“Wait until it has stopped completely, and then get off one at a time — the person with the rope gets off last!” warns Cody Townsend, as the lift propels us into orbit, hurtling vertically upwards over steep, mogulled terrain that has me clinging on for dear life. A shave under 700m later, just as my nerves can take no more, it stops abruptly, spitting us backwards and I let go, in a sort of snowplough on a 45-degree slope while trying not to fall over.
It’s my first ride on the Roca Jack, a type of button lift five people ride at the same time, unique to the ski resort of Portillo in Chile. I’m here attending a Superstars Ski Camp run by one of the world’s best big mountain skiers, Chris Davenport, and some of his mates.
Riding the Roca Jack seemed way more daunting than skiing with any of the superstar coaches, despite their pedigree. As well as Chris there’s multiple World Extreme Ski champion and Olympian Wendy Fisher; Canadian Mike Douglas, the man who invented twin-tip skis and in the process made skiing cool again; Ingrid Backstrom, one of the world’s most successful (and fearless) professional female big mountain skiers and, of course, Cody Townsend.
Cody is a huge name right now — thanks to straight-lining ‘The Crack’, an almost vertical, impossibly narrow chute in Alaska’s Tordrillos Mountain Range in 2014, a feat that landed him on various news channels and earned him millions of views on YouTube.
Cody is new to coaching and to the camp, and the day he sent me off up the Roca Jack was one that will indelibly be etched on my memory. Not because I got to watch Cody ski in his flawless, aggressive and downright awesome style first hand, nor because he regaled us with tales of his hell-raising as a teenager, almost being kicked out of the Junior Olympic team for picking up a girl the night before he raced (and precociously winning the following day). Not even because I spent an evening partying with him. But because he stood at the top of a run and said to fellow camper Anthony: “Yeah, ski just like that, only ski faster, ski harder and ski better.” He was joking, but it was gold.
Chris Davenport has been running his Superstars Camp in Portillo for 14 years, and the area normally receives around eight metres of snow dumped in several storms through the season. This year, however, Portillo has just suffered the worst snowpack of the past 35 years, so Chris has had a couple of skiers drop out. This leaves nearly 30 of us to ski in small groups with each coach — many repeat campers among the crowd drawn from the US, Brazil and the UK, aged from 12 to 71. It’s a week for good skiers who want to be challenged, and it’s not for the fainthearted.
“I’ve never had anyone turn up who is too fit for Portillo,” explains Chris when we discuss his emails in the weeks before camp, in which he appealed to all attendees to get as fit as possible and lose any excess ‘off-season’ weight.
Portillo is high. Set at nearly 3,000m above sea level in the Valparaíso region of the Andes on the Uspallata Pass, it straddles one of the main routes from Chile to Argentina. While you’re riding the Juncalilo chairlift from the bottom of the ski area, huge trucks climb the switchbacks below, transporting freight from Los Andes to Mendoza.
Portillo’s ski area itself is relatively small, with less than a dozen lifts and around the same number of pistes, but it’s some of the best, steepest lift-accessed terrain you could hope for. This being a bad snow year we don’t get the usual opportunity to hike up and access some of the tougher lines — like the world-famous Super C couloir, a 2.5-hour hike from above the Roca Jack that rewards skiers with fabulous views of the distant Aconcagua and Laguna Del Inca — but we still ski hard, running through drills and gliding down spring-like corn snow.
Halfway through the week the snow gods answer our prayers with a foot of powder that gives us all that’s needed to enjoy the steep, wide powder bowls on either side of the valley in which Portillo sits: El Estadio, Travesía and Kilometro Lanzada (where several world speed skiing records have been set) and Shane’s run, short but fun, and named after the late, great Shane McConkey, a founding Superstars coach. After a day on the slopes, the group hits the bar, the hot tub or the gym for a lesson on 360-degree tricks from Mike Douglas. Or a sneaky nap.
Being at Portillo is like sailing on the most fabulous cruise ship. Three-course meals are served at lightning speed morning, noon and night; live music in the bar every evening followed by DJs in the disco into the night. The pace is relentless, the fun and camaraderie second to none.
On the last night, after prize giving (including GoPros for the most improved skier and a signed rock for the best crash), I got so carried away that I finally crawled into bed at 4.30am, two hours before I needed to get up for my flight.
Sitting in a taxi taking photos of Portillo as we descended those switchbacks back to Santiago, I actually shed a tear. I left skiing faster, harder and better (I hope) —and with 35 new Superstar friends.
The Ultimate Travel Company offers an 11-day trip to Chile including one-night B&B at Luciano K in Santiago, a city tour, transfers, and a seven-night package at Ski Portillo with ski passes and all meals. Prices start from £3,350 each and include direct flights to Santiago with British Airways. theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk skiportillo.com
Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)