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. (Fédération 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.
August 22, 1965
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."
Stranded in Santiago were U.S. Alpine Coach Bob Beattie, who arrived in Chile after the slides, and skiers from Germany, Canada, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Argentina and Chile—plus a brace of F.I.S. officials. Panagra Airlines' "Portillo Ski Carnival" promotion was still bringing in planeloads of fresh tourists from North America. The first load of collegians had arrived on Thursday, August 12.
They had paid $432.80 air fare, and the program promised a wild, twisting, Watusiing time. At Santiago's genteel old Crillon Hotel skiers and F.I.S. officials milled around in varying moods of despair. The Germans, disciplined by day, wild by night, found a downtown gymnasium and began working out tensions with volleyball. The French took to marching up and down the street in ragged pairs to keep their legs in shape. And Beattie—as nervous as any coach separated from his team—took to running in the park in Levi's, sweat socks and sneakers, paced by howling bands of little Chileans.
If Chile was having this much trouble with a preworld championship meet in dress rehearsal, what of prospects for the real thing next year? Big man in town, Stanislaw Ziobrzynski, chief F.I.S. technical delegate, insisted that the 1966 show would go on—with certain reservations. "The Chilean government must fix that railroad so that this does not happen again," he said. "We realize that this is a natural catastrophe, a disaster. We will take that into consideration. We have had such catastrophes in Europe. But if the railroad is fixed," he said, "the F.I.S. likely will go on as scheduled."
But while delegate Ziobrzynski's word was good in Santiago, there were rumbles from other European delegates, aware of the country's recent earthquakes as well as the avalanche, that they were not in a mood to gamble on Chile's apparent predilection for natural disaster. Clearly, when the current bad days in Chile are over, there will be world arguments about the coming race. "I have been to Portillo. Never more again. I would pay not to come," growled France's Serge Lang, president of the International Ski Writers Association.
Bob Beattie, on the other hand, lined up North and South America: "There are a few countries in Europe who think they own the sport. Maybe the Chileans are not the best organized country in the ski world. But the simple fact is they are going to stage the world ski championships here next year. They have just had a national disaster, and here are some people carping about not being able to get to Portillo. I'm not sure any nation could do better under the circumstances."
By Sunday, Portillo was full of skiers who wanted to get down—Santiago was full of skiers who wanted to get up. The preworld championships were in a state of limbo. If the storm lifts next week, a play-it-by-ear, shortened version of the races might be held. If the storm continues most nations will send their skiers home, and the coaches will stay on to inspect Portillo when they can get to it.
Santiago, despite disaster all around, was digging out of its gloom. The mood was not one of a holiday, but more like a city about to be enveloped by war. Nightclubs were crowded and free-spending tourists—their skis back at their hotels—were out on the town. "We want to point out that it is safe to drink water from the tap," a sign says in each bathroom at the earthquake-damaged Hotel Carrera, but there was no indication anyone was taking that chance when other potables were available.
And Bob Beattie, who does not speak Spanish, was giving demonstrations in making himself understood in a foreign country. After a big meal of steak in a Santiago restaurant, one of the party ordered apple pie—and got a peeled apple on a plate. Beattie leaned back and signaled a waiter. "Peach melba," he whispered, smiling. The waiter consulted some companions and came back with the dessert. It was, of all things, peach melba.
Whether or not there are races in Portillo this week or even next year it was Reinaldo Solari who had, for the moment, the last say in Saturday's fiery F.I.S. meeting.
"We have been criticized," he said, "for having only one helicopter in the whole country of Chile. This is not so. All of our helicopters are busy saving lives, not lifting skiers to Portillo. The Europeans are saying that we do not know how to run a ski race and that we do not know what we are doing here. We have starving copper miners marooned in the north of the country. We must get food to them. Damages are high in the coastal areas. Children are out of school and hungry in some areas. We regard human lives as more important at this moment than skiing. Skiing can wait for a while."