The Great Escape

For real skiers who also happen to be parents, the adventure never stops. Especially in Portillo.
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Rappelling in, bivying for the night, losing toes to frostbite... Sure, that all sounds harrowing. But what I’m doing right now—coercing my eight-year-old daughter down Plateau, in Portillo, Chile, in the waning light while hot tears fog her goggles—might just kill me. Though she, quite vocally I might add, clearly feels it will kill her first.

This is not a family magazine, evidenced in part by our liberal policy on four-letter words. But this is our Adventure Guide. And every skier who’s ever experienced his or her child, naked except for an Elmo diaper and one polka-dot sock, vibrating with anger, stomping her foot on the kitchen floor and screaming, “you are not the boss of me!” knows that there isn’t a crampon or ice ax or avy course out there that can prepare you for the most satisfying, most terrifying, most achingly beautiful adventure there is: raising a skier.

“Honey, you’re not going to die,” I say, leaning over my poles. I mean, lots of skiers have kids. Dav has kids who are probably, like, skiing the Grand now. Stian Hagen, Sage Cat- tabriga-Alosa, Hilaree O’Neill, Bode (though how many, we’re not sure). And both in spite of and because of my current parental crux on Plateau, I’ll say there’s no better place for real skiing families to go than Portillo, Chile.

Radka (or, as employees called him, Raska, for “messy hair”), Portillo’s official greeter for a decade, stands at his post in front of the hotel.

Radka (or, as employees called him, Raska, for “messy hair”), Portillo’s official greeter for a decade, stands at his post in front of the hotel.

Our first day was fraught with worry and chaos. Her bag did not make it. My computer’s battery was fried, and the internet on my phone was unreliable at best. “How am I going to swim without my swimsuit and goggles?” she cried. “How am I going to e-mail and Instagram?” I cried. It felt like freefall.

Then, over spaghetti Bolognese at a white-tablecloth lunch, Miguel Purcell (just a friendly guy whose family happens to own the joint) uttered two sentences. He might as well have worn a cape and a P emblazoned on his chest. “My daughter Violetta is your age; she will bring you everything you need.” And “Portillo is very relaxing—just enjoy.”

So every morning for the next seven days, I pulled the thick yellow velvet curtains open to find the sun hitting the red rocks of the Andes and that iconic lake sporting a new patchwork of patterns from the wind. “In my whole life, I never thought I’d ski in the Andes, Mom,” gushed Cate. We ate breakfast in the dining room under the attentive eye of Juan the maître d’, then split up—she to ski class and I to lap the real-deal couloirs off Portillo’s pomas, crazy contraptions built for avy terrain that whisk you up faster than you can ski down. “There are only four like it in the world,” said Michael Rogan, my friend and Portillo’s operations manager, “and all of them are here.” It was incredible how much skiing I could do in just two hours. Roca Jack, Lake Run, Condor, La Garganta. Then I met back up with ski school, slipped on sneakers, and padded up to the dining room for a leisurely lunch. 

In the afternoons, we headed back out so Cate could show me what she learned. “I was the only kid who was really carving,” she exclaimed, while my heart silently exploded in my chest. In Portillo the lifts spin until 5 p.m., so parents can feed their beast mode and cruise with their kids. Because parental guilt can cast a pall over even the deepest of days, that schedule made this my first real ski vacation since she was born. It almost—almost—didn’t matter that the snow sucked. Snow here comes in great gobs, every two weeks or so. If I were to come again, I’d book longer. 

Now we come to Portillo’s greatest strength. “The pool scene picks up around six,” Cate informed me, wriggling into Violetta’s bikini in what had become “our apartment.” A priceless bargaining chip, the promise of pool time stanched tears and pointed skis downhill on Plateau—all week long. Hear me now, every other resort in skidom: Parents—especially this one— hate swimming in cold pools. Portillo’s is as blissful as a bath. And as for the Brazilian women who frequent it: “Mom, I can see her whole butt,” Cate whispered loudly. “Yes, honey, you sure can,”I replied. 

Chris Davenport gets an untouched line.

Chris Davenport gets an untouched line.

“I’m trying not to cuss so much,” said Michael during our last night at dinner. He’s a tough nut to crack, but I’ve known him a long time and have figured out what that glint of mischief is behind his kind eyes.

“I should do the same,” I said, Cate adding a too-emphatic “Yeah, Mom. You should.” “Meh, fuck it,” he replied, and we laughed, while Cate swelled in her seat, thrilled to be let in on the joke. 

The food appeared instantly, seemingly out of nowhere. “I don’t know how they do it,” said Robin, Michael’s longtime partner and director of Portillo’s ski school. “They don’t even have a computer.” This whole week, I felt everything softening, relaxing, Cate, me, Robin, Mike—even though outside, the snow was still hard as hell. 

“Mom, your shirt!” Cate said. Startled, I immediately looked down, upon which she punched me in the arm with laughter so pure I would have bet my ceviche she peed a little. 

The next day—our last—Alfonso the liftie, who always talked to me even though I didn’t understand, pointed at the sky. A condor, with a wingspan that blotted out the sun, flew overhead. It’s a sign of a storm coming, I learned at lunch. And that afternoon, we saw more of them. They float on the thermals and feed, knowing they might not eat for days. 

“Isn’t that just our luck?” I grumbled to Cate as we packed to leave. “It’s about to dump.” 

But the truth was, as I watched her look at the view one last time, the light catching her lashes, I really didn’t give a damn.

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