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Kayaking Laguna del Inca

Earlier this year, I wrote about snowboarding in Aspen, and how picking up the sport after 14 years away was extremely humbling—especially when I wanted to impress my friends. Recently, I traveled to Portillo, Chile, where I reacquainted myself with skiing after a 15-year hiatus. Remembering the lessons I learned in Aspen was a great help.

My trip to Portillo at the end of August was well timed, as it dumped snow right before my arrival and my first two days there. Nearly the second I walked into the dining room on my first morning, my friend Chris Davenport set a goal for me.

“You’re going to ski Roca Jack,” he said. “I’ll do it with you.”

The last time I skied, I’d only been a solid intermediate skier. Roca Jack is one of Portillo’s expert runs, and it’s so steep it requires a special lift, the Va et Vient, a high-speed poma able to transport five skiers and snowboarders up the steep terrain.

I knew there was no way I’d make it to Roca Jack in four days of skiing, but if one of the world’s most accomplished big mountain skiers thought I could do it, maybe I could. I found myself nodding along.

When I checked in at the Portillo Ski & Snowboard School, I characterized my skiing as beginner level. Robin Barnes, the school director, looked at me as if she didn’t believe me, but she set me up with an instructor who started working with me. We quickly learned that I’d retained a lot more than I’d thought, and jumped to intermediate-level runs.

“I didn’t think you were a beginner,” said Robin later, over dinner.

Over the next few days, I worked with an instructor and friends to improve my skills. I pushed myself, but ultimately, I played it safe, focusing on getting consistent with intermediate and intermediate/advanced runs so that I could work toward the Northern Hemisphere winter without hurting myself before it even began.

When I ended my last Portillo day by quickly skiing down the Plateau run, shocking a friend who I’d previously told I was a cautious skier, it was just the right way to end my ski refresher. Now, when ski season comes this winter, I’ll be ready.

On that same last day, I kayaked in the Laguna del Inca, the lake at the center of the resort. Surrounded by the snowy Andean peaks, and cloaked in a thin layer of ice, the lake was so still it mirrored the gigantic peaks, as if I was paddling on glass. Once out in the center, it was so quiet that I heard nothing but my breath. According to resort owner Henry Purcell and General Manager Miguel Purcell, I am the only known person who has kayaked in Laguna del Inca in winter months.

But if I’d had just one more day at Portillo, I may have taken Chris up on his offer to hit Roca Jack.