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My ski days are sweet here in Portillo, and not just because of the sweets they serve at afternoon tea daily.

We pushed away from the all-yellow Hotel Portillo at the awesomely early hour of 10 am. Our first ride up dropped us at the training point of the Austrian ski team. These enormous species were picking up speeds of about 70 kph as they passed by, all duded out in their helmets and speed suits, bibs sporting names like Franz, Hans and Josef. When we stopped to watch for a mo, Peter asked an Austrian coach where they’d be training this afternoon. “I hope ve don’t train this afternoon,” he said in perfect Austrian English. “Ve have been verking since vile you vere sleeping. Ve are wery tired.”

The Austrians

At that we hung our heads and skied on, trying to rack up some kilometres of our own before we were totally embarrassed. The pistes of Juncalillo (YUNK-a-LEE-lo) catch the most sun in the am, so that’s where most of Portillo’s skiers ride in the mornings. We snaked down the groomed track first. In subsequent runs we got off-piste to ski the crud and small bumps—it’s quieter there. As in most places, the bulk of skiers ride the groomed tracks, leaving the good stuff untouched and uncrowded.

Portillo View

By noon we’d made our way to the Plateau—the side of Portillo that catches the afternoon rays. The terrain here is so vast, you’d need a fisheye lens to capture it on camera. We rode the El Plateau lift, then the slingshot Condor (more on this bizarre lift later), and traversed over to the off-piste of Plateau Superior, largely avoided by the masses.

Not that there are any masses at Portillo. There are very few day skiers here, most are vacationing on ski weeks at Hotel Portillo, and the hotel’s capacity is capped off at about 400. So there’s never a line-up. And if you like to ski off-piste, you encounter little traffic.

Lunch was at the mid-mountain Tio Bob’s, a.k.a. Uncle Bob’s. Bob Purcell was Portillo’s original owner; his nephew Henry Purcell now runs it. Tio Bob’s is a little slopeside hut, much like alms of Europe. From here, there’s an hypnotic view of Laguna Del Inca (Inca Lake) and the surrounding snowcapped Andes. Skiers throw off their gear and take up residence at picnic tables. Food is off the grill—chicken, salmon, sausage, soup and enormous salads.

Lunch at Tio Bob's

I didn’t want to leave my perch, but I had a date with some Mexican tour operators who promised to guide me through Garganta (translation: throat), akin to the Couloir at Blackcomb. The sun-softened snow on Garganta was perfect, as is its pitch: steep and slightly bumpy, just the way I like it.

Our ski day ended with zip along the Austrians’ closed downhill training course courtesy of Robin, Portillo’s ski school director. It was all part of Portillo’s daily ‘ski with ambassadors’ program, during which you’re toured around for free by the area’s experts.

By 5 pm it was time for tea in the dining room—a sweet cap on an extremely sweet day of skiing.

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It’s a cruise ship kind of start to the day here in Portillo, Chile. We wake up a little later than we would on a normal ski vacation—8 am instead of 7. But then, nothing about this ‘ski vacation’ is normal. For one thing, it’s August. For another, we’re south of the equator.

We saunter into the communal dining room for breakfast in flip-flops and sweats. Red-coated waiters are buzzing about like bees around honey. Their sprinter’s pace is diametrically opposed to the slowness of the skiers they’re serving. There are at least four Chilean waiters to every single, unhurried guest, and judging by their haste, I think these waiters have had a lot of Columbian coffee.

The ‘guests’ on this skiing cruise ship are an interesting mix. South American families fill one side of the room. They’re dressed in some of the happiest skiwear I’ve seen—shiny pink puffy jackets, lime green ski pants, multi-coloured hats (not helmets) and wide-framed, jewel-encrusted sunglasses that Elton would have drooled over in his heyday.

Another part of the dining hall is filled with English-speaking skiers, many of them, I’m told, are from Vail and Aspen. Many of them have little kids in tow, who spend much of their time bombing around the hotel, gleeful to be free and out from under supervision. I see a lot of Obermeyer and Kjus on their parents, some Patagonia on the more mountaineering types. Blonde hair. Deep tans. More sunglasses.

Another part of the room seems to be taken up by long-haired guys, mostly American, some Canadian, from places like Utah and British Columbia. They wear mostly t-shirts and ripped jeans, and stab at their iPhones through breakfast. I peek, naturally, and they’re not doing anything particularly important on those mobiles—there are more than a few Angry Birds at the breakfast table.

I haven’t mentioned the ski racers at breakfast. That’s because they’re not here. They’re Austrian national team members, after all, and they’ve been out on the slopes since before the lifts opened. One imagines 6 am breakfasts of muesli and fruit, yogurt and energy drinks packed with stuff transported overseas in packs by their coaches. The Austrian team members—all hugely tall and muscular, with shaved heads and massive thighs—keep mostly to themselves here in Portillo. They’re the only ones not on a casual schedule.

Breakfast for us is eggs, fruit, yogurt, cheese, fresh rolls and loads of coffee, all served with lightning speed by those buzzing waiters. We load up, then saunter from the dining room to prep for skiing. Our boots and skis are handed to us by valets… like I said, Portillo is a ‘ski cruise ship’ experience.

Lori Knowles is the ski columnist for the Toronto Sun.

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You could have teleported me to Pluto and I don’t think the feeling would be any weirder.

Last night I fell asleep on an Air Canada flight somewhere over Canada. This morning I woke up on that same Air Canada flight somewhere over South America. It was summer when I went to sleep, winter when I woke up. I had shorts on when I left and  a ski jacket when I arrived. The world’s a weird place… so big yet kind of small.

My husband and I flew Toronto direct to Santiago, Chile… why? What else… to go skiing in Portillo, Chile. The South American seasons are upside down–it’s summer in Canada when it’s winter in Chile. Something quite novel for a diehard skier like me, who’s always looking for new journeys to snow. This one did not disappoint.

Our driver’s name was Mario. An apt name, considering his Italian driving style. He spent more time in the oncoming traffic lane than he did in his own. My nails dug divots into Peter’s arm every time we went around a corner on the wrong side of the road. “Do you think he knows there’s a car coming the other way?” I’d hiss. Peter would just smile. “Sure. Mario’s a good driver.”

Mario spoke no English, and neither of us speak Spanish beyond “Hola” and “Gracias.” Yet somehow he engaged us in a full conversation. As we snaked up into the Andes from Santiago–a three-hour drive if there’s no snow falling or worse (avalanches) we learned about the seemingly vibrant trucking trade between Chile and neighbouring Argentina, Chile’s vineyards that are all lined up at the side of the road, the role of the Gaucho (cowboy) which is actually an Argentinian word but is used here, too, and the wonders of Patagonia in the southern section of Chile to which, suddenly, I am yearning to visit.

The road to Portillo runs upward like a black ribbon through brown ranchland as it makes its way into the Andes. Santiago itself is all lowrise and sprawling. It’s a massive city with more than 6 million inhabitants–more than the rest of the country–yet it’s not filled with skyscrapers like New York, Chicago or even my home,  Toronto. Somehow it’s more low key.

Once out of the city you’re immediately into ranch land. Gauchos (I promise I will find the local name for them soon) ride horses along the roadway. I don’t know what they’re doing, but they appear to be working. They wear large, round straw hats and colourful ponchos. Most have huge, swooping mustaches (the gauchos, not the horses). I’m not kidding.

Mario kept warning us we would encounter a lot of truckers on the way to Portillo. I wondered why he’d warn us of such a thing, yet sure enough, there they were… an absolute ton of truckers. We likely encountered 4- or 500 in a single three-hour trip. Apparently the ski road to Portillo is also an international highway linking Chile with Argentina, Brazil etc. It’s they only way there, which seems incredible. The road is only a two-laner and is as steep as any I’ve encountered in the alps, with loads and loads of switchbacks. At one point we counted 29 switchback turns in a space of about two kilometres. Let me show you a picture: 

Once we reached the snowline we came across at least three transport accidents, most in the ditch with front wheels hanging precariously close to a cliff’s edge. The trucks’ general ascent, as a result, moves at a snail’s pace. Hence Mario’s favour of the ‘other lane, not our own.’ We must have passed 100 transport trucks along the route… many of them happy to honk at us.

The best part was spotting the dozens and dozens of cars pulled off to the side of the road, their occupants tumbling out to run toward the snow adjacent to the highway. Mostly Chileans, perhaps from Santiago, they’d pull on rain pants or whatever waterproof garb they could find. They’d grab sleds (that looked, by the way, suspiciously like flutter boards), then hurl themselves down the pistes–mom, dad, three kids all piled on the same board.

About 2/3 of the way up the steep part of the access road (a.k.a. international highway!), Mario pointed to the sky and told us to look at the ski lift. I forget which word he used for ski lift, but it was nothing I’d heard before. We pressed our noses to the window and sure enough, there was a triple chair moving rapidly above us, right over the swtichbacks and the hundreds of truckers. It was moving much faster than us. “We should ride the lift,” I told Peter. “It would be faster than us, even with Mario!”

But it wasn’t long before Hotel Portillo was looming in front of us, a massive, all-yellow rectangle of a thing that lords itself over acres and acres of wide open, treeless slope. Mario reeled in, we threw open the van doors and let our sneakers touch the cold ground–a long way from the summer lake we’d just left. We shivered and said thanks, handed over a tip, then entered the all-yellow hotel.

About to start: our skiing adventure.

Lori Knowles is the ski columnist for the Toronto Sun.

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