AS SEEN IN THE DECEMBER 2011 ISSUE OF FREESKIER
WORDS BY NICOLE BIRKHOLD
THE ANDES MOUNTAINS ENTOMB PORTILLO, CHILE, IN AN ISOLATED BOWL OF SNOW, ROCK AND SKY. FROM OUR VANTAGE POINT AT JUST UNDER 14,000 FEET ATOP THE SUPER C COULOIR, THE VIEW FEATURED FAMED LANDMARKS 360-DEGREES AROUND. ONLY 10 MILES TO THE NORTHEAST, ACONCAGUA, THE HIGHEST PEAK IN THE AMERICAS AT 22,841 FEET, LOOMS MAGNIFICENT WITH WHIPS OF CLOUDS CIRCLING ITS PEAK. TO THE SOUTH, THE BLUEISH BROWN GLACIER OF JUNCAL DARES THE MOST SEASONED ADVENTURERS TO BRAVE ITS FACE. BELOW US, THE HAIRIEST OF SWITCHBACK RIDDLED HIGHWAYS LEAD THE WAY FROM SANTIAGO, TWO HOURS SOUTH, UP THROUGH PORTILLO AND ON TO THE NEARBY CHECKPOINT OF THE ARGENTINE BORDER.
THE INSANE HIGHWAY IS BACKED UP WITH SEMIS CARTING GOODS BACK AND FORTH ACROSS THE HILL AND ACROSS THE BORDER. AND FINALLY, DIRECTLY AT OUR FEET, THE TUCKED AWAY RESORT OF SKI PORTILLO, ACCOMPANIED BY THE STUNNING LAGUNA DEL INCA. THE RESORT AND THE PEOPLE THAT LOOK LIKE ANTS MOVING ABOUT ARE SO SERENE FROM OUR PERCH THAT IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE THE PARTIES IT HOSTS EACH EVENING OR THE STORIED HISTORY THIS LONG STANDING ICON OF CHILEAN SKI CULTURE HOLDS.
For years Ingrid Backstrom and her boyfriend, photographer Adam Clark, have been visiting Portillo, so they served as gracious guides when we arrived at the resort. During the week prior to our arrival, they had been at the resort enjoying an extended storm. Luckily, the white stuff stuck around for The North Face athletes Angel Collinson and Jacqui Edgerly to join Ingrid and Adam. When the sun broke through, coinciding perfectly with our arrival, it provided a great combination for exploring and shooting photos.
Left: Jacqui Edgerly in Portillo, Chile | Photo by Adam Clark
At the end of our first day skiing together—where we explored lower-lying areas with quick boot packs that ensured us endless, untouched powder—we skied to the base of the Super C couloir. There we crossed paths with Chris Davenport and Erik Roner, who had braved the slog and broken the boot pack up to the mouth of the C earlier that day. They assured us the couloir was in good shape and our trip to Portillo would not be complete unless we ski the showpiece line ourselves. At dinner, over a bottle of Chilean Malbec, we decided, rain or shine, we were going to make our way up and down the iconic couloir at dawn.
Over a second bottle of wine, this time a Carmenere, we added another mission to our list. We decided to explore some of the Chilean coast for our final day before returning to our homes in the Northern Hemisphere. We were encouraged to explore the coastal towns Valpariso and Viña del Mar by stories of gorgeous graffiti, fresh seafood and salty air.
Before we began our Super C ascent the next day, we ran into the modern day Chilean Army in their camouflage fatigues gearing up for a day of training on the mountain. One soldier even asked Ingrid if perhaps they could “maybe… ski… together… later?” The fatigue- clad soldiers and their predecessors started training for mountain operations in 1954 when the High Mountain School of the Chilean Army was formed and based out of the old Portillo Hotel. After a few high fives, we were off to tackle our mission of the day. Alas, the rendezvous never materialized.
Angel Collinson in Portillo, Chile | Photo by Adam Clark
We finished the two-and-a-half hour boot-pack hike to the top of the Super C with one heart racing moment, clinging to rocks on a narrow path trying not to look down at what would surely, with one false step, be our doom. At the top it was peaceful. The sprawling magnificence of the towering and menacing Andes Mountains surrounded us. Portillo was silent below.
Angel had a larger reason for skiing the Super C. She wanted to visit the spot her late boyfriend, Ryan Hawks, had stood exactly one-year prior, days after the two met. “He kept telling me how awesome hiking and skiing the C was,” she recalls. “That I had to come and do it. Well, here I was. It was a pretty overwhelming experience. It’s a powerful place. I couldn’t stop. I just kept a steady, rhythmic walking pace. I focused on my breathing. I had to get to the same place.
Ingrid Backstrom in Portillo, Chile | Photo by Adam Clark
“I was feeling my time with Ryan come full circle as I stood at the peak. Being that high in the mountains surrounded by such beautiful scenery is always a profound feeling but this was incredibly impactful. I felt like I was standing in his shoes; I have a photo of him standing right where I stood. Right on the peak. With his skis held above his head. I felt like I could almost touch him again; feel him again.
“Ours wasn’t a long relationship, but one that was full of feeling. You have to look at your time spent with a partner as a gift that was given to you, not something that was taken away. I remember a conversation we had. I was talking about being scared of getting into another relationship and the fear of forgetting the memories we made if we didn’t work out. He said, ‘I won’t forget if you don’t forget.’ Being at the top of the Super C was just one moment that will ensure I won’t forget.”
Jacqui Edgerly in Portillo, Chile | Photo by Adam Clark
After descending the C and our days exploring the vast Portillo mountain, we packed the car and headed west to visit the Pacific and immerse ourselves in the rich culture and Chilean heritage. Our time spent on the coast would prove adventurous, to say the least, from car accidents, to run ins with Chilean police, to emergency room visits, to a stint at a suspiciously transgendered bar with live entertainment and a late-night dance party.
The memories of our ski trip—the long, 4,300-foot milky soft snow that filled the Super C, the sun laden boot packs, and the backflips—will eventually combine with the memories of the cultural experiences—the pickup lines, the artistry and the ham and queso—to create in each of us a sense of time stood still when we reminisce on what can only be described as a week of “muy auténtico” experiences in Chile with friends.