28 August 2008

El Roca Jack

Spent last Saturday on the slopes of Portillo. Though probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing places for a ski resort it's location seems like an impossibility. Set at the bottom of a very narrow and very steep valley, the hotel/lodge sits at a rare flat spot and the lifts go straight up (and down) from there.

The resort is situated on the International Highway that links Chile directly to Argentina and commercially to most of the rest of southern South America: Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Bolivia and Brazil. It also sits at the top of the famous Portillo curves. A shot of them on a flat, gray day:

Portillo's bottom lift dips well below the hotel and bisects several of the curves. In dry, springtime conditions this only adds to the impossibility of the place.

Maybe the weirdest of the weird, though, are the Va et Vient lifts, the most famous of which is the Roca Jack. The Va et Vient lifts (literally "come and go," or colloquially "slingshots") are made specifically for Portillo by the Poma company in France. Because pretty much all of Portillo is prone to avalanches and because many of the avalanche paths (a.k.a. alluvial fans) make for great ski runs, a basic system of cables and pulleys were installed at the top of a few of these fans. Avalanches, alluvial fans, and probably the very young and ever-shifting Andes mountain chain in general don't make for very secure or supportable lift tower locations. The Va et Vient lifts take care of that issue and provide a few more thrills not associated with your typical ride up a slope.

Four to six traditional poma platters are arranged horizontally along a long bar and attached to a flexible cable connected only at the top of the slope by a simple pulley. When ready, the bottom operator engages the cable and the pomas are jerked up the mountain at a brisk clip. The ride up is a bit like water skiing (jumps included!) and takes a fairly good amount of strength and concentration to hang on.

The fun part is the exit which amounts to little more than synchronized falling. At the top pulley, the bottom operator (there is no one at the top) disengages the drive and the cable comes to an abrupt and complete stop. Alluvial fans/avalanche paths are fairly steep and operate on the angle of repose theory. This pretty much means that when creatures heading upslope with skis on their feet stop, gravity immediately insists that they return downslope. Backward. So at the end of the brief journey up there is always a bit of miscommunication; fallen, turned, and twisted bodies; clacked skis; laughter; and relief that everyone made it to the top and no one is slipping all the way back down.

(Picture not included.)

It's not for the faint of heart. But the skiing is fun.

Thank you Laura for the last two pictures.

1 comment:

audipat said...

Great description. You have truly captured the experience.
We miss the Hatcher Family! Thanks again for your hospitality!