Peter Shelton

August, and a boy’s fancy turns to…

Posted in At the Movies, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on August 26, 2010

All this talk about Bear Creek and skiing has got my snow jones going.

It’s mid winter in Chile right now. Specifically, in Portillo where I visited once as the presenter for Mountainfilm On Tour.

The memories are vivid still. Frank Coffee, otherwise unflappable ski patrol director, drinking pisco sours through a straw because his jaw was wired shut. He’d taken a sucker punch from a stoned-out American extreme-skier. I don’t know if Frank told the punk he couldn’t hike a certain couloir – they’re everywhere spilling down the very steep peaks on either side of the lake – or if he pissed him off for some other reason. Or no reason.

The sunflower-yellow, gently curved, six-story Hotel Portillo, since 1949 standing at the plunging edge of Laguna del Inca in a treeless landscape of snow and rock and water with giant condors circling on the wind above.

Women dancing with one another in the club at 1 a.m. Some were cougars, but many were much too young and pretty for that. From Brazil, Argentina, Chile, England, France, refugees from Aspen, Tahoe, Cervinia. They’d worn all the men out.

Dinner served at 9:30 p.m. by red-jacketed waiters with imperious manners and secret smiles; your waiter is yours for the entire Saturday-to-Saturday ski week. One night when I wasn’t showing movies I watched the wait staff play soccer on the gym floor. You’ve never seen such skilled passing and close-in scoring.

U.S. Team women training downhill on early-morning loud snow, looking like 3D superheroes in their silver speed suits. Austrian men training next to them looking like Brahma bulls in sausage skins. The grunts of exhortation and the yelps of self-recrimination by both sexes plainly audible from the chairlift. Then at 5 p.m. tea they chat and laugh like mere mortals.

Riding the demonic but utilitarian Roca Jack “va et vient” lift. It means “go and come” in French, and it’s a surface lift for five riders at a time. Five riders shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, each one with a disk between his legs. The five abreast thing would be challenge enough, but then the overhead cable slingshots everyone at breakneck speed up the Roca Jack avalanche path.

A big slide wiped out the chairlift towers here in 1965, so the “va et vient” scheme was born of practical necessity. If you manage to hang on, it takes you to Portillo’s lift-served high point, with miles of chutes and alluvial run-outs to explore.

I remember my own southern-hemisphere confusion, not easily overcome, where north-facing slopes are the sunny aspects and south-facing slopes harbor the shady, soft-snow bowers.

Portillo is not a model for what Telluride might become. It’s more like a remote heliski lodge in British Columbia, except with the high-mountain school of the Chilean Army in barracks across the valley. In the early days of the resort, soldiers helped ski-pack the slopes. They were also called upon at times to rescue travelers trapped inside train tunnels by avalanching snow.

The TransAndean Railway made the resort possible. In the late 1880s the Chilean government hired English and Norwegian engineers to find a route over the range and into Argentina via Uspallata Pass (12,500 feet), just at the knees of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas at 22,841 feet. Naturally, the Norwegians brought their skis.

The Hotel Portillo opened after World War II with three lifts. French great Emile Allais, who would later design Telluride’s initial layout, signed on as the first ski school director. When Allais moved on, Stein Eriksen took over. Portillo has always had that kind of international star power.

But the government turned out to be not the best hotelier, so they sold the operation to a couple of Americans, Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich. And they turned over the day-to-day operation in 1962 to Purcell’s nephew, Henry, a 26-year-old graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Management. Henry and his wife Ellen gave Portillo a kind of warm grandeur. It’s sometimes compared to a cruise ship in the snow, but that’s not quite right. It’s more like you’ve been invited up to the manor house for a long weekend. Only it’s not “Upstairs Downstairs” class-conscious, it’s instantly familial and reassuringly devoted to snowsport.

I saw them, Henry and Ellen, this spring in Utah at the annual gathering of the International Skiing History Association. Henry was receiving an award for his book Portillo, The Spirit of the Andes, a massive, beautiful history made twice as weighty by the fact that it is written in both Spanish and English. Like the place itself, it is very much its own universe and of the world at the same time.

Seeing them again and looking at the pictures rekindled a little ache in my gut, the kind you get when you’re on a river trip and the canyon has gotten inside you, and you really, really wish it didn’t have to end.

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