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The Legend of Portillo: Skiing With Superstars

The high Andes ski resort of Portillo was placed squarely on my radar as a small boy by my dad. As kids, my siblings and I used to sit around a roaring fire at our ski cabin in New Hampshire and listen to him spin fantastic and slightly embellished tales of a hotel that sat alone, high in the Andes Mountains. There was always 100 feet of snow in these stories, and it seemed easy to climb to 17,000ft in elevation and ski, which was hard for us to comprehend. There was always a story about a storm that blew like a hurricane for days, stranding all passengers aboard the good ship Hotel Portillo. We sat wide-eyed, imagining this place that seemed as far from our icy existence on the slopes of Mt. Cranmore, New Hampshire as possible.

You see, my dad had been fortunate enough to train in Portillo in the late ’60s for a few years with the University of Denver (DU) ski team. They would stop a few times on the flight there to refuel in places like Panama City or Lima or Quito, since the planes couldn’t make it all the way on one tank. These were the days before the international highway that links Chile and Argentina through the high pass at Portillo, so after arriving in Santiago, they hopped on an overnight train, inevitably with several bottles of Pisco, and settled in for the long grind up the mountain.

Davenport Portillo 1A Classic Shot of the Hotel Portillo. Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

As I began to build a career in skiing for myself in the early and mid-’90s by winning freeski contests and starring in ski films, in the back of my mind I was looking for a way to make it to Portillo. But it didn’t happen for a while, for one reason or another.

My first ski experience in South America was in Las Lenas in ’94 with a group of buddies from Aspen. That’s where I first met Doug Coombs, who would become one of the strongest mentors in my young career. I skied Las Lenas three or four summers in a row, and even spent the entire season of ’97 down there, which turned out to be a horrible year for snow. I also made four trips to New Zealand in the late ’90s, for the World Heli Challenge event, and also for my first Warren Miller segment (which I think we shot in ’96). But with all this international summer travel, I still didn’t have the right excuse to visit Portillo.

That all changed in the winter of 2000. My good friend in Aspen, Maureen Poschman, was hired as the North American PR Director for Portillo, and she called to see if I had any ideas to help market the resort to Americans. Being an idea guy at heart I was quick to come up with something. I pitched her the idea of a ski photography competition, which she loved, so we began to build a new event for Portillo for the 2000 winter season in Chile.  I met with Perkins Miller, then the editor of Skiing Magazine, and sold him on the concept of bringing six of the world’s foremost ski photographers to Portillo, each with an athlete of their choice, for a week of shooting a number of different categories. To my delight, he and the resort agreed to fund the event, and, without getting into the lengthy details of the first of three annual Andes Photo Challenges, I finally arrived in Portillo.

Davenport Portillo 2The terrain  in Portillo is BIG! And there are lines for days if you know where to go.
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

I’ll never forget driving up the 30+ switchbacks to the resort. My face was glued against the van’s window, my eyes scouring the massive terrain above me. I stepped out of the van in front of the Hotel Portillo, this hulking yellow concrete edifice. Despite its size and shape, it exudes beauty, thanks to its position at the foot of the Laguna del Inca, one of the world’s most gorgeous mountain lakes. When I walked into the lobby, the smell of the place seemed familiar, perhaps due to the detail-rich stories my dad had told twenty years earlier. As I sat at the legendary bar that evening sipping my first Chilean Pisco Sour, with some of my best friends in the ski industry around me, I knew Dad was right: this place really was larger than life.

I just finished up my 14th August in a row spent visiting Portillo. The last ten of those have been spent running my Portillo Superstars ski camp. After the photo challenge concept was played out, I needed to find another way to come to Portillo. So the ski camp concept was born, and that first year I invited Shane McConkey, Wendy Fisher, and Chris Anthony to coach alongside me. Somehow I convinced 12 bold souls to sign up, and we were off. Shane was with us for the first six years of the camp, and early on I added Mike Douglas and Ingrid Backstrom as well. Now it’s grown so much that I’ve added a sixth coach, Daron Rahlves, to the roster. We also have a videographer, Jesse Hoffman, who started as a camper ten years ago and has been with me ever since, and my 12-year-old son Stian, who is on his seventh visit to Portillo this season and has been my assistant coach for a couple years.

We’ve been so lucky to get to ski with so many amazing clients over the years. Our campers range in age from 14 to 69, both men and women, with the common theme being that everyone is more or less an expert. These folks trust us to show them the best snow and terrain Portillo has to offer, and we spend quite a bit of time working on skill development. Our campers ski in small groups and with a different coach each day, so they really get to pick up lots of individual tips from some of the best skiers in the world.

Davenport Portillo 3Chris Davenport settles into a perfect Andes pow slash above Roca Jack Lift.
Photo: Spyder Active Sports

Davenport Portillo 4The coaches of the 2013 Portillo Superstars Camp: Mike Douglas, Ingrid Backstrom, Chris Davenport, Wendy Fischer, Chris Anthony, and Daron Rahlves.
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

Another element of the camp that makes it special for our campers is that all of the coaches are on new gear, meaning next year’s gear, so our guests get to check out new skis, boots, clothing, and accessories before much of the industry has even seen it. For many years Mike Douglas and Shane McConkey, and me for that matter, would show up with white, graphic-less skis to test and evaluate. We have a pretty authentic and inspired consumer group with us, so they enjoy getting first looks and, in some cases, first tests of lots of new gear.

Everyone also really appreciates the media aspect of the camp. Every day our resident media expert Jesse is filming and shooting images of the guests as they’re coached by and skiing with the pros. They take home plenty of epic shots, and we edit up a nice highlight reel for everyone. And in the evenings each coach gives a presentation—a slideshow of a recent trip or expedition or perhaps even a ski film segment in the works to be released in the fall. These little details go a long way with our guests and are really fun for the coaches.

Davenport Portillo 5Some of our campers stoked after skiing powder above the lake.
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

Davenport Portillo 6Camp owner/director Chris Davenport with clients Mark and Yaz at Tio Bob’s Restaurant
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

Fourteen years into my relationship with Portillo, I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. It’s truly a home away from home for me during the dog days of summer here in Colorado. I know the other coaches of the Superstars Camp agree when I say it’s one of the trips I look forward to most every year. A month in the Andes allows me to ski with all sorts of amazing people, both in the camp and with private clients as well. My family comes down now every year, and my boys have been lucky enough to experience some incredible skiing and deep storms over the years (there’s a shot of my son Stian below).

I also really enjoy the opportunity to work on my own skiing while I’m down there, figuring out new ways of doing things with my body position and balance, and developing skills that really take a lifetime to even get close to figuring out. But more than anything, Portillo gives all of us a chance to share our passion for skiing with each other. My goal at the end of our camp, and at the end of every season in Portillo, is to send people home with the best ski vacation they’ve ever had. I’m proud to say that our record in that department is pretty darn strong. So thanks to Ingrid, Wendy, Chris, Daron, Mike, Jesse, Stian, Maureen, my Dad, and most of all the Purcell Family, the owners and gatekeepers of one of the world’s greatest ski destinations.

See you next season,
Chris@Steepskiing.com

What to check out the Superstars Camp? Book a Trip to Ski Portillo

 

Stian Davenport skiing powder at Portillo, Chile on August 24, 2012.Stian Davenport lays it over on the Vizcachas run.
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

Davenport Portillo 8Coaches Chris and Daron gearing up for a day of storm skiing.
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

Davenport Portillo 9The 2013 Portillo Superstars Camp staff and campers.
Photo: Portillo Superstars Camp

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