Chile’s araucaria (monkey puzzle) forests are an almost magical sight and the trees are well protected in a number of national parks. The road through Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello to Corralco ski resort winds though a thick forest of araucarias, eventually emerging onto the snowfields at the base of Volcán Lonquimay as the trees thin to lone specimens in the snow. We made quick progress towards the volcano up the gentle slopes of the resort, past scores of Chilean troops diligently undergoing ski training in lines of wobbly snow ploughs. Our progress was reduced to a crawl however as we reached the summit ridge and were met with gale force winds which led the other two groups also aiming for the summit to turn back. We opted instead for a traverse and bootpack on a more sheltered face, swallowing the exposure and climbing quickly up the remaining 250 metres of vertical to the summit crater, where we collapsed with a mixture of exhaustion and elation and rapidly consumed a large bag of cookies. The red volcanic rock of the crater rim was stippled with ice which framed the view of the snow-filled crater and the mountains beyond. Under our feet the soft snow had given way to centimetre-wide balls of glassy water ice, making the drop in to the descent and the first few turns a little edgy in more ways than one. We soon hit the soft snow again though and enjoyed some swooping powder turns on the exposed slope, with great views south to the snowcapped Volcán Llaima, which would become our next target.
In the Araucaria resort car park at the base of Volcán Llaima we were greeted by the familiar Chilean sight of a pack of mismatched stray dogs, who we assumed were only interested in the prospect of breakfast leftovers. We had underestimated them however, or they had overestimated their chances of us sharing our biscuits, and they diligently followed us as we skinned up past the lifts and towards the cone of Volcán Llaima. Again we were treated to a magnificent cloud display, hanging in grey and yellow waves above us, wisps of white tangling amongst the trees in the valley below, and a creeping cloak of thin cloud wrapping itself around the volcano’s slopes, furled edges caught by the wind. It was the changeability in the snow rather than the weather that caught us out this time however, the reasonably crusty snow giving way to crenellated solid ice as we climbed higher, which even an ice axe took several swings to penetrate, and over which the dogs scrabbled, claws out. The thought of having to drop off the steep summit and ride 500 metres vertical of the stuff was enough to turn us back, and the dogs seemed happy with out decision, trying to sit on our laps as we strapped on our boards and capering joyfully alongside us as we rode back to the resort.
Two weeks of terrible weather put a temporary stop on our riding activities as we waited for the rain to stop, the cloud to clear and the snow to stabilise. We spent our time cruising in the campervan, exploring some of Chile’s more remote coastline and more ‘interesting’ gravel roads in northern Patagonian and the island of Chiloé, and catching up on lost calories thanks to the many excellent pastelerías.
The next moderate weather window took us to Volcán Casablanca, near Puyehue, where the lower slopes of the resort had been reduced to mud by the recent rain, although this had not deterred the hardy local ski race teams who were out training in their matching lycra. Our ascent was punctuated by periods of enforced waiting for a view of the route to appear through holes in the thick swirling clouds and the descent characterised by straightlining in the sticky snow whenever the whiteout cleared momentarily. Despite the weather conditions it felt good to be back on our boards and back on the powder trail, and we crossed our fingers for some better weather to follow.
Finally, two days of forecasted sunshine saw us making the trip to the tourist centre of Pucón, hoping to conquer Volcáns Villarica and Quetrupillán. These two volcanoes could not be more different despite being neighbours; Villarica a perfect cone, with an active vent, a ski resort and a steady stream of ascendants, many of whom are on guided day trips; Quetrupillán with its undulating slopes draped in forest at the base, accessed via a lonely farm track and completely deserted but for the forest birdlife and a fleeting glimpse of an Andean fox.
An early start to tackle Villarica and the symmetrical slopes are caught in the orange glow of sunrise, above which the crater is gently belching sulphurous steam into the crisp morning air. As we put on our skins the tour buses start arriving and we quickly make a start up the piste to get ahead of the pack. A steep icy ridge climbs to the top of the resort and we are glad of crampons before we exit onto the soft snow of the bowl above. A beautiful day; below us, broken cloud is interspersed with views of the lake and snow-dusted forested peaks. On the summit slopes we encounter yet another variation of weird Chilean snow conditions: bulges of blue water ice from freezing rain covered by a layer of soft powder, making the climb, even with crampons and ice axe, a little treacherous. As we climb over the strange wind-sculpted ice forms around the edge of the crater we are greeted by a victorious faceful of toxic steam emanating from the main crater, which is engulfed by clouds, and some small vents into which we peer suspiciously. The ride down is awesome fun with long slopes of soft snow bathed in the afternoon sun. We can’t help feeling sorry for the guided walking groups, who are now plodding downwards again having failed to reach the summit in the allotted time, as we skim past on our boards and are back to our stash of biscuits in the van twenty minutes later.