Once upon a time in Portillo ..

snow action team 04.05.2013

When Portillo’s June special arrived in the in-box it got us thinking to the last time Snow Action hit the home of Chile Powder – coincidentally, late June back in 2005.

After paying for the helicopter ride in – an early season dump had blocked the road – we had a ball. Here’s the feature on it.

For 13 years from 1990 I used to give readers the honest opening weekend verdict for my Canberra Times ski columns. It didn’t vary too much — 4 years in 5 Front Valley offers great man made snow at Perisher Blue. Around 1 in 5 Thredbo turns on early bird top-to-bottom freshies. Quite often, Selwyn is the first resort 100% open, just needing to cover grass, not rocks. And once it rained so hard we spent the long weekend in the Lake Crackenback bar (every cloud has a silver lining).

But no June at home was ever like Portillo last year. Deep, dry powder everywhere. And no one except us skiing it.

As our Lan Airlines 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.

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.

Having organised for two of Australia’s top ski writers to come along 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.

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.

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.

A steak and cerveza at Tio Bob’s (made famous as the restaurant they jumped over in last season’s Miller film) 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.

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. 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.

Getting there: lan.com


from Australia www.travelplan.com.au