Sixty years ago on a hot August day in Los Angeles, I settled into what would become a very uncomfortable coach seat in the back end of a Douglas DC-6. I was leaving on a very long trip from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile, to film skiing in Portillo for the first time.
If my memory serves me correctly, our first stop was in Brownsville, Texas. 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 was a little strange to check into a hotel in Panama wearing ski boots and carrying a heavy raincoat. In each pocket was a 100-foot roll of Kodachrome film, because in those days they were very 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 very thin margins to make my ski movies so I couldn’t have paid extra for overweight luggage. From Panama, we flew south to Peru, and finally late in the afternoon of the second day we landed in Santiago, Chile.
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 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. Sixty years ago I could handle the 10,000-foot level where the hotel was built.
There were two chairlifts running side by side and you took your life in your hands to climb into one of the chairs Emile Allais, was the ski school director who I had worked for as a ski instructor at Squaw Valley in 1950 when I was making my first feature-length ski film, so I had plenty of good subjects to film while I was there.
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 and a lot of good skiers in addition to Allais, including Bob Gebhardt from Dartmouth who would later build the gondola at Jackson Hole Wyoming, and Roger Brown, from Dartmouth, who would later become another ski film producer in America, along with his partner Barry Corbett.
I was willing to climb to get good and unusual pictures and anybody in Portillo who was willing to climb with me was welcome. Everyone enjoys having their skiing documented and shown all over America and Canada.
Some Americans behave outrageously bad when they are in a foreign country, which was also the case in Portillo back then. One night after a giant slalom race a few Americans were celebrating their excellence in a race and ordered up a magnum of champagne and poured it into a ski boot. Everyone who raced was to take a happy drink out of the ski boot celebrating how they placed in the race and the fact that they were going to leave in a few days.
At Portillo, there was also a Chilean Army training base teaching soldiers how to fight wars in snow. I filmed some of those soldiers in Chilean-style, 10th Mountain Division World War II Army surplus skis and boots, pants, parkas and other gear.
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.
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