VOLCANO LOVE Part 3: Llaima

Read VOLCANO LOVE Part 2 and Part 1 first.

The day after skiing Villarrica, we were in town pouring over maps, organizing camping equipment, and hiring a rental car for our next adventure: Llaima Volcano, one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Chile. I felt particularly excited about Llaima since it is situated within the borders of Conguillío National Park in the wilderness.

A mountain guide friend, Jorge Kozulj, was planning to climb the north side of Llaima the following day as well, and we wanted to meet their group at the northern base of the volcano tomorrow morning at 7:00am. Finally we get everything organized and start the three hour drive from Pucon to Melipeuco and then further north into Conguillío National Park, where we can camp for the night to avoid paying the absurd rates at available accommodations nearby. Our rental car is a Fiat Duna, the cheapest we could find, and we’re hoping that the roads in the National Park aren’t too gnarly, but really we have no idea. It’s an adventure all right!

As we approach the National Park,we’re both dismayed to see that we’re leaving the good weather in Pucon behind and heading straight to some serious cloud coverage, which could ruin everything. I pray silently for good weather the following day but I’m not too worried because I know how quickly the weather changes around here. As we drive deeper into the National Park, we pass through a forest of Araucarias, evergreen coniferous trees dating back to the Jurassic era and considered sacred by the indigenous Mapuche people.

Soon night falls. Only a few kilometers before Laguna Captrén, where we plan to camp, we come to a steep incline in the dirt road. We don’t have enough speed to make it, and on top of that there are deep ruts in the soft earth causing us to come to a stand still in the middle of the incline. Niki backs up – a little too fast – and in the darkness, oversees a deep ditch of 50cm on the side of the road. I scream for him to stop as I realize we’re going to get the back wheel stuck and he brakes just in time for the tire to rest right at the edge of the ditch. There is no space to reverse the car any further, so for the next hour, we try in vain to move the car forwards and away from the gaping ditch. It was useless. The front left tire kept burying itself in the soft earth and couldn’t get any traction despite our digging efforts and putting wood underneath the tire. We couldn’t get help as there wasn’t a human soul around for miles, we were on our own. The whole project of climbing Llaima was seriously in danger since it was getting very late and we still hadn’t reached the campsite, and maybe never will! We finally realize the only way out is to go downhill. Our plan: fill up the ditch with logs, rocks and bamboo so that we can steer the car down and back towards the middle of the road. We started filling up the ditch but realized it would take us hours yet to fill it up enough, we just had to get that back wheel a little away from it towards the left! In our desperation, we tried to physically move the heck of car with a “1, 2, 3, push”! The car didn’t move an inch, and just as I was about to give up, Niki said “just one more try!”. He must have developed magical powers because on the next push, the car actually moved 5cm to the left. We looked at each other with a big grin on our faces. Then we moved the car again, and again, until the back tire was 30cm away from the ditch. Now we’re ready to perform our maneuver. Niki steers the front right wheel over the filled-up ditch and it holds! He backs the car up all the way to the bottom of the incline and wants to give it one more try. It’s already 11:30pm and I want to camp right were we are and deal with it in the morning when we can see the track better, but finally Niki convinces me and he goes for it with as much speed as our little rental car can muster. With my heart in my throat I watch him sliding left and right in the mud and just making it past the incline by the skin of his teeth! We hoot and holler in the darkness, and I’m totally pumped with adrenaline as I run up the hill towards our little car, breathless and filled with excitement at the whole situation.

The dirt road in the Conguillío National Park that almost cost us the trip

The dirt road in the Conguillío National Park that almost cost us the trip

Laguna Captrén

Laguna Captrén by day

Thanks to Niki’s daring, the volcano project is saved and we manage to set up camp at Lake Captrén by midnight. We’re in for a very short nights’ sleep indeed. We have to wake up at the crack of dawn since it’s going to be a very hot day and we have almost 2,000 vertical metres to climb. I sleep fitfully in our tent and continue filling up ditches with branches and rocks in my sleep most of the night. In the morning I feel groggy but excited, I’m awake before the alarm sounds. Try as I might I can’t convince Niki to get up, so I make my way to the car alone and start preparing sandwiches for the long day ahead. To my relief, I see that the sky is clear and admire the twinkling stars still visible just before dawn. Finally Niki shows up but we don’t speak as we start the car to drive the last 300 metres to where we think the access must be. As we see Jorge’s car approach us from the opposite direction, I feel very relieved to know we really are in the right place, and we follow his 4-wheel drive through the lava wasteland, leaving the dirt road behind us.

Our cars at Llaima Volcano

Very proud of our little rental for making it this far!

We park the cars and see that the snow is still very far away. After 40 minutes of walking over volcanic rock and ash, we finally reach the snowline. From here we head towards to summit of the volcano in a direct line, making good time in the already soft snow. I doesn’t seem like the snow froze overnight. Apart from some clouds covering the top of Llaima, the weather is picture perfect. As I look closer I realize that those aren’t clouds, but smoke pouring out of the crater. I feel excitement bubble up through me and I can’t wait to see the top, still very far away. We push on, stopping every hour for a quick drink and to eat some nuts or a cereal bar. Finally, we decide to strap our skis to our packs and put on our crampons as the slope of 40 degrees above us becomes too steep to continue on our skis. The summit looks really close now, only about 300 vertical metres away. 1,000 vertical metres later we’re still boot packing in a direct line towards the summit, looks can deceive! Just below the summit we pass Jorge’s group who is already on the decent. He warns us of big holes and cracks in the snow caused by the heat of the volcano below, and to stay in his boot pack at all times.

Hiking Llaima Volcano

Niki hiking over volcanic rock to the snowline of Llaima Volcano (2,920m)

Valley Llaima Volcano

The valley behind us with a Araucaria forest in the distance

Mountains and Araucarias Llaima Volcano

Surrounding mountains and Araucarias during the ascent of Llaima Volcano

Ski touring Llaima Volcano

Reaching the snow line with the active Llaima Volcano ahead

Climbing Llaima Volcano

The last 1,000 vertical metres rise steeply to the summit, making for great skiing

Five minutes later we finally make it! Niki and I climb over a short incline of volcanic rock, unbelievably warm to the touch, right to the edge of the crater. We can’t believe our eyes as the huge crater appears below us, engulfing us in suphur-filled smoke. It is very warm and humid, soon my hair is soaking wet. I fight an initial feeling of wanting to flee and that we shouldn’t be here. This environment is so hostile and strange to me, I feel as if we’re on another planet. We spend hours there at the crater, drinking in the raw energy of nature’s power in pure wonderment. It was one of the most surreal places I’ve ever been and an incredible experience.

Niki summit Llaima Volcano

Niki on the summit with the crater behind

Lori and Niki summit Llaima Volcano

Me and Niki on the summit of Llaima Volcano

Llaima Volcano crater

The enormous crater at the summit of Llaima Volcano

I totally forget that the snow is getting softer and softer, I totally forget about having to ski down. We finally tear ourselves away from the crater and after a quick bite to eat, click into our skis. Although the first steep slope is still good to ski, the snow quickly becomes so wet, it sucks to our skis and makes the descent unenjoyable. My legs start cramping up, I dislike this kind of snow as it feels really hard on the ligaments. I’m happy to finally reach the car and click out of my skis. It is unbelievably hot and the lava rocks around us are radiating the heat of the sun. Niki and I are a little disappointed with the run, but then I realize that this adventure was so much more than just the skiing. I am filled with energy still now, the kind of energy you can only receive from an adventure in untouched nature.

Niki skiing Llaima Volcano

Niki ready for the almost 2,000 vertical metre descent of Llaima Volcano

VOLCANO LOVE Part 2: Villarrica

Read VOLCANO LOVE Part 1 here.

On the summit of Osorno, we met a friendly young Swiss couple who were taking an extended holiday in South America and skiing the volcanoes in Chile. They told us they’re heading to Pucon next to ski Villarrica, a volcano I didn’t even get to see when we were there a few weeks previously for the fun event “Avalancha en el Vulcan” due to the thick fog. Niki Salencon and I spontaneously ask them if we can come along in their rental car. We know that the weather forecast is ideal all week and conditions won’t get any better to bag some more summits.

After 20 minutes of packing and repacking, we finally all manage to squeeze into the small Fiat Duna that our new friends from Switzerland are renting. It’s a fairly long trip of 5 hours and unfortunately, we couldn’t stop to sample some of the great seafood close to the Pacific ocean. We press on and arrive at 10:30pm in Pucon, and to our horror we discover that Niki forgot all his documents and car keys in our friends’ car, which is well on the way to Bariloche by now. We drag all our stuff to a hostel and luckily there’s someone still home and we get a whole room to ourselves. By the time we get to bed it’s really late again and due to protests by Niki, I set the alarm a little later this time for 7:30am. Tomorrow we want to climb and ski the Villarrica volcano of 2,847m and the temperatures are meant to be high.

The next morning we wake to an absolute gorgeous day, Villarrica is bathed in red morning light, clearly visible from town. To our dismay, we discover that there are no buses or tour operators to take us to the base of the volcano, an 18 km drive from Pucon. We decide to try our luck hitch hiking. Half an hour later, my hopes start fading of getting a lift and on top of that, we see a weather front on the horizon, approaching incredibly fast. Just as climbing Villarrica that day was looking very unlikely, a friend of Niki’s who works in Pucon’s most popular café pulls up next to us with a big grin on his face. He offers to take us up to the volcano – finally some good luck!

Hitch hiking to the base of the volcano...anyone?

Hitch hiking to the base of the volcano…anyone?

As we drive up through the Cohue forest to the base of the volcano though, the clouds start to thicken until they cover the blue sky almost entirely. I can’t believe how fast the weather just changed, and as we start skinning up the first couple of hundred vertical meters, the fog thickens around us so much that we can’t see more than five meters ahead. We start talking about heading back, but something inside me wants to push on.

Niki fighting his way up through the fog

Niki climbing his way up through the fog

I feel that once we reach a certain altitude, we’ll punch through the fog, and at least we’re outside walking and getting some fresh air. As we climbed, the fogged thinned out and suddenly we could see the summit of Villarrica far ahead of us. Tiny black specks were inching their way towards the summit, having started out much earlier than us. Unlike Osorno, Villarrica is visited by a large number of climbers and skiers every day, considered one of the easiest volcanoes in Chile to summit. There are no crevices to fear and mountaineering equipment such as a rope and ice axe isn’t necessary. With ski crampons you can skin almost right up to the edge of the crater.

The clouds are well below us now and the summit is looking possible

The clouds are well below us now and the summit is looking possible

A tiny speck on such an enormous volcano

A tiny speck on such an enormous volcano

I settle into a steady rhythm, sliding one ski ahead of the other, taking large, slow steps. I choose a moderately steep line up the slope and although I’m doing more distance, start overtaking fellow climbers who prefer a steeper, more direct line up the mountain. Finally, we can’t continue on with our skis any longer due to the ice, so we srap our skis to our packs and put on our crampons. The wind is really strong here and is trying to blow us off the mountain, but step-by-step we approach the deep, open crater at the summit of the enormous volcano. My lungs start hurting and I dimly realize it is from breathing in the sulphur pouring out as smoke from the crater. At the top of Villarrica we can see an amazing view of Volcano Lanin and Llaima to the north, but we don’t linger too long since the wind is chilling us down to the bone.

Villarrica crater

Villarrica is one of only five volcanoes worldwide known to have an active lava lake within its crater.

View of Lanin from Villarrica

View of Lanin (3,747 m) from Villarrica, estimated to have last erupted during the last 10,000 years.

We quickly put on our skis and decide together to descend down the north-east face of the volcano, in hope of finding some powder there. Contrary to the weather forecast, the clouds prevented the sun from warming up the snow pack, leaving the snow very firm indeed. Niki is skiing ahead of me and warns me of a crevice with a sign of his ski pole. We gingerly skirt around it. The snow is firm yet grippy and we enjoy the steepness of the terrain. The sheer size of the volcano with its huge flanks, natural half-pipes, and bowls is mind-boggling. There must be more than a hundred lines to ski here! I feel very lucky to have been able to summit today, and although we didn’t have spring snow conditions as we had hoped, it was an amazing adventure that I’ll never forget.

Read VOLCANO LOVE Part 3 here.

VOLCANO LOVE Part 1: Osorno

When we received some long awaited snow after a very warm winter in Bariloche, Argentina, on the 4th and 5th of October, followed by calm weather and stable temperatures, one thing was clear: the following days were going to offer absolutely perfect conditions for a last ski touring trip of the season. It was a toss up between a hut-to-hut traverse in the backcountry of Cerro Catedral (Frey, Jacob, Lopez) and the Volcano Osorno in Chile which had received some fresh snow. In the end we decided to head to a new area and chose the volcano. A few calls later we had organized a group of friends to join us and the following day we were on our way to Osorno via Villa La Angostura, arriving at night to stay at the base of the volcano in a comfortable refuge. We set the alarm for 6:30am to ensure we get an early start and beat the heat of the following day. You can’t beat waking up early to experience the sun rise and the way everything around you changes with the growing light.

Volcan Calbuco and Lake Llanquihue in the morning light

Volcan Calbuco and Lake Llanquihue in the morning light

At the start of the 1,500 vertical meter climb to the summit of Volcano Osorno

At the start of the 1,500 vertical meter climb to the summit of Volcano Osorno

At 8:00am we start our climb of 1,500 vertical metres – a comfortable ascent, but we’re unsure of the conditions close to the summit, typically boiler plate ice, and not all of our team is equipped with crampons and ice axes. As we skin up and the two ski lifts of the Osorno ski area fall behind us, I am overwhelmed by the breathtaking scenery unfolding on either side. Behind us to the west we can see the deep blue colours of Llanquihue Lake, and beyond that the great vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Our constant companion to our right is Volcano Calbuco, a white giant contrasting sharply with the surrounding lush, dark green forest.

Hiking up with Volcano Calbuco in the distance

Hiking up with Volcano Calbuco in the distance

200m under the summit we decide to strap our skis to our packs and continue climbing with crampons. There is a layer of fresh powder covering the ice and the climb is easy until we reach a section of steep ice that has been whipped into strange shapes by the relentless Patagonian winds. To the left we find the easiest way up with a short climb leading to the plateau-shaped summit. The weather is picture perfect with so little wind, that a plastic bag on the summit wouldn’t have flown away. Once we reach the top we’re rewarded with an incredible 360 degrees view of the surrounding lakes and mountains, including the extinct volcano Monte Tronador of 3,491m to the east, the highest in the area. I’m feeling energized and overwhelmed with the surrounding beauty, and very lucky to have experienced such special moments with my friends.

Niki Salencon hiking up to the summit

Niki Salencon hiking up to the summit

Lake Todo los Santos with Monte Tronador in the background

Lake Todo los Santos with Monte Tronador in the background

On the summit

On the summit

Niki Salencon enjoying the descent on Volcano Osorno

Niki Salencon enjoying the descent on Volcano Osorno

Although I could have stayed enjoying those views for an hour longer, we have to start making our way back. We decide to down climb one by one to avoid hitting each other with chunks of ice. I carefully retrace my steps down the steep ice, focusing my full attention on placing my feet correctly and not getting my crampons caught in my ski pants. I feel myself relax once I click back into my low-tech bindings, ready for the long run down. Half way down the volcano, the fresh powder gave way to perfect spring snow, and we sped down a huge flank right behind each other, hollering and hooting as we went. We rush towards the ski lifts, the tourists, and the car park, and I find it incredible that only minutes ago, we were alone in a wild, pristine environment without any trace of man. I am left with incredibly vivid images and emotions from Osorno Volcano, of which I’m still feeding off today.

Volcano Osorno

Volcano Osorno

On to VOLCANO LOVE Part 2.

The Magic of Refugio Frey

Frey is the ski and climbing mecca in Argentina and one of the most magical places I’ve ever been to. Seb Michaud and his camera team from Focus Production arrived just after one of the first snow storms of the season to film here with Niki Salencon and me. We set out from the Cerro Catedral ski resort which provides the easiest access. Unfortunately, we weren’t alone at the refuge since it is hugely popular now with a growing following of freeriders and ski mountaineers in Bariloche. This and prevailing weather conditions didn’t allow us to nail a dream line, but that’s life in the mountains and I hope to return again within the month to ski some of the many lines we saw. Check out my facebook album here for some photos.

Refugio Frey

The Frey Refuge, where skiers and climbers will always find shelter.


Skiing and Training in Bariloche

As I wrote in my blog previously, I’m based in Bariloche, Argentina, this summer, skiing and training. The local ski resort, Cerro Catedral, received some above average snow falls early in the season, followed by a long spell of blue bird weather and warmer temperatures. I spent a lot of time on race skis which did my technique a lot of good and jumping in the park. Then it started to rain with freezing levels just below 2000m – almost all the way to the top – and conditions got really bad. There has been some snow these last days at higher altitudes, just in time for the Red Bull Beyond the Line competition – a male only freeride and freestyle event. As I watched Day 1 of the competition yesterday I really felt like skiing the venue, called “Laguna”, which offers some amazing lines with airs from top to bottom and easily reachable after a 30 minute boot pack (hike). Unfortunately, the 4-star Freeride World Qualifier in Chile I was planning to go to this week had to be cancelled due to a lack of snow. That’s super bad luck since it would have been a great opportunity to get a good head start to the comp season. I’ve been using my time lately working in the gym on a daily basis, especially since my knee – the old tendinitis in my patella – has been playing up again lately. Some time off snow did me a lot of good and I’m becoming an expert on learning how to tape my knee, which I find helps a lot to keep my kneecap gliding as it should.

La Laguna, Cerro Catedral, Bariloche

Seb Michaud is arriving in Bariloche tomorrow with his camera team to film with Niki Salencon and I – we’re planning on spending some time skiing the beautiful mountains using our skins around the refuge “Frey”, best accessed from Cerro Catedral. I’ve heard so much about the beauty of this area and the many lines on offer that I just can’t wait to go there. Hopefully we’ll find some good snow! Fingers crossed!