How the world's most dramatic ski resort was founded in the mountains of South America

Cat Weakley

Thanks to its big, bright yellow hotel and surrounding slopes on the 6,000m Andes mountains, leading down to the huge mirror-still Laguna del Inca lake, pictures of the ski resort of Portillo in South America are some of the most arresting in ski-dom. 

Being so far away, it may be in the far depths of bucket-list possibility as far as UK skiers and snowboarders are concerned, but that doesn’t stop us dreaming of joining the skiers swooping the steep runs, then sipping pisco sour cocktails in the afternoon sun – and summer is the time to go, as the season starts in late June.

This winter the resort, founded in 1949, is 70 years old. Not a bad innings (so far) for a place set at a breathtaking 2,885m in the centre of long and narrow Chile, especially since it is resolutely boutique, with a maximum of 450 people staying at any one time. 

A pair of American skiers, Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich, bought the resort in 1961 and it is still owned and run by the Purcell family, including Bob’s nephew Henry, the general manager of those days. 

Now Ski Portillo’s chief executive, when he arrived, age 26, there was a large black sheep called Lumumba living in the hotel’s living room. History does not record whether the animal was named after the Congolese former first minister assassinated in the same year.

The iconic yellow hotel is one of the most famous in the ski world Credit: michael neuman

“I didn’t know how to ski when I arrived in Portillo,” says Henry Purcell now. “My first teacher at the Portillo school was Dixi Knoll and I have continued to learn from our many instructors and coaches over the years.” Now in his 80s, Henry still skis every day, and his son Miguel is general manager. 

The first people to ski in the area were engineers building the now defunct Transandean railway between Chile and Argentina, and after its inauguration in 1910 trains were the first form of ski lift. In 1949 a large hotel and two one-person chairlifts replaced a small mountain hut and drag lift that had served Portillo’s slopes since the early 1930s.

In the 1960s its new American owners set about investing in more modern facilities, and putting the resort – just over 100 miles and two hours drive from the Chilean capital Santiago, close to the Argentinian border – on the map.

Henry with his uncle, and Portillo's co-founder, Bob Purcell Credit: ski portillo

Its lift-served slopes go from 2,885m to 3,322m, higher than Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe at 2,300m, with slopes to 3,200m. And with extensive backcountry slopes all around, there’s the possibility to go higher still in Portillo by hiking or helicopter

Unsurprisingly, over the years, Henry Purcell has travelled the whole ski area. “I love all of Portillo,” he says. “My favourite slope is the red Plateau for its great variety. I always loved our off-piste too, not only when the powder is deep but also when we have our corn snow in the spring.” And it is generally the steeps and off piste, including hair-raising couloirs beloved of filmmakers and pro skiers, that attract visitors from far and wide.

Backcountry runs to write home about include the Super-C, a two- to four-hour hike depending on fitness from the top of the Roca Jack lift. American professional adventure skier and mountaineer Chris Davenport, who runs his Superstars Ski Camp from Portillo, is one of many to wax lyrical about it. “The C is one of the best lines I’ve ever skied,” he says. “It’s one of the world’s most aesthetic couloirs. It’s steep and committing. It has so many sections and zones. There’s no run in the world like it that I have found.”

Five chairlifts and five drag-lifts serve the lower slopes with four five-abreast drag-lifts accessing the highest runs. These lifts are called Va et Vient (which translates as come and go) and are unique to Portillo. They were invented by ski lift specialist Poma in the 1960s to make it easier to get to the most challenging couloirs.

As part of their mission to get the world to notice, Purcell and Aldrich successfully pitched to hold the Alpine World Ski Championships in Portillo, to take place in August 1966. The event went ahead despite the resort having to be rebuilt after an unexpectedly intense storm the previous year flattened lifts ahead of a test event. The Champs attracted a huge number of visitors for the inauguration, as well as world-class skiers such as French heroes Jean Claude Killy and Emile Allais. 

“I think the 1965 disaster and the lead up to the 1966 races is just about as difficult as it gets for a manager,” says Purcell. “We had to rebuild the entire lift structure, finish all the housing, communications and course preparation, show the FIS [International Ski Federation] we were ready, get their final approval and, finally, realise the event.”

The resort's resident Saint Bernards watch over the resort in 1962 Credit: ski portillo

The new owners also increased Portillo’s profile by inviting American glitterati to visit and spread the word. Lumumba the sheep was shifted from his lodgings, and instead Portillo became a regular for dignitaries including politicians and business movers and shakers as well as Argentine polo players. Even the heads of the ski school were famous, including Stein Eriksen from Norway as well as Bob Purcell’s first appointment, Othmar Schneider from Austria. Both won Olympic gold medals in the 1950s.

In the 1970s a young Robert Kennedy spent a week in Portillo, and, legend has it, was chased by Chilean border police. “The incident was caused by his guide who tried to take a group past the border control station to visit the Christ of the Andes statue,” recalls Henry Purcell. “They were sneaking above it when they were observed by the border patrol and a couple of warning shots were fired. It was all settled amicably but the story gets better with each telling.

“When Kennedy went back to the USA he wrote an article that appeared on the front page of the travel section of the New York Times.”

Fidel Castro visited the resort in the Seventies Credit: ski portillo

Fidel Castro was another famous visitor in the 70s, when he was Cuba’s prime minister, and is captured in a photo with Purcell. “Fidel visited Portillo when he came to Chile in 1972, but since he came in the summer I don’t know if he skis or not,” he says. “I met him and we chatted about the mountains for a few minutes and argued over the height of a mountain near the hotel. I did not find him particularly pleasant.”

Portillo is not a ski town as such. All guests stay in the hotel, or, more cheaply, in dorm rooms or apartments. All eat in the hotel dining room, under the care of long-standing maitre d’ Juan Beiza, and potentially in the company of the many pro ski and snowboard athletes that come to the slopes to train. 

For this anniversary season, the hotel has had an interior design refresh, with sustainable Chilean Lenga wood walls, Chilean wool throws, and classic black and white skiing photos. There’s also $3.5 million of new snowmaking – which the resort is currently using to the full in what is so far an unseasonably warm winter.

But whatever the weather, Henry Purcell will ski every day. “I met Emile Allais in 1966 when the World Ski Championships were in Portillo.” he says. “I was buried in work and was not getting out much when he came to the door of my office, introduced himself and said I really should get out more. 

“He waited while I put my boots on and we skied together for a couple of hours. We became good friends, the event did not suffer from my brief escape and the World Championships was successful. Since then I have never missed a ski day in Portillo.”

The essentials

A week’s Saturday to Saturday ski package at Ski Portillo costs from $2,400 full-board (including early evening tea) based on two sharing a double room, including lift pass and a night’s B&B in Santiago. A Saturday shuttle bus runs between Santiago and Portillo ($145); private transfers are also available. Adding four nights at a sister hotel in the Atacama desert or Patagonia gives a 20 per cent discount at both properties. 

Both Scott Dunn and Pura Aventura offer 13 night packages to Chile, including seven nights in Portillo, four nights in the Atacama and a night in Santiago. A Scott Dunn package including international flights and domestic flights, private transfers and a selection of experiences costs from £8,690. Pura Aventura packages start at £4,550, with international flights quoted separately.

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