Words by Sarah Rawley.
Warm vapor reeled off the work horses engulfing me in a personal steam bath. The chilly morning kept us bundled up as our newly acquainted equestrian partners carried us up a steep, unrelenting trail, pitted by their experienced hooves. Only ski packs were loaded on our backs, in pale comparison to the lone pack mule, who hauled four pairs of skis and two maxed out dry bags full of our food and gear on the approach to Volcán Puyehue.
Looking down on the root-infested trail, all I could imagine was how amused I would be with my mountain bike pointed in the opposite direction. Instead, I awkwardly swayed side to side; my ski boots clanging in the old, stiff leather footholds of the stirrups, and my hands maintaining a death grip on the horn of the saddle, every time Nala sprinted up the next precipitous pitch. Time in this saddle felt exponentially longer than the hours I was accustomed to logging on my bike, as I waited for the snow line to come into view.
It was early October and normally I would be taking full advantage of leaf peeping season in the Colorado Rockies. But after a decade of prioritizing riding and racing my mountain bike, it was time to revisit my first true love:
Even if it took seeking out snow almost 10,000 kilometers away, I was determined to reignite a fire that had been dormant from the last several years of fighting unreliable snowpack, crowds, and chasing a never-ending summer. I managed to coerce two of my best friends, Amy and Chelsea, to drop routine for two weeks, and ski volcanoes in a country where I didn’t speak a lick of the native tongue.
My longtime friend and owner of Chile Powder Adventures, Donny Roth, would close the gap between my naive sense of adventure and an authentic experience, that only his 13 years of guiding in South America could weave into a seamless itinerary for three gringas. We wanted to climb some peaks, ski the best corn snow of our lives, soak in natural hot springs, and liberally enjoy wine and pisco sours each night as we discussed the next day’s route. It all seemed turnkey. But life in Chile is crazy, and most of the time it doesn’t go as planned.
The day before we arrived, Donny discovered that Volcán Osorno was closed for mountaineering and skiing, due to an open crevasse; the road to Calbuco was indefinitely closed since last year’s eruption; and the long-range forecast called for unfavourable conditions on Puyehue when we were scheduled to trek up to the refugio via horseback.
“Honestly, it usually works out even better than planned,” Donny reassured us over email as we boarded our red-eye flight.
We arrived in rare form with all of our luggage intact, and shortly thereafter warmed up on the flanks of Volcán Casablanca, wiping the dust off our skis and clearing cobwebs from our legs. The day was incredibly perfect; we climbed, we skied, we summited in calm skies, and ripped turns back down in the alpenglow.
As predicted, rainy conditions arrived, which pushed us north to Pucón, best known for the 2,840 meter high Volcán Villarrica, originally named Rucapillán which translates to “House of the Pillan”— Pillan being a powerful and sometimes disaster-causing spirit, according to local mythology. Villarricca is indeed an active volcano with more than 82 eruptions since 1558; the most recent of which occurred on March 3, 2015, two weeks, to the day, after I dropped in on El Clásico— a renowned mountain bike track that began 700 meters below the steaming summit.
Starting from the base area of Ski Pucón Chile, we began the trudge up 1600 vertical meters towards the peak, lured by tales of lava, and the alfajores, Chilean dulce de leche cookies, hidden in my pockets. Sections of rime ice forced us into ski crampons, and subsequently boot crampons, where we joined the bootpack line. Ironically, along with being the most destructive volcano in Chile, Villarrica is also the most popular to climb.
I was hopeful that from Villarrica’s crater rim, I would be able to peer into its lava lake, and be mesmerized by churning hot magma. Instead, toxic smoke shielded my fantasy view and we quickly transitioned into descent mode. My alfajores would have to wait until later. Instead of bobbing through the crowds, we peeled off skier’s right to a desolate slope that Donny knew would provide the ideal aspect for velvety spring conditions. Audible elation echoed throughout the gullies, as we each danced down our own line. Like clockwork, storm clouds began to condense as we skied up to the car. It was time to move on to our next destination— Puyehue.
“You had one job,” I smirked at Chelsea, as two of the horses went in opposite directions. We momentarily paused on a bench waiting for Donny to return. Our arriero, Bernacio, had fallen behind with the pack mule. Amy and I remained in our saddles on Nala and Paloma, while Chelsea ran in circles chasing the two unruly horses who were more interested in bamboo snacks than staying in the pack.
It was easy to judge from above, although frankly, I was terrified to dismount Nala, in fear of becoming tangled without the assistance of Bernacio’s second nature in handling the mares. We patiently waited and when they returned, we learned that all of the skis had fallen off the pack mule. But everything seemed to be back in order, so we pressed on.
Emerging above treeline, the antiquated refugio came into view simultaneously with Puyehue’s summit. It was clear that we would have a bit of hiking with skis on our back prior to hitting the snow. Before we were geared up, Bernacio was already headed back down the trail with four horses and one pack mule in tow, all the while commanding his own stallion. “Hasta luego!”
Although it wasn’t the longest or hardest day we had on the skis, the multi-discipline approach and the warmer temps created a more leisurely pace to the caldera. From the rim, the panoramic views were mind numbing— so many lines. The distant view of Volcán Lanín tantalized me from afar. A whole new world of ski opportunities was unfolding before my eyes.
Unfortunately conditions were not conducive to dropping into the crater. A lackluster end of the snow season exposed multiple rock bands, and the “easy way in” was now a 45 degree, icy chute with mandatory hucks to enter.
As much as I was hoping to ski this unique terrain, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. In fact, it just fuelled my motivation to return in the near future to ski Puyehue again. Besides, there was a bottle of Carménère wine waiting for us back at the refugio.
That night, while settling into my sleeping bag, I saw a different perspective of the night sky. In the Southern Hemisphere you see an entirely new collection of stars, in addition to viewing classic constellations upside down. Akin to my astrological trance, our adventures in Chile revealed a whole new perspective of skiing for me— a world that exists in whatever season you choose, and boundless opportunities in even the most unassuming conditions. It’s back to fall and soon to be winter at home, but the pull of the Southern Hemisphere will draw me back anew to explore the depths of the Andes, most likely, under the most uncanny circumstances.
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