Ski Far Away, Don’t Miss a Day
By Susan Schnier
I was getting my fair share of sideways glances as I rummaged ski gear out of the garage on August 17. Assessing my stash of long underwear, ski socks and down jackets while wearing shorts and flip flops, I had a flickering moment of uncertainty about whether this mid-summer ski trip to Portillo in far-off Chile was even worth the hassle. But after leaving the next morning and clicking into my skis the following afternoon, all doubts were exorcised with the first creamy turns of the season.
A self-professed ski junkie, I subscribe to the cliché that if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right. And I’ve found that even if you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to make a commitment and follow through, it will reawaken your sense of adventure and make each future day that much more rewarding. So I was headed to Portillo with the Truckee-based North American Ski Training Center’s (NASTC) team for one of their instructional immersion trips.
Just an hour and a half outside of the capital city of Santiago, Portillo provides an all-inclusive ski-in, ski-out vacation that leaves out nothing. The time change is minimal (EST, just three hours later than in California). A three-hour flight to Dallas and an overnight flight to Santiago have you on snow the day you arrive and the day you return.
Portillo’s main European-style, mid-mountain hotel is a bright-yellow building at 9,450 feet. Thirty-two switchbacks climb up a vertical mountainside on the approach while 22,841-foot Aconcogua, the largest peak in the Western Hemisphere, looms in the distance.
Don’t worry about changing money at the airport; you won’t have any use for it during your stay, because you’ll never leave the resort grounds. You can ski in or out at any time, but you may forget this upon entering the full-service lodge. Four gourmet meals, included in the package price, are served daily in the dining room. Take a yoga class, work out in the gym, or use the pool, then sauna or hot tub before heading up to the bar for live music and Pisco Sours, the trademark, souped-up Margarita cocktail. Movies play every night at seven, and the disco has live DJs nightly at 11. A game room, library and computer room, retail shop, travel agency and first-aid clinic seal up the cocoon.
With all the indoor amenities you could almost forget this is a ski resort. But skiing is at the heart of it. “Portillo is the most soulful place to ski in the world,” says Michael Rogan, director of the Portillo ski school for 16 years.
Founded in the early 1930s, Portillo is the oldest ski area in South America. “The World Cup was invented here and the first medals are framed here,” Rogan explains. The World Ski Championships were held in Portillo in 1966. The Chilean National Ski team trains on its slopes as do the U.S., Canadian, Austrian, Italian, Japanese, Chilean, and German teams.
The mid-mountain restaurant, Tio Bob’s, is named after Bob Purcell, who Nelson A. Rockefeller sent to Chile to look for copper or oil. Bob discovered the perfect spot for a hotel instead. Rockefeller wasn’t interested, but told Bob to go for it, and he did. Bob soon hired his nephew, Henry Purcell, as General Manager. Henry graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and moved from the States to take the job at age 26. He later bought the resort with his brother, David. Henry’s son, Michael, is now the manager. “He would rather tear the place down than sell it,” says Rogan.
For NASTC, Portillo is the ideal place to hold a camp because it exudes history, offers diverse terrain and fosters a social atmosphere where relationships easily develop and grow.
Co-founders/directors Chris and Jenny Fellows started NASTC in 1994. Chris Fellows, is a Level III ski instructor and member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) National Demo team. The rest of Chris’ ski resume would swell this story off the page, but what is not on the list is his 1000-watt smile and the incisive and intuitive way he coaches top instructors from around the country, knowing exactly when to back off and when to crack a joke and/or a beer. His immersion program uses instruction, freeskiing and lectures to help you meet specific goals as well as become a better all-mountain skier. Skiers travel from all over the country, including San Francisco, Maine and New York to train with NASTC’s seasoned staff. “The NASTC experience is successful because of the group,” he said. “It’s your week to make the jump to the next level.”
For a week, we literally eat, sleep and breathe skiing, with a few cutthroat ping pong and basketball tournaments thrown in between meals, Chilean massages, dancing and small doses of sleep.
The nine-day itinerary includes five full days of training and two free ski days. Trainers break the crew into groups based on ability and goals on the first afternoon. Members of the top group, led by Chris Fellows, are instructors and instructor trainers, many of whom are preparing for the 2008 National Instructor Tryouts at Snowbird. I team up with them and their collective ski ability is astounding as we dive right into technical drills. Putting image aside, we “dolphin” across the slope, lifting our ski tails off the snow and landing on our tips repeatedly, to feel balanced fore and aft motion in our lower legs. Starting on groomers, we soon veer off-piste to apply our skills. We lap the Roca Jack lift – a five-person Poma that speeds up the same steep slope where Michel Prufer set a 134.5 mph speed skiing world record in 1987.
After a two-hour lunch we walk across the road to the Bajada del Train (Train Run). The snow is thick, but smooth with a sustained pitch to the bottom. Then we ski the steep Garganta (throat) run, mixing in two long fun runs before we each are videoed doing the dolphin for a technical review that evening.
After video each night there’s a “Tech Talk” on topics from gear to technique to fitness. With visuals of all our skiing pitfalls burned into our heads, we head back out the next morning for more specific drills, mixed in with all-mountain skiing. After Chris gives us the basics, we split into two groups and critique each other, working on improving our own skiing and our instructional ability with our partner. Each day of skiing builds on the previous day with a balance of instruction, practice, video and exploration.
NASTC’s customized approach also emphasizes fitness, mobility and anatomy. After a few days, some clients switch groups to learn from a taller or shorter instructor who more closely reflects their own stature.
On the third day, Chris gave me a tip – to drive my uphill hand more powerfully down the slope – that rocketed my skiing out of a rut it had been in for years. Suddenly, I had more control of my turns at speed and my skis tracked more solidly and arced more powerfully.
Though I wish I had more time for backcountry hikes to classic lines like the 7,000-foot “C” couloir, the intensive instruction was an investment in the entire future of my skiing. I probably could have had the breakthrough in any of NASTC’s camp locations, but Portillo was particularly conducive to it. Without having to think about where to eat or sleep, or how to get from point A to B, I could focus solely on skiing. The August timeframe worked especially well too; without a season’s worth of reinforcing bad habits, I could adopt new techniques with less resistance. Add in Portillo’s ski history, family-style comforts, spectacular scenery and perfect weather, and it made the ideal place to step up my skiing and have a culturally unique ski vacation.
If you missed the Portillo trip with the NASTC crew, there’s always next year. But if you want it now, NASTC offers 28 trips at 15 resorts this winter, including a Squaw Valley clinic December 9 to 13; a beginning ski instructor training at Sugar Bowl, December 16 to18; and an all-conditions class at Alpine Meadows January 28 and 29. Many other local classes fill the calendar, including one at Northstar and several in the backcountry in Truckee, Mt. Shasta and the eastern Sierra. For a bigger trip, NASTC runs clinics at Aspen, Killington, Grand Targhee and St Anton, Austria.
Tips to skiing Portillo, Chile
· Drink lots of water – the stuff is good to go straight out of the faucet, so don’t waste your money on bottles
· Slather on the sunblock – 80 percent of days are sunny
· Ski all day – the mountain is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (5 p.m. on the Juncalillo side)
· Follow the sun – move across the mountain from Plateau to Juncalillo
· Have lunch at Tio Bob’s for mixed grill, salad bar and panoramic views
· Ski “C” couloir is Portillo’s ultimate backcountry line. To get to it, hike up above Roca for about 4.5 hours for 7,000 vertical feet of turns.
· Heli skiing provides pristine snow no matter how chewed up the resort. The heli leaves from the parking lot and flies up to 14,000 feet, offering up to 4,000 vertical feet of skiing per run. The cost is $241 for the first lift, $170 each additional.
· NASTC offers a 3 DVD set All Mountain Skiing Tactics by Chris Fellows or a book, Tactics for All-Mountain Skiing, also by Chris Fellows, published by PSIA.