Buried: Epic Storm Pounds Portillo

Comments by Tom Winter/

Mitch Fielding looks at the window and starts to cackle. He’s been looking outside all day, between bouts of reading, and now, it’s impossible to ignore the truth any longer. You can’t see out the window. And even if you could, it wouldn’t matter, because all there is to look at is a howling wall of white. But that doesn’t matter to Mitch. He doesn’t care at all. Because now, at this moment, the window, and all the others in the Portillo Lodge are completely coated with a layer of snow and ice. There’s nothing to see, and all you can hear is the screaming fury of a blizzard that is howling into the night, the snow coating the windows, the road closed and everyone with brains hunkered down in the warm embrace of the lodge.

Mitch, in fact, is one of the lucky ones. He snuck into Portillo right after the storm had arrived, dodging the road closure and arriving in time to catch après ski at the bar. And he’s cackling because he’s here, and he knows that when the storm clears, the road will still be closed, blocked by avalanche debris, monster drifts and abandoned trucks. And he also knows that while the plows are digging the road out, and everyone who was supposed to arrive a day or two earlier is frantically waiting for the road to open, he’ll be poaching first tracks in truly epic conditions.

Mitch looks at me and cackles again. “See anything out there?” he says. “Nope,” I say and allow myself to cackle a bit too. And then we both start to smile at each other in amazement and stoke at our good fortune to be here, at Portillo, while the storm rages and the road gets buried even deeper, secure in the knowledge that in two days the weather will pop and there will be a mere handful of us claiming first tracks on some of the best terrain South America has to offer.

We’re here, Mitch and I and Shane McConkey and Frank Shine, all because of one man: Chris Davenport. Davenport has lined up this junket and our first few days here are a small vacation for him, Frank and Shane before the real work starts and the 5th annual Steep Skiing Camp kicks off. Both McConkey and Davenport will be coaching this year’s edition (Davenport has been involved since the camp’s inception, and is the camp’s founder). Mitch is a camper, Frank is the resident filmer and photographer and I’m just here to ski. But there’s no skiing going on right now. The blizzard has taken care of that.

Still, if you’re going to be stuck in a blizzard, there are worse places to be. Portillo is one of the iconic ski lodges on the planet. It shares this stature with a few other gems, like the Alta Lodge or the St. Bernard in Taos. The food is plentiful, the beer cold and the wine list features the best that Chile has to offer. And right now the place is nearly empty, the result of a pre-storm exodus by panicked guests who got the hell out while the getting out was good. For those of us who have stayed, thought, there’s a certain camaraderie. We’re riding out the storm in style. And we’re riding it out because we’re looking to cash in on the powder frenzy that’s sure to come when the clouds clear.

Located high in the Andes, Portillo seems small when you first arrive. There’s the lodge, a big yellow box of a building, a curving hulk that embraces superlative views. There are a few other lodges, the small “Octagon” which is, in fact, an octagon and which tends to be base camp for the U.S., Canadian and Austrian ski teams when they come here to train, the Inca (a surprisingly affordable option, perfect for ski bums) and some private cabins.

The lifts don’t seem that impressive either. That is, until you get on them. The modest chairs drop you off at the va et vients, funky multi-person pomas that exist no place else on earth and which are designed to withstand the massive avalanches that sweep down from the high peaks surrounding Portillo. These lifts, like the Roca Jack and Condor fly up these same avalanche paths, depositing skiers at the top of dicey traverses that lead into spiny ridges, hidden chutes and hanging powder fields. It is an experience unlike any other, and with a limit of approximately 450 people at the various lodges, there are never any crowds.

Factor in that most of Portillo’s guests rarely venture into the meatier lines and you have a fantasy land of first tracks down winding chutes, untouched cliff drops and endless untracked aprons which offer Mach 10 turns back to the lifts so you can do it all over again. Once you’ve done one or two laps, the scale of the mountains becomes apparent. The lifts don’t seem impressive, because they’re dwarfed by the massive peaks that surround Portillo. And that tiny yellow building waaaaaay down there? Oh, that’s the lodge!

But right now, none of this is visible, only the blasting snow, as it drives across the deck of the lodge and piles up deeper and deeper and deeper. But both Mitch and I know it’s out there and we know that neither the mountains or the lodge or us are going anywhere. We look at each other again and smile.