Ski where the sky's the limit

While Britain bakes, some of the world's finest heli-skiing can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. Leslie Woit samples the Chile season

Uno, dos, tres, off comes the hat, the gloves, the avalanche gear. Like a giant flamingo, I am left teetering on one boney pink foot stuck inside a frigid ski boot, lowering my goose-bumpy bare foot deep into bottomless cold powder snow. It might be August, but I'm on top of a mountain in the midst of a Southern Hemisphere winter, peeling down to my swim suit. Shuddering, I make an inelegant dash from the helicopter through the snow to slip under the steaming warmth of the bubbling hot spring. Ahhh, Chile.

Heli-bathing is the ideal intro to a Chilean ski holiday. Weird, decadent, and fun …. A lot like flying halfway across the globe in middle of August to go skiing. A summer trip to the Southern Hemisphere is on the dance card of every serious skier.

After flying into Santiago, I was due to head to three very different destinations. At Chile's newest heli-ski spot, Puma Lodge, 3,000sq km of high-Alpine powder await, along with the chance to take the hot spring heli-waters, test the challenging mountain biking, watch the condors, and taste the local wines.

Three hours south of Santiago, at the dramatic juncture of Cortaderal, Las Lenas, and Cachapoal valleys, this lavish lodge (opened in 2011) has joined the club of internationally sought-after heli-ski destinations. Up to 24 guests surround themselves with post-and-beam mountain chic, with a fire-warmed greatroom filled with comfy sofas, a long bar and a pool table. There are also wood-heated hot tubs and massage rooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows beyond which herds of wild horses frolick and whinny.

Though on that particular day I couldn't ski due to white-out conditions (hence the heli-bathing), Puma Lodge's position in the central Andes is usually a happy confluence of cause and effect. Humidity moves in from the Pacific, travels up the Andes and dries out to around 10 per cent – spelling light dry powder. "It's normal here to have one to two metres of snow in a strong cycle," says Francisco Medina, UIAGM guide and manager, as we loll in the steaming hot pool, "and we have probably one of the most stable snow packs in the world."

Stretching up to the Argentine border, Puma's terrain includes two massifs within around 18 minutes' flying time. It also includes Palomo volcano, the operation's longest vertical run of 3,200m, pipped by Francisco as a contender for longest possible run in the world. "We've been exploring our range for a few years and there is still a lot that hasn't been skied," says Francisco.

Sadly for me, I ran out of time to remedy that. I had to move on to another of Chile's heli-ski resorts, Powder South Heli. Just 90 minutes by air from Santiago, Powder South's cosy and elegant El Ingenio Lodge has a helipad in the garden. And, just a brief hop from this, you're in a wild, unfathomable treasure trove of glaciers, gullies and ridges. "You will feel incredibly small when you get into these mountains," UIAGM guide and co-owner Rodrigo Mujica told me. "The landing zones are between 2,500m and 4,500m. You can't even land on top; the mountains are too big."

As the helicopter rose above the Maipo Valley, the anticipation was as sweet and drool-inducing as a pisco sour. I'd seen the hi-tech weather forecast in the guide's room: the guests I'd joined at Powder South had endured the same bad weather we'd had. Now, it was payback time. A heavenly metre of fresh snow blanketed the central Andes and the skies were blinging blue: heli-bathing to heli-heaven in one isobar.

Landing in a white dream of whipped cream peaks bathed in sunshine, we piled out of the helicopter and armed our avalanche airbags. And, with the tails of our fat skis wedged into the snow for purchase, we paused to drink it in. Almost two vertical kilometres rolled beneath us like a path of glittering diamonds. Amid the whirr of the receding helicopter, Rodrigo's long Chilean mane fluttered in the wind and our lead guide, Jerry, descended godlike into a giant white canvas. Rodrigo shouted the words I had been waiting for: "Hey Leslie, ladies first."

I was off, breathing silver flakes in great gulps. My turns sank deeper with each pulse – one foot, two foot, three – great diagonal blasts of shimmering powder exploded in sparkling arcs. It was ridiculously long, absurdly perfect, and alarmingly beautiful. Then we flew up and did again. And again. "For most people heli-skiing in Chile is a once in a lifetime thing," Rodrigo told me. "A good story for the cocktail party, a been-there, done-that deal." But, after a day as perfect as mine, I felt you'd be crazy not to do it again.

My last stop was a few dozen peaks from Powder South, an all-time classic destination: Portillo. It's up there with St Moritz and Aspen for pure chic. Exclusive by definition, just one curvy yellow hotel with 500 staff has catered to 450 international guests since 1961. From June to October, while the rest of the world sails, swims and cycles this golden petri dish of alpine romance, racing and relaxation is in full flower.

"We only allow one national ski team at a time," explained Portillo owner Henry Purcell over dinner. We're at his usual table, strategically situated to oversee the action, "so they don't bother the guests." Bother? The resort is anticipating the arrival of US superstar Lindsey Vonn but, this week, its the Austrian men's team and the Slovenian great Tina Maze, who is completely approachable and part of the furniture. The place presents a pantheon of ski gods, and attracts both high society and Hollywood. (In the 1960s Castro came and argued with Henry that Cuba had higher mountains. Then, when Juan the maître d', dashed out to return Fidel's forgotten pistol he was nearly shot.

The ski style remains Latin. Everyone books on seven-day packages, there are no lift lines, and at 10am the legendary hotel bar has only been closed for a few hours and the Brazilians are still in bed. There may be just 35 groomed runs but the off piste rolls forever.

I hopped on the chair, pausing at the top to watch Austrians in catsuits kick-start out of the gate, make one turn, then disappear over the crest. A ride on the slingshot lift, the funky, slightly harrowing five-person T-bars unique to Portillo, is part of the experience. It's a hairy ride that delivers you to the foot of classic steep and deep chutes such as Super-C Couloir above Roca Jack and, at the top of the Condor lift, the stunningly scenic Lake Run. This exhilarating hour-long route starts by squeezing through a narrow cleft then down through the powder, ending as close as you dare to the edge of Inca Lake.

At the foot of the mirror-flat lake, the postcard panorama is wide and wild, the big yellow cruise ship of a hotel is a beacon on the horizon. Slowly, we negotiated a pathway blasted into the side of the rock, face towards home. There was no rush; we were on southern time and there was all day until the pisco hour kicked off at Tio Bob's mountain hut. Everyone who's anyone in the ski world would be there. And if you're a real skier, one day you will be too.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled as a guest of LAN (0800 977 6100;, which flies to Santiago from Madrid, with connections from London on Iberia (0870 609 0500; or British Airways (0844 493 0787;

Staying there

Puma Lodge (00 56 2 2 432 6900; operates between 15 June and 30 September. Three-day packages cost from US$5,400pp (£3,600) including three hours of flights, accommodation, all meals, guiding and transfer from Santiago. Powder South Heli (0800 404 9183; operates between 15 June and 5 October. Three days cost from €5,665pp (based on 8 passengers in the helicopter; bookable as an individual or group), including accommodation at El Ingenio Lodge, all meals, guiding, and transfer from Santiago.

Portillo (00 56 2 2263 06 06; is open from 22 June to 5 October. A week's all-inclusive accommodation, including lift pass costs from US$1,950 (£1,300)pp.

The W Hotel in Santiago (00 56 2 2770 0000; offers double rooms from US$299 (£200) room only

More information

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London