Skiing with the stars in Portillo

13th September 2017, by Abi Butcher

Mike Douglas, inventor of the first ever twin-tip ski, scopes out a line in Portillo

Mike Douglas, inventor of the first ever twin-tip ski, scopes out a line in Portillo

In mid-July, I spotted on Chris Davenport’s Instagram feed that he had a few places left in his August Superstars Camp in Portillo, Chile. I’ve met the big-mountain skier a couple of times in Aspen, so I dropped him a line: “Can I come?”

To my surprise and utter delight, the answer was yes. So I hastily scrabbled together some pitches for magazine and newspaper editors (as well as editor of I’m also a freelance adventure travel/ski writer) and bingo, several commissions later I was excitedly boarding a plane to Santiago.

Earlier this year British Airways launched the first direct flight from London Heathrow to Santiago, which has made the journey far easier. On the way out I took the traditional route — LHR to Madrid, then Madrid to Santiago, with Iberia. It pushed the journey time up to 18-odd hours, whereas directly home with BA took me just 13.

Anyway, the two-hour drive down to Portillo, in the heart of the Andes on the Uspallata Pass between Chile and Argentina, grows more and more spectacular. Stretches of hills become mountains, covered in cacti, until you come over the brow of one hill and low and behold, a view of Aconcagua in all her 6,962m glory stands before you. The size of the Andes is staggering — if you fly into Santiago on a clear day they seem to go on forever.

Portillo is a small, family-owned and run ski resort that has served as a summer training base for countless Olympic teams over the years. It’s the oldest ski area in South America and absolutely steeped in history — the first skiers in this area were a group of Norwegian engineers who worked on the Trans-Andean railroad between Argentina and Chile in 1887.

Portillo is South America’s oldest ski area; the iconic hotel is bright yellow

The Purcell family, who now own Hotel Portillo and the surrounding ski area, bought the property from the Chilean government in 1961 — the first government business to be sold to a private owner in the country’s history.

The fact that it is still family owned and run is, in my mind, one of the things that make this unique place so special. It has a home-from-home flavour and an attention to detail that makes you feel like you’re staying with a family. That and the fact that the ski area, though small, is fantastically steep and filled with opportunities for adventure. There are 10 lifts — four of which are five-man slingshot/button lifts which must be among the craziest ski lifts in the world and more nerve-wracking to ride than the slopes are to ski back down.

Portillo has “slingshot” lifts, a kind of button lift for five skiers at once

Although some ski areas in South America (and New Zealand and Australia) have been having phenomenal snow this summer (their winter), unfortunately Portillo hasn’t had any of that luck — and has suffered the worst snowpack in some 23-odd years. But, in my view that made this week all the more special — because challenging snow conditions means you improve more than you would in powder.

And on Chris Davenport’s Superstars Camp you ski hard with some of the best big-mountain skiers in the world — a line-up that this year included Cody Townsend (just watch him skiing The Crack on YouTube), multiple World Extreme Ski Champion and former Olympian Wendy Fisher; Canadian Mike Douglas, now filmmaker but the man who invented Salomon’s Pocket Rocket (and is therefore single-handedly responsible for making skiing cool again) and Ingrid Backstrom, one of the world’s hardest female chargers.

Camp founder Chris Davenport is a multiple World Extreme Ski Champion

Chris — himself a multiple World Extreme Ski Champion and someone who climbs Denali for breakfast — and his coaches split up the group of guests (around 25 this year from around the world) into smaller groups of five or six, with the pros taking it in turns to ski with us, one each day.

I won’t bore you with the details of their individual days (except that I’ve not had so much fun on skis – nor laughed so hard at Cody’s mantra: “do it like that, but harder, faster and – er – better”) but without fail, each and every one reiterated “weight forward”. When you’re skiing hard, skiing steeps, skiing extremes, it’s vital that you have your weight as hard forward as you can — that you steer and power your skis with the tips. Quote Wendy Fisher: “If your skis cost $1000, $900 of that value is in the tips”. So many of us ski, steer and brake with the tails.

Weight forward: here’s me enjoying the Portillo powder. Photo: Jesse Hoffman

Portillo is a blast — but it’s high altitude, which makes sleeping and walking up the stairs hard. The hotel is set at 2,880m and hence in the weeks leading up to the camp, Chris was emailing us frequently to check in on our fitness progress: “I’ve never had someone turn up to the camp who is too fit,” he explained on day one.

But finally the weather gods played ball. After two days of gloomy, cloudy weather, we had a day of brilliant sunshine, swiftly followed by two days of snow which enabled us to get out and do what these pros do best — adventure skiing across the bowls and couloirs far skiers right from the El Caracara lift. We traversed high — there wasn’t enough snow yet to hike, which is what this extreme ski camp is normally about — hitting fresh tracks in Travesia, El Estadio and Ultima Quebrada, riding the Juncalillo chairlift back up, high over the roaring trucks that climb the switchbacks up to Portillo and over the pass to Mendoza.

Riding the Juncalillo chair over the pass from Chile to Argentina

Portillo has 1,235 acres of skiable terrain and even more if you add a helicopter into the equation — and it also has one of the most renowned couloirs in the world, the Super C. Sadly, given the conditions, we didn’t get to ski it on this occasion (the previous week someone had fallen on the ice from top to bottom and been helicoptered to hospital in Santiago) but perhaps that’s a reason to go back.

That, and the fact that I quite like dancing on the bar with total badass Wendy Fisher (aka DJ Red).

Larking about with Cody Townsend (left) and photographer Jesse Hoffman

The full story will be published in the December issue of National Geographic Traveller. For more information on Portillo, visit

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