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High and dry in the Andes

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In the morning after a heavy rain, Santiago, Chile, is sort of like the basement of paradise. Its ubiquitous smog has been washed down gutters, the acrid smell of diesel replaced by musty garden scents and flowers. On downtown paseos , people rush from coffee and morning papers toward whatever encontradas await. Hard to imagine this cosmopolitan scene lies less than an hour from one of the world's legendary ski regions but, much like Salt Lake City in the Northern Hemisphere, it's indeed that close: when you can see them on a clear day like this, the Andes, towering to the east like snow-capped heaven, form a monolith of surreal scale.

Back in the early 1980s I'd ski-bummed here, living in the mountain town of Farellones, skiing the neighbouring areas of El Colorado and La Parva. I wasn't the only summer-ski aficionado-there were a handful of other Canadians, Americans, Swiss, and French living what now seems an outlaw existence. The high-alpine skiing was beyond our wildest expectations, and frequent closures for huge storms meant we often had it all to ourselves. Out of bounds? There wasn't any. We went where we wanted, followed by a squadron of hopeful Andean condors. The bottomless powder we toured to in the sunshine between storms eventually became, in the '90s, the world-class destination ski area of Valle Nevado. Other adventures we undertook that season (by train or bus) now comprise the cat-ski tenure of Ski Arpa, or near the volcanoes of the south like Termas de Chillan and ski areas over the border in Argentina (see sidebar). Things in my old stomping grounds have certainly changed considerably.

Like a summer romance, however, Chile never left me. Though much of the wildness of those days is gone, the important things remain: the vastness of the Andes, their wide-open slopes, legendary snowfalls, and cobalt skies. Which is exactly what I found when I returned this past September to visit the one resort I hadn't managed to get to before: Portillo.

High on the Chilean-Argentine border several hours north of Santiago, Portillo ("gap") is one of the alpine world's great destinations and a must-see for any true skier. The resort's mainstay is the activity-filled, cruise-ship-in-the-sky Hotel Portillo. Channelling unassailable timelessness, its storied hallways are hung with photos, mementos, and framed accolades from the many national ski teams and Olympic medalists who train here during the June-September South American winter. Surrounded by this gallery of friends and ski legends (many one in the same), longtime owner Henry Purcell and family occupy their same table at dinner every night, creating a distinct sense of history unfolding.

The cavernous dining room is paneled in leather; staircase handrails wrapped in it-so thick and well tanned it seems like polished wood. A swarm of red-coated waiters and busboys in starched whites deliver food Euro-style in record turnaround times. Soaring rock faces and alabaster peaks pour in through floor-to-ceiling windows to accompany your meal, the drama exacerbated by weather-whether snow, sun, or wind. This season, however, the former was overshadowed by the latter two as this high-altitude stalwart-where storms regularly deposit metres at a time-experienced its lowest snowfall in a half-century.

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