Chasing an Endless Winter at Chile’s Ski Portillo Resort

Chile's Ski Portillo resort is a legend in the ski world, a mountain paradise where generations of World Cup racers and A-list stars have flocked in the summer. And for powder freaks, it's still the most unpretentious, ripping place on the planet to keep winter going all year long.
Chile's Ski Portillo resort is a legend in the ski world, a mountain paradise where generations of World Cup racers and A-list stars have flocked in the summer. And for powder freaks, it's still the most unpretentious, ripping place on the planet to keep winter going all year long. — Courtesy of Ski Portillo Chile/Brent Jacoby


As a full moon rose over the Andes last August, remote Portillo, Chile, might have been the quietest, loneliest resort on earth—if it weren’t for the club music blasting in the downstairs discoteca. As wind howled in the surrounding peaks, the skiers I’d met in the outdoor Jacuzzi—among them heli-skiing powder hounds from Japan, a trio of Ralph Lauren models, and recruits from the High Mountain School of the Chilean army—shook their base-layered booties to Cardi B. Soon enough, someone brought out the shotski, a ski adorned with six shot glasses for group guzzling.

And why not? Skiing in South America while everyone I knew was swatting mosquitoes up north was worth toasting. For me, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy, a pilgrimage to the end-of-the-earth summer home—at least by Northern Hemisphere standards—for the U.S., Austrian, Canadian, and Norwegian ski teams. But the reality of Ski Portillo, which has reached legendary status among dedicated year-round powder chasers, outdid even my snowiest expectations.

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From Santiago, the country’s capital, it’s a two-hour drive into the saw-toothed hinterlands. The final push to Portillo’s landmark six-story canary-yellow lodge at 9,450 feet encompasses 29 brutal hairpin turns. Driving to the resort, on 1,235 acres of treeless terrain, feels like motoring to Antarctica. But then you arrive and walk out on the back deck overlooking Laguna del Inca—perhaps the prettiest mountain lake you’ve ever seen, surrounded by soaring peaks and the best-situated hot tubs on the planet—you really do get the sense that you may have arrived in heaven. Open since 1949, South America’s oldest resort has one main lodge with 124 unfussy rooms, along with two smaller lodges and five chalets, which host no more than 450 guests at a time. Those guests book for an all-inclusive Saturday-to-Saturday stay, so unlike ordinary ski areas, such as Aspen or Whistler, where travelers sleep and eat and party in different locations, Portillo is more like a wacky cruise ship on snow. After a day of chasing powder and crushing bumps in the Andes, everyone retreats to the lodge, where pisco sours flow like glacial meltwater. For the entirety of your stay, you get the same table and tablemates for four meals a day. (High tea is taken religiously here.) Meals are served in the leather-walled dining room by bow-tied waiters in red dinner jackets.

You won’t find Bogner shops or fancy slopeside condos, and there are no ice rinks or tube parks to distract you from the vertiginous basics that brought you so far. Rooms don’t even have TVs, and get this: The guy who stores your boots at the end of the day doesn’t need a claim ticket—he’ll remember your face.

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Lunch at the mid-mountain spot Tio Bob’s Jesse Hoffman

As U.S. Olympic champion Bode Miller, who trained for years at Portillo, told me, “Portillo is a wild, way-out-there place that’s great as long as you know what you’re in for, which is shredding run after killer run and then aprèsing in that creaky lodge all night.”

It’s a routine that grows on you quickly. All those ski pilgrims who checked in with you soon emerge like characters in an alpine reality show. On my trip, there was the impossibly fit, impeccably tattooed real estate bro from Chicago who did breathy morning squats in tube socks and underwear. A millennial Brazilian couple GoPro’d each other’s every twitch and head tilt, even while eating burgers at Tio Bob’s, the rustic mid-mountain lunch spot at 10,000 feet. Then there was magnificent Heidi Knaus, my private ski guide for the week, also the resident yoga instructor and accordionist. Heidi, a Swiss powerhouse, out-ripped me all week, which makes sense given that she skis 250-plus days a year between Portillo and St. Moritz. Though it would be impolite to ask for specifics, Heidi is also old enough that she taught JFK’s kids to ski when they visited in the ’70s.

And that’s the other thing about Portillo: It’s filled with legendary stories of excess—off the snow and on it. There’s one about Fidel Castro leaving his pistol in the dining room and the ruckus that ensued when a busboy tried to return it to him. Another about a debauched 1970s fashion shoot with models and $2 million worth of furs flown in, not to mention mounds of cocaine. A blizzard dumped enough snow to reach the second floor, and crew member Julie Christman summed up the ensuing high-altitude frolicking, which has become a sort of Portillo mantra: “Um, well, we’re stuck here. Why don’t we have a good time?”

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The entrance to the wood-paneled lodge Jesse Hoffman

Still, for all its quirks, Portillo is a place where the rewards are as deep and stokeworthy as a nine-foot mid-August dump. (Yes, that still happens now and then.) The Va et Vient lift that ascends Roca Jack—the downhill run used by professional ski teams since 1966—is part tow bar, part carny thrill ride. You hook the bar between your legs before the mechanism shoots you uphill. Dismounting is achieved with a here-goes-nothin’ sideways kick turn on the ultrasteep gradient.

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From there, you can cruise back to the bottom pounding turns to the base or, if you’re among the handful of true nutcases, a two- hour backcountry trek up 12,919-foot Ojos de Agua mountain to drop into the legendary rock-walled couloir known as Super C. Even the YouTube videos of that 5,600-foot vertical descent will give you adrenaline sweats. Not gnarly enough? A helicopter can whisk you to untouched snow ranges in the shadow of nearby Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. But there’s plenty for moderate skiers, too. The hill is forgiving if you need it to be, with wide escapes and easy options out of trouble, even if you’re loopy on piscos.

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As Saturday drew rapidly to Saturday, a hint of sadness washed over me as we knocked back that glorious shotski. Lighter-than-usual snow packs in recent years have forced most of the international ski teams to train elsewhere, and it’s hard to imagine a family-run operation like Portillo—an 83-year-old American, Henry Purcell, has operated the place since 1961—schussing on forever in an industry dominated by global resort behemoths. But as the schnapps kicked in, so did the feeling of pure bliss as one late arrival entered the dance floor to cheers loud enough to set off avalanches. Heidi smiled graciously and demurred at first, but then jumped into the fray with some shoulder shimmies and hip shakes and yet another challenge that somehow defied time and age.

“Come on, people,” she said. “Let’s get this party started!”

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Hucking Portillo’s epic terrain Liam Doran

The Specifics

When to Go

The snow is best July to August.

Booking

Saturday-to-Saturday Ski Weeks begin at $1,190, but the main lodge, the classic accommodation, starts at $2,400 per person. All options include lodging, ski access, and four meals a day. Booze is extra.

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Getting There

Santiago is the closest international airport. After booking, guests can arrange group or private transfers, which start at $145 per person round-trip.

Insider’s Guide

For après, locals venture a hundred yards down the road to the “townie” bar, La Posada, where there is no shortage of late-night shenanigans. On property, there’s always action in the heated outdoor pools and on the dance floor in that ’70s-era discoteca.