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Portillo - Just Got Back

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 
Anyone interested in a report? Just returned from NASTC's anual all-mountain/all terrain ski camp in Portillo, which started as frustation-- but the good news: ended with people grinning from ear to ear.

There were about 20 of us -- 13 "students", plus 3 coaches, family, friends, etc. Arrived in Santiago on Saturday a.m., 8/27 to discover that the road to Portillo (which is also the highway to Mendoza, Argentina) was closed, due to heavy snow and avalanche danger. This happens a lot, as it's a narrow, 2-lane highway, with 28 hairpin turns at the top and it's the main road for all the big trucks carryiing supplies/groceries, etc. to Argentina.

This happened to us on the same trip in 2002, and we only had to wait a few hours. This time we had to wait 3 1/2 DAYS.

160 Portillo-bound guests stuck at the Hyatt, 300 at other hotels around town. . . waiting, waiting, waiting. High winds, snow, no end in sight.

Meanwhile, Santiago itself was experiencing horrendous floods and rain.
A National Emergency was declared. We watched CNN as Hurricaine Katrina approached (I had to switch my flight to get to Santiago by way of Dallas at the last minute, as they were cancelling all Miami connections) -- and we listened to news reports of other big floods in Europe. Groups from Argentina, England, the Aspen Challenge (training disabled skiers) -- compared notes in the lobby bar or at breakfast. Friendships formed, as we were all hunkered down together.

Finally, on Tuesday a.m., after 110 inches of snow since that Friday before! -- we got word that the road was cleared enough to make an attempt. We loaded up the bus and set off.

Got about 1/2 way -- at about 5,300 feet altitude -- to the police checkpoint, where a barricade had been put up and the caravan of buses, cars, vans, trucks had to pull over and wait until the government had finished clearing things at the top.

So there were hundreds of people, mingling, smoking, drinking and eating empanadas at this little truck stop type dive -- "Sol y Nieve" (Sun and Snow). For more than 6 hours!

The buzz was --- although nobody knows if it was true -- was that the police were waiting until the sun went down and the temperature dropped, so that the snow would compress and there would be less chance of avalanches.

Anyway, the caravan proceeded slowly toward Portillo. At about 7,400 feet, we were told that our bus wouldn't fit in the narrow path that had been cleared higher up. So we sat on the side of the highway for another 2 1/2 hours, until the resort sent down a few shuttle vans to get us and our luggage.

What normally would be a 2 - 2 1/2 hour drive ended up taking 10 hours.

We were wasted -- but so was everyone else -- and they served us all dinner at 11 pm. The last time I was at Portillo I found the atmosphere magical, but the crowd a little bit snobbish. But this time it was full of good cheer and camaraderie and a "We made it!" sense of community, which lasted the rest of the week.

Wednesday morning, we finally got to ski and it was phenomenal. All powder, all the time. The only really groomed run was Plateau, a black run, where the Canadian and Austrian downhill men's teams practiced every day.

Otherwise, everything was pretty much ungroomed and I, who have had barely any experience in deep powder or off-piste, couldn't have had better conditions to learn in. Every day we had pure ungroomed, untracked snow to play in. Lake Inca was frozen over and everyone regaled in skiiing down pure untracked powder with the amazing blue Andes sky and the sun shining.

It continued to snow on and off and there was some frustration by the most expert skiers that Roca Jack, the bungee-cord-esque 5 person poma lift, was down. But the 4-person Condor lift was up, which let you off on a totally ungroomed slope. Some of the other lifts were buried in 12 feet of snow. There were a few attempts to go heli-skiing, but the 'copter was never able to land, so they had to turn back. Sometimes it was so foggy and the light so flat that it was tough going. But overall, people were ecstatic.

Even though Portillo was totally sold out, they managed to maneuver it so we stay an extra day to make up for the lost ones at the front end and as we departed on Sunday afternoon, the winds started picking up and it began snowing and we probably got out of there just in time or the road probably would have been closed again. Which would have been fine with all of us, but alas, we all had that pesky "real life" to get back to.

I've now been to S.A. 3 times: Portilllo 2002, tons of snow , 2004 Valle Nevado (barely snowed, reasonable conditions, but a week later and it would have been a waste), and now 2005 Portillo. I can't imagine spending a summer vacation doing anything else -- and I hope everyone gets to experience Portillo at least once in their lives.
post #2 of 19


Thank you, Cryptica. That was great.

Any photos you can show us?

On your sunny powder days, did the snow get thick or heavy at all? Also, what was your base altitude and what was the elevation of the highest lift?
post #3 of 19
Fantastic! Wow. An adventure rather than a white-bread ski trip. This is how it was when I was a kid, getting to the slopes could take all night, and we often had to hike in with our stuff on our backs.

Was altitude an issue for people at all? I guess the very slow wait and then trip up might have helped with that.
post #4 of 19
What a year to be in Chile! Sounds like there is a lack of people on powder days. Lift serviced untracked powder. Check out the shots from Basinski Shop.
post #5 of 19
I went last year (the third week of August) and we didn't see a flake of snow the whole time. Granted it was beautiful weather (sunny and 70 degrees during the day) and we had a blast! Had we gone again this year at the same time (as my friends and I seriously talked about) we would have already been at the resort when it let loose!!! That would have been absolutely (pardon the phrase) epic!!! Grrrrrrrr I knew I shoulda.....
post #6 of 19
Thread Starter 
To answer Bob, Ant and everyone's questions:

Photos: I'll be able to post some probably by next week. I'm not a great photographer, but some of the group shot amazing digital pix and we're all going to share, so I'll do my best to get some of the cool ones up.

Sunny powder days: Portillo never has more than 450 guests, so even at its most crowded, it's not crowded. So even when you were skiing the same areas as everybody else, you had sections that were pristine. It's supposed to be low-humidity in the Andes, so the powder wasn't that totally light champagne stuff. Higher up it was fluffy and soft and lower down more crunchy. Depending on the wind conditions there would be different depths that changed from run to run. Sometimes you just sailed thru it, but some runs required more assertive skiing. Because there are no trees or eyeline things to focus on, when the light got flat and the fog came in, it was unnerving sometimes. You thought you had come to a complete stop -- only to find out you were still moving.

Base Altitutde: The hotel is at 9,450 feet and is 6 stories high -- so people on the top floor are sleeping at about 9,700. The highest ski point is about 11,000 feet -- but I'm not sure anybody got to go that high because Roca Jack lift was down. I was told the vertical drop is about 2,700 feet.

Altitude sickness: First year at Portillo I did get sick. Headache, nosebleed, nausea. So did others. But this time, probably because we were driving up and stopping for hours at a time -- fewer people felt the effects. Thee were some headaches, a few people got diarreha. We all got tired more easily. I had "skier's rhinitis" -- not a cold, but one nostril constantly running. My doctor explained it's sort of like exercise-induced asthma. Only happens to me at high altitudes.

Paul Jones -- what is "Basinski Shop??"

Senator -- Don't feel too bad that you weren't there to be snowed in. Because when that 110 inches of snow dumped at Portillo, NOBODY got to ski. They shut down the lifts because of avalanches and everyone had to stay inside for days. I'm told they went a little crazy after a few days. Some serious pisco sours and Chilean wines were consumed.
post #7 of 19
I've wanted to go there ever since a friend visited in the mid 1960's. Same story, they couldn't leave because of avalanches, and finally they all had to ski out. Sounds like a place for adventure.
post #8 of 19
Go to my post here last week about Fresh Snow or Rick the Basin Ski shop owner goes down everyear. He always post photo's on his web site, for those of us that can't make it.

When I spoke with him last Sunday, he said they give them 2 meter sticks to poke in the snow to find the cars in the parking lot.

I have another friend, she was there with her team from Burke Mt Academy. They were doing front flips off the small cliffs into bottomless powder.

They were all up there before the snows came.
post #9 of 19
Yeah, I know they were stuck inside for days, but when they got outside, hoo boy!!! I saw pics on another forum of how much snow there was once the avalanches stopped and they went back out. Wow.

As for the pisco sours, I'll stick to the Chilean wine, thanks. No raw egg white cocktails for me!
post #10 of 19
photos are required for any trip report
post #11 of 19
Thread Starter 
"Photos are required for any trip report." I'll do my best, once everybody on the trip e-mails the "best of's." But then you'll have to talk me thru it on how to actually post them. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Chilean ARMY was also training every day at Portillo. (There's an Army base right down the road, since 200 yards from Portillo is the Agentinian border.)

There were dozens and dozens of them, all dressed in full green/black/brown camouflage outfits (do we think this would hide them in the snow?), with big backpacks. We fantasized that there were machine guns in there, but no, it was only a sandwich and a pillow. I couldn't guage their equipment, but was told it's lousy, particularly the boots. They didn't wear helmets, just black wool knit caps. And FABULOUS black sunglasses! They weren't very good skiers, but long lines of them trying to stay in perfect miliatry order struggling down the mountain, zooming past the Austrians in their spandex one-piece ski suits - - -- was an amazing sight. Does the U.S. Army train its soldiers to ski??
post #12 of 19
Yep! We got waves of them at Keystone, monstering the bunny hill. Their trainers had a novel way of teaching them to ski. They'd take them to the top of the carpet (which was quite steep), and scream at them as they hurtled down.
They were on AT type skis, with light metal tele type bindings, with lock-downable heels, and leather boots.
We'd try to sneak them a useful hint when the trainers were busy screaming at someone else, the poor buggers were terrified. quite a few ended up in the carpark.

We had new lots every week, in their cam gear and packs. At least they weren't carrying guns, we foreigners would not have liked that very much.
post #13 of 19
Really, when I was there, they wore white and actually DID carry machine guns. You should have seen how all the 'mericans scrunched over to the other side of the trail to avoid them.
post #14 of 19
Thanks for report. Waiting to see your pics. Here's a few from Webshots:
Roca Jack:
The road to Portillo:
post #15 of 19
I was skiing at Burke Mt in nothern VT one very cold day back in Jan. 94' when a troop of Army guys came out of the trees and crossed the trail on there skis.

So yes the US does train some of the guys/gals for winter fighting.

Remember the 10Mt Division ?
post #16 of 19

Army skiers, other SA ski areas

[/quote]Does the U.S. Army train its soldiers to ski??[/quote]

Yes as a matter of fact that's how I did my military service in the 70's (as a US Army Ski Instructor, Crystal Mtn WA (Huckelberry Creek)) which was a great way to spend my enlistment (skiing the winter and teaching mountaineering in the summer).

I'm hoping to travel to SA to ski in 2008. It will take alot of planning and some fanagling to get the time off but the posts here are great and very helpful. Besides Portillo where are the other preferred ski areas? What sort of budget per day do you need to do it comfortably.

post #17 of 19
Thank you for resurrecting this thread! I will be teaching a ski fitness week in Portillo from August 25th to Sptember 1st, 2006. Becasue of your info about closed roads, we are leaving earlier than we originally planned.
post #18 of 19
Besides Portillo where are the other preferred ski areas? What sort of budget per day do you need to do it comfortably.
i went to SA in august but had to skip portillo because of the week long requirements. i did take the mountain pass to argentina. the road cuts right through portillo and the lift actually goes over the road. this made me very jealous as that seemed like an experience in and of itself, not to mention getting to watch the procession of traffic trying to make it through the andes. in argentina i skied penitentes. i was there four days and only got about a day and a half on. the snow hit as soon as we arrived and the mountain was closed for blasting for two and a half days. this was very depressing as there was snow everywhere falling constantly and we couldnt touch any of it. however when they opened the mountain up it was awesome. powder riding up to my hips.
as far as a budget is concerned, penitentes is very cheap. i dont remember what the lift was but i think i bought a three day pass for like 50 american. i know that it was around that because they wouldnt give us refunds even though the mountain was closed on the days of our passes. there is nothing at penitentes. i mean NOTHING. theres a handful of buildings, an empty bar and a couple restaurants. granted i didnt eat in any of the restaurants and stayed in a hostel, but there was nothing enticing the money out of my pocket to even know what the prices were like.

as for the rest of SA, i plan to go back but not wasting my time at the resorts above santiago. valle nevado and el colorado i believe. i found both to be boring and the snow was nothing better than lower northeast slop. the only thing i did enjoy was the peak pass from valle to the top of colorado to ski back to my hostel at el colorado. i got a couple hours in on penitentes before the snowstorm. of course it was incredible after the snow but even before was ok. the piste was icy hard and solid but you could find good riding off-piste by just tracking horizontally beyond the last persons line and that was fine.

due to the storm i was stuck in the mountains and ran out of time so i did not get to las lenas. when i go back i plan to do las lenas, bariloche and if theres time penitentes (even without the fresh pow i liked the isolated feel). PM me if you want to chat this up. i made alot of mistakes that sucked, but im glad i made so many at once cause next time will be 1000 times smoother.
-oh and there were saldados or soldiers skiing at penitentes. my gear was similar to theirs and i easily fell into line with them which made the riding much easier. at all three mountains i experienced terrible visibility with all three colors of goggle lens. above tree line (all the resorts were above treeline so there were no trees), everything is flat and in the snow its near impossible to see your line. you look for the chair lift poles and any other body you can see.
here, pics:
post #19 of 19
i was about to ask, isnt it kinda summer in portillo now? they are 2 seasons out of phase with NA.
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