Staring into the crater of Volcan Puyehue, it’s hard to believe that it’s been barely a year since Argentina and Chile felt the full force of the eruption of this volcano, blanketing towns with ash, closing airports and halting the local tourist economy. The destruction is evident all along the highway between Bariloche, Argentina and the Chilean border. For now, the mountain lies quiet. The forces that sent ash and rock catapulting are ruminating below the surface like an upset stomach. Volcan Puyehue is one of the many volcanoes that straddle the border of these two countries, in the lake district of Patagonia. This is an area of lush forests, thick bamboo and immense lakes. Winter’s snows have covered the landscape and softened its rough exterior. Beauty and destruction live side by side in this part of the world.
Skiers cannot look at these volcanoes and not dream of the possibilities of endless runs in perfect corn snow. Our team of skiers is composed of our leader, Jorge Kazulj, a UIAGM- IFMGA mountain guide from Bariloche, Argentina, Rich Meyer, a mountain guide from California and owner of his own guide service in Berkley, CA, Dave Gruss, a mountain guide from Ophir, Colorado and myself. This is my seventh season of skiing the southern hemisphere in search of out of the way places to ski. Jorge and I have been doing ski touring trips together in Patagonia for years now.
For this adventure, we are based out of El Caulle, Chile, a hacienda near the base of Puyehue. We share a cabin amongst the cattle, horses and dogs that roam freely. In the main dining room we feast on beef and salmon and wash it down with the local wine.
Our day begins as the horses arrive to take us and our equipment to a small mountain refugio (hut) that lies at tree line. The trail quickly leaves the flat pasturelands and steeply ascends the mountain. My nervousness grows with each step the horse takes. I don’t know how to ride a horse! The last time I rode a horse I was in the Boy Scouts. The horse knows he is in charge and quickly senses my apprehension, or is it just incompetence. After only half an hour, the effects of the trail are visible on the horses. The animals are covered in sweat; saliva is dripping from their mouths.
Breathing deeply, they are working like machines. On the roughest sections we prod them on, hooves fighting through the thick mud; rocks and roots are ever present. I had no idea what we would be putting these animals through. At snow line, the horses slip on ice and post hole through deeper pockets of snow. Visions of a 1500-pound horse sliding down the trail with me holding on plagues my mind. We make jokes to hide our nervousness. Now we are above the clouds and the sun is shining strongly. Below us lies a sea of mist. The head gaucho decides that the horses can no longer continue in these conditions. To my relief, we dismount and start to load everything into our packs. Happy to exchange horse for skis, we skin the rest of the way up.
Within half an hour the cabin comes into sight. It is located on the south side of the mountain overlooking this immense volcano. The cabin is rough but a welcome refuge from the elements and a lot roomier than a tent. A fire in the stove makes it feel like home.
With the volcano in full view we scope lines and look at possibilities. We are above the clouds and below them at the same time. We watch them covering Puyehue, blowing in and swirling around.
As if he needs to, Jorge asks us if we want to ski to the crater rim now. We cannot pass up this chance. Who can predict tomorrow’s weather? We leave the hut late in the afternoon and start skinning. The joy of skinning up is often overlooked. Time slows down on the ascent; the solitude and quiet of the mountains becomes a part of you. This is a gift that backcountry skiers live for. We gaze at Condors floating on thermals as our skis glide on the snow. This experience cannot be equaled.
Suddenly the clouds swirl around and then settle in. We are in a whiteout that lasts just minutes. Once again I feel the sun’s warmth, I look up and the summit is in full view. In the distance I see Volcans Tronador, Osorno and Casablanca. Mountains abound in all directions. A lifetime of ski ascents can be found. The upper slopes of Puyehue are crusty. The view into the crater is spectacular, rimmed by steep sides and rock bands.
The odor of sulfur permeates the air. Jorge reminds us that just a few months ago this mountain was alive with escaping gases and ash spurting out. We pull our skins and prepare for the ride down. A slope of perfectly uniform corn snow is before us. We ski like heroes! Gliding through this soft medium is like flying; linking turn after turn brings smiles to faces and a sense of satisfaction to all. While powder days seem rare, skiing spring corn is unlimited on these South American volcanoes. This is why we climb for hours to enjoy minutes of downhill bliss. This 2,500 foot run is close to perfect. As we enter back into the clouds, we regroup. Following our up track to the cabin, we are filled with excitement. It has been a full day. The cabin is shrouded in mist, lending a mysterious feel to the area. Inside, we get the fire started and tell lies about our great horsemanship.
That evening, Jorge and Rich decide that they want to ski into the crater. Weather permitting, we will make another ascent. We head to the northern side of the mountain. Before us lies a good line into the crater as well as endless ridges and runs. One could spend weeks exploring this terrain. Jorge and Rich choose a steep line with a technical start. After making a few dicey moves, they are clear of the rocks that guard the entrance into the crater. A series of turns takes them to the crater floor. Dave and I were able to capture these turns from a viewpoint overlooking the crater. As Jorge and Rich start to ascend from the crater, clouds pour in like a waterfall and start to make their way higher and higher from below. We quickly decide to take advantage of what visibility we have left and head down. Corn turns to mashed potatoes and this leads us back to the cabin. We have filled the memory bank with another great experience. We make our way down the mountain now, luckily on foot.
To ski the volcanoes of Chile and Argentina get in touch with Jorge Kozulj at www.andescross.com