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Chilling Out in Chile : Skiers Who Hate Summer Can Find Frosty Slopes, Powder Snow and Winter Weather at Four Resorts Near Santiago.

July 29, 1990|EDDY ANCINAS

I skied with my friends over the pass from La Parva into Valle Nevado; we started at the top, from 12,000 feet down to 9,000. There are 33 square miles of skiable terrain, and the area is still being enlarged. Every time I got off a lift and thought I'd reached the outer limits of the ski area, off on the horizon, another Pomalift would unfold across another mountain top. We skied on groomed pistes and wide open untracked powder runs. "This is like four-and-a-half Vails," one person remarked.

Valle Nevado is the biggest, newest and most-talked-about ski area in South America. When fully developed, and if joined with nearby Farellones/El Colorado and La Parva, it will be one of the largest ski complexes in the world.

If you've ever longed for the solitude that cross-country skiers enjoy, with all the conveniences of a modern resort then this ski area is for you. With three peaks, Valle Nevado has room for 30,000 skiers. The day I was there, only 200 people were skiing. Every trail and lift has clear directional signs with pictures showing the best route to the lodge, so, barring a blizzard, you cannot get lost.

Heli-skiing is available through the hotel at reasonable rates. The open terrain, the probability of dry, light snow and the proximity to the lodge make this exotic option seem uncomplicated, accessible and a good investment.

Only about 60 miles from Santiago, Valle Nevado is being developed by the same French company that developed Les Arcs in France. This well-funded and dedicated group of investors plans to increase the number of lifts from the present eight to more than 50. The attractive 160-bed hotel, the condominiums, apartments and the superb restaurant featuring fresh vegetables and juicy steaks from Argentina give Valle Nevado a special Chilean/French flavor.

The first skiers at the granddaddy of South American ski resorts--Portillo--were Norwegian mountaineers who came in 1890 to study the construction of a railroad between Chile and Argentina. The first lift, built in 1937, had wooden towers. In 1947, it was replaced by a chairlift, and by 1949, the first hotel was built. Portillo has attracted some impressive ski personalities to its school--Emil Allais, Stein Erickson, Peter Estin and Othmar Schneider were the pioneers.

For years I had been impressed by stories of this legendary and remote ski area: its World-Cup-quality downhill, its speed skiing, heli-skiing, fierce storms and avalanches. When I finally landed in a helicopter in front of the bright yellow Portillo Hotel (the road was closed by an avalanche), I was surprised to find such a benign little spot. Nearby was a still lake and all around, great soaring peaks.

Because 80% of the its guests are repeat visitors, the hotel has a comfortable clubbiness about it. There are only 478 beds and no plans to expand, so make your reservations early.

Although the road closes infrequently, and seldom for more than two days, at such times the management does everything possible to get travelers through. The day I arrived, two helicopters moved 160 people in and 70 out. If you are traveling independently, it's a good idea to call the resort before you start out, either from Santiago or from the nearest town of Los Andes.

As soon as I checked into my fourth-floor room in Portillo, I stood transfixed by the view from the window. The ice melting on the Laguna del Inca gave a fractured reflection of rock, snow and jagged peaks slashing the sky. Reluctantly, I dashed downstairs and out to the nearest chairlift.

Portillo offers some of the most challenging terrain--and ski lifts--in South America. Where avalanches would wipe out lift towers on steep upper slopes , the French invented the Va et Vient lift , also known as "the sling shot . " Portillo's contraption shoots four people standing abreast up 2,442 feet, where they scramble to disengage themselves without falling back down the mountainside. Imagine a high-speed four-person Pomalift with no off ramp.

On the lower slopes are long groomed runs and the very steep garganta (throat) that seems to drop right into the Laguna del Inca. Overall, there is an interesting variety of terrain, but not a lot of it. There are other options, however, such as heli-skiing near the Argentine border, guided off-piste excursions, snowboarding and parasailing.

I tried tandem hang-gliding. Strapped in with an instructor, I skied straight off a cliff and soared out over the ski runs. The hotel looked like a tiny yellow box as we circled above and then came in low across the still icy lake, landing with ease by the rental shop door. A camera mounted on the wing strut recorded our flight, making the $40 fee well worth it.

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