Barbara Sanders—Imagine your favorite sports stars. Easy to do, right? Now imagine playing side-by-side with them, sharing beers and high-fives. A little harder to do—unless, that is, you idolize skiers. In which case, Portillo, Chile in late August and September is the place to be. That's when World Cup ski racers from around the world flock here to spend weeks at a time freeskiing, race training, ski testing and workout out to hone their skills in advance of the World Cup season and—this year—the Sochi Olympics.
If you're not familiar with Portillo, it's an iconic half-moon-shaped, canary yellow hotel at the border of Argentina and Chile that's often likened to a cruise ship docked at the base of the towering Andes. Portillo is as steeped in the history of the sport as any South American resort; consider it the Val d’Isère of the South. The continent's only World Championships took place there in the late 1960s, as did the Speed Skiing championships. The combination of great snow, good weather and long, steep runs—not to mention great service: the hotel has a 1:1 employee-to-guest ratio—make it a paradise for the best in the world.
It's a treat to watch any great athlete train and compete, but in Portillo you have direct access to them. You can jump on the chair with them while they do training laps, chat with them in the gym, or buy them a happy hour beer at the bar (don't be offended if they decline…they're training, after all).
One of my first years working as a ski instructor at Portillo, the Austrian men's naional ski team set up camp. They moved In with little fanfare, but I couldn't help but notice handsome, well-built men with legs the size of Sequoias throughout the hotel. Since Portillo is the only game in town and the entire hotel eats in one dining room, works out in the same gym and frequents the same bar, it's hard to miss the characters who are in residence. The same goes for any pros.
For some local flavor, you can cross the Pan-American Highway just down from the hotel and head to La Posada. Once a brothel for train workers, the rustic little restaurant is now the unofficial employee hangout, not to mention a great place to throw back a soda or beer. It was there that I had my first real introduction to the Austrian ski team.
They had the next day off from training, so the team was out in full force to kick back and celebrate. I immediately noticed Hermann Maier—the man, the myth, the legend—standing by the bar. Gathering my courage, I made my way over and started the conversation by telling him we had something in common—I, too, was a ski instructor. As with so many bar conversations, it eventually steered its way to a friendly game of one-upmanship. I challenged him to a dance contest, thinking I actually had a chance. The next thing I knew, though, I was breathless and sweating while he was dropping into a split that would be just the beginning of a routine that would put Michael Flatley to shame.
The next challenge was Big Mountain Table Dancing, a vertigo-inducing sport I was sure I dominated. I jumped onto a small, shaky table in my high heels and gyrated to the music. But Hermann once again showed me up. Putting his Pisco Sour down on the chest-high bar, he jumped onto it from a complete standstill. I was dead in the water again.
In a moment of clarity, we decided to save the next challenge for the following day, when we had less alcohol in our system. As a past World Powder 8 competitor, I suggested we do "8s," a contest in which one skier follows behind the other, trying to carve perfect figure-8s in his or her tracks. You take turns, and whoever leaves the best tracks wins. I went first, and he "zipped me up" perfectly. Then we traded spots and, after two runs, compared tracks. It didn't take long to judge. I conceded the win, and told him that next powder day, I wanted a proper lesson.
The author (right) skis with legend Hermann Maier. (John Selkowitz)
Racers love hard snow. The harder and icier, the better. But powder days are about leaving the gates behind and, clichéd as it sounds, becoming one with the mountain. You turn how and where you feel like it. I got my powder day just a few days later, and the entire Austrian Team was out freeskiing. They traded their downhill skis for a shorter, fatter varietal and headed up to Roca Jack, a famous 5-person lift that rockets you up a 40-degree slope at about 25 mph. I did my best to keep up with Hermann and his teammates as they headed for “The Traverse,” with descents close to 2,000 feet long. He threw me a tip about turn completion, and away he went.
Even today, it's hard to ski Portillo without running into ski stars like Chris Davenport, Daron Rahlves, Ingrid Backstrom, Sage Cattabriga-Alosa and Marc Girardelli. Whether they are there to train, film or shoot, they're all eyeing the same lines as you. Riding the Roca Jack with them is not uncommon, and before you know it you could be swapping training secrets in the gym or at yoga with “La Heidi" [Voelker].
This year is an Olympic year, so all of the top racers in the world will be in attendance. The end of August brings the Austrian men and World Cup champion Tina Maze. Besides being a precise, blazing-fast skier, Maze is also a famed record star in Europe. If you cross paths with her on a night off, maybe you can get her to grab the mic and join the band. September brings the US Ski team, the Canadian Ski team and the Norwegians, including Julia Mancuso, Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal. It'll be a star-studded season, to be sure.
Who knows, maybe this year another sporting legend (you know the one) will be there to watch Lindsey Vonn in action. Anything can happen in this summer-winter wonderland.