Getting from point A to point B in the rugged Andes was a cinch in summer. Come winter, though, deep snow, howling winds and massive mountain passes meant going anywhere east or west was nearly impossible. Skiing in South America was a necessity before it was considered a pleasure. On both sides of the imposing Andes Mountains, skis were first strapped on by explorers, engineers and military trainees attempting to travel across treacherous mountain terrain, to colonize remote valleys and to guard both sides of the border. Portillo, the first ski resort in Chile, and Catedral, the first one in Argentina, were created by visionary immigrants who had a sense of the adventure potential of the amazing Andes.
Picture the poor guys laying the railway tracks beneath the tall Andes. Working in the freezing snow 3,810 m above sea level, in knee-deep snow. When their European bosses suggested strapping on wooden boards so they could head back to the work camp faster, they must have been intimidated. But after a few quick lessons on the basics of skiing, the wooden boards surely made life even a little bit more fun. When eager athletic types from Santiago joined them for winter weekend ski trips, the essential became an indulgence.
Isolated from the rest of the world by the Andes, with a long coastline, Chile had little reason to attempt mountain travel until the Trans-Andean railway was built in the early 1900s, connecting Valparaiso near Santiago with Mendoza, Argentina. The tall peaks that formed the country’s western border were simply seen as too large and too difficult to explore. When it opened in 1910, the railway crossed the highest mountains in the world outside the Himalaya, and changed the way Chilean saw the snowy peaks. Travelling on skis proved the only way for workers (led by English and Norwegian engineers who’d brought their boards over from Europe) to make the Uspallata Pass, not far from what is now Portillo resort. Skis were necessary for transportation before they became a source of fun.
The new sport introduced by European railway engineers caught on in Santiago, particularly amongst social clubs of Europeans who established a company, Hoteles de Cordillera S.A. that would build a hotel just west of the Uspallata Pass. The first chair lift went up at Portillo in 1946, making it the first in South America. The resort opened in 1949, and was an instant hit with Chileans from Santiago. The resort was purchased by Americans Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich in 1962, and hosted the World Alpine Ski Championships in 1966, drawing world-wide attention. In 1987, Michael Prufer broke the record for speed descent at Portillo, clocking 217.68 km per hour.
Since then, other ski resorts have opened up and down the Chilean Andes, including Termas de Chillán in the 1970s and La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado in the 1980s.