Since Ski Portillo opened its doors in 1949, it has been a hotspot for South American skiing, attracting backcountry skiers, alpine racers, and ski enthusiasts from across the globe to enjoy the challenging terrain of the Chilean Andes. The hotel sits alone on the bank of Laguna del Inca (Inca Lake), surrounded by blue skies and snow-covered mountains, save a pool and Tio Bob’s bar deck. Its seclusion brings forth an ambient atmosphere that encourages community amongst guests, an energy that cannot be replicated at any other resort.
It wasn’t until 1961 when ownership of the hotel shifted from the Chilean government into the hands of Robert (Bob) W. Purcell and his partner Dick Aldrich, that the potential of the hotel was recognized. A couple of New York investment executives that had done time under the close watch of the Rockefellers would take the bankrupt hotel, reshape it, and allow it to evolve into the Ski Portillo known and loved today. Bob Purcell’s nephew, Henry, was 26-years-old when his uncle brought him on board as general manager. Together, the team initiated a development plan for the ski area that included ski lifts, a hotel expansion that brought the total number of beds up to 500, a heated swimming pool and sauna facilities. Next, the team had to figure out to persuade guests to fill those beds, figuring that once they saw Hotel Portillo’s charm, it wouldn’t be hard to convince visitors to return.
“At this time, people were still writing about having to have to hack their way through the jungle just to get to the base of Aconcagua. Somebody said, ‘why don’t we get the World Championships here, bring all the world teams down here, and show them what they have’,” recalls Henry Purcell, the current owner of Ski Portillo.
After getting the green light from the Chilean Ski Federation, the idea to host the Alpine World Championships was pitched to FIS, the European governing body that, at the time, had never been to Chile. Despite the fear of wading into uncharted waters, FIS approved the bid. The Purcell’s proceeded to install new lifts, transportation systems, and recreational facilities, amongst other additions, only to have their “test run” in 1965 prove to be a disaster. National teams that had traveled to Portillo to assess the venue were trapped when major snowstorms destroyed the new lifts and blocked off the railroad, leaving them stranded at the hotel for days on end. Yet despite many trials and tribulations, Ski Portillo prevailed and became the first and only South American country to host the Alpine Ski World Championships.
The 1966 Alpine World Ski Championships
“At this time the World Cup hadn’t been thought up yet. Serge Lang being the principal behind the whole thing, wanted to put the WC together,” recalls Purcell.
Lang had been dreaming up this concept to help the people of the world better understand alpine skiing, a circuit that determined a winner by a point system, one that stopped in multiple countries in Europe. Once in Portillo, all the major players in ski racing had the chance to come together to hash out the details of the prospective competition circuit.
“We got all the coaches and federation people together and said ‘What do you think of this idea?’ We talked it over at the bar here at the hotel during the World Championships. By the time they left Portillo they had the whole thing planned out,” Purcell says.
The New Summer Training Hotspot
The U.S. Ski Team was one of the first teams to check out Portillo, and although their initial visit in 1965 turned out to be a disaster, they just kept coming back.
“The teams realized then that this was a great place. Since skiing became professional in those years they said you guys are going to have to be year-round professionals, can’t just do it for a few months in the winter and call it a year. So they began to come to South America to train,” explains Purcell.
The Norwegian and Austrian National teams also frequent Ski Portillo in the summer, while Slovenia has been known to grace the slopes in Chile from time to time as well.
From starting as general manager at 26 in 1961 to becoming the owner when Uncle Bob called it quits, Henry Purcell is now 84-years-olds, and still skis every day. He remains a huge fan of the sport and continues to maintain Ski Portillo’s tradition as an ambient and comfortable space for anyone who comes to enjoy the Chilean Andes.
Photos courtesy of Johnathan Selkowitz Photography, Andreas Pranter for GEPA Pictures, Claire Brown, and Ski Portillo.