Southern Chile Off Piste

I blame Dean. Although the idea had been in my head for years, a text this summer from Dean got the ball rolling. Something like “ever thought about skiing in Chile?” Yeah, like every day for the last 10 years. You see, I was a Mormon missionary in southern Chile and looked at volcanoes every clear day. So when I became a skier, I dreamed of going back and skiing those beautiful peaks.

The hook was set, so I made plans for my wife Jennie and I to travel to Chile, see some sights, and hopefully ski Volcán Villarrica, an actively smoking cone rising 9,000 feet above the adventure town of Pucón. We hired an American guide, Donny Roth of Chile Powder Adventures, to give ourselves the best chance of success and eliminate a bunch of logistical worries. Donny has been guiding in Chile for the past 9 years, you probably saw him in Sweetgrass Production’s last film Solitaire.

Volcan Villarrica from Pucon.

After 48 hours of travel, we arrived in Pucón, our ski gear wet from a torrential rainstorm in Atlanta. With rain forecasted for the following day (Thursday), we made plans for a reasonable Friday morning start time. Could we be so lucky as to ski powder on the volcano?

Friday morning dawned with rapidly diminishing cloud cover. It had rained in town until after midnight, but the forecast was spot on. We drove our rented Kia Rio up the potholed gravel road to the SkiPucón resort.

“Did they give you chains with the car?” Donny asked as we hit the first snow. I turned a tight uphill switchback and willed the tires not to slip.

The view of the peak from the parking lot was grim: The upper mountain was rippled with wind lines, no smoke was visible, and a thin lenticular streamed over the summit. So much for powder. But it was sunny and bright and we were hopeful for some spring corn.

SkiPucón is a bizarre little resort. From the parking area and lower lodge, you take the Juncalillo double lift almost a horizontal mile to the actual ski area. There are 6 or 7 lifts there in various stages of decay and disrepair. The lift that accesses the highest terrain has obviously not run for years, and another is just towers. On any given day, the Juncalillo and a T-bar are the probably the only operating lifts. On busy days, they may open another short double. Although the lift-served terrain isn’t steep overall, it is bisected by enormous, deep natural halfpipes carved by volcanic activity. It looks like a super fun place to spend a day skiing, assuming a lift is running.

We skinned up extremely hard low angle slopes underneath the decrepit lift. I suppose this is a good time to state that this was Jennie’s first backcountry skiing experience. I put together a set of skis, bindings, and skins last winter but with the horrible snow conditions and timing, we just never got out. To those of you reading this now, this probably seems like a huge red flag. It should’ve to us to, but more on that later. The angle steepened and we switchbacked up slopes so hard we barely even left tracks. We came to the shell of an old structure that used to hold the bullwheel of yet another totally abandoned lift. It looked like the Jawas’ desert crawler from Star Wars had plowed into the side of the mountain. Donny made the call to switch to crampons and we climbed up the steepening north-facing headwall.

It’s a strange perspective shift to think of north-facing slopes as softening up first, and our hopes were high, but the cold wind and occasional clouds kept the snow surface icy and hard. The lenticular had expanded, and Donny could see from the position of other parties ahead that the wind must have been pounding up higher. But the conditions seemed good enough that Jennie could still ski them safely so we kept climbing.

We got to a small ridge near a landmark called Piedra Blanca (white rock) about 2/3 of the way up the mountain. As soon as we crested the ridge, we went from breezy and warm-ish to a howling and frigid wind that had scoured all the loose snow off the rain crust. Jennie was done, there was no way she wanted to ski that. We had talked about this possibility earlier, and she was fine waiting on the sheltered north side in the sun while Donny and I finished the climb. I was a little skeptical about the skiing conditions. Before I climbed to the summit, which would’ve been easy in crampons, I wanted to know that I could ski back down comfortably. So I threw my skis back on and climbed up the ridge a hundred feet or so.

Mistake. I should’ve kept the crampons on. Being so used to softer winter snow, I didn’t think about getting skins off and transitioning to the downhill. Donny stomped me a platform with his crampons (I felt like one of my kids) and I got the skis on and pointed them downhill. I skied as conservatively as I could, mentally forcing myself to focus on body position, etc. It wasn’t fun skiing, but doable. It was cold and windy, but I had the gear and felt ready to head for the summit.

If you ask Jennie, she will say that God intervened at this point. I was standing on a nearly-level spot on the ridge, and I poked the toe release of my Dynafit binding with my pole. I lifted the toe out of the jaws, rotated to release the heel, and watched the ski shoot backwards down the hill. The brakes never dropped and the ski quickly rocketed out of sight. Donny, still in crampons, chased after it for a ways but it was gone. And that was it, the climb was over.

We regrouped with Jennie, put crampons back on, and began the tedious work of walking back down the slope that still hadn’t warmed up. We were able to avoid most of the ice, so it was really just an exercise in putting one foot slowly in front of the other and mentally kicking myself in the butt all the way down. Back at the Jawa crawler we took off the crampons and walked down a creamy corn slope to the top of the lift. There was no use in all of us walking, so Jennie and Donny skied to the bottom while I postholed down the snow of the resort. Jennie and Donny found pretty horrible skiing conditions – breakable crust, gloppy slush – and Jennie didn’t really have a lot of fun.

The lift operators at the bottom wouldn’t let me ride the Juncalillo back to the parking lot, but Donny took pity on my and gave me one of his skis (although the sole length was shorter than mine). He glided back down the cat track on one ski. My entire South American ski experience thus consisted of 5 or 6 short and cautious ice turns and a few little turns on a slushy cat track with one heel raised on a ski that needed wax and the other heel locked on a freshly waxed board.

View from the road on the way down, Piedra Blance in the center of the photo. I lost the ski in the saddle area to the left.

I think this has been long enough for now. Stay tuned for a follow up post with some analysis and thoughts on human factors, and an improbable reunion….

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4 responses to “Southern Chile Off Piste

  1. Good stuff, Steve! Thanks for sharing!

    When Heather and I skied Mt Baker (volcano – not the resort) we had similar conditions. Somewhat pleasant out of the wind but as soon as we climbed out of the ‘shrund and onto the Roman Nose, the winds were soberingly scary and the snow surface was hard and icy. We continued on despite getting blown to our knees a few times. We pulled the plug just a few hundred feet below the summt.

    I vividly remember my first dozen turns on that steep and icy terrain with big open crevasses below us and a serac wall dropping several hundred feet off to our right side. Of course the wind was blowing us toward the serac edge! My first turns were extremely methodical and controlled… and slow. Heather, on the other hand, who was reluctant to put her skis on and leave the security of crampons, made my fear induced first turns look down right silly. She did a slow controlled hop turn, relaxed, and then carved her way down the Roman Headwall in control and style all the while battling blasting latteral winds!

    Glad you guys had a fun and safe trip!

  2. You didn’t get to ski deep powder from top to bottom, which is a huge bummer for you BUT your experiences make a GREAT tale for us!
    Thanks for sharing Steve and I can’t wait for the rest of the story!

  3. Great story! Even if it wasn’t the dream experience you still made turns while most everyone else was sweltering up here. And I think everyone would agree that any skiing is better than not skiing.

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