All about the history of Portillo: a timeline

Portillo, Chile’s oldest and most storied ski resort, celebrates its 68th anniversary this summer!

Here’s a look back on the Portillo’s photos and events that have shaped its modern identity as an international gathering place for skiers and snowboarders.

Highlights from Portillo’s History

1887: Railroad Plans Draw European Skiers

English engineers were contracted by the Chilean government to build a railroad from the central Chilean valley to Mendoza, Argentina. Two Norwegians hired by the Englishmen—Elmar Rosenquist and Michel Hermundsen—inspected the route on skis and became the first skiers to traverse Portillo’s slopes.

During the construction of the railroad, the English engineers skied while they worked and when they had a moment to have a little fun. The Transandean railroad was completed in 1910, and many recreational skiers began to use the train to get up the mountain, making the railroad the first ski lift in Chile!

1910 – 1930s: Ski Clubs, Tow Lifts and a Hut

Ski clubs, a common phenomenon in Europe, started to form in Chile and became the driving force that spread skiing in South America. By the early 1930s, skiers were exploring the slopes around the Lake of the Inca. They set up a rudimentary tow lift to save their legs and a hut to stay in overnight, which was the first iteration of Hotel Portillo.

1949: Hotel Portillo opens and Chile’s first ski resort is born

In the 1940s, the hut slowly transformed into a hub for international travelers and famed ski instructors who came to ski alongside the Chileans. Attempts to build out the resort were stymied by World War II, but the Chilean government took the reigns and eventually completed the 125-room Grand Hotel Portillo in 1949.

That year Portillo ski resort opened with two single chairlifts and one surface lift. Grooming was a combined effort of the Chilean Army, ski instructors and guests who arduously boot-packed the slopes. The resort’s first ski school director was the internationally renowned French ski champion Emile Allais, who stayed until the mid-1950s when Stein Eriksen, the famous Norwegian ski racer, assumed the ski-school helm.

1961: The Purcells come to Portillo

The 1950s were difficult years for Portillo as the Chilean government struggled with the complexities of owning and operating the ski area. In 1961 the government sold Portillo to Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich, North Americans who had worked in Latin America for years and skied Portillo’s slopes many times.

The new owners recognized that it was time for Portillo to come of age, and they invested in modern ski facilities. Bob Purcell hired his nephew, Henry Purcell, then age 26, as general manager of the resort. While Henry had graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and had worked for the Hilton Corporation for a few years, he soon realized none of his North American schooling or experience applied at Portillo.

Scrapping a traditional plan, Henry hired Olympic gold medalist Othmar Schneider as director of skiing and put in some of his own elbow grease to clean the place up. (When he arrived at Portillo, there was a sheep named Lumumba living in Hotel Portillo’s living room.)

In June, the new owners premiered Portillo to a group of U.S. skiing royalty, which included Howard Head, Ernst Engel, Alf Engen, Merril Hastings, Mrs.  John Randolph Hearst, Ernie McCulloch, Willy Schaeffler and Cliff Taylor.  The resilient group traveled to Portillo via narrow-gauge railroad and was stranded in a tunnel for several hours while crews dug through an avalanche impeding their path. In the end the inaugural even was a great success and showcased Portillo’s potential to be a world-class ski resort.

1966: The World Championships Put Portillo on the Map

Portillo’s owners and Henry realized they needed a big event to put Portillo—and South American skiing—on the map, so they made a bid for the 1966 Alpine World Ski Championships. In those days this event was monumental; the world’s top ski racers only faced off twice a year with one of those races being the World Championships. After many negotiations, political posturing and ambitious promises, Portillo and the Chilean Ski Federation were awarded the 1966 race.

The preparations for the World Championships were massive in scope. Portillo’s owners designed and built new lifts, hotel rooms, recreational facilities, communication systems, transportation infrastructure and a downhill race course. They planned a “dress rehearsal” in 1965, just in time for a snow storm of biblical proportions to destroy the new chairlifts and trap the ski teams at the resort. When the weather cleared, racers and their support crews had to ski out to the nearest train station 20 miles away.

Even with these major setbacks, Bob Purcell remained steadfast in his vision, and he convinced the FIS to allow Portillo to rebuild and keep the bid for the 1966 World Championships. The Poma lift company, which had constructed all the lifts at Portillo, sent a young Polish engineer Janek Kunzynski to help rebuild the lifts on-site, and Portillo enlisted avalanche expert Monty Atwater. The chairlift concept was scrapped, and the more resilient “va et vient” lifts were installed to withstand slides from the avalanche chutes above some of Portillo’s terrain. Even the Chilean Army got involved, offering their artillery for avalanche control work. After much review, the FIS gave the OK to hold the World Championships in Portillo, which became the first major ski event held south of the equator.

The races were a great success with beautiful weather and exceptional snow conditions. The French nearly swept the competition, and Jean Claude Killy nabbed his first win to launch his lengthy dominance of downhill ski racing.

Modern Portillo

Since the 1966 World Championships, Portillo has continued to host international ski teams for training and speed trial events. Famed ski racers like Spider Sabich, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn have been frequent guests at the resort. These days, a new breed of professional skier flocks to Portillo in search summer powder and big-mountain lines. The likes of Chris Davenport, Ingrid Backstrom and Callum Petit travel south each July, August and September for a few weeks of South American snow.

The ski area itself hasn’t changed much; there are some modern chairlifts, and there are still several va et vient ski lifts that can withstand the periodic slides that come down the avalanche chutes above the Roca Jack and Condor ski runs. Snowmaking and grooming machines have replaced the Chilean mountain troops, and the narrow-gauge railroad has been updated with a paved road that winds up the mountain.

The people of Portillo have stayed very much the same; Henry Purcell and his brother purchased the resort from their uncle, and Bob’s son, Miguel, is the general manager. Guests and staff still return every year to enjoy the beautiful scenery, high-alpine sunshine and famous Portillo powder.

 

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About Author: Alex Boyd

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