Summer Skiing With Spice
Photos by Liam Doran
I pull into the parking lot of the Durango, Colorado airport and my temperature gauge reads a blistering 91 degrees. I open the back hatch of my SUV and my ski bag slides out, nearly rolling across the top of my feet protected by little more than the rubber straps of my flip flops. As I maneuver my ski gear into the check-in queue people are giving me strange looks and within a minute the silence is broken by someone asking me where I could possibly be going skiing in the middle of August. I tell them I am headed to Portillo, Chile. They ask if there is snow in Chile in the summer and I give them a quick geography 101 lesson and explain that in the Southern Hemisphere, August is smack dab in the middle of the winter.
After a quick flight to Dallas I meet up with photographer Liam Doran and Jackson Hole skier Hadley Hammer. We kill the layover with airport tex-mex and numerous Shiner Bocks. It is the first time I have met Hadley and we spend some time talking about the objectives of our trip which is rooted in a descent of the world famous Super C Couloir. This trip to Portiilo will be the sixth for Hammer, but the Super C has eluded her during her previous trips. Over her last sip of beer she says, “The Super C is a classic and one I haven’t yet been able to tick of my bucket list.”As they call us to begin boarding our flight I grin as Liam asks what has brought about my obvious pleasure. I explain that I am about to enjoy one of my pleasure in life of walking onto a plane in one season and walking off in another.
The flight from Dallas to Santiago is nearly empty and every passenger has a row of their own. I wash down an Ambien with a glass of Malbec and eight hours later I wake up on our descent into Santiago. Less than 20 minutes after landing we are through customs, have collected all our bags and have met up with Amie Engerbretson, the fourth member of our crew. By 7:30am we are on the road heading for Portillo.Before we arrive in Chile, we’re well aware that Portillo, along with most of the Andes, is in the midst of an exceptionally lean snow year. In fact, the snowpack is so low that Portillo owner Henry Purcell and his staff sent an email to guests arriving this week informing them that they could reschedule for 2018 or cancel for a full refund, an incredible gesture showing just how much Portillo cares about the ski experience of their guests.
As the highway begins the massive climb to Portillo, courtesy of more than 40 switchbacks, we break through the clouds of a quick moving storm that has dusted Portillo with 3-4 inches of much needed snow overnight. This is my fourth trip to Portillo and while the snowpack is looking thin compared to my previous visits, I have no doubt that we are going to find the goods as Portillo always hides nuggets of great skiing for those willing to earn their turns.
We have covered the 100 miles from the airport in Santiago in just over two hours. Our driver unloads our gear as we walk into the lobby of the majestic Hotel Portillo. We immediately find friendly faces from our last visit and within minutes we feel right at home. Time seems to stand still in Portillo and many of the staff members are unchanged since my first visit back in 2004. In a world where everything seems to revolve around being “new and improved”, places that are “tried and true” like Portillo are the perfect reminder that if something isn’t broken there is no need to fix it. In fact, guests of Portillo will tell you that the experience is unlike anything else in the world. The Hotel Portillo, located on the southern end of Laguna Del Inca has 123 rooms and a staff of 450. Each week, 450 guests descend on Portillo and are provided a week of hedonistic pleasure.
By 10:30am Liam and I are geared up and out the door to find our ski legs and test out the snow. A quick chairlift ride deposits us at the bottom of the carnage-causing Roca Jack lift. The Roca Jack is a five person, Va et Vient (coming-and-going) lift, which is more or less an alpine slingshot that takes five skiers at a time up a poma lift which gains almost a 1,000 vertical feet in just under a minute. In addition to the unusual rate of speed these lifts travel, they require unloading by letting go, skiing backwards and doing a reverse hockey stop on an icy track pitched at better than 40 degrees. The Roca Jack is one of four of these lifts in the world, all found in Portillo. While Portillo has 14 lifts in total, it’s these slingshots that provide the ultimate in access and excitement; they are an exceptional way to move people in the avalanche prone terrain above Portillo.
Our heart rates return to normal as we ski away from the terminus of the Roca Jack. We have agreed that we will just freeski this afternoon without any hiking, but that decision is quickly forgotten as we traverse beneath a perfect 1,000 foot line of untracked snow. Skis are placed on packs and we begin setting in a bootpack. The few inches of fresh snow sits atop a perfect layer of corn formed over the previous week of dry and warm weather. From the top of our stair-master we look down at the Hotel Portillo sitting at the end of the shimmering Laguna Del Inca. The iconic yellow Hotel Portillo provides the perfect contrast to the monochromatic surroundings of rock and ice. Just 24 hours ago Liam was riding his mountain bike on singletrack at his home in Breckenridge but now set his sites set on a lengthy slope of untracked cold smoke. He shoots me a smile, drops in and is seemingly vaporized within a rooster tail of chicken feathers. The next time I see Doran he has chewed up 500 vertical feet and shows no sign of slowing down.
Day three dawns clear and cold we take full advantage of the perfect conditions. From the hotel we take the La Laguna chairlift and ski down to the bottom of an off-piste area known as Primavera. We skin for almost an hour and reach a zone that will be perfect for shooting. The three of us take turns skiing lines for Liam and then yo-yo back to the top of the skin track to cycle through again. When Amie and Hadley drop in, I stop climbing and watch them rip flawless high-speed turns leaving behind a wispy wake of suspended crystals that glow brilliantly in the morning sun.
By noon Liam has filled multiple memory cards and we finish the session with a 2,000-foot run all the way to the lake. We walk along the shoreline for 45 minutes making our way back to the hotel. We hop on the Plateau lift, which hauls us up the east side of the valley over some incredible terrain like the Garganta Chute. While the terrain beneath the chair looks exceptional, we are staving and are focused on lunch at Tio Bob’s, which we all agree is hands down the most scenic spot on earth for lunch. Giant burgers are washed down with ample amounts of Escudo beer. We linger long into the afternoon soaking up the sun while looking across the lake at massive glaciated peaks like La Parva puncturing the skyline at nearly 16,000’. We spend the last few hours of the afternoon hot lapping Garganta taking full advantage of the lift-served steep chalky snow.
After a full day of skiing, we enjoy a well-earned soak in the hot tub and watch as the Andes are bathed in the fiery splendor of Alpenglow. In the fading light we watch a few Andean Condors, some of the largest birds on earth, ride the thermals toward the heavens.
On the way to dinner, I run into my friend Jillian Raymond who I met on a previous trip to Portillo. She tells me that she and her boyfriend, Brennan Lagasse, skied the Super C this morning and that they were the only two that have skied it since the recent storm. They were all grins as they told me that it was the best conditions either of them had ever seen in the Super C. As they talked about deep powder and excellent stability, I knew the next day was our chance to claim the prize.
Over a four-course gourmet dinner we make a game plan for the following morning. On Liam’s last trip in 2015 he had attempted the Super C, but was turned back two hours into the climb when the hanging snow/ice above the final gully was showing signs of becoming unstable. Liam, Hadley and Amie are all game to give the Super C a try but make it known that they are all very comfortable turning back if they aren’t feeling good about the climbing conditions on the final, most exposed section of the climb.
Morning comes and a couple lifts take us to the base of the eternal bootpack. The steps are perfectly pitched and solid so putting one foot in front of the other comes easily. We have started the climb in cold shade wearing every layer we can find, but after the first hour of climbing the sun is scorching and we are now hiking in nothing more than base layers. While the steps are perfect, they seem to go on forever. After just over 2,000 vertical feet of hiking we all reach the ramp. From this vantage point we all turn around to observe the scene and find a view dominated by Mount Aconcagua. At 22,841’ Aconcagua is the world’s highest mountain outside the Himalaya, and it simply dwarfs everything else in our sight. From this point the true scale of the area around Portillo is unveiled. We are witnessing better than 13,000 feet of vertical relief from the summit of Aconcagua all the way down to the Hotel Portillo and Laguna Del Inca below our feet.
In most seasons, the section from this ramp into the adjacent gully is the crux of the entire climb, as it requires a spicy traverse across a steep snowfield hanging precariously above a no fall zone. However, this year the traverse is filled in with ample coverage. From here we can see about half way up the remaining 1,000 vertical feet before the skin track disappears from view. Aspen photographer Jesse Hoffman and skier Sam Coffey are just in front of us and are navigating the first switchback which is just above a cliffband where even a minor slip would be catastrophic. They both breathe an audible sigh of relief after a few tricky kickturns and quickly move out of the most exposed section.
Once in the gully, climbers are very exposed to snow/ice fall from the near vertical walls so the skin track Brennan and Jillian put in the day before wastes no time in gaining vertical and reducing the amount of time spent in the danger zone. As our crew is putting on skins, a point release comes off the right hand wall triggering some sluff that flushes down the middle of the gully erasing a few sections of the skintrack. Liam, Hadley and Amie have seen enough and they decide they will ski back the way they came and drop back down to the Roca Jack enjoying 2,000 vertical feet of powder as a very worthy consolation prize for their morning efforts.
Having done the Super C numerous times before, I have a good memory of the topography above and believe that the danger has been greatly mitigated with the recent shedding of snow. The massive walls of hangfire normally seen looming above the gully are all but absent this season. I tell the crew that I am comfortable going on solo, but Hammer says she is going to find a vantage point where she can watch me climb through the exposed section to make sure I am into a safe zone before she heads out.
Having a watchful eye on me gives me a boost and I move quickly through the middle sections of the gully catching my breath at each switchback. Before long I am out of danger and I wave goodbye to Hammer. The last 100 feet of the climb is too steep and narrow for skinning so it’s back to stair-stepping the final pitch. I walk across the barren final ridge to the ledge and get my first look in two years deep into the shady belly of the beast. I step into my bindings and look at the switchbacking highway more than 5,000 feet below my tips.
The first few turns into the couloir are convex and I take them gingerly to get a feel for the snow. It is paramount to ski conservatively when skiing alone, so I am planning to ski the C in many sections taking the time to let my sluff pass by after every dozen or so turns. By turn three I am immersed in my first face shot of the season and by turn four I am pitted in blower powder. The Super C is a virtual catchers mitt for snow, collecting every snowflake that pounds the walls above. With every turn I sense the building sluff and just above the first choke I pull high onto the left wall just in time to watch the wave of snow accelerate through the compression.
For the next 3,000 vertical feet, the couloir is rimmed with massive vertical walls blocking all but the faintest of light. The C continues to snake downward never revealing a view of its complete length. Shaped just like the letter, the couloir continues to bend just out of view until it finally empties onto the exit ramp, called El Estadio, which provides another 1,500 vertical feet of untracked snow to the groomer waiting in the sunlight below.
After almost 5,000 feet of powder skiing I hit the groomer and my legs buckle from exhaustion. Somehow I am able to ski to the hotel without catching an edge I grab a seat at Sam and Jesse’s table as we swap some high fives and recount the glorious condition found inside the couloir. As I am enjoying the last bite of my apple strudel, Liam and Hadley walk by our table and can tell from our smiles that the C delivered.
Sam and I make our way to their table and tell them that the conditions are so amazing that we are willing to do it again the next morning if they want to give it a try. They seem game but say they want to see how the night plays out before deciding. I asked Hadley what she was feeling when she turned back that morning. “There were too many red flags for me to feel comfortable. Shallow, hollow snowpack, the ramp shedding snow, and it was later in the day then I would have preferred. It is always tough to turn around, but at the same time, it’s great practice.” I am never one to doubt someone’s gut feelings in the mountains and I completely understood and respected Hadley’s assessment of the situation, but am hoping she would come back for a rebate the next day.
After the obligatory hot tub and dinner, the Pisco Sours flow freely as the crew takes the party to the Portillo bar and into then on to the disco. Around 2am Liam and Hadley proclaim that they are up for the Super C the following morning. Given the late hour and that fact that their decision is likely fueled by Pisco and Carmenere I have my doubts. As I exit the disco I see Liam, Hadley and Amie getting down to the pulse of a techno beat.
I walk into the dining room the next morning promptly at 8am to find Hammer and Doran deep into their second cup of coffee. Talk is sparse but I can see in their eyes that they will not be denied the objective two days in a row.
We are back on the bootpack and while no speed records are being set this morning, we all find a solid pace and gain the ramp in under two hours. I ask Hadley how the climb feels and she says the “Slog feels extra sloggy,” as she informs me that she closed down the disco at 4am.
We all cross the traverse and find the skin track is set up well after hard overnight freeze. Sam and Liam go ahead and I keep an eye on Hadley as she climbs through the exposed portion, returning the favor she paid me the morning before.
We all reach the top of the Super C. Hadley and Liam are all smiles as they know they are minutes away from experiencing one of the greatest ski lines on the planet. After 3,000 feet of challenging climbing, it would be a lie to say we all feel fresh, but we all seem to get a second wind as we prepare to drop in. One by one we roll over the convexity and into the abyss below.
We spread out and take turns ripping big sections of the C. The vertical walls creating an echo chamber and hoots and hollers that bounce off the walls with regularity. The sounds I hear seem to voice satisfaction, redemption and accomplishment. Each time I pull into a safe zone, one of the crew comes flying by laughing with each turn. The excitement is palpable as we regroup at the mouth of the Super C. I want to pull out my camera and capture the scene, but I decide instead to be truly in the moment and live it in real time through my own eyes. My view ranges from massive peaks to the lake and hotel far below. As I bring my gaze back to the crew I see massive smiles of three very satisfied skiers.
As our week in Portillo expires, we find ourselves heading back down the switchbacks toward Santiago and we catch a final glimpse of the Super C. A few days removed from the line I ask Hadley what she thought was the toughest part of the Super C, “The hardest part of the ascent was dealing with the retributions of participating in Portillo’s endless dance parties. I deemed it my feral pain cave.” With the Super C now under her belt, I ask her what advice she would give to those that have it on their skiing bucket list. With a wicked smile she says, “I wouldn’t advise dancing until 4am the night before attempting it, but then again, when in Portillo…”