but the disconcerting speed of the tow, the steep angle you stop at, and the awe-inspiring high mountain surroundings, are enough to make anyone nervous the first time they ride it. And it’s absolutely no place for the unprepared – a responsible person strong and confident enough to deal with the rope is required, be that in a group or you riding alone – a young girl tragically died choked by entangling the rope a few years back.
That was a freak accident though, and in the long history of these lifts – there are now a couple more shorter ones on the opposite side of the resort, and El Caracara further along from Roca Jack – they have operated perfectly safely.

If you are unsure warm up on the shorter Condor one first, above the Plateau chairlift. The main slope there and the angle the tow stops at being mellower than the Roca Jack side – 30° rather than 40° plus. Apart from the advanced lines immediately either side of the lift lines experts only is the terrain warning, they access uncontrolled, unpatrolled chutes and faces otherwise.
Portillo averages over 8 metres of snowfall, which tends to come mostly in a few big storms that can happen anytime from June to October. We have skied waist to chest deep in late June (after having to helicopter in from where the road gets closed in the valley when conditions are like that), and in the aftermath of the storms there are big slides off the steep sides of the resort. Then it stabilizes, and normally as soon as that happens Roca Jack fires up again. In fact they need a couple of early season avalanches to put down the base and then it keeps piling up with each storm. It’s magic when it’s fresh, like when we hit it on our last visit mid-July , but between storms can get pretty rugged. Big chunks of debris that have rolled down add to the fun, and the chutes are rocky, so it always demands your full attention.

Snowboarding chutes off Roca Jack lift Portillo
Seth Johns drops in rider’s left of top at Roca Jack © Owain Price

The traverse lines, either back toward the lake or to the valley and Flying Kilometre track side – where the World speed ski record was held for many years – open up plenty of seriously steep shots with tight or cliff drop entrances if you want. I like it a little wider, and prefer to see daylight not too far below a tight spot. Off Roca Jack the main lines are wide enough for that.
Either way you end up barrelling out onto the long blue run down to the lowest lift, rejoining the cruising intermediates and (very) happy families who make up the majority of the clientele. Few places have such a distinct but easily crossed separation between challenging and easy, different worlds happily co-existing. That makes it perfect to leave family or friends cruising, have your fill of thrill, then hook back up for the next included meal – lunch or afternoon tea in the daytime.

If you want to get really serious take the hike up above Roca Jack to the G-Spot Couloir.

It’s a couple of hours even for super-fit experts, supplying incredible views out to 6,962m Mt Aconcagua, and a leg stretching descent.
Instructors queue up to work here, so there’s no shortage of talented ones who can show it all to you.
The exclusive Portillo experience is never cheap, at least in the hotel, but they have some decent value add deals. The Inca Lodge backpacker style option is the ski-bums way to do it, especially if you can get 4 together to fill a bunk room.
Hotel ski weeks run Saturday – Saturday, with Sat – Wed or Wed – Sat mini weeks available outside peak season as well. At Inca Lodge you can usually get by the night for any number of nights.
In good road conditions it’s only a bit over 2 hours drive north from Santiago, with several companies offering mini-van shuttle day trips. That’s a long day, but a memorable one – flyers are in all hotels, check the weather/snow forecasts and go if it’s good go if you have one spare day in the Chilean capital.

For more on Portillo check our “Perfect 10” feature.

Resort site link www.skiportillo.com

Which other ski lifts made our soul lifts Top 5 Downunder? Check them all out ..

Seth Johns in a tighter chute rider’s right off Roca Jack © Owain Price