At some point in that first year it occurred to us that Portillo and South American skiing needed an event to put it on the map. We requested the Alpine World Ski Championships for 1966. In those days the World Championship was very important because there were only two events on the skier’s calendar when all of the world’s skiers could come together to test their skills, the Olympics and the World Championships. After a great deal of negotiating, politics and promises, and surely with serious misgivings on the part of the FIS, the races were awarded to The Chilean Ski Federation and Portillo.
The preparations for the World Championships were enormous. We designed and built new lifts, rooms and recreational facilities, prepared a downhill course, installed a communications system and improved our transportation system. We then planned a pre-championship race for August in 1965 to give the new installations a try and the national teams a chance to try out skiing in the summer, something that was very unusual for most teams in those days.
Nature has a way of laughing at mankind in situations like this, and she went at it with a vengeance that year. On August 15, a typhoon from the South Pacific moved through Portillo, blowing winds of up to 200 KPH. Monstrous amounts of snow fell and avalanches took out all but two of the ski lifts including the two newly built chairlifts. The brand-new 1,800-meter Juncalillo Poma double chair lost 13 of 24 towers, including the base and return stations. Five skiers were killed in an avalanche that destroyed part of employee housing. Ski teams that had gathered for the event were trapped in Portillo – and when the weather cleared they had to ski out to the nearest train station 20 miles away.
The FIS was understandably distressed and asked the Portillo owners what they intended to do. There was a great deal of soul searching, studies, estimates and advice. Dick Aldrich was entering into U.S. politics and could not devote time to South America. He decided to sell his stock to Bob Purcell, whose dream of Portillo remained strong as ever. Bob was convinced that it could be done, and he gave the FIS his answer: We will rebuild and we will hold the 1966 World Ski Championships in Portillo. With an admirable spirit of generosity, the FIS agreed to let him try.
The Poma factory, which had built all of Portillo’s ski lifts, sent a young Polish engineer named Janek Kunzynski to Portillo to rebuild the lifts on-site. In an attempt to avoid future avalanche danger, the ski area had been redesigned, following the expert advice of men like Othmar Schneider, who was well aware of the dangers of these great mountains. Portillo hired the top avalanche expert of the moment, Monty Atwater, to give his opinions and to head up the avalanche control program during the world championships. The Chilean Army offered artillery for avalanche control and a regiment of mountain troops to prepare the runs. We speeded up work on other facilities. We begged and pleaded and negotiated every aspect of the event. Timing, press facilities, communications and housing were finished and approved. After a long and hectic summer everything was finally ready to go. The FIS gave the go ahead and in August of 1966, Marc Hodler, President of the FIS, and the President of Chile, Eduardo Frei, inaugurated the first major World Ski event south of the equator.
Nature, after behaving so badly in 1965, gave the events her blessing with days of bright sun, cold weather and perfect snow conditions. It was a great event, especially for the French, who won 16 medals including all of the gold – except the slalom, which went to Carlo Senoner of Italy. The women’s downhill went to Marielle Goitschel, although she had to wait several years to claim her medal from Erica Schinneger, the original winner who underwent a sex change shortly after the championships and later renounced her medal. Annie Famose won the Slalom, and Marielle Goitschel won the Giant Slalom and the Combined. In the men’s races, Jean-Claude Killy began his collection of medals, taking the gold in the Downhill and the Combined. Guy Perillat won the Giant Slalom. Carlos Senonor from Italy won the gold in the slalom and went home to fame and glory. Today our friend Carlos and his family run the Portillo Chalet & Lodge in Val Gardena Italy at www.portillo.it.
It is interesting that the Giant Slalom was run on two courses for the first time in Portillo. The FIS was experimenting with new formats and the World Cup was also invented in the bar of Portillo, during those happy, sun-filled days. The skiers of the world would henceforth be able try their luck against each other many times each year instead of only once every two years.