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Heli-Yeah: Finding Fresh Tracks, Portillo Style

20th May 2014 | Cindy Hirschfeld

News Regions: Chile, South America

Resorts in this article: Ski Portillo

Heli flying back to get other group after depositing us in the Mardones Valley.

Heli flying back to get other group after depositing us in the Mardones Valley.

Copyright: Cindy Hirschfeld

The heli rose above the slopes of Portillo and the ski resort’s bright yellow and blue hotel, sunlight skittering across Lake Inca like a Fourth of July sparkler. Meanwhile, visible out the other window, the cerulean blocks of the Juncal glacier seemed to tumble downhill in a broken mess. I sat in the back of the heli with three other amped-up fliers—two skiers and a boarder—who were heading out this cloudless morning to find fresh tracks.

In conjunction with a charter air company, Portillo offers daily heli-skiing (weather permitting, of course). Trips often head to the Mardones Valley southeast of this east Chilean resort and just a 10 to 15 minute flight away. Groups can also rent the heli by the hour and venture out farther into the Andes backcountry.

A pre-ski safety briefing from guide and patroller Craig Noble.  - © Cindy Hirschfeld

A pre-ski safety briefing from guide and patroller Craig Noble.

Copyright: Cindy Hirschfeld
As if the scenic jumble of white, serrated peaks below wasn’t enough, the Americas’ highest mountain, Aconcagua, suddenly popped into view to the north, plumes of snow blowing off its 22,841-foot-high summit. I was super excited, but not just by the views. In nearly two decades as a ski writer, I’ve skied resorts around the world, ridden in countless snowcats and even been shuttled to and from a backcountry hut by a helicopter for a week-long ski-mountaineering trip, but I had never actually gone heli-skiing.

It’s not even what most people think about when going to Portillo, as the resort’s social vibe and well-known ski instruction camps get most of the buzz. But, really, why wouldn’t you? Especially when you can pay by the run, rather than having to fork over the copious amounts of coin that most outfitters in British Columbia and Alaska require.

I stepped out of the heli giddy with anticipation after we landed on a pristine glacier. For reasons of weight allocation (no, not mine!), the heli pilot dropped me off with one other fellow skier, Richard, while he shuttled the other two guys to the top of the run we’d all eventually ski together. I looked around, looked at Richard, and started to laugh.


What Do Heli-Skiing & Reality TV Have in Common?


The first thing I thought of in this spectacular place was not the untracked slopes rising around us, but “The Bachelor,” which seems to have at least one date every episode that involves a heli, the couple of the moment and a remote setting. I almost expected to turn around and see a picnic laid out with a bottle of wine.

Leaving our marks in sparkling spring snow.  - © Cindy Hirschfeld

Leaving our marks in sparkling spring snow.

Copyright: Cindy Hirschfeld

OK, reality dating show fantasies aside (note to my husband: just kidding, honey!), it was a pretty awesome place to be, and I waited impatiently for the heli to come back and take us higher so we could start skiing.

Once we eventually regrouped with the others—including our guide, Mons, who splits his time between Chile and a Swiss ski resort—and started our run, my legs got a wake-up call. The spring conditions made the snow heavy as a wet towel, and by the last pitch of our 3,000-foot descent, my quads were screaming for mercy.

It was warming up steadily, and for our next—and as it turned out, last—run, we went slightly higher and to a different aspect, the heli dropping us on the crest of a ridge. I took in the view down the other side and across the narrow valley while we waited for Mons and the other two skiers to get flown up. The only other times I’ve been perched on a ridgeline like that, surrounded only by endless peaks and a soul-stirring silence, is when I’ve gotten there by my own power, on skins or by hiking.

The snow on the way down started out as winter-style powder, but over the course of another 3,000 feet, transitioned to creamy porridge, then perfect corn, and finally, the kind of dense mush that challenges any semblance of balance. A whole season in one run. Scribing turns down this long, winding mountainside full of rollers and steep drops in August in the Andes, accessed by the ease of a heli, I felt like laughing again. 


Mardones Valley - © Cindy Hirschfeld
Heli skiing in Portillo - © Cindy Hirschfeld
Pre-ski safety briefing - © Cindy Hirschfeld
Heli skiing, Portillo - © Cindy Hirschfeld

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