1966 Portillo World Championships

1966 Portillo World Championships

In 1966, there were two events each year where skiers from all over the world could come together in competition: The Olympics, and the FIS World Championships. Henry Purcell, then General Manager of Ski Portillo lobbied the governing body to award the races to the South American resort, and in Purcell's words, "After a great deal of negotiating, politics and promises, and surely with serious misgivings on the part of the FIS, the races were awarded to The Chilean Ski Federation and Portillo."

Purcell and his team had quite a bit of preparation ahead of them. The relatively undeveloped venue required new lifts, new lodging, a downhill course as well as updated communication and transportation systems. The resort teams worked tirelessly to put the necessary infrastructure into place for the upcoming World Championship, and to prepare themselves, hosted a pre-championship race in August of 1965. A year before the big event, the Portillo team hoped to dry run their new equipment, while offering skiers from the Northern hemisphere a chance to acclimate to skiing in summer, a relatively foreign concept to most of the teams that would compete in 1966. 

Nature has a way of laughing at mankind in situations like this, and she went at it with a vengeance that year. On August 15, a typhoon from the South Pacific moved through Portillo, blowing winds of up to 200 KPH. Monstrous amounts of snow fell and avalanches took out all but two of the ski lifts including the two newly built chairlifts. The brand-new 1,800-meter Juncalillo Poma double chair lost 13 of 24 towers, including the base and return stations. Five skiers were killed in an avalanche that destroyed part of employee housing. Ski teams that had gathered for the event were trapped in Portillo – and when the weather cleared they had to ski out to the nearest train station 20 miles away.
— Henry Purcell

Some teams had been present in Portillo for the storms, while others were on their way and stranded in Santiago due to blocked rail lines. Cabin fever began to set in, and the skiers in Portillo found ways to stay occupied and fit. Those stuck in Santiago grumbled about their lack of access to the mountain, in poor taste given the scale of the natural disaster. In a Sports Illustrated column from August 23, 1965, Reinaldo Solari of the Chilean Ski Federation is quoted:

We have been criticized for having only one helicopter in the whole country of Chile. This is not so. All of our helicopters are busy saving lives, not lifting skiers to Portillo. The Europeans are saying that we do not know how to run a ski race and that we do not know what we are doing here. We have starving copper miners marooned in the north of the country. We must get food to them. Damages are high in the coastal areas. Children are out of school and hungry in some areas. We regard human lives as more important at this moment than skiing. Skiing can wait for a while.
— Reinaldo Solari
The Spanish National Team in Portillo, 1965.

The Spanish National Team in Portillo, 1965.

U.S. Ski Coach Gordon Eeaton, stranded in Portillo with seven members of his team described the scene. The storm had dropped up to 5 feet of snow on the area per day. 

We are all starting to show signs of cabin fever,” Eaton radioed on Saturday. “It is snowing so hard we can’t see. There is too much snow to ski. The Austrians tried to stamp out a place in the snow to play soccer, but fresh snow kept covering it up and they had to give up. The kids have started jumping out of second-story windows into the snowbanks below for laughs. And we have started playing soccer in the lodge lobby—we kicked out a couple of windows.
— Sports Illustrated, August 1965

The storm had all but wiped out the improvements and preparations that Purcell and his team had made, and the FIS asked the resort what it planned to do. Bob Purcell, owner of the resort (and Henry's uncle) gave the federation their answer...They'd rebuild and try again. The POMA factory sent an engineer to rebuild the lifts that had been destroyed, and the resort conferred with avalanche experts to ensure that their new construction was sound and out of harm's way. The Chilean army offered 300 artillery troops for avalanche control, and a regiment of mountain troops to prepare the runs. By the skin of their teeth, the crew was able to reconstruct what they had lost, and the 1966 World Championships were a go. In August of 1966, Chilean President Eduardo Frei and FIS President Marc Hodler inaugurated the first large scale ski event held south of the equator. 

While foul weather had interrupted the dry run in 1965, mother nature was kinder to the main event. Low temps and sunny weather ensured that the runs were skiing well, thanks as well to their preparation by Chilean soldiers overnight. With all of the world's talent under one roof, many recall that the event felt like on big skiing family, a special World Championship, indeed. 

The French Team won big in Portillo, claiming 16 out of the 24 medals. Icon Jean Claude Killy began his reign, winning both the downhill and the combined, with fellow Frenchman Guy Perillat taking the gold in GS. Italian Carlo Senoner claimed gold in the slalom. 

In the women's races, Marielle Goitschel, won the giant slalom and combined, and received her medal for the downhill several years after the event, as the original winner Erica Schinneger underwent a sex change surgery shortly after the Championships and later renounced her medal. Annie Famose won the slalom.

We very much enjoyed this short film commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event. An improbable destination that against all odds, pulled off the first and only World Championship south of the equator, and put Portillo on the map for the global ski community.