Portillo is the oldest ski area in South America, and its history holds an important place in the legend of skiing. Henry Purcell, the owner of Ski Portillo shares with us a bit of the history as he knows it. It is a history of adventurers and the Andes, and of dreams and accomplishments in the wonderful world of skiing.
If you want to know more about our history, we invite you to read Henry Purcell’s book, The Spirit of the Andes, that tells the story of Portillo from its beginnings to what we know today.
IT BEGAN WITH THE RAILROADS
In 1887, the Chilean government contracted English engineers to study the feasibility of a railway through the Andes at Uspallata Pass, which could transport goods and passengers from Chile’s Central Valley to the Argentine city of Mendoza, and eventually to Buenos Aires. The English engineers then contracted the Norwegian engineers Elmar Rosenquist, Michel Hermundsen and Knud Berg, to conduct winter studies of the proposed line. The Norwegians spent two winters in 1887 and 1888 traversing the region on skis. They were surely the first skiers to cross the slopes of the Portillo ski area.
Two years later, in 1889, the Chilean government hired 14 Norwegian skiers to transport mail between Chile and Argentina. We are told that the plan was not successful and was not repeated.
During the construction of the railroad, skiing was common among the engineers in charge, most of whom were Englishmen who used skis in their work – and no doubt for enjoyment. Following the inauguration of the international railroad in 1910, these pioneers were followed by recreational skiers who used the train to get to the top of the mountain at Caracoles so they could ski down to the Juncal crossing – an area that is now within the Portillo ski resort. Thus, the Transandean Railway became the first ski lift in Chile.
The First Lifts & Hotel
Ski clubs began to appear in Chile about this time and were the driving force behind the development of skiing in Chile. The first club was the German Excursion Club, founded in 1909 in Valparaíso. By early 1930, skiing enthusiasts focused their efforts on developing the slopes around Laguna del Inca (Lake of the Inca), an area known as “Portillo,” or “Little Pass.” The first lift in the area was a tow lift similar, in a rudimentary fashion, to today’s Poma lift. Adventure-seekers came from Europe and the United States to ski the Andes alongside Chileans. European ski instructors then arrived, and a small mountain hut for lodging was built, known as Hotel Portillo.
The tiny Hotel Portillo grew and developed services. In the early 1940s, a stock company known as Hoteles de Cordillera S.A sold stock to pay for the construction of a large hotel that was to be known as the “Grand Hotel Portillo.” But the company failed, and the hotel was still far from completion when World War II began, which then occupied the minds and energies of men. Later, the Corporation for Development of the Chilean government resumed construction and at last inaugurated the 125-room hotel in 1949. The ski area boasted two single chairlifts and one surface lift. The ski school, high-mountain school of the Chilean Army – and even guests – all pitched in to groom the slopes. The Portillo Ski Area was born.
Portillo’s first ski school director was the internationally famous French champion Emile Allais, who stayed until the mid-1950s. The great Stein Eriksen then took over the direction of the ski school. The 1950s were difficult years for Portillo as the government struggled with the complexities of running a ski area. Unable to make a profit, the government sold Portillo in 1961 to two North Americans, Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich. It was one of the first government businesses sold to the private sector in the history of Chile.
Portillo's modern era begins
Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich were two men who had long traveled and worked in Latin America. Both had skied in Portillo and were impressed by the magnificent beauty and incredible skiing that they found at the resort. Portillo offered great opportunities, and both felt the time had come to invest in modern ski facilities.
They hired me, a green 26-year-old, as General Manager of the new organization. I think I was the only relatively young and adventure-minded person that they knew in the hotel business. I was a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and had worked for 5 years for the Hilton Corporation. I was tired of big city hotels and big corporation life, so I jumped at the chance and moved my whole family to Chile. I soon discovered that nearly everything that I had learned about the hotel business at Cornell and with Hilton was not going to be much help at Portillo.
We hired Olympic gold medallist Othmar Schneider as Director of Skiing and the U.S. firm Needham and Grohmann to start a publicity campaign. I began to try to get the hotel operation on its feet, hire some personnel and clean the place up (there was a large black sheep called Lumumba living in the living room of the hotel when I got there).
To inaugurate the new management, on June 15, 1961, Bob and Dick chartered a plane from the Unites States to bring a group of skiing dignitaries to Portillo, among them Howard Head, Ernst Engel, Alf Engen, Merril Hastings, Mrs. John Randolph Hearst, Ernie McCulloch, Wille Schaeffler and Cliff Taylor. At that time, the only way up to Portillo was aboard a narrow-gauge railroad – and the train operation in the high Andes was precarious at best. The VIPs spent most of their first day in a tunnel on the railroad waiting for the railroad workers to clear an avalanche that had fallen across the tracks. In the meantime, we had no way of knowing where they were because communications were not much at the time. There was only one surface telephone line and only one telephone number: Portillo One. A line that worked just fine in the summer but went out with the first snowstorm each winter. Thankfully, everyone had fun, so the ski area inauguration was a success, of sorts.
The first - and only - world championship in latin america 1966
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.
Speed Trials and National Ski Teams
Speed trials were held on three occasions, first in 1963, when Dick Dorworth and C.B. Vaughn skied 171.428 KPH; 1978, when Steve McKinney broke the barrier of 200 KPH; and 1987, when Michael Prufer ran 217.68. Portillo has hosted many great national ski teams who come to train for world events, including the U.S., Canadian, Austrian, Italian, Japanese, Chilean, and German ski teams. These great skiiers have always shown great sportsmanship and mingle unobtrusively with Portillo guests and staff.
Bob Purcell’s dream has become a reality, and Portillo has grown into a successful ski area that is loved by thousands of skiers around the world. Apart from the generations of U.S. Ski Team members who have raced down our slopes, a large share of luminaries, characters, and everyday people have come to see what all the talk is about. Kennedy children were chased by the Chilean border police, Argentine polo players tried their luck on skis, Peruvian surfers took to the snowboard, Scotsmen skied in kilts and supermodels passed through our halls in furs. Bankers and businessmen trying to do their business fought over telephone access to Portillo One. Families grew closer at Portillo, guests made lifelong friends; romances bloomed (and new families were founded!). Many a fashion shoot and TV commercial have been shot in Portillo. In 1972 the government discussed the nationalization of Portillo
Over the years my brother David and I purchased Portillo from Bob Purcell and have continued to develop the area. I recently retired as CEO after more than 60 years in charge. It was with great pleasure that I turned over the day to day operation of Portillo to my son Michael. Portillo is over 60 years old now and going strong. Sixty wonderful years, and we look forward to the next 60 years with confidence and enthusiasm.
The ski area itself has not changed a great deal over the years. Snowmaking and grooming machines have replaced the boot-packing of the Chilean Mountain troops and today there are 14 lifts, including five chairlifts, the unique Va et Vient lifts designed by Jean Pomagalski in the 60s, to permit access to the high avalanche chutes across the Roca Jack and the Condor slopes, are still there, challenging experts and offering access to some great open-slope powder skiing and a myriad of steep chutes.
Communications are better today, we have a fat fiber-optic cable; an outside telephone line is always available. We have a cybercafé and Wi-Fi with access to broadband connection. Sadly, the railroad no longer runs, and although a road has replaced it we still miss the old trains. The people of Portillo, though, are still the same kind of people. Guests and personnel, wonderful people coming together in a wonderful world of skiing. The fulfillment of a dream.
Owner / Ski Portillo Chile