Portillo has always been the world's most improbable ski resort. It is more than 5,000 miles away from the ski-population centers of Europe and the U.S. It is at best a five-hour trip up into the Chilean Andes from Santiago by the chugging railroad that connects Santiago with Buenos Aires. It can sleep only 400 people in a few chalets and one crescent-shaped hotel, which is reflected in the spectacular Lake of the Incas like some aging ocean liner. But in Portillo the snow season begins when it ends almost everywhere else, and many of the world's best instructors and racers and many never-say-die ski bums from the U.S. turn Portillo each July and August into a swinging off-season ski lark. At 9,450 feet Portillo can ordinarily be counted on to produce a heady combination of powder snow in just the right supply, sunny shirt-sleeve ski days and nights when the parties never seem to stop in the Hotel Portillo's bars and nightclub.
In 1961 two wealthy New Yorkers, Richard Aldrich and Robert Purcell, took over the hotel, brightened its dark interiors, doubled its lift capacity and, with the aid of the persuasive Reinaldo Solari of the Chilean Ski Federation, managed to capture the 1966 F.I.S. ( F�d�ration Internationale de Ski) races, next to the Olympics the most important ski event in the world. Just where and how they were going to board all the people it takes to stage an F.I.S. race has never been quite clear.
Last week, the question became almost academic. A brutal Pacific storm hacked out millions of dollars in damages in the lowlands and touched off an avalanche in the Andes that killed five ski patrolmen, including two Americans, and swamped the narrow-gauge railroad, isolating Portillo from the rest of the world.
It was trouble with an added touch of nature's irony. The ski teams of 10 countries were assembled in Chile for a sort of unofficial preview of next year's F.I.S. competition. By the end of the week there was talk of taking the international event away from Portillo. On Saturday, with two of the ski teams snowbound at Portillo and eight teams still stuck in Santiago, F.I.S. officials canceled the preview events. With that cancellation went the first annual Portillo ski carnival, which was to have provided the festive touch.
The storm—worst of Chile's winter season—moved in on Monday, August 9, with driving rain and snow. By Tuesday, Ferrocarriles del Estado, the government-backed rail line through the mountains, was shut down. "A danger of avalanches," the railmen explained. And on Wednesday—at 6 a.m.—the slides came.
Tons of snow and rocks broke loose from the mountains that rise up precipitously to heights of 20,000 feet around Portillo. The avalanche piled into a depression near the hotel and wiped out Portillo's "old stone house," the first building erected at the area in the 1920s. Twelve ski patrolmen were sleeping there. Forty-five minutes later a dazed, half-frozen patrolman—Dick Hawkins of Montreal—banged on the hotel door for help. He had awakened tumbling in the snow in his undershorts. "It was like being underwater," he said. "When I stopped roiling I had to push the snow away from my face with my hands to find air. I dug out of the snow and couldn't see anybody. I thought everybody was dead." Five fellow ski patrolmen were dead: Milton Orliotti of Portland, Ore., Ronald Hock of Binghamton, N.Y., Michael Fogel of Quebec and Manfred Arnold and Jaime Cubiazuirre of Santiago.
The main lodge was untouched. But gone was one of the new ski lifts that Portillo had installed especially for the 1966 competition, its two bottom towers a tangle of cables and steel. It will be replaced in the summer, lodge spokesmen said, if summer ever comes to Portillo again.
Farther down the hill smaller avalanches, some of them 30 feet deep, blocked the rail line in more than 20 places. Telephone lines were down and the only contact with Santiago was through a small radio station that bounces scratchy signals through the high mountain passes.
Eighty-five miles down the mountain in Santiago the storm had changed into a clammy, steady rain. The town began to fill with ski racers and tourists bound, hopefully, for Portillo. Isolated on the mountain were an estimated 160 lodge guests, assistant U.S. Ski Coach Gordon Eaton and seven young members of the U.S. Alpine ski team. The storm held on, piling up to as much as five feet of fresh snow each day.
"We are all starting to show signs of cabin fever," Eaton radioed on Saturday. "It is snowing so hard we can't see. There is too much snow to ski. The Austrians tried to stamp out a place in the snow to play soccer, but fresh snow kept covering it up and they had to give up. The kids have started jumping out of second-story windows into the snowbanks below for laughs. And we have started playing soccer in the lodge lobby—we kicked out a couple of windows."