Words: Greg Fitzsimmons
Nestled on the banks of Laguna del Inca in the Chilean Andes, the Hotel Portillo is encircled by some of the best off-piste skiing in the Southern Hemisphere. Steep, rock-littered lines form an amphitheater and plunge down towards the lake.
"Everything that is being done on the mountain can be seen from the packed slopes and much of it from the hotel terrace," says Henry Purcell, owner of the Hotel Portillo.
Photographs line the hallways of the hotel, telling its storied past in black and white photos dating back to the late 1800s. Around here, ski legends like Stein Ericksen, Pepi Stiegler, and Jean-Claude Killy paved the way for guys like Shane McConkey, Mike Douglas, and Chris Davenport to explore the terrain. There are a ton of world-class lines to drop into, but Portillo's most famous is the Super C Couloir.
"It had been climbed before in the summertime, I climbed it in 1964," remembers Purcell. "But it was first skied around 1980."
"The 'C' is one of the best lines I've ever skied," says Chris Davenport. "It's one of the world's most aesthetic couloirs. For me ski mountaineering is about finding the beauty in a line and the Super C has it all—a fairly demanding climb when you're putting in the bootpack, and the reward is such a beautiful line. It's steep and committing."
The climb starts at the top of the Roca Jack poma. From there, it goes vertical up the Roca Jack couloir to a puckering traverse across a close-out chute before making the final push up to the saddle of Ojos de Agua mountain. With pristine views of Aconcagua—the largest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya—and 12 other 6,000-plus meter peaks, ascending the Super C is an unreal experience in itself.
"It can be a really easy climb and it can be a really hard climb," says Davenport. "I've done it in an hour and five minutes before, but last year we put the bootpack in for the first time and there was a lot of fresh snow—I was with Ingrid Backstrom, Adam Clark, Eric Roner, and an Austrian World Cup racer Stephan Görgl—and it took us four hours and 10 minutes. It was absolutely brutal. I think the bootpack definitely filters people out. It takes stamina and confidence to climb to the top of the Super C."
"I remember being asked if a guest could use the heli to get to the top," says Michael Rogan, Portillo's on-mountain manager. "The answer was 'no!' If you want to ski it you have to earn it by making the climb."
The "earn it" ethic rewards those willing to put in the effort because the Super C's 1,320-meter descent boasts endless options for skiers.
"It has so many sections and zones," says Davenport. "There's the steep upper couloir and a lower more moderate couloir. Then, the third section drops you out onto an apron and we always go high skier's right out onto these steep ramps towards the Ultima Quebrada, and that's just a playground out there with a plethora of aspects you can find good snow on. It's a bit of maze, and once you learn the maze and know the entrance points and exits—because some close out—you can ski stuff in there that nobody else can get to."
"There's no run in the world like it that I have found," says Davenport. "It's an amazing visual experience looking down on the switchbacks [leading to the Hotel Portillo] from the top of the couloir. It feels like you're being pulled down into the valley below."