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Want to ski at 3,300 metres in Chile? You need more than bravado to make it. (Ski Portillo)
Want to ski at 3,300 metres in Chile? You need more than bravado to make it. (Ski Portillo)

Altitude be damned: I just had to ski this Chilean mountain Add to ...

Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

I was never supposed to ski on that August winter’s day, which explains why I showed up at one of South America’s greatest ski hills wearing jeans, running shoes and a thin jacket. I was at Portillo, an exclusive resort with championship-grade slopes situated deep in Chile’s interior, right near the Argentinian border.

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It sits in a high Andean Mountain pass, and the runs actually cross the main east-west highway.

I was heading up the switchback highway (29 hairpins in all) just to see it, and from the car I could see people gliding down long, fresh carpets of snow. I watched with bright eyes as they skied right over the highway, using avalanche sheds as bridges, and shushed back and forth to the bottom far below. I knew I had to do it, too.

My tour guide tried to warn me off (she’d clearly seen this kind of thing once or twice before). But I would not be deterred. Quickly assembling a rag-tag outfit (borrowed ski pants and hastily arranged equipment, including gloves from what must have been the lost and found), I skied out to lift, whose towers and swinging chairs arched up and out of sight, over a craggy ridge.

Once I was on the lift, I knew I was in trouble. It turns out that I’m not built to ski at over 3,300 metres. I felt dizzy, started seeing tiny translucent stars and was breathing heavily after little exertion. I rationalized that it was just some initial jitters, nothing to worry about. But as I swooshed down the pristine slopes and into the kilometre-long run – the one that crosses the highway – altitude sickness hit me hard. My legs cramped and began shaking as I made my cuts, back and forth. I started to feel nauseous. I took frequent “breaks,” my name for a controlled collapse on the mountainside, where I would lay for 10 minutes, my chest heaving, sweat soaking through my shirt.

Needless to say, I was a bit worried. Only one other skier passed me when I was taking a “break.” He conscientiously came over to make sure I was okay. I wasn’t, really, but my foolish pride shooed him away, with assurances that I was just a little tired and would be on my way soon. A few minutes later I heard a helicopter and wondered if he’d alerted some sort of elite unit of the Chilean ski patrol.

He hadn’t, and I made it to the bottom – eventually. I took a long and indulgent break on a little bench before boarding the lift again. It spirited me back over the highway where I made eye contact with an Argentinian trucker. I offered a weary wave, and he, hair slicked back and eyes hidden behind reflective shades, offered a thumbs-up and a toot of his horn. I took it as a sort of congratulations, putting a wan smile on my face as I headed back over the ridge and toward the warmth and safety of the lodge, with nothing more strenuous than a hot toddy in my near future.

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