Best snow since 2005 in the Andes. Check out Portillo then..

It’s the best snow since 2005 they are saying in South America.

Be nice to say it was the best start to the season since then too, but a minor detail, as we have reported, there’s not much chance of ski lifts opening anytime soon thanks to COVID-19! We can’t do anything about that, but we can tell you how good it was in 2005 – the Snow Action crew arrived late June ’05 into Santiago and had to heli taxi in to Portillo..

Bronwen Gora on Portillo’s Lake Run June 2005; we lapped it with zero competition for lines © Owain Price

As our LATAM flight landed in Santiago, Chile, the airport looked soaked by recent rain, a sure sign that up at nearby Portillo’s 3000m altitude it had been dumping snow.

Too much, as it turned out – our 3 hour shuttle ride north to the resort turned into a short trip into the city for an unscheduled overnight stay as the road up was blocked by avalanches.

Roadblock at base of pass to Portillo
No one going anywhere .. road block at base of pass up to Portillo and over to Argentina © Carmen Price

Next morning looked like a window of opportunity, but as we got closer to the base of the main pass, which is also the only route between Chile and Argentina for several hundred kilometres, we ran into a 15km line of parked semi-trailers. At the police roadblock where the semi line started drivers told me they had been waiting 9 days to cross, some after waiting over a week coming into Chile.

In this situation you can give up and wait, or pay $USD 400 for a heli ride in the resort’s little heliski chopper to get there.

Helicopter pick up for Portillo when road is blocked
Bronwen, Carmen and Flip waiting for the heli in to Portillo © Owain Price

I paid, and soon 4 of us plus 3 sets of skis, 1 snowboard and all our bags were squeezed on and we shuddered into the air.

A massive avalanche had buried one of the snowshed tunnels not far past the roadblock, and several other avalanche chutes loomed threateningly above the road. Across the valley the line of the old rack railway, which used to be the skiers’ access too, was buried in several places. Definitely better to be in the air.

Between the early season and the road closure, guests were few, so soon after arrival we were making tracks with no competition.

Snowboarding steep powder off Roca Jack lift at Portillo
You can’t beat the terrain off the Roca Jack lift © Owain Price

Set at the head of of a glacial cirque lake Portillo offers a combination of cruisy down the middle and steep on the sides. The steepest is served by those famous avalanche proof anchored cable lifts you have probably seen in a Warren Miller movie. Dragging 5 riders up at a time, they are fun to ride. But not totally avalanche proof even with no towers: the steeper Roca Jack side tow had been bumped off its mount and buried under a couple of metres of fresh snow, so we missed out on the best chutes, including the Flying Kilometre speed track. We rated Roca Jack our #1 soul lift in the Southern Hemisphere, but didn’t get to ride it this trip.

It didn’t seem to matter much, since the Plateau side chutes under the quad chair and the run out face down to the lake were untouched. For a change of pace we took a long cruise down over the snowshed tunnels across the highway, now clogged with a slow moving line of semi trailers chugging upwards to the frontier tunnel just past the Portillo hotel.

Jetlag and the altitude were proving no problem with snow this good, until I tipped over losing speed in a shallow depression near the chairlift and spent 20 minutes wading out of the chest deep freshies.

View from Tio Bobs at Portillo
Happy days! Outside Portillo’s Tio Bob moiuntain restaurant June 2005 © Bronwen Gora

A steak and cerveza at Tio Bob’s (made famous as the restaurant they jump over in Warren Miller movies – the Wozza loved Portillo and put it in his all time Top 10 favourites around the planet) soon got me revved up again, although the four meals a day included in the package here has the opposite effect on most guests — the already empty slopes get deserted around meal times.

For two days it seemed like we were the only powder seekers on the mountain, apart from an occasional instructor snaffling a line between classes. One of these turned out to be Brazilian born Aussie Cesar Piotto. He had finally shaken off his Brazilian kid charges and got to put in a few turns under the Plateau chair like us.

Is there a ski resort in the world without a resident Aussie? In Cesar’s case his summer ski teaching job at Aspen and native fluency in Brazilian Portuguese had eased him into one of the most sought after ski teaching posts available in the southern winter.

Portillo trail map
Even the maestro of trail maps James Niehues doesn’t really capture the grandeur of Portillo © Portillo

Meanwhile back at the swimming pool a couple of beautiful Brazilian babes we met there decided to do a sales job for their cosmetic surgeon husbands, proudly providing a show and tell of all their recent makeover additions to the girls in the change rooms.

Great sales technique, but they were pitching to the wrong change room. Still, if you are in the market for a little back – or front – yard body blitz, this could be the place to get it.

Pretty much any time of the season you will meet some interesting characters here, from World Cup teams to free ride gurus running clinics.

Of course not every June kicks off as well as the epic 2005 season, but many years do start deep and early. Like this best snow since 2005 season. Storms sweeping in from the Pacific slam into the highest peaks of the whole Andes range, so it can quickly dump a metre or two from late May to October.

June is also much cheaper than main season. Later in September is a lot cheaper too. You won’t see so much powder then, but the corn snow is a good substitute.

Like their ad says, it’s a place to stick on your all time must ski list. Soon.

If you can’t afford the luxy main hotel the Inca Lodge backpackers annexe is arguably the best located budget on snow accommodation in the world. For more check our Portillo Perfect 10 feature.

Skiing back to Hotel Portillo June 2005
Day 2 they had some grooming done, but there was still almost no one there with the road still blocked © Owain Price