Skiing in South America

Sixty years ago this week, on a hot, August day in Los Angeles, I settled into what would become an uncomfortable coach seat in the back end of a Douglas DC-6. I was leaving on a long trip from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile, to film skiing in Portillo for the first time.

If my memory serves me correctly, which it sometimes doesn’t, our first stop was in Brownsville, Texas, where we transferred it to an airline that no longer exists, called Panagra. From there we flew to Mexico City and then Panama, where we stayed overnight. My only memory of Panama is that it rained heavily from the time we landed the airplane until we got back on it.

It was a little strange to check into a hotel in Panama wearing ski boots and carrying a heavy raincoat with a liner full of pockets. In each pocket was a 100-foot roll of Kodachrome film, because in those days they were strict about your suitcase weighing only 44 pounds when you flew. I think my ski boots and film together probably weighed close to 25 pounds and, as usual, I was on thin margins to make my ski movies, so I couldn’t have paid extra for overweight luggage, if it had been allowed. From Panama, we flew south of the equator almost the same distance from Los Angeles was north of the equator. Our next stop was in Lima Peru, again for refueling, and finally late in the afternoon of the second day we landed in Santiago.

Sixty years ago, the only way to get to Portillo from Santiago was by train on the Trans-Andean Railroad. This ancient railroad’s track was laid before the invention of surveying, so the train rocked and rolled almost precipitously as we climbed into the Andes. Hours later, the train ground to a stop before it entered the tunnel into Argentina and we got off in Portillo.

Apparently, I was younger and healthier 60 years ago and I could handle the 10,000-foot elevation the where the hotel was built without gasping too much. My memory tells me that the hotel was financed by Rockefeller immediately after World War II.

They had two chairlifts running side-by-side and you took your life in your hands to climb into one of the chairs. I was riding up one chairlift and talking to Bob Gebhardt, who had come with me as a second camera. He was riding in the other chairlift about 60 feet away when his chair fell off the cable. Fortunately, he was not hurt in the fall and the chairlift didn’t even stop.

One day, we climbed to the pass between Chile and Argentina, where they had erected a gigantic bronze statue of el Cristo de Andes. As the story goes, Chile and Argentina had a major problem when the statue was being erected as to whether Christ should face Argentina or Chile. I think it faced Chile, but the most unique thing I saw was that it had a massive handlebar mustache.

There was a fairly large contingent of soldiers and customs officers on each side of the border that required a two-hour climb on snow from the railroad just to get there. I think that our small climbing party of six or eight were the first people they had seen since the snow arrived three or more months before. Why would anybody climb over this 12,000-foot pass when they could simply get on a train?

We made that two-hour climb on corn snow with our skis over our shoulders. However, I had a large rucksack full of my 16mm camera, a daily supply of 15 rolls of 16mm film, a tripod and a still camera. So, I outweighed everybody by 35 or 40 pounds and the last 45 minutes of the climb I had to do it on skis instead of my boots because I was breaking through the crust with every step. It was not much fun at 12,000 feet.

I wish that I could report that I had endless days of untracked powder snow to film with the massive outcroppings of rocks in the background, but that was not the case. There was plenty of good snow, hard-packed powder and a lot of good skiers like Emile Allais, who I worked for at Squaw Valley in 1949-50; Bob Gebhardt from Dartmouth, who would later build the gondola at Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Roger Brown from Dartmouth, who would later become a ski film producer in America; and his partner Barry Corbett. The national combined, downhill and slalom champion of Chile also was there in front of my cameras.

Spread out in front of the hotel in Portillo is an unbelievably beautiful lake called Laguna de Inca. Behind it in the distance looms the highest mountain in South America, if not the southern hemisphere – Acangacaua.

When I was getting low on film, I got on the train and rode back to Santiago to begin the long journey back to Southern California. It would be 25 years before I sent a cameraman back to Portillo because ski resorts were being built in North America and Europe at such a rapid rate that my company could not begin to keep up with documenting them for my films. There was no longer the need for me to travel halfway around the world to film at never-before-seen ski resorts.