WORDS • DONNY O’NEILL | HEADER IMAGE • TAMARA SUSA
Cozied up in my window seat on United Airlines flight 1184 from Denver, Colorado, to Houston, Texas, I fantasized about how I’d soon be smack dab in the middle of winter after leaving the sweltering summer heat of the Northern Hemisphere behind. Seated a couple of rows away, publisher Damian Quigley accompanied me on this jaunt down to Chile as part of FREESKIER’s Ski The South project, and we were waiting on the two lucky winners of the grand prize trip to join us in Portillo and Valle Nevado. As the minutes ticked closer to departure time, I worried that our winners, both greenhorn South American skiers, would miss the flight entirely. At the eleventh hour, though, two guys in their mid-twenties, ski boots slung over their shoulders, hats pointed backward and looks plastered on their faces that said, “We knew we’d make it the whole time,” found their seats, replacing our doubt with pleasant surprise. Typical skiers.
In May 2019, FREESKIER launched Ski The South, a comprehensive digital guide dedicated to helping our readers navigate the unfamiliar waters of a bucket-list ski trip to South America. The corresponding website was filled to the brim with travel advice, stories curated by our editors about must-ski destinations and tales of South American adventure penned by those who experienced them. The ingredient that tied the whole project together was a ski trip giveaway for one lucky reader and a friend, an all-expenses-paid voyage to ski in the dead of summer.
We exchanged proper greetings with our winners, Brian Trausch and Tyler Pence, on the ground at the airport in Houston.
“Didn’t think you guys would make it,” Damian said to the duo.
“Yeah, well I had to pick up a new pair of skis on the way, so we were a little delayed,” Brian responded.
It seemed apt that, on their way down from Summit County, Colorado, where Trausch lived, a mandatory pit stop to cop a pair of Faction Candide 3.0s was in order. If he’s willing to risk on-time arrival for an international flight to have his gear perfectly dialed, he must be a worthy ski buddy. We learned that Brian and Tyler met and became friends skiing around Keystone a few years prior. Tyler had since moved back to his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to build terrain parks for nearby Seven Springs, which proved he had the passion and acumen to hold his own in Chile. Plus, Brian said there was no other person he’d want to go skiing with in South America and that was enough for us. In terms of appearances, these guys fit the stereotype of a Summit County park skier, almost comically—oversized Tall T Productions t-shirt, Treefort Lifestyles passport holder, shaggy hair, sagging jeans and skate shoes. Stereotypes aside, I assumed their style equated to knowing a thing or two about skiing, which was a bonus. With our ostensibly strong ski companions now with us, plane tickets in-hand and on-the-ground logistics solidified, our plan had come together. The team was assembled, fueled up with airport pizza and ready to go. A quick overnight flight and we’d be on the ground in Chile.
Jostled awake by the quick-twitch maneuvering of our driver, I came to life as we began the serpentine ascent up 29 switchbacks to the Hotel Portillo, the iconic canary yellow fortress, the command center of the whole resort, at 9,450 feet above sea level. While we’d heard rumors that South America was currently in low tide conditions—the winter weather can be fickle in this part of the world, something we warned readers and reminded ourselves of via the Ski The South guide—we were greeted with a brisk winter wind and rivers of snow flowing down the rugged inclines surrounding the hotel. Looked like winter, to me. Standing in the roundabout at the resort’s entrance, we were surrounded by triangular crags that soared straight up from a massive high-alpine lake, Laguna del Inca, and any travel anxiety was swiftly replaced with an excitement to explore.
We arrived with enough daylight left to click into our skis and get the lay of the land. With the cold winter air rejuvenating our travel-weary bodies, we spent a few hours embracing the fact that we were skiing, in mid-August, in a place surrounded by mountains that reached toward the heavens, topping out at over 15,000 feet at their pointed summits.
Over four days, we packed in as much skiing as we could under the August sun. We hoofed it off-piste to the top of the Lake Run, where we enjoyed wind-deposited snow pockets sheltered by steep crags down 1,000-plus-vertical feet to the lakeshore. We took advantage of the innumerable side hits spread across the Las Lomas trail and even built a kicker on David’s Run. For hours Damian, Brian and Tyler launched off the jump under pristine blue skies, reaching into their bag of tricks in front of the crystalline blue waters of Laguna Del Inca while I snapped away with the camera. Our contest winners were right at home lapping the booter. Sporting a do-rag and Chicago Bulls jersey, Brian spun 360 tail grabs until he was dizzy, which aligned with his confident, outgoing and competitive attitude. On the other hand, Tyler’s low-key personality was reflected in his ski style, as he focused almost solely on sending zero spins, grabbing blunt along the way. Regardless of the subtleties of their personal styles, we were over the moon to be sharing this trip with two gents who held skiing in such high regard and had the skills to back up their sweepstakes win.
When the sun disappeared each day, we congregated in the main dining room, where guests enjoy the majority of their meals together and tantalized our taste buds with the flavors of Chef Rafael Figueroa’s cooking. If you ever find yourself in Portillo, be sure to sample the beef tenderloin, pumpkin ravioli and seared scallops; and you can’t go wrong with cheesecake or crème brûlée for dessert. We never walked away from dinner without bellies ready to burst. Like clockwork, we’d relocate to the Portillo Bar for live music following our evening feasts. Brian’s personality shined brightly in the dimly lit basement tavern, as he climbed atop bar tables and coerced vacationing cougars into sharing a dance. While used to his friend’s antics, Tyler still laughed having not borne witness to them in quite some time. The two were really embracing the here and now of Portillo. Soon enough, murmurs about “those crazy FREESKIER guys” could be overheard in conversation among hotel guests—we were happy to infuse the atmosphere with a little excitement. The local band assisted our efforts, serenading bar-goers with songs that spanned the musical spectrum: pop tunes from Bruno Mars, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” and even an encore of “I Will Always Love You,” by Whitney Houston, that almost brought the house down.
Late nights were reserved for the “local’s bar,” La Posada, found at the edge of the compound. The small building was formerly a brothel frequented by weary truckers passing through en route to Argentina but is now the late-night dance spot. We mingled among guests and hotel staff, trying our best not to stand out, but failing, as our attempts to jive with the rhythm of the Latin beats emanated pure gringo-ness, rather than suavity.
People often compare Portillo to a cruise ship in the mountains, because everything you need is right there, on-site—skiing, the pool, lodging, meals, music, dancing. But, in that moment, with neon lights flashing in the tiny bar, I thought a spaceship in the mountains was a more apt comparison, hovering in the outer reaches of the galaxy with no distractions from the rest of existence. On the shores of Laguna del Inca, there’s Portillo and nothing else, and that teaches you to appreciate the moment and embrace it, to focus on the here and now, regardless of snow conditions, your distance from home or the company you’re with.
On our final night, I snuck off from the group to snap photos down at the lakeshore. Local folklore tells that the spirit of Incan Princess Kore-Illé rests in its waters. Illi Yunqui, the princess’ lover, buried her in the water after she fell to her death from a cliff during a royal ceremony. Legend has it that when the princess met the frigid lake, the waters took on the tone of her emerald eyes. I stood alone at the water’s edge, a full moon behind me and a smattering of stars twinkling above. The water was so clear, that Los Tres Hermanos, the trio of peaks at the far end of the shore, were perfectly mirrored on the surface. It was evident to me that this feeling—something close to absolute solitude—was what people meant when they talked about “the spirit of the Andes.” After reading about this mystical alpine lake countless times, it was just as soulful as I ever could have imagined.
We arrived in Valle Nevado, south of Portillo near the town of Farellones, for the second leg of the trip just as the sun was dropping behind the mountaintops. In almost an instant, we were engulfed in an orb of clementine light, like the Andean spirits had placed an orange photo filter on the entire scene and flooded us with the phantasmal feeling that some higher power stood guard over this place.
When the light show ceased, we found that, in contrast to Portillo, Valle Nevado’s lodging, dining and nightlife options provided a choose-your-own-adventure each evening. From our home base in Valle’s iconic, trapezoidal Hotel Puerta del Sol, we hit Restaurant Sur for authentic Chilean slow-braised beef and seafood stew; Mirador del Plomo for its made-to-order pasta bar; and La Lañera for fondue. Valle Lounge, next to Hotel Valle Nevado, offered a hip après spot with a cozy fire and Bar Tres Puntas was the late-night haunt for live music, dancing and billiards.
The ski area sits atop a plateau surrounded by steep drop-offs into deep, subducted geologic scars with an arena of lumbering mountains rising above. Skiers have 2,224 acres of wide-open terrain at their disposal, along with easy access to neighboring La Parva and El Colorado, much like the interconnectedness of large European resorts.
On the snow, our winners got back to their roots on day one, lapping Valle Nevado’s terrain park with child-like exuberance. Coincidentally, pro skier Karl Fostvedt was visiting the resort, and joined us, turning Tyler and Brian into fanboys who could barely contain their excitement to ski with one of their idols. The ability to share the access we’re afforded on these FREESKIER trips with other passionate skiers wasn’t lost on me and became a highlight of our time at Valle.
After five days of high-pressure weather and sunny skies, a cold front nestled its way into the mountains around Valle, much to our delight. We harvested the fresh snow that hugged the slopes like farmers in a drought over our final day-and-a-half. We took lap after lap on Valle’s renowned Tres Puntas poma lift, exploding through wind-deposited snow humps down the 1,509 vertical feet from the lift’s 12,041-foot summit. Throughout the previous five days getting creative and ripping high-speed laps on spring-like snow, smiles were fixed on Tyler and Brian’s faces, in spite of Brian’s heavyweight match with a hangover one morning. Those Pisco Sours have a strong bite. But, when the clouds rolled in and unleashed a torrent of dazzling flakes that filled in our tracks after each run, the excitement and glee they exhibited were palpable. It was a lucky strike ending to the trip as if those same Andean spirits that painted our first sunset at Valle were penning our story and needed it to end on a high.
I embraced the opportunity to ski fresh powder in Chile with new friends, and could tell that, for Brian and Tyler, adding fresh wintry memories to the ones they already shared together was about all they could ask for. They were so focused on milking the fresh snow, I practically had to drag them to the van when our shuttle driver arrived to take us down to Santiago at the end of our trip.
As skiers and travelers, we’re prone to compile endless “bucket lists” of places we want to experience before we die. Sometimes, we’re willing to postpone these adventures if conditions aren’t lining up like we had dreamt, friends bail at the last minute or our day-to-day responsibilities ground us at home.
It helps to surround yourself with travel buddies sporting positive attitudes, excited to simply get to a new place and experience everything they can in the time they’re on the ground—people like Brian and Tyler, who helped cross skiing in South America off my own list. It doesn’t hurt that a place like Chile is supercharged with spiritual energy, ensuring there’s always a hint of magic in the air.
To ski Portillo and/or Valle Nevado, you’ll need to book a flight to Santiago International Airport (SCL).
Portillo: On the ground in Santiago, you can rent a car and drive the 102 miles to Portillo, or reserve a shuttle to the resort.
Valle Nevado: Valle is located a quick 44 miles from the airport, and should take you about an hour and forty minutes whether you rent a car or hail a shuttle.
Portillo: The Hotel Portillo offers 123 rooms. In addition, there are bunk rooms in the Octagon Lodge, private chalets and hostel-style digs in the Inca Lodge.
Valle Nevado: There are three on-site hotels at Valle Nevado: Hotel Puerta del Sol, Hotel Tres Puntas and Hotel Valle Nevado. The resort offers multiple lodging packages that include ski passes, breakfast, dinner, etc.
To explore the complete Ski The South guide, head to skithesouth.freeskier.com.