Chris Davenport’s History with Ski Portillo
The high Andes ski resort of Portillo was placed squarely on my radar as a small boy by my dad. As kids, my siblings and I used to sit around a roaring fire at our ski cabin in New Hampshire and listen to him spin fantastic and slightly embellished tales of a hotel that sat alone, high in the Andes Mountains. There was always 100 feet of snow in these stories, and it seemed easy to climb to 17,000ft in elevation and ski, which was hard for us to comprehend. There was always a story about a storm that blew like a hurricane for days, stranding all passengers aboard the good ship Hotel Portillo. We sat wide-eyed, imagining this place that seemed as far from our icy existence on the slopes of Mt. Cranmore, New Hampshire as possible.
You see, my dad had been fortunate enough to train in Portillo in the late ’60s for a few years with the University of Denver (DU) ski team. They would stop a few times on the flight there to refuel in places like Panama City or Lima or Quito, since the planes couldn’t make it all the way on one tank. These were the days before the international highway that links Chile and Argentina through the high pass at Portillo, so after arriving in Santiago, they hopped on an overnight train, inevitably with several bottles of Pisco, and settled in for the long grind up the mountain.
As I began to build a career in skiing for myself in the early and mid-’90s by winning freeski contests and starring in ski films, in the back of my mind I was looking for a way to make it to Portillo. But it didn’t happen for a while, for one reason or another.
My first ski experience in South America was in Las Lenas in 1994 with a group of buddies from Aspen. That’s where I first met Doug Coombs, who would become one of the strongest mentors in my young career. I skied Las Lenas three or four summers in a row, and even spent the entire season of ’97 down there, which turned out to be a horrible year for snow. I also made four trips to New Zealand in the late ’90s, for the World Heli Challenge event, and also for my first Warren Miller segment (which I think we shot in ’96). But with all this international summer travel, I still didn’t have the right excuse to visit Portillo.
That all changed in the winter of 2000. My good friend in Aspen, Maureen Poschman, was hired as the North American PR Director for Portillo, and she called to see if I had any ideas to help market the resort to Americans. Being an idea guy at heart I was quick to come up with something. I pitched her the idea of a ski photography competition, which she loved, so we began to build a new event for Portillo for the 2000 winter season in Chile. I met with Perkins Miller, then the editor of Skiing Magazine, and sold him on the concept of bringing six of the world’s foremost ski photographers to Portillo, each with an athlete of their choice, for a week of shooting a number of different categories. To my delight, he and the resort agreed to fund the event, and, without getting into the lengthy details of the first of three annual Andes Photo Challenges, I finally arrived in Portillo.
I’ll never forget driving up the 30+ switchbacks to the resort. My face was glued against the van’s window, my eyes scouring the massive terrain above me. I stepped out of the van in front of the Hotel Portillo, this hulking yellow concrete edifice. Despite its size and shape, it exudes beauty, thanks to its position at the foot of the Laguna del Inca, one of the world’s most gorgeous mountain lakes. When I walked into the lobby, the smell of the place seemed familiar, perhaps due to the detail-rich stories my dad had told twenty years earlier. As I sat at the legendary bar that evening sipping my first Chilean Pisco Sour, with some of my best friends in the ski industry around me, I knew Dad was right: this place really was larger than life…
[CLICK HERE to read more about Davenport’s relationship with Ski Portillo and his annual Ski with the Superstars Camp.]