The aim was to have an adventure of a lifetime. Lots of Gore Tex and down layers, six ice tools, five bags of Little Red Wagon coffee, four pairs of skis, three pairs of boots, a couple ropes, at least two bottles of wine on hand at all times, and one trusty van, the Condorito.
For six weeks our team of three, myself, my husband Tucker and our partner in crime, Jeb, toured Chile and Argentina to climb and ski some of the world’s most beautiful and iconic volcanoes. This part of northern Patagonia was as awe inspiring as our wildest dreams. The Chilean side of the Andes is a mosaic of verdant valleys and ravines, dotted by araucarias (I preferred to call them Doctor Seuss pines). Swiss-like pastoral ranches cling to hillsides cross-cut by rivers roaring down from the Andes’ majestic summits. The Argentine side of the range has a sky so big it contends with Montana’s, vast plateaus of high desert and sage, indigo lakes that twist and turn around mountainsides and forests of larch straight from The Lord of the Rings.
The timing of our trip was to hit spring in the Andes (our September/October = their March/April) believing we might find some perfect "corn" snow for skiing, what we didn’t factor in was the fact that Chile has one of the largest temporal rainforests in the world and that Condorito, in all his glory, was still just a 1989 rear-wheel drive Mitsubishi van with no snow tires. So, our corn skiing dreams turned into a lot of car-camping below snow line, looong approaches but soft snow and spring powder conditions up high. What’s the saying again? April showers brings… high altitude powder skiing on volcanoes?!
The routine thus became, drive to one of Chile or Argentina’s rad mountain towns such as Pucón, Las Trancas, San Martin de los Andes, Bariloche, etc., post up at a café and read the weather as well as we possibly could via various internet sites, gear up on supplies, plan our route to the base of a peak, camp in the rain, drink lots of wine to forget about camping in the rain, alpine start with lots of LRW, climb to snow level, put on skis or crampons, climb some more, climb some more, stand on top of a big volcano, sometimes in a cloud, then ski six to ten thousand feet of vert back down to the car with a big fat smile, stuff our faces with empanadas and drink some more wine or one of the many tasty craft beers that both countries has to offer. REPEAT. Out of all our ski adventures from the steep chutes of Cerro Catedral to the impressive Volcán Lanín, the two days that struck me the most were our ascent on Cerro Tronador and our descent of Volcán Villarica.
After driving for two days straight, mostly on dirt roads, we reached the base of the Tronador in a high alpine valley braided by glacial rivers. On the road up we had to check-in at an obscure outpost with a rather boastful gentleman of the Argentine National Guard, who very bluntly told us we would die if we tried to climb and ski the mountain in its current condition, “the trail is not maintained” he said, “bad storms are predicted… give me your passport numbers, if you don’t come back in three days, we’ll assume you died and send someone to look for you, but no promises.” So with that warm welcome we made camp, went through our normal routine and woke up to clear, bluebird skies and an excellent weather window for a rapid two-day ascent. Thank you weatherman Jeb! Tronador is Spanish for “The Thunderer” and it lived up to its name, shedding school-bus-size pieces of ice off its many seracs 24/7. Every hour on the hour thunder claps of falling ice reverberated through the forest and echoed off the rock walls as we climbed. I was reminded of how small we were in this large landscape, with no other humans as far as the eye can see. While we weren’t able to capture the summit of Tronador due to impending weather (beware of the Patagonian winds!) we made it high up on the glacier and shared our ski down with a clan of curious Andean condors, diving and soaring just feet above our heads. This mountain did not want to be conquered, it was as wild as the condor’s wing span and I felt deeply satisfied that it was nice enough to share a short but sweet 48 hours with us.
In contrast to the little known Cerro Tronador, Volcán Villarica is likely the most famous volcano in South America. Its perfect conical top and snowy flanks fall straight down into Pucón, the Lake Tahoe of Chile. Pucón is complete with lake front shopping, trendy espresso bars, dirtbag climbing shops, and microbreweries catering to every type of tourist out there from ski bunny to hard core mountaineer. Pucón also has a stoplight on its main street that is not for traffic, it’s for predicting the volcano’s eruptions. When we entered Pucón, the light had just switched from red to yellow and while there was no legit sign, it was apparently illegal to summit due to the danger. Once again, the three amigos could not be stopped. We rallied Condorito to the base on a beautiful blue sky morning with fresh snow blanketing the peak. No smoke was rising, no lava was to be seen, people were snow shoeing around the base… of course it was safe to summit. 5,000 feet later we stood on top under blue skies, gusty winds, and looked down into the gurgling belly of a very active volcano spurting liquid orange magma into the sky. It was like my sixth grade science fair experiment… BUT REAL! Without being overly hasty we took a summit selfie and started the most epic descent of perfect corn skiing, Yes corn! Our dream had come true! The clincher is that the Chilean Carabineros (Federal Police) were waiting for us in the parking lot… Wah waah waaaah. They managed to confiscate our celebratory beers that we had left cooling in the snow but luckily we got away with a warning and nothing more. To not end the day on such a bittersweet note, we found one of area’s many incredible hot springs to soak our worries away and cheers to another successful mountain mission.
Upon our departure from Santiago as I boarded the plane home to America, I could only help but think of Pedro de Valdivia, one of the first Spanish explorers that came to this region when he described it as “no better land, luxurious forests, and proud mountains… so tall they make the Alps seem like pygmies.” Chile, or Chilli, in the native Aymara means “where the land ends” but for us it was where the adventure began.