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 Fédération 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?' "
Kidd was less lucky. "I made it all the way to the last tunnel," he said. "I really came off it flying. When I came down—after forever—I was all right. That is, I landed on both feet. But the jolt knocked my goggles down over my eyes, and I couldn't see. I veered to the right and crashed off the course. I remember cartwheeling. My knees smashed up against my face a couple of times and chipped one of my front teeth. When I landed I felt a pain in my right ankle and thought, 'Well, that's good. At least I didn't hurt my left leg again. Maybe it's just a sprain and I can get it taped up before the race.' When they got to me I lay there and told them, 'Take my right ski off first, fellas.' But my right ski was already off. So then I raised up and looked down at my right leg. I was lying flat, but my leg was bent up in the air."
Word was flashed back to the lodge that Kidd had broken his leg, and any hope of a superior showing by the U.S. men's team seemed to have been shattered with it. Jimmy Heuga, at his best in the slalom, now had to try and fill Kidd's ski boots in the downhill, but the best he could do on Sunday was finish 19th as France's Killy won. Worse yet, the downhill course claimed another American during the race, when 19-year-old Walter Falk fell and suffered serious head injuries.
On the other hand, Beattie's Babies were making precocious noises. All four of them earned seedings in the first 15 places for the ladies' slalom, and the starting draw for Friday's race sprinkled them advantageously among the first eight spots. Cathy Allen, 20, of Mammoth Mountain, Calif. had the first starting position, her sister, Wendy, 21, the third, Penny McCoy, 16, also of Mammoth, the sixth, and Jean Saubert, 24, silver medalist in the 1964 Olympics, the eighth.
The two slalom courses at Portillo were unusually steep, averaging about 32° of fast drop through 52 gates. On the first course Nancy Greene rifled down in 45.54 to take the lead. After her came Famose and Marielle Goitschel. But then came Cathy Allen and Saubert in the fourth and fifth spots, and McCoy and Wendy Allen in the seventh and eighth. Though competing against Europe's best, North Americans had come up with five of the first eight positions. If there had been a crowd, it would have cheered wildly.
Now, confronted with a real chance to do well, the American girls added some drama as well as speed to the championships in the person of Penny McCoy. Penny is a small honey blonde who will never frighten any of the European girls on a hillside, since most European girl skiers, Famose being a noteworthy exception, come in large, economy sizes. She is a wide-eyed youngster, and as she climbed back up for the second run of the slalom her blue-green eyes filled with tears and there was an unmistakable sound of sniffling. She was not scared of the run, but she was terrified that she would do something simply awful and embarrass the United States of America, and all of its territories, too. Sixteen-year-old girls worry about that sort of thing. If she looked down, there would be Coach Beattie standing far below, squinting up at her. And if she looked up, there would be the U.S. women's coach, Chuck Ferries, far above, stormy as a breaking hurricane. The more Penny thought about it, the more she sniffled.
At about this time she caught the attention of Jean Saubert, who was standing on the starting platform with the taped knuckles and the firm look that meant this was old stuff to her. "Listen, Penny," said Jean, "what is there to worry about? I mean, really. I remember before I started my second run back at Innsbruck I was two whole seconds behind. But I made a fast run and won the silver medal. So just settle down and do your best."
McCoy, who had been 1.74 seconds off the pace set by Greene in the first run, dried her eyes and got back to work. When her turn came, she started winging down like a pint-sized Batgirl, dancing from gate to gate. Beattie, looking startled for the first time all week, suddenly began howling, "My God. Go, McCoy. Go." Penny went. She cut her second run to 45.07, beating even her counselor, Saubert, and earning the U.S. its first Portillo medal, as Annie Famose won the race, with Marielle Goitschel second. Behind Penny came Saubert and Cathy Allen. Greene, unable to recapture her first-run rhythm, was seventh and Wendy Allen eighth, giving the U.S. four of the first eight places.
"How about that?" cried Saubert to Beattie, and she told him of her talk with Penny at the top of the hill. "And you know what?" she said. "The part I said to Penny about my being two seconds behind at Innsbruck wasn't even true. Golly. I can't remember how far behind I was. But what I said worked all right, didn't it?"
It was not much later that Bronze Medal Winner McCoy, who could be the start of something for the U.S., was picking her way through the mob in the old lodge clutching an enormous bouquet of flowers. "Gee," she said, "all those European racers are so big and so experienced and all. They used to scare me to death. But you know what? They won't frighten me again."