Volcan Osorno

Osorno from lake


Volcan Osorno is a symmetric, glacier-clad peak near Lago Llanquihue, the largest lake in this part of Chile. It is a landmark intermittently visible from days’ ride in every direction, the site of a ski area, a popular tourist attraction, and a moderate climb. Given that, I assumed that the crux would be getting past CONAF (the COrporacion NAcional Forestal), which would probably either close the peak or impose arbitrary requirements. Perhaps because I started early and hiked past the snack bar rather than the refugio, I did not encounter any checkpoints. But even the sign above the highest lift merely said “danger beyond this point” rather than “closed,” so Osorno may be free to climb.

Random fox

The giant flies take even longer than I do to get started in the morning, so I was able to pack up without being bugged. I retraced my route partway around Lago Rupanco, filling up on water at one of the many roadside cascades, then took off on another dirt road leading more directly toward Lago Llanquihue. It was slow on the climbs but mostly in good shape, and I returned to pavement without too much trouble. The next day’s forecast was wet, and I needed to resupply, so I aimed to stay in the town of Ensenada at the base of the peak rather than riding directly to the ski area. It began drizzling as I approached Llanquihue, but stopped for my ride around the lake. I caught glimpses of the lake to my right through breaks in the clouds, and admired the many cascades cutting through the rain forest to my left. Though a fair distance from the ocean, this part of Chile is incredibly lush, similar to the western Cascades.

Osorno from Llanganuco

I topped up on gas and bought a couple days’ food, then rode over to one of the campgrounds that supposedly had WiFi. It did have that, but only right around the restaurant, and it was otherwise disappointing, with dirty lukewarm showers and sad picnic tables. Worst of all, it supposedly cost $30 per night! The woman I spoke to seemed embarrassed by the price, and offered to charge me $15 instead; she even threw in a private bathroom (i.e. my own indifferently-cleaned toilet and sink), which seems to be a selling point in Chilean campgrounds. I believe it was the Christmas holiday, so there was a busload of students on a backpacking trip staying there, but they fortunately partied or slept in another area, so I had some quiet.

Osorno lenticular cap

With only a short ride up to the ski area, I had lots of time to kill the next day. I took my time in the morning, willing my things to dry in the damp and cloudy morning, then heading out to the beach to watch the clouds changing around Osorno. With such high humidity, winds over the mountain generate an impressive amount of cloud and mist, including a lenticular sheath that covers the upper mountain, hiding the crevasses and protruding rocks beneath a uniform white cone. Not wanting to pay for another day at the campground, I packed up my things and my slightly damp tent, then headed out to climb to the ski area with my trailer.

Partway up road climb

I was soon glad I had not combined this climb with the previous ride. While it might be a good ascent on a normal road bike, it was brutal with a fully-loaded trailer, especially with my not-quite-touring gearing. It was only about ten miles from town, but took me a depressing amount of time. I was fine grinding out most of it in my lowest gear, up to the top of the hairpins, but the final stretch above that, about which the van couple in Entre Lagos had warned me, was too much. It was also unnecessary, as I knew I would not be able to camp at the base, and had seen some discrete spots lower down, but I had time to kill.

Llanganuco from snack shop

I finally pulled up to the restaurant, parked my bike, and headed up to the cafeteria to reward myself and use their WiFi. Only a couple of minutes after sitting down, a couple came in and sat at the next table, and the guy asked if that was my Bob trailer outside. It turns out that he was another of the world’s few remaining Bob fans (simple, reliable, low center of gravity), so I joined them for awhile. His English was much better than hers, but I learned that he was Swiss, she was Tyrolean (Sudtirol ist nicht Italien!), from Bolzen, and they lived in Bern. They were currently staying in Buenos Aires to study tango, an obsession for them on par with my obsession with peaks.

According to them, the kind of tango you see in competitions is not the authentic tango. Like traditional flamenco, which is communal and deeply embedded in gypsy culture, traditional tango is part of a larger cultural edifice. Tango happens at a kind of salon (I don’t remember the correct word), where men and women come to participate in a highly developed ritual of subtle social cues. One doesn’t simply ask someone to dance; instead, one watches them for awhile, then negotiates interest with a system of glances. The dancing itself is, I think, less showy than the competition version, but more subtle. It seems like an expression of runaway sexual selection not yet divorced from its roots, like the tail of a peacock not yet bred by humans for that trait. It sounds like a highly-evolved version of my least favorite parts of Middle School.

Dawn on Calbuco

Once they left, I topped up on water, then coasted back down to the highest switchback, where I had seen a social trail leaving the road. I found a flat spot that was mostly out of sight of the road, and definitely a nuisance for a ranger to come bug me, and set up camp. Volcan Calbuco and Lago Llanquihue were still hidden in clouds, but I enjoyed a clear sunset above them as I ate and packed. The next morning I set off reasonably early from my tent, passing the snack shop while it was still closed and the lifts were not yet running. I did not see any “no climbing” signs or CONAF rangers, and was soon out of shouting distance of the buildings. There was a good climbers’ trail up the ridge left of the lifts, making the volcanic debris much less tedious. It was warm enough to hike in a t-shirt, and clearer than the day before, but there was still mist streaming off the summit.

From top of ski area

At the upper lift, I put on my hoodie against the wind, then continued past a sign that warned me about entering dangerous mountaineering terrain. I spotted and soon passed two groups, what seemed to be an independent group of three and a Chilean guide with a single client. The wind got stronger as I climbed, and by the time I finally reached the glacier, it was strong enough that I put on my down jacket and heavy gloves, and hid in the lee of the ridge to put on crampons. I ventured out onto the snow, but it was unpleasantly cold and the summit was now enveloped in a cloud. The Osorno glacier is fairly simple, but I wanted to be able to see at least a bit, and more importantly it was probably too cold for my feet, so I retreated to the rocks for a few minutes.

Morning mist

By the time the others reached the top of the rocks, the summit looked to be clearing, so I headed back up. The glacier was partly covered in a thin layer of rain-saturated snow, so it was easier to follow stripes of ice where possible on the ascent. It was cold in the shade, but bearably so, and straightforward most of the way. The final climb onto the summit was steeper, however, forcing me to pick a slightly wandering route and climb facing in, daggering my axe. The summit plateau was clear and sunny by now, making it pleasant despite the steady wind, but the actual summit, a snow fin on its far end, was brutally windy. I stood on it just long enough to get photos of Tronador, Puntiagudo, and Lago Todos los Santos, then turned around to admire Calbuco and Llanquihue on my way down.

Puntiagudo, Tronador, and Lago Todos los Santos

The top part was steep and icy enough to make me downclimb facing in, but not really difficult. Lower down, I hunted out the softer portions rather than the ice, and made pretty good time once I reached the sun and the angle eased. I passed the group of three at a distance, as they had chosen a line well to climber’s left of mine. I put away my ice gear, then passed the guide and client down on the dirt, descending after apparently being put off by the wind. I still do not have the timing down for climbing these volcanoes, but I think a late start may be best: that would let the morning clouds pass, and the snow is consolidated enough not to be miserable in the afternoon.

Back at camp, I packed up and exercised my forearms pumping the brakes back to Ensenada. Not wanting to pay another $15 for mediocre camping, I kept riding along the south shore of Llanquihue, heading for either Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. With time to ride and think, I changed my mind and decided to ride straight for the Calbuco trailhead, on its southwest side. The next day was supposed to have the best weather, and I had plenty of energy and daylight. The secondary roads were unfortunately a bit more dirt than I had hoped, and my map was out-of-date about one road being privado, cerrado (this is Chile), but I found a minimercado to top up supplies, and a nice place to camp next to a stream short of the trailhead. I reloaded my pack, ate my glop, and went to sleep next to some giant savage-looking plants.

Michinmahuida

Michinmahuida from ferry

[This is out of order, but written while fresh. Previous climbs will not be neglected. — ed.]

Volcan Michinmahuida is a broad, glaciated dome northeast of Chaiten, clearly visible from the ferry south from Hornopiren. My (outdated) Andes climbing guide describes it as not hard, but requiring multiple days and horses to deal with deep mud on the approach trail. This had led me to dismiss it, but a bike tour guide mentioned the approach as a hike, and the trailhead is signed as a challenging outing for ordinary tourists, so I decided to give it a shot. It turned out to be a full-value experience, with a trek through a rainforest on a somewhat overgrown trail, then some post-glacial debris, and finally about 3500 vertical feet of crevassed glacier leading to the nearly flat summit plateau. I had hoped for views of its more precipitous neighbors, but the upper peak was intermittently covered in mist and cloud, so I only had a few brief glimpses.

Looking Patagonian

While the Carratera Austral technically begins at Puerto Montt, it really gets Patagonian at Hornopiren. There the Chileans gave up on settling the land and building roads, so all southbound travelers must take a ferry, at the south end of which the well-paved Carratera turns to dirt. I had admired the peaks east of this ferry while approaching town, including one tantalizingly named “Pico Inexplorado,” but could find no information on how to reach them, much less climb them. They looked jagged but manageable up high, but the steep, dense forests below would be nearly impenetrable.

Physical caption

The Carratera is well-known among bike tourists, with companies renting complete touring setups, and one local company offering guided rides with van support. I began passing other riders soon after joining Route 7 from the side-road to Calbuco. The first were a French couple, whom I met before the first ferry. This one makes a short hop across a fjord to join the other road south from Puerto Varas, costs only a few dollars, and runs regularly. I floated to the other side, then continued on good pavement around a peninsula to Hornopiren, a port at the dual deltas of some Rios Blanco and Negro (of which there are many). I passed some other cyclists along the way, including one large van-supported group.

No one climbs those

Stopping in at the tourist office for WiFi, I learned that the ferry south from Hornopiren ran only twice a day, at 10:00 AM and 6:00 PM. It was only mid-afternoon, so I was tempted to take the evening ferry and camp for free on the other side, but I (wisely in retrospect) decided to enjoy an evening of civilization. The town has many campgrounds, and they all seemed to be filling with cyclists. I almost stayed at one with nice spots along the river, but it required me to portage my bike and trailer down some awkward steps, so I went elsewhere, eventually ending up essentially in someone’s backyard (“Camping Doña Marina?”). The owner was friendly, the showers were hot, and for some reason it only cost about $5, the first campground this trip that I felt was a good deal.

This guy is a legend

Bike tourists are like ladybugs: one is interesting, a few are harmless, and a swarm is overwhelming. There were perhaps a dozen in the campground with me, and while I would have been happy to spend the evening learning any one of their stories, dealing with them all at once was too much, especially after four weeks more or less by myself. The most interesting were an entire Chilean family on a range of bikes, with one of them riding a cargo bike with panniers. I am more used to meeting people with fancy bike-packing setups, so it was inspiring to see someone going for it with entirely sensible but far from ideal equipment.

Ferry view

The next morning I had a leisurely breakfast, then rolled over to the slipway to line up with the others. There seemed to be some local traffic, but most waiting to board were tourists: people in vans with spare tires strapped to their roofs, soft middle-aged men on motorcycles, and mostly younger people with bikes, a few of the women taking boat-selfies. The twenty or more cyclists boarded first, stacking our bikes in one corner, then heading up to the deck to take in the view, or the cabin to rest in rows of seats. The ferry takes several hours, so I slept for some, but was mostly awake and on deck. The coast here rises steeply from the water, vegetated from the high tide line to around 3-4,000 feet. It is split by a few fjords, up which one can see sharp, glaciated, inaccessible peaks. I spoke with one of the bike tour guides for awhile, and also with a pair of men driving down to meet family in Coyhaique, the main city in Chilean Patagonia. It seems to be about halfway between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins, a convenient place for me to refit and resupply items not available in small towns.

Leaning alerce

The ferry involves two boat rides, separated by a short dirt road across a peninsula. I was worried that I would not be fast enough to make the second boat, but with so many cyclists on board, the company was apparently willing to wait for them. This was probably not necessary, as the road is short and easy, and loading and unloading are slow. I talked to another of the guides for awhile at the final slipway, to let the dusty vehicles go ahead, then started along the sometimes rough and loose dirt road. The supported cyclists, on their unloaded bikes, easily kept pace with me, but I slowly left them as they stopped to take photos or go on short hikes. I had originally planned to join them at the Los Volcanes campground, but I saw a good tent spot at the Michinmahuida trailhead, and was tired of traveling in a crowd. I set up camp, cooked dinner with some silty water, then fell asleep listening to podcasts, anxious about the next day’s climb.

Trailwork

I started up the trail around 7:00 the next morning. With sunrise at 6:30 and sunset at 9:30 this was still fairly early, and I did not think starting earlier would be necessary or helpful for better snow conditions on the glacier. The forest trail started out flat and not brushy, and I was feeling energetic enough to jog a fair bit. As on Calbuco, I found some labor-intensive trail work, including stairs with railings. Though there was also some modern flagging and more recent brush-trimming, none of the work was new, and it made me wonder if there was a period of active trail-building for some reason in Chile. Italy’s Fascist building spree of the 1930s left a legacy of roads and mountain huts. Did Chile’s government encourage outdoor activity or andinismo at some point? Sadly, my knowledge of Chilean history is not much deeper than “sorry about Pinochet, we’re not all Milton Friedman disciples.”

Harmless plant

The trail remained easy to follow — there do not seem to be large animals to create game trails here, and the forest is impenetrable — but got progressively more overgrown. I was at first ginger about pushing past Devil’s Club’s big brother, but I had seen a guy carrying two big stalks of it bare-handed the day before, and eventually decided that while it may be spiky and threatening-looking, it is actually harmless. In addition to the flagging, old signs with arrows at several points kept me on the right path.

Michinmahuida in the sun

The trail eventually ended in an open area below treeline, cleared by either landslides or the retreating glacier. I followed occasional cairns and bits of trail a bit farther, then aimed up and left for the most likely-looking place to mount the glacier. I crossed a few outflow streams, low in the morning, and found a welcome source of non-silty water. The spot I had chosen was well above the glacier’s badly-broken tongue, but it was still fairly crevassed, so I had to do some wandering and backtracking to reach the main, snow-covered section. This too had some long, large crevasses, but I avoided most of them by following a gentle depression leading up near the center to just left of the apparent summit.

Clouds coming in

There had been high clouds all morning, but the summit had been clear. Unfortunately as I approached it, it began warming enough to generate its own mist and clouds, which made it intermittently impossible to choose a route. Fortunately the mist lifted from time to time, often enough to pick out the next part of the route. The snow had been nicely supportive most of the way, but became ankle- to calf-deep slush in the last thousand feet. I suppose I could have avoided this with a very early start or a bivouac at the toe of the glacier, but simply dealing with the slush was preferable, as it was not about to avalanche. It was, however, unpleasantly cold for my feet — I need to find some better plastic bags.

Brief summit view

The clouds became more continuous as I neared the summit, eventually reaching what I thought was a crater. Looking at my map, I realized the summit was several hundred yards on the other side, and when the clouds briefly parted, I saw that it was just a huge, long crevasse. I explored to the left, finding nothing I liked, then found a crossing to the right. From there I trudged across a nearly-flat icefield toward the red dot on my map. Another break in the clouds let me see that I seemed to be at the highest point of the plateau, so I called it good and immediately turned around. My footprints were easy to follow in the slush, and I had been recording a track, but my feet were cold, and I did not want to hang around and look at nothing. Another brief break in the clouds showed me an impressive range of jagged peaks to the east, but I had timed it wrong to enjoy the summit view.

Glacier toe

I mostly just followed my footprints on the way down, occasionally pulling out the GPS track when they were unclear, so the descent was quick and mindless. I stashed my axe and crampons, then stumbled down the loose debris on tired legs, pausing at the clear stream for another drink on my way to the trail. I had expected to meet someone else on the trail, as it was a nice weekend day, but did not expect to see a middle-aged woman and her son only a mile or so from the end of the trail. They were both wearing shorts, so they suffered badly from the biting flies when they briefly stopped to talk. I was impressed that they had made it so far, and were not looking more beaten down and torn up from their bare-legged jungle thrash. Maybe Chileans are more used to working for their outdoor fun than we Americans. In any case, I was too tired to do any running on the way back. I stopped at a clear stream for as much water as I could drink and carry, then returned to my tent for another night at the trailhead. The developed campground was only a mile or two away, and supposedly free, but it did not seem worth the effort to pack up and move in a cloud of flies.

Puntiagudo fail

Brief view of the peak


Volcan Puntiagudo, a sharply eroded volcano like Mount Thielsen in Oregon, is supposedly the hardest volcano and one of the hardest peaks in the Los Rios region of Chile. From what little information I could find about climbing it — Biggar’s book basically says “that looks hard,” and andeshandbook.org has a few photos and a GPS track — I knew that it was normally done in the Spring, when snow and ice likely covered its rotten rock. It was therefore a long shot for me, but a prominent and attractive enough peak to demand my attention and two days of “precious” time. Had I followed my original plan and bused to Osorno, it would have been my first objective.

Typical trail

I woke early, as this would be my biggest day so far in the trip, and I wanted to hop the fence before anyone was likely to see me on the surprisingly busy dead-end road south of Lago Rupanco. Just out of sight of the road, I found a large open shelter for horses or tents, and some more signage about the sendero and its flora and fauna. Contrary to CONAF’s current policy of closing and abandoning everything, there seems to have been a period when they built trails and encouraged access to and enjoyment of the outdoors. This seems similar to the progression of the United States Forest Service, which went from a can-do agency building trails and roads (and suppressing a lot of fires…) to an underfunded sad-sack bureaucracy unable to maintain what it once created.

Mossy benches

The first part of the route is a confusing maze of old tracks and cow-paths through land of unclear ownership. I followed my GPS track for awhile, then deviated to continue along what seemed like the main path. The land was incredibly lush, and the paths were so eroded as to become almost tunnels, head-deep or more with vertical or overhanging banks and greenery closing in above to harvest every photon. Thankfully it was relatively dry, because otherwise I would have been walking in streams. My GPS track noted a house along the way, but I ended up at a different one, apparently uninhabited but with a cow grazing outside. Worried about angering an armed farmer, I hurried by quietly, finding a couple fences with wire gates I had to either climb or close after me. The maze continued, with the main path seemingly leading me farther from the GPS line, so I eventually started taking less-used branches back right to return to the known-good path. I eventually rejoined it with a final thrash, to find it no more used than the one I had followed.

Approaching summit cone

Back on the Sendero Puntiagudo, I passed a camping area with some mossy benches, occasional flagging, and some boards and logs bridging boggy sections of the trench. After climbing steadily, the trail made a long horizontal traverse east, then climbed again to emerge from the trees at the base of an old mudslide. From there it nearly disappeared with only occasional cairns, bits of wear, and an ominous wooden cross. However I had the track to follow, and therefore had no problem choosing the correct route through the rocks, up a branching ravine, then out of it via a loose slope to a sandy shoulder. It was too cloudy to see the peak or much of my surroundings, but the route was clear from here: up the broad ridge to the glacier, up and right across the glacier to the right-hand base of the summit pyramid, then… whatever I could figure out.

Upper summit

I reached the summit rock at a sort of west ridge, where I put away my crampons and axe to follow the crest, where the rubble was least mobile. I soon found that, however bad the north side was, the south was even steeper and looser. Eventually stymied by an impossibly narrow dirt-crest, I carefully crab-walked back down to the glacier (push in, not down), hacked steps across with my axe, and rejoined the ridge where it broadened again. Steeper rock is generally more stable, as it would otherwise have already fallen, so I hoped that enough of Puntiagudo’s summit would be like Thielsen’s relatively solid stuff. Unfortunately Puntiagudo’s spire is much larger, and while there are some intrusions of solid rock, most of it is rubble held together by sheer stubbornness.

Abandoned pickets

I picked my way up the west side, sometimes staying on a more solid crest, sometimes finding ways to chimney through short cliff bands. The hardest part came when I went well left of the direct line to the summit, traversing into a small gully and climbing 5.6-ish rock onto a somewhat-solid rib to get around a cliff. This was about as hard as I wanted to climb on an exploratory outing, and combined with the clouds obscuring my view and the rime above, it made me start to question my chances. I found a half-dozen snow pickets along the way, mostly the usual aluminum T- or L-shaped ones, but one that looked like an ice-axe handle. I also saw a cut-up old rope dangling down a terrible loose cliff on the southwest side. Presumably (guided?) parties rappel the route and leave their pickets behind, and based on the number, it seems like the peak is not infrequently climbed. However little information about this andinismo makes it to gringolandia.

Nope

A final vertical-to-overhanging band of harder rock was still partly covered in rime, which was falling off and shattering as the sun burned through the morning clouds. It was too steep to climb directly or to the south, but my GPS track suggested that the route wrapped around to the left. A low-resolution track with ground bounces is at best a suggestion, but this seemed likely, as the upper left-hand skyline looked less steep from below. I crossed a loose and icy bowl, reached a shoulder with another picket, then eyed an exposed traverse. I kicked steps across the initial steep dirt, then paused at a sketchy-looking boulder beneath a bulge. It looked like things might get slightly easier on the other side, but there were no handholds above, and doing a reverse beached whale over the boulder with death-exposure below was more than I wanted to chance. I debated for a minute as bits of ice fell past me, then retreated, defeated, to where I had found the last picket to have a sandwich.

Osorno above clouds

Puntiagudo was not to be mine, so I mentally justified the two days used by trying to enjoy the views of Volcan Osorno peeking above the clouds, and the feeling of wilderness and adventure that had been absent on my trip so far. Then I cautiously picked my way back down the summit cone, diligently following my track and taking an extra minute on the crux downclimb. I got on the glacier sooner, this time with crampons, and after a quick inward-facing downclimb of an icy stretch to get out of debris range of the summit, it was smooth going back to the trailhead. Since I had a dry camp, I stopped at the benches to fill up at a stream. I decided to follow the GPS track this time, and while I avoided the first house, I had to pass right by another, which at last looked more abandoned. I also found that the track led right through a field full of Chilean super-burrs, which coated my lower pant legs and shoelaces. Reaching the trailhead, I listened for cars, then quickly dashed across the road and back to my tent. As usual, my things were unmolested, so I crawled back into the safety of my bug netting to lie down for awhile before thinking about the difficult question of which of my one options to have for dinner. Tuna in oil with semola, more oil, and a half-cube of bouillon.

To Puntiagudo

Puntiagudo and Osorno


I had some latitude to cover south of Melipeuco, but unfortunately the secondary roads in this part of Chile do not run directly north-south. I started by heading southwest, passing Lagos Colico and Huilipilun, before cutting straight south on a mixed-dirt road to Villarrica, where I joined my route from last time. Then I had been returning from Argentina, climbing Volcanes Lanin and Villarrica along the way, grateful to be back on pavement after some brutal ripio along the Argentine side. This time I was focused on making time to the south while dodging lakes.

Lago Calafquen

The campground I chose along Lago Calafquen was run by a German couple who had apparently gone to ground here during COVID and bought the place. It was blessedly well-kept and quiet, with hot water, power, and access to the lakeshore. The lake is around fifteen miles long, large enough to have a bit of an ocean feel, though one can always see the other side. The campground also had power, something I badly needed, so I tried to make every hour count by plugging in my things until the last minute. Unfortunately I was careless, leaving my plug adapter and phone cable behind, something I did not notice until that evening some 80 miles away.

Lago Ranco

I diverged from last tour’s route at Lago Panguipulli, where I had headed back to Argentina, heading south and west again to get around it and Lago Rinihue. I planned to camp along Lago Ranco, one of the region’s two largest lakes and a popular Chilean tourist destination. I pulled into a lakeside campground, and the guy at the entrance lowered the chain and told me to head to the reception to pay. While wandering around looking for it, I happened to see a bike-touring couple setting up camp, and went over to greet them. They told me that the normal price for a campsite was an absurd $60, which they had talked down to “only” $30. Ugh — American prices for mediocre services. Their site was large, so I paid them $10 to share it rather than dealing with the greedy campground hosts.

Kiwis and Osorno

They turned out to be a retired couple from New Zealand, drifting through some unstructured limbo between retirement and pension. They were already well-traveled, having previously toured in South America and the Middle East, but were now full-time, planning to spend the Austral summer down here before heading somewhere in North America. I respect and enjoy the company of such “lifers,” as they always have interesting stories and motives. I am a comparative dilettante, though, and cannot imagine making touring sustainable for years. While it is sustainable and enjoyable for a season, the accumulated wear and tear of a year or more living on a bike still seems like too much for me.

We went our separate ways in the morning, as I badly needed to replace my lost electrical things. The nearest large town was Futrono, but it was 5-6 miles backwards, so I instead continued to the town of Lago Ranco, forwards and only a couple of miles out of the way. Back in the States, the obvious place to get random cables and adapters is Amazon, but that is not a thing down here, especially for someone like me with no fixed address. Fortunately South America has its own solution. These days Amazon is basically a confusing emporium of cheap Chinese crap on the internet; Chile instead has the “Chino,” a cash-only brick-and-mortar store full of the same crap and run by actual Chinese people. I tracked down Lago Ranco’s Chino, found the necessary cables and adapters, tested them out before buying (a simultaneously depressing and admirable part of the shopping experience here), and was back to having sufficient power to function.

Volcano captions

I continued riding south to Entre Lagos, on the western tip of Lago Puyehue, unwarranted stress relieved. Stopping at a bus shelter to have a snack, I was surprised and pleased to see the friendly Kiwis pull up only a couple minutes later. They were headed to the same place, so we caravoned into town, then found a campsite by the lake. There were several other bike tourists there, including a Chilean father and son, and a large group of Argentinians, one of whom had broken his derailleur hanger (ouch!). We spoke a bit with the Chileans, and ended up sharing grilled meats with them. The father worked for Arauco, the timber company whose name I had seen on my tour of Chilean tree farm country. We also spoke to an American/Dutch couple touring by van; the American woman had just finished a PhD in sustainable transport, about which I would have been interested to hear more.

Orphan pavement

I left the Kiwis here for the last time, heading south to Lago Rupanco, then around its south side on sometimes frustrating and always dusty gravel. It was looking like a long day, but I discovered a mysterious stretch of pavement in the middle, unconnected to any other paved road. I could not figure out how it had come to be, other than perhaps in connection with a rural school. I was aiming for the trailhead for Volcan Puntiagudo, which I found thanks in part to a track I had downloaded, and in part thanks to a sign telling me that the trail was closed unless I was with a guide (of course…). I camped at a conveniently hidden abandoned spur on the other side of the road, setting up my quickly to escape the giant biting flies, then prepared for the next day once they went to sleep in the evening.

Sierra Nevada

Upper glacier from summit


Sierra Nevada is a long north-south ridge between Lago Conguillio and Malalcahuello, volcanic in origin but with no obvious crater. It is overshadowed by its taller and more symmetric neighbor Llaima, and has less than 5000 feet of prominence, but since it had taken some effort to reach the area by bike, and I would likely never return, it made sense to tag it as a bonus peak on my way by. It turned out to exceed expectations, with surprisingly large glaciers on its east side. Though it is only 38 degrees south, this side reminded me of Challenger Peak in the North Cascades, which is almost ten degrees farther from the equator. The approach is also pleasant, following a well-maintained trail through bamboo and araucaria forest to treeline. I was probably supposed to get permission and/or hire a guide, but the signage was unclear, and in any case the rangers rarely leave their trucks.

Trailwork

I packed up and rolled out of the campground early, riding over to the trailhead and locking my bike out of sight of the road before starting up the trail. I later found out that the trail is a reasonably popular Strava segment, but I did not know it at the time, so I felt no pressure to hurry. It was cloudy, so I did not stop at the three miradores to look at Lago Conguillio, condors, and the mountain I was planning to climb. The trail generally ascends a forested ridge to where it intersects the mountain at a snowy bowl. As the trees become sparser, one can see a steep headwall to the right, with bits of greenery and multiple cascades from the snowfields above.

Llaima from lower snowfield

No footprints went far on the snow, so I was soon left to my own judgment picking my way up the bowl. I had brought crampons, which I soon donned, but left my ice axe in the trailer, so I had to choose my line judiciously. The snow had been wind-sculpted into “dunes,” whose steep sides I had to avoid. I generally followed the left side, staying on snow rather than the friable rock except for one short stretch of low-angle ridge. I eventually curved around to the right, taking off my crampons to scrabble over a small dirt ridge to the first of the two eastern glaciers. Both of these glaciers are bounded to the west by Sierra Nevada’s chossy ridge, and are mostly flat, with a few crevasses barely visible where they flow toward the valley to the west.

Lower glacier

I made my way across the first glacier, staying too close to the rocky ridge and thus having to cross the snow-ridges formed in the lee of its undulations. The ridge separating the lower and upper glaciers looked intimidatingly steep and loose, but a chute to the left looked passable. I negotiated a partially-open bergschrund, then front-pointed delicately up some snow and ice, grabbing the more solid-looking rocks on the side, until I reached rock, dirt, and the crest. I could not yet see the summit, but my map told me it was still a good ways away.

Upper glacier

The upper glacier is much like the lower, with ridges behind the sub-summits and a flatter plain to the east. I picked what seemed like the most efficient line, and eventually the highpoint emerged from behind the lesser points. Its south face had a hanging, disintegrating snowfield that was too steep for my gear, and the rock was too rotten to climb directly, but it seemed like the right side had a more manageable angle. Turning it on that side, I found moderate snow leading to a point on the ridge just behind the summit. I took off my crampons and followed bits of trail along the ridge to the cairn on top. Interestingly, there were tracks in the snow coming from the north. The trailhead sign had mentioned a traverse connecting the lake to Malalcahuello, and perhaps the northern half is a more popular ascent route, but it is not discussed in gringolandia.

Summit view north

The clouds had almost completely disappeared, so I enjoyed views of Llaima, Lonquimay, and the other volcanoes, all taller but less glaciated. I had plenty of time but not much food, so I relaxed for a bit, then descended at a stately pace. The snow had softened enough to make the lower snowfield easier, as I could plunge-step down some of the steeper parts. I saw one person at the trail’s end, and many more on the rest of my way down. I did not stop at the viewpoints, as I had climbed the peak, seen a condor above the upper glacier, and had better views of the lake. I was amazed to find the parking lot overflowing for what seemed like an obscure trail that started along a dirt road and dead-ended partway up a peak.

Sierra Nevada and more ripio

I changed into my lycra, then prepared for the ridge to Melipeuco by drinking a couple swallows of olive oil (my only remaining calories). The road out was better than the road in, and it was also downhill, but the headwind had returned, and it was still rough and washboarded. Both myself and the other drivers tended to use the middle of the road, but we were slow and aware enough to avoid any close calls. I felt the old South American joy of reaching pavement again after a couple days of dirt, and flew the last few miles to town. There were signs around town that seemed to advertise a mountain bike race, but I could not figure out when it had happened or would occur, though I saw at least one fancy bike at the campground (a full-suspension Santa Cruz). Melipeuco seems to be at least an aspirational tourist town, with a large visitor center and a museum, though I found it inexplicable why it was more of a destination than Malalcahuello to its north. Maybe it’s easier to spell?

Volcan Llaima

Llaima and araucarias


Volcan Llaima is Lonquimay’s prominent and more symmetric neighbor to the south, still in the araucaria region. While it is normally climbed from the ski area on its west side, it can also be climbed from the north (or pretty much any side, as it is a symmetric cone), from a road leading through Conguillio National Park between Curacautin and Melipeuco. Not only is this shorter than going around, but it is scenic and grants access to neighboring Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately a significant part of the road is washboarded and loose volcanic sand and gravel, which is tough to ride, and the park charges foreigners $13 for the privilege of passing through. Worse, you cannot pay the entry fee at the guard station, but must buy a pass online before you visit (there is no cell service at the station). Fortunately the campground lady warned me of this unfortunate situation, saving me something between frustration and defeat.

Winds ahead

The road out of Curacautin starts out as good pavement, climbing south and east toward Llaima. I made good time despite an intermittent headwind, and my good mood was only briefly spoiled by a ridiculous sign saying that I was entering Mapuche lands, and therefore could not take photos. (I doubt the Mapuche have grazing, mining, or timber rights, or even an American-style monopoly on casino gambling, but hey, at least they could have run a postcard business 20 years ago…) The road turns rugged almost as soon as it turns to gravel, a few miles before the entrance station. I was riding in on Christmas Day, but there were still a handful of other visitors, driving everything from beefy Hiluxes to compacts with wimpy 14-inch rims. Even these have much more volume and contact area than a bike tire, but I am continually impressed by how much people are willing to punish their cars here.

Hell-road

I showed the guards the QR code on my phone, signed in to the log book, and was painlessly on my way. There had been other signs saying that those climbing Llaima should jump through more administrative hoops, but my crampons and ice axe were in the bottom of my trailer, and a lycra-clad gringo seemed unlikely to do something as stupid as climb a volcano sin permiso. The road continued to be mostly rideable, but that ended at a stretch of open volcanic wasteland. Between the uphill grade, washboard, loose surface, and a stiff headwind, I was soon mostly pushing my bike at a pathetic speed.

Laguna Captren

The road became rideable again as it entered a mixed araucaria forest, so I ground out a few more miles in my lowest gear, promising myself lunch at the old Laguna Captren ranger cabin, where the route to Llaima starts. The cabin was not manned, but it had both picnic tables and a spigot out back, so I passed a pleasant afternoon there. I eventually retreated a short distance down the road to an old campsite, where I set up my tent within sight but outside driving range of the road. As it turns out, I should have been stealthier, but no one pestered me that night.

Wrong side of the lahar

I woke at first light as usual, and was moving by 7:00, hiking back to the guard station and following the signed trail toward the peak. This side of the mountain is split by a deep, steep-sided lahar, and the correct summit route crosses to its right side before the sides become impassable. I unfortunately followed the trail on the left until I was committed to that side before realizing my error. Rather than backtrack, I continued until I could cross one branch with a bit of scrambling, then postholed up some incredibly loose and powdery dirt until I could get on snow.

Obvious snow route

The snow was perfect for walking, solid underneath but just soft enough on top that I did not need crampons on the lower slopes. I eventually put on crampons as the slope steepened, and truly needed them on the upper slopes. Thanks to foreshortening, Llaima does not look that big from any point, but it is 4 miles and 6000 feet of gain from the road, and this took every bit as long as one would expect. Partway up, I saw a group of five climbing the dirt to the right of my snowfield, making very little progress. In fact, I could not tell if they were going up or down.

Crater and new lava

From the trailhead, I had picked out a snowy line to nearly the top, and it worked as well as I had hoped. I finally stashed crampons at the highest snow tongue, then carefully picked my way up some truly miserable terrain to the summit. When not covered with snow, the upper mountain is a mix of powdery sand and fresh, sharp rock, and it is difficult to predict which parts are stable and which will collapse. Just below the summit, I passed several active vents, though I did not smell them. Fortunately I emerged on the high side of the crater rim, as traversing from the lower south side would have been tedious. Llaima last erupted in 2008 (I think), and you can still see fresh waves of solidified lava south of the highpoint. Farther south, I could see Lanin and Villarrica again, with possibly El Mocho peeking out behind the latter. Osorno and Tronador are unfortunately still much too far south.

Non-gringos on the dirt

I started down a faint trail on the ridge, going just far enough to remind myself that snow is always the best option on volcanoes. I made my way to the nearest edge, then carefully side-stepped down in crampons, as the slope was a bit too steep and hard for plunge-stepping. I saw a person below me and, as I got closer, realized that it was the leader of the group I had seen earlier, an older man with a proud white mountain beard. He and his group turned out to be from Pucon, a pleasant town I had visited last time to climb Villarrica. I told him I was from the States, which he referred to as “gringolandia”. That may have a negative connotation, but I like it enough that I may adopt it.

Weird trees…

I took the correct side of the lahar on the way down, staying on snow until around 6000 feet, then transitioning almost immediately to compacted volcanic dirt and soon picking up the trail markers. I somehow lost them near the bottom, but I did not mind, as I was able to take a more direct line to my tent. I was running low on snack food, so I cooked some of my dwindling glop supply for a late lunch. Just as I was about to dig in, a red Hilux stopped and a couple of park rangers got out. They politely informed me that I was not allowed to camp there, and would have to continue to Lago Conguillio. To be fair, this is about what I would expect in a park back in the States, but I wish Chile were not so eager to adopt the States’ worst aspects. Even most European countries seem to have a more live-and-let-live approach to camping.

Rain shadow and Conguillio Lake

I was planning to move anyways, so I rode past the cabin, pushed my bike up a loose, steep hill, then coasted and rode to one of the campgrounds along Lago Conguillio. It is a spectacular place, in the rain shadow of a low ridge to its west, with snow-clad peaks to the south and more mixed araucaria forest with flowering undergrowth. Not wanting to get tooled again — possibly by the same rangers — I pulled into one of the developed campgrounds. It was less convenient for me, since I would prefer to hike straight from camp, had facilities I did not want or need, and promised neighbors who would likely keep me up late. Sigh… Only another week of this, and then hopefully things will be more relaxed south of Puerto Montt.

Volcan Lonquimay

Lonquimay from trailhead


Like Chillan, Volcan Lonquimay is a volcano with a ski area, though the peak is larger and the lift-accessed terrain smaller. It may be reachable from Laguna Blanca to its west, but the most common access points are along the road to its south and east, either from the ski area itself, or from the trailhead for the Crater Navidad, a relatively new volcanic feature. It seems much more popular than Nevado Chillan, with a decent trail beaten into the volcanic debris on the ridge above the highest lift, though like Chillan, it is much better when covered with snow.

Polite dog

I packed up my damp things at my forest camp, then finished the ride to Curacautin for lunch. This seemed to be a well-equipped town, with at least one large supermarket, many mini-mercados, and reliable cell service, but only one gas station seemed to be open, and there was a line of cars stretching down the block. Being on a bike, it was trivial to avoid this madness, as well as the parking nightmare of people stocking up for Christmas. I bought a few days’ provisions, hung out at the park for awhile, gave the last of my mortadella jamonada to two of the polite park dogs, then continued up-valley to Malalcahuello. This is much less of a town than Curacautin, and it appeared to be mostly shut down for Christmas Eve, with some kind of fair in its modest plaza.

Malalcahuello Christmas

I had time to kill, so I took some photos of the Christmas decorations, looked around half-heartedly for sources of water and electricity, then sat down on a bench to watch the locals. The fair seemed to be either not yet ready or mostly shut down, but two little girls were riding around on bikes. I briefly spoke to the mother of at least one of them, who had worked in Paris and the States before returning to Chile to settle in this tiny village. She remarked that my Spanish sounded a bit French, which I took as a compliment, since I would characterize it as “too bad to have a discernible accent.” It was strange and interesting to find someone so well-traveled in such a seeming backwater, and I would have been interested to know more, but she did not seem too talkative.

Lonquimay from below ski area

I continued on toward the Lonquimay trailhead, hoping to find a place to camp before I had to climb too much with the trailer. This proved somewhat challenging, as the road toward the ski area is lined with seasonal properties such as snowboard shops and luxury cabin rentals, but I found an abandoned-looking parcel not too far up, where I could pitch my tent a safe distance from the road. There are some cows in the area, but the nearby stream seemed clean. The valley was a bit of a cold sink, so I got a slightly late start in the morning, riding my bike in “fun mode” up to the trailhead. The road was generally good until the intersection leading to the town of Lonquimay, then potholed pavement from there to the ski area. Beyond, it was generally good graded dirt with some sections of washboard and occasional surprise sand.

Fellow tourists

Partway up, I met three bikepackers on their way down, two from New Zealand and one from Ireland. The two New Zealanders were dedicated tourers, having gone from Alaska to near Patagonia pre-COVID, and seemingly done a number of other big tours. (Edit Feb 5, 2023: They are in fact very accomplished bikepackers and professional photographers, who also write a great blog at Highlux Photo.) They had started in Mendoza, and were headed to Ushuaia by mid-April, doing more wandering and less peak-bagging than Yours Truly. I admired their light and optimized setups — essentially bike-packing kit with small racks and panniers — but remain skeptical that I could travel like that without giving up too many of the small luxuries that make bike touring more bearable than long-distance backpacking. Slightly older than me, traveling as a pair, and seemingly more interested in type I fun, their schedule made me more optimistic about the feasibility of my own. When I asked them how they planned to move on from Ushuaia in mid-April, they impressed me by answering that they did not know where they were headed after that. I was finally back in touch with that small hard core of bike tourists like Kevin and Simon, for whom the tour is not a vacation or a quest for micro-fame, but a way of life.

I wanna wish you a crater Christmas

I eventually continued to the Crater Navidad (“I wanna wish you a crater Christmas…”) sign where, unable to quite fit my lock around the post and my frame, I dragged my bike out of sight of the road and locked it to itself. I then took off toward the peak, following some footprints that converged into a sort-of trail. As soon as I could, I got on one of the remaining snow tongues, finding footprints from a day or two ago. The snow was just soft enough to kick cautious steps, so while I had brought crampons, they stayed on my pack. Lonquimay’s sand and rocks are much less miserable than Chillan’s, but the snow was still much better.

Top of the lifts

Following mostly snow and a bit of service road, I eventually reached the highest lift terminal, from which an obvious trail followed the ridge to the summit. I saw two people far ahead of me, one wearing rescue orange, and while I closed on them, I did not manage to catch them before the summit. I found them there, hiding on the lee side, and they turned out to be a couple of friendly guys from Temuco, out for a long day-trip before the Christmas holiday. They were budding mountaineers, looking forward to larger peaks in the Andes and eventually the Himalaya, so it was fun to talk to them. I mentioned that Chile and Argentina are two of the best countries in the world in terms of geographic and climactic variety (only the States and perhaps China come close), and took their Chilean pride in stride. Yes, Argentina is kind of a basket case… but it’s still awesome!

Lanin, Sierra Nevada, Quetrupillan, Villarrica, Llaima

Lonquimay has a great view of its volcanic neighbors, from nearby Tolhuaca, to symmetric Llaima, to Velluda to the north, and Lanin and snowy Villarrica some 90 miles south. Its crater is covered in snow which currently lies a ways below the summit ridge, but it apparently fills in in winter. I eventually bid the guys farewell to hike and slide back to the bike. The first part was unpleasantly rocky and inconsistent, but the snow had softened perfectly for boot-skiing, and the lower sand was just right for plunge-stepping. I reached my bike at an unhurried pace, bombed back to camp, then packed up and returned to Curacautin aided by a wicked tailwind.

Friendly cat

I had time and ground to cover, but felt like stopping early and not having to hunt for gaps in barbed wire. I bought some luxuries at the store, including eggs and discount fruitcake (over 2000 cal/$! I was stoked to watch a woman look at the price and grab 4-5 of them.), then spun out of town to the supposed municipal campground. This actually turned out to be a deserted private campground, and while it was more expensive than I would prefer (10,000 CLP), the woman in charge was pleasant, it was clean, and it had power, hot showers, and multiple friendly cats. I enjoyed a relaxing evening without loud neighbors, falling asleep at the most un-Chilean time of 10:15.

A note on Chilean cell service

I bought an eSIM with a data plan through an MVNO before arriving in Chile, so I would have at least some connectivity without having to hunt down WiFi at campgrounds or gas stations. This has proved helpful, as WiFi is not a given at campgrounds. However, while 3G or better cell signal coverage is surprisingly broad, bandwidth to and from the towers seems limited, though this might be caused by aggressive deprioritization of my bargain plan. Even with two or more bars of 3G or LTE, I am often unable to reliably send an email during the day or evening. However, I am sometimes able to download podcasts (~100 times the size of an email) on the same connection first thing in the morning.

In practical terms, this means that if you plan to work down here, you cannot simply buy a plan with a large data cap and arrange your schedule to be in a major town or city when you need to be online. Even café or municipal WiFi networks may suffer from upstream bottlenecks. Reliable service is doubtless available without resorting to satellite, but it is not as easy as in the States or Europe.

Chillan to Lonquimay

Traiguen represent!


Traveling north and south by car in Chile is simple: get on the Panamericana (route 5), go to the city closest to your destination, then take local roads the rest of the way. However, both Ruta 5 and the cities along its length are miserable on a bike, making travel more complicated. This is especially true closer to the mountains, where most roads sensibly follow the river valleys where people live, ending at the last town. This means that traveling from peak to peak requires going up one valley, then back to the plains to head south before going up the next. (Austria seems similar. Italy is a notable exception, with wildly impractical roads connecting every valley and making it the best place in the world for road cycling.)

Velluda from Chilean Kansas

To reach Volcan Lonquimay, I therefore had to return to the plains before wandering south. On the first day I made it as far as Tucapel on the Rio Laja, the turnoff for Sierra Velluda, where my map suggested there was a municipal campground. This would be a convenient place to pause and decide whether I wanted to spend 2-3 days on an ultra-prominence peak with a reasonable chance of failure. Dropping down to the river, I saw that there was in fact a large and pleasant campground, but that it was closed. Not looking forward to searching for a break in the fences, I made my way down to the river to sit at one of the shady picnic tables farthest from the entrance. There were locals sitting along the bank on a hot day, the river water was clear, and I figured I would be safe waiting until late to set up my tent. I hopefully tried the nearest spigot, but it was turned off.

Early in the evening a guy came by with some dogs and, I thought, asked me if there was running water. I tried to tell him there was not and, after he tried a couple of spigots, he asked me if I were planning to stay. I said I was, so long as it was no trouble for anyone, and he invited me to a quieter section of the campground that had running water. I assumed he must be the owner or caretaker, but that was apparently not true, because another guy came by in the morning and warned me to be gone by eight lest I get in trouble when someone official showed up. Grateful for the help, I quickly packed up, topped up on water, and continued meandering south.

Big-as-yo-seat completo

The Rio Mulchen seems to split the country east of Ruta 5, so I had to cross the highway once again at Los Angeles. I used the opportunity to do some shopping, with mixed results. The outdoor store had plenty of canteens but no filters, while the bike shop had a usable frame pump. The owner warned me that it wasn’t as nice as the one I had, but since mine had a leaky gasket, whatever I bought would be far more effective. My old pump, a Topeak Mini Morph, was well-reviewed online, but lasted less than a year, and its warranty is useless to me down here. Afterward, I treated myself to a completo, a cheap hot dog surrounded by much better things including a mini-baguette, guacamole, mayonnaise, lettuce tomatoes, and hot sauce. Completos and empanadas are the two staples of Chilean convenience food, and both of them can, when done well, rise above their nature as cheap, greasy, starchy calories.

Helpful roadside map

Thus fortified, I continued west and south along a road streaming with terrifying timber truck traffic. Sometimes the trucks would move over, and sometimes they would honk helpfully in warning, but often enough they would simply hold their line and blow by less than a foot away. I suppose that approach works as long as everyone holds his line, but with an inconsistent shoulder, it was an unnerving experience for me, the lone cyclist on the road. The situation improved as I turned south and south again, finally reaching minor roads connecting smaller villages. I followed a river to Los Sauces, seeing a couple potential camp-spots along the way, then topped up on water at a gas station spigot before continuing south into yet more eucalyptus farms. For once I had little trouble finding an abandoned road, where I found a reasonably spot out of everyone’s way to sleep.

Damp camp

Though it had been clear when I went to sleep, the forecast calling for morning rain was shockingly accurate. It started around 7:00, and continued off-and-on until around 10:00. I need to get used to packing up and riding in the rain for this trip, but I did not feel like subjecting myself to an unnecessary drenching, so I waited for a long break before packing up and riding. It sprinkled on me intermittently for the rest of the day, but it was not too cold, and my rain gear was more than adequate. For lunch, I pulled off in Traiguen and stopped at the first mini-mercado. It seemed a bit off, with the owner reasoning with a guy who was a bit too drunk a bit too early, but once that situation was resolved, the proprietors were stoked to see a gringo. They gave me a calendar and water bottle, and posed for photos, before sending me on my way back across the Panamericana at Victoria. This proved to be the smallest and least-obnoxious highway city I had encountered so far, and I was back on rural roads in no time. Chile was looking up.

Super-burrs

I had hoped to make it to Curacautin, but the next trailhead was more than a day’s ride away, so I would lose a day no matter what. It had been cool and wet all day, so when I saw a place that seemed to offer camping, I stopped to ask about a warm shower and a sheltered place to pitch a tent. While it had the water park that often accompanies a Chilean campground, it turned out to be an odd sort of resort, setting up for a Christmas party with trays of mini-hamburgers with artificially-colored red and green buns. The manager apologetically explained that while they had a place I could put a tent, it was really aimed at people with money to spend on cabins. I declined, grabbed some water, and backtracked to some nearby logging roads. Other than an encounter with some evil Chilean super-burrs, which not only stuck to everything, but broke apart when I tried to pull them off, it was a fine site, and I slept damp but undisturbed.

Nevado Chillan

Nevado across complicated terrain


Nevado Chillan is the highest of three volcanoes east of the city of Chillan, with small glaciers on its upper flanks. It falls just short of being a P5K, with only 4600 feet of prominence, but was the first convenient peak for me south of Santiago. I wanted to take full advantage of the hotel, but also not to pay for another night, so I scraped myself out of bed, packed my pack, shoved everything else in my trailer bag, and headed up the road on my bike around 7:00. There is a good paved road to the ski area, but is steep enough that I was glad not to have my trailer. Even with my bike in “fun mode,” I felt sluggish on the climb with so many miles in my legs.

Hopeless riding road

I had hoped to ride up the service roads to the top of the lifts, but soon found that the mountain consists of soft volcanic powder. While rideable with some care going down, riding up any significant grade on anything less than a fat bike was out of the question, and the service roads were quite steep, probably meant for tracked vehicles. I pushed my bike up to the first switchback, then locked it to a lift tower to start walking. Chillan seems to be a huge and varied ski area, rising from a base in the valley to a peak somewhat below the saddle between Nevado and Volcan Nuevo, with perhaps a dozen or more lifts both below and above treeline. There is some sort of bike park in the summer, but it all seems to be near the base.

Sight of Nevado

I made my steady way up the slopes and lifts, frequently backsliding and pausing to cough. The occasional pieces of snow I crossed were much easier than the mix of fine dust and loose, jagged rock. From the highest lift, I continued along a track winding in roughly the right direction, which ended at some kind of monitoring station near the broad saddle. The summit still looked very far away, and I was tempted to visit the lesser peaks instead, but I had already come this far, and had plenty of daylight.

End of the road

The terrain here is complex, with gullies, hills, occasional abrupt drops, and better and worse volcanic debris throughout. With nothing living and everything similarly-colored, it can be hard to read elevations when looking ahead. I made the mistake of traversing too high at first, eventually giving up and dropping to lower-angle terrain. I learned the hard way that the best route stayed on the lowest-angle ground even if that meant meandering, and took advantage of any lingering snow, which was firmly consolidated but not icy. I had an OpenStreetMap line to follow, but it was not of much use, since the best route depends upon the snow. After unnecessarily going over one final annoying bump, I finally had a straight shot at the peak.

Main route

In current conditions, the climb was a mix of snow and deep volcanic dust/sand, with a couple of bands of slightly more solid rock being the only obstacles. I began to find bits of trail below the first of these, which sometimes made the sand slightly more tolerable. I was still suffering from whatever I had caught before my flight down, and between the general malaise and frequent coughing breaks, I made pathetically slow time. I had told the carabineros that I would be back around 4:00, and while they probably did not care, I felt some absurd obligation not to be too much later than that.

Summit marker

The final ridge was incredibly windy, so I quickly inspected the summit marker — a metal thing with an ice axe welded to it, plus two register boxes with some random paper scraps — then retreated to some slight shelter to put on all my clothes and have lunch. The air was hazy, probably due to windblown dust, but I was able to clearly make out Velluda and Antuco to the south, and barely see Domuyo to the east in Argentina. I had contemplated climbing Velluda next, as it is more impressive and prominent, but decided I did not want to make the detour given that it is supposedly difficult without snow.

Post-glacial lake

The way down was, of course, much easier. I plunge-stepped down the final climb, then found a better line through the rolling terrain around the Nuevo Volcan. I would normally run terrain like the ski area roads, but I was not feeling my best, and did not need to make up time. Just below the highest lift, I met a truck that had buried itself to the axles trying to get through a patch of snow, with a tow strap “helpfully” extended from the front most of the way to dry ground. This looked like a bad situation, but just as I arrived, a front-end loaded and backhoe drove into view. I expected him to swap the tow strap and drag the truck backwards, but he chose to solve the problem much more thoroughly.

Friend to the rescue

I enjoy watching people operate heavy machinery, because they often demonstrate finesse and/or use it in nonstandard ways. The backhoe driver lowered the bucket and drove straight at the snow, slightly downhill, scooping it up until he created a big enough pile to stop the machine. He then lifted what was in the bucket and deposited it on top — so far, so good. But he had not scraped all the way to the ground, so when he tried to back uphill on compacted snow with a lighter machine, he predictable spun out. However this was clearly not his first time doing this, so as soon as he stopped moving, he tipped the bucket down, then lowered it and used it to push himself backward. A couple such hops later he was free again, ready to make another run. He mostly kept going in this fashion, pushing an ever-growing pile of snow around one side of the truck, but sometimes took snow from the pile to deposit it to one side. I left before he finished, but I presume he cut a path around the truck, then towed it forward to safety. I am not sure how he would have approached snow on a crest instead of in a dip, but I am sure he had a suitable technique.

Entertainment over, I continued down the ski area to my bike, then bombed down to the gendarmeria, arriving just before 4:00 to check out, once again banging my head on their Christmas araucaria. I fetched my trailer from the hotel, then hung out on their porch using their WiFi for awhile before rolling downhill in search of a place to camp. It was another depressing semi-stealth affair. I tried along the main, paved road for awhile, finding only barbed wire and locked gates, then turned on a dirt side-road hoping for better luck. This, too, was fenced and gated, but one of the gates was the kind with just a loop of wire over a post. I was tired, and it seemed to be an abandoned dump for yard waste, so I pulled my stuff out of sight and set up my tent. Privado, reglado, cerrado: it’s the Chilean way.

To Chillan

Chillan in the distance


[Two notes: First, this is out of order, and there should be a preceding but unwritten post about riding south along the coast. Second, for those new to or unfamiliar with the site, I will be periodically updating the Andes by Bike map as I go. This map also shows my first South American tour, in the northern winter of 2019-2020. — ed.]

The first reasonable peak for me to break up the long ride from Santiago to Osorno was Nevado Chillan, the highest of three similarly-named volcanoes east of the city of Chillan. Nevado seems dormant enough to have a small glacier and ice-lake in its crater, and the hot spot has moved on from Viejo Volcan, but Nuevo Volcan between them is still supposedly active. While I did not see any gases from the summit, I did smell the hot springs at its base, and see some vents as I slogged by.

My first task was to reach the closest town to the peak, which required leaving the cost and crossing the unpleasantly populous part of Chile along the Panamericana. The coast had finally become pleasantly quiet the day before, so I slightly regretted leaving it, but I needed to do something besides pedaling. After the night of shouting drunk people, I was slow to get started. I slept as much as I could, ate breakfast, then spent some time communicating poorly with a very fit-looking guy in town for a mountain bike race the next day, bid farewell to Felix, then ground out the 2000-foot climb out of Cobquecura. There is a minor coastal range here, so I crossed its crest, passing through yet more tree farms, then dropped 1000 feet or so to Quirihue, where I stopped for groceries and lunch. The climbing and lack of sleep were not helping my cough, so I took a short nap on a park bench before continuing.

San Nicolas permanente

Chile’s center seems to be a dry trough, so I continued slowly losing elevation as I rode south and east, the wind actually helping me for a change. Unfortunately it was also hot and not particularly scenic, making the miles drag, and it gradually became busier as I approached the main highway. I turned off south at San Nicolas, whose giant statue of their patron saint (“Protector of the People”) was coming into its own this time of year. After the jog south I headed straight for what I hoped was a bike shop in Chillan, to replace my frame pump, whose rubber gasket had begun leaking. Unfortunately the shop had either closed or moved, so I continued placing faith in my sealant. However there was a grocery store nearby, so I could stock up for the next few days, which I thought to spend away from cities.

Camping for free in an out-of-the-way place seemed impossible here, and I was too tired to continue to some place where I could, so I stopped at the first campground out of town. This one was more like what I would expect in Chile: mostly a water park for city families, but with water, power, and WiFi for about $9/night. I was too tired to do much more than set up camp, plug everything in, eat dinner, then mindlessly surf the web a bit before falling asleep.

Well, at least trying. The next group over decided around 9:00 to start blasting some particularly awful music loudly enough to hurt my ears in my tent. What I could understand of the lyrics was mindless filler, the main beat was around 60 BPM, the chord progression was extremely repetitive, and the vocals were heavily auto-tuned. Maybe it was cumbia? I might actually appreciate it while grinding up a volcano, but it was far from a lullaby. The fact that they also unpredictably turned it down or off, then turned it right back to the original ear-splitting volume some seconds later, made it even worse. I hate telling people how to live in their own countries, but I decided to say something if it continued past midnight. Fortunately it seems to have stopped around 11:00, so I was able to get some sleep and not be a jerk.

Poor kitty…

I at least had some quiet time the next morning, to sit near the wireless modem and finally take care of computer things that had been building up during the past few days. I even had a visit from the campground cat, who was pathetically trying to drink from a near-empty cup just a bit smaller than its head. Unfortunately by the time I refilled the cup to the brim, the cat had moved on. The day’s ride was short, so I took my time in what I thought might be my last civilization for a few days. This would make the climb toward Nevado Chillan hot, but I needed the non-saddle time, and would have plenty of water along the way.

A dangerous game…

This was also the day of the world cup final, Argentina versus France, which I hoped to at least partly watch. Between heat, fatigue, and steady climbing, I had not been paying much attention to the time, so I was extremely lucky when I stopped into a mini-mercado for food and water to see that it had a TV and the game had gone into overtime, tied 2-2. Not five minutes after I arrived, and with only a few minutes remaining, Argentina scored a dazzling goal to pull ahead, and I thought the game was over. France’s subsequent penalty kick just after that off a hand ball was a shock. I don’t like how that rule works — a French player drilled a ball right at an Argentine one, and it happened to hit his elbow instead of his chest or thigh in a way that seemed unavoidable. But I suppose adding the word “deliberate” to the rules on hand balls would open up a whole drum of worms. The Chileans coming and going to the shop seemed slightly engaged and on Argentina’s side, but not really invested. I could not have predicted this, but it was just another thing making me wish more of this trip could have been done on the good side of the Andes.

Christmas Araucaria

After that excitement, I continued toward the ski area at Volcan Chillan’s base. As instructed by multiple signs, I dutifully checked in with the gendarmeria, but didn’t try to dissuade me. However, he informed me that there was no camping higher up. I found the next day that there were plenty of stealthy options, but after being busted my first night in what seemed like an out-of-the-way spot, I was a bit paranoid. I also wanted somewhere safe to leave most of my stuff while climbing the peak the next day. As it turns out, there are also no campgrounds in the last main village, so I reluctantly paid for an overpriced hotel. It turned out to be a nice one, so I tried to take as much advantage as possible, with a shower, shave, laundry, and internet-stuff. However, with a real bed and no loud neighbors, I was unable to stay awake beyond 8:00 PM. I took a nap, then decided to sleep and pack in the morning.