In a wildly jagged notch of the Andes some 9,200 feet above Santiago, Chile as the snow falls and 85 miles away via a road that switches back and forth between avalanches, there is a town called Portillo. It bursts above the cloud line in a scene of spectacular isolation, with peaks rising up more than 20,000 feet on all sides. For years it has been the hideaway playground of the jet set—the jet set perhaps being anybody who can make it up the road from Santiago—and, with its million miles of untracked powder snow and its violet-edged Lake of the Incas, it has a dreamlike quality.
Last week the world Alpine ski championships struggled up the road and into the dream, and if some of the things that happened proved to be positive nightmares, the performance of a youthful team of American girls in the opening event of the meet, the ladies' slalom, was dreamy. One of them cried a little and one of them lied a little, but among them they took four of the first eight places, with long-haired Penny McCoy winning the U.S. a bronze medal.
The success of the American girls achieved two things: it gave promise that the country's young women skiers are better than expected, and it proved what any frequenter of suburban drive-ins knows, that U.S. teen-agers thrive in bizarre settings. Portillo is bizarre enough even for a teen-ager.
It has to be assumed that the world ski championship is a major sporting event, but the F�d�ration Internationale de Ski chose to forget this when it awarded its biennial games to a town at the top of the Andes. Actually, Portillo is not a town at all. It is a lodge—a crumbling structure that looks the same as it did the day Noah and the animals left it on top of the mountain when the flood went down—and a railroad shack and two St. Bernard dogs. To accommodate 22 skiing nations, FIS officials and crews of world newsmen, the lodge was expanded to sleep 650 instead of 450. This was achieved by wedging steel bunk beds into every corner. As for spectators, there were none, assuming you discount the Chilean army and a handful of local retainers.
By last Thursday, when Chile's President Eduardo Frei coptered up from civilization to open the 21-day games officially, he had a captive audience of the world's best skiers, all growing restive in their isolation and waiting for something to happen. With him was a Chilean Undersecretary of the Interior who in his speech asked the question that was on everybody's mind: "I again inquire, as many must have done here in our country and abroad: Why did this competition have to take place here in Chile? What is it this country is seeking in a sports event such as this?" His answer was that "new streams of tourism shall probably flow toward our country." With that established, President Frei, who looks strikingly like an unsanforized Charles de Gaulle, officially opened the games. He stayed to have lunch—there wasn't room for him to spend the night—and the action began.
At Portillo were all of the faces that have become as familiar on the winter racing circuit as those of the pros on the golf tour. There were Jean-Claude Killy, the lanky daredevil from France, and Austria's two champions, Egon Zimmermann, who was the 1964 Olympic downhill winner, and Christl Haas, who has owned the women's downhill event since 1961, as well as the famed Karl Schranz. France also sent along the sisters Goitschel, Christine and Marielle, and tiny Annie Famose, the 23-year-old gymnast who packs teddy bears on all her ski trips and wears a silver name tag on each wrist so that she can be identified from either side. And there were others almost as tough: Canada's Nancy Greene, an all-events flash, and squads of Swiss, Germans and Japanese.
Into this international island in the sky marched Coach Bob Beattie and the U.S. team—the men with some hope of immediate successes, the girls, Beattie's Babies, with nothing but the future to think about. "We are still a long way off," Beattie said of his skiing sorority. "Don't expect anything of us at this meet. We are here to gain experience, not medals. Remember that. But these kids show promise, don't they?"
The Portillo games from the start offered the prospect of a resumption of the duel between America's Billy Kidd and France's Killy. The two had shared most of the top honors last season before Kidd quit to have an operation on an old ankle injury. Now Killy was ready, looking immensely unruffled, but Kidd showed up at the top of the hill with a hole in his left ankle bone—through which the tendons had been threaded—an elastic bandage over that, then stretch pants and a boot over the whole thing. He insisted, however, that he was ready to roll.
The men's downhill course at Portillo is not long—8,778 feet—but it is a steep, twisting kidney-breaker full of tight turns where a racer could spill at top speed and land in Lima, Peru. Among the most dangerous courses in modern world competition, it starts at 10,240 feet on a face so steep that platforms had to be hacked out to stand on. Any racer who survived the first four gates built up a speed estimated at 60 to 80 miles an hour before he hit a tight turn that shot him down toward the valley below, where there was a parking lot with a helicopter waiting to take him to the hospital. The course finished with a flourish, crossing over two highway tunnels. The second of these was humpbacked, hurtling skiers through the air for 100 feet or so, and providing a quick, horrifying look at most of Chile.
On Thursday morning, before the opening ceremonies, Germany's Willy Bogner went out for a practice run on the downhill course. Bogner made it for three gates and then fell. "I cartwheeled seven, eight, nine, 10 times," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Well, sooner or later you stop somewhere. Hah?' "