Sixty years ago this week 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. Santiago, on the west coast of South America, is still actually east of Florida.
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. This is an airline that was formed with the merger of Pan-American Airlines and Grace Steamship Lines. Grace was the main supplier of the stuff to the Hawaiian Islands in those days and Pan-American was the primary carrier of American passengers to and from North America and South America.
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 with a liner full of pockets. 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, if it had been allowed. From Panama, we flew south of the equator almost the same distance that 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, 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 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 sixty years ago and I could handle the 10,000-foot level where the hotel was built without gasping too much for each breath. 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 just plain fell off the cable. Fortunately he was not hurt in the fall and the chairlift didn’t even stop.
Emile Allais, was the ski school director who I had worked for as a ski instructor at Squaw Valley in 1949-50 when I was making my first feature-length ski film, so I had plenty of good subject matter to film while I was there.
EL CRISTO DE ANDES STATUE
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 don’t know what they were protecting the two countries from or who they were protecting. 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 and ride through a long tunnel?
We made that two hour or more climb on corn snow with our skis over our shoulders. However, I had a large rucksack full of my 16-millimeter camera, a daily supply of 15 rolls of 16-millimeter 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 very 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 in addition to Emile Allais, Bob Gebhardt from Dartmouth who would later build the gondola at Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and Roger Brown, from Dartmouth, who would later become another ski film producer in America, along with his partner Barry Corbett. The national combined, downhill and slalom champion of Chile was also there in front of my cameras.
I was willing to climb to get good and unusual pictures, and anybody in Portillo who was more than willing to climb with me was welcome. Everyone enjoys having their skiing documented and shown all over America and Canada.
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, that is called Acangacaua. I still have a small rock from the summit of that mountain that was given to me by my family doctor 50 years ago when he climbed it.
When he was training to climb that mountain he would put on a 60-pound rucksack and climb the stairs in his house a couple of hundred times every night after work. I jokingly told him that he should simulate high altitude climbing and the lack of oxygen by putting a plastic bag over his head with some small holes in it and really get into a hard-core training program.
I really had been kidding and had no idea that he would try such a dumb thing! The first night he tried this, he was almost at the top of the stairs when he passed out from oxygen depredation, fell down the flight of stairs and fortunately one of his kids who was at home at the time heard all the noise of the fall and was able to yank the plastic bag off of the doctor’s head and he didn’t die.
But, now back to Portillo. 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 after deciding to pour 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 their insistence I went to my room and got my movie camera to film such an outstanding event. I made sure there was no film in the camera and came back and after filming the party I knew that everybody that was at that banquet would buy a ticket to my movie in November when I showed it in the town where they lived.
Dishonest? I don’t think so. Understanding ego involvement in seeing themselves on the silver screen is a better explanation.
CHILEAN ARMY TRAINING
At Portillo, there was also a Chilean Army training 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. The skis were 7 feet, 6 inches in length, the boots were at least size 14 or larger and I don’t think anybody, no matter how good a skier they were, could have ever turned a pair of those very stiff, laminated wooden skis even under nearly perfect circumstances.
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 as they were being built and there was no longer the need for me to travel halfway around the world to film at never-before-seen ski resorts.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.