Beneath the bright sky of a cloudless winter day high in the Chilean Andes, photographer Liam Doran kneels in the snow. Two professional skiers side-step about 40 yards up the slope, lining up for the shoot. Doran gives the signal. From the chairlift overhead, I watch as the pros, one at a time, cut a couple of high-speed turns, then stop and climb back up to repeat the sequence. With abundant sunshine and a backdrop of serrated gray cliffs dusted with snow, the shot could be a winner.
During the mid-to-late summer months in North America, the intimate ski area of Portillo, Chile transforms into an ephemeral, almost ethereal, epicenter of the ski world.
I make a mental note to ask Doran what lens he’s using (Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 A), and the ski package he’s on (Faction Prime 3.0 skis and super-light Tour Classic Brake 105 bindings). I also really need to catch up with those two skiers. Amie Engerbretson is sporting a backpack I want to learn about (BCA Float 17 Speed Avalanche Airbag), and Hadley Hammer has those skis that I’ve been coveting (Line Soulmate). Add this to my growing pile of homework, which includes finding that guy Sven Brunso to ask about his Fischer boots, and then talking Kastle skis with rock star ski adventurer Chris Davenport. But scheduling all this research isn’t easy, what with the requisite après ski pisco sours, followed by a session in the outdoor hot tub overlooking Laguna del Inca, then dinner, and then, before long, the live band.
I grew up nerding out on ski gear. But in recent years—as in, since the start of the twenty-first century—work and parenthood have sapped most of my energy for such extracurriculars. To reverse that bummer trend, last month I fulfilled a childhood dream and flew to Portillo, Chile for some preseason turns and a sneak peek at the near horizon of ski equipment.
The word portillo means “opening,” or “the road between two heights,” which is apropos because one of the only roads between Chile and Argentina swings right by here, connecting much of the commerce between the middle section of the two countries. It’s also apropos because this place is high, sitting at nearly 10,000 feet and surrounded by peaks rising another 6,000 feet above sea level. Hike just a few minutes to ski above the Roca Jack lift and you can see the towering summit of Acongagua (22,838 feet), the highest peak in the world outside of Asia.
During the mid-to-late summer months in North America, this intimate ski area tucked into the Andes transforms into an ephemeral, almost ethereal, epicenter of the ski world. National race teams from the US, Canada, and Austria will often spend a week or two here. And on the slopes and over steaks and bold red wines in the white-tablecothed dining room of the resort’s famously yellow hotel, industry insiders are deciding what they like, don’t like, and want to tweak about tomorrow’s snow sports gear. GoPro, for example, has gone to Portillo the last few summers to test its latest cameras and to shoot sweet promo videos. Ski, boot, and clothing manufacturers often show up as well, along with winter sports tastemakers, all armed with overflowing quivers of equipment from their respective sponsors.
This week, Engerbretson is test-driving a bunch of Spyder-brand gear from the Whyte Spyder line, engineered specifically for backcountry use. “There is a lot of boot-packing in Portillo,” she tells me later, meaning that to get to some of the most rewarding terrain, you have to hike. Even in winter, that means rapid body-temperature increase. She reports that the kit performed beautifully, although she plans to recommend to Spyder’s designers that they add a second zipper to each pant leg, for even better ventilation. Hammer, meanwhile, tells me the Line Soulmate may indeed be what I’m looking for in a do-everything ski, provided it’s not too wide underfoot. “Unless you’re skiing powder all the time, a little narrower means you’re better able to change the turning radius.” And when I finally catch up with that guy Brunso, he tells me Fischer’s newly released TransAlp boot will feature a simplified ski-walk mechanism. After a hike, skiers (myself included) sometimes forget to switch boots back into ski mode. The new TransAlp connects that function with the buckles, so you can’t tighten down without making the switch.
At the close of skiing one afternoon, I catch up with Doran in the hotel living room. While other guests are already into the pisco sours or playing backgammon, Doran has his laptop open and is clicking through images. He show me a few shots taken that afternoon beneath the lift. The Sigma has delivered. “There is some sort of phenomenon online of people testing new lenses by taking pictures of cats,” Doran says, laughing. “Cats and dogs. I like being out in the field.” The new lens had arrived at the Colorado-based photographer’s home the day before he left for Chile and, to the best of his (and Sigma’s) knowledge, these photographs are the first-ever action ski shots taken with the 24-70 f/2.8 A—a first that’s as wonderful as it is arcane.
In some ways, this place, Portillo, is an odd setting for testing gear and new gadgets. There is no bustling village or large skier population to ogle the new goods and post to their followers. Hotel Portillo itself, where almost everyone stays, is the opposite of cutting edge: it’s throwback. There are no TVs in the rooms, the dining room has the same brass light fixtures and leather paneling it had more than half a century ago, and some of the staff have been there nearly as long.
Yet that simplicity is also the point. Here, the focus is on what’s outside, and what’s outside is skiing to die for. Visitors get to commune with the mountains and then some, while gear aficionados get a summertime fix and a glimpse of the coming winter.
And did I mention the pisco sours?
Follow David Wolman on Twitter @davidwolman.