The Puyehue Volcano Zone Erupts!
We camped on top of this volcano in Chile a little over nine months ago. Now the zone it’s in, not the actual volcano, is erupting. We slept right there, just snoozing on the lip of the volcano, only 2.5 miles away from the now spewing Puyehue-Cordon Caulle complex. DCP, Lucas Debari and Xavier De Le Rue, Shin Campos, Joe Carlino, Scott Serfas and myself went on a grueling splitboard mission to ride the epic lines that run right into the heart of this crater. It was a damn fine trip, but it looks like we were about eight months to early for the real party.
Officials have already evacuated 3,500 people, and the plumes have shut down nearby airports. Apparently ash is raining down in the popular resort town of San Carlos De Bariloche. It’s hard to imagine the lush, green Patagonian mountains being blanketed in volcanic dust right now. The thick green vines and barren snowfields. The quaint ranch sounds of the cascading river, chirping birds and occasional heee-haw of the burros at El Caulle ranch. Even the cold quiet of our rickety refugio way up top-everything muted by a silent gray ash.
In lieu of the eruption I though I’d share the video and story from our trip with a personal photo gallery. Enjoy.
A Chilean Volcano Venture
By Ben Gavelda
(Featured in the February, 2011 Issue of TransWorld Snowboarding)
The largest earthquake ever recorded ravaged Chile in 1960. El Gran Terremoto de Chile nearly topped out the Richter scale with a 9.5 magnitude, sending massive tsunamis and destruction as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand, Alaska, and the Philippines. Immediately following the quake, the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle-a massive seam in the earth’s crust dotted with four huge volcanoes-began shaking and spewing ash over two miles high, for three months.
Fast-forward 50 years and this Puyehue stratovolcano is our destination. Its massive, mile wide crater sits on the western side of the Andes and gets hammered by snow. Inside, it’s steep and packed with lines. According to a USGS seismic map showing our proposed camp, we were headed right into the “severe to violent” shake zone of the 1960 quake. We’d be sleeping, riding, eating, and crawling around this vulnerable crag. The “what if” scenarios brewed in our heads as we prepared to depart.
Once down south, the juice dribbling down from homemade empanadas, our lush surroundings and the clouds that haloed the volcano’s summit kept our minds distracted from seismological worry. Our base at The El Caulle ranch sat a few kilometers from the border of Argentina and Chile, nestled in the valley below the Puyehue volcano. The small ranch was occupied by a group of gauchos (cowboys) who worked the land and provided outfitting services while a small family ran the guesthouse and served up the last good meal before you hit San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina. After a few days of soggy weather confined us to the musty guesthouse, we decided it was time to ascend.
The weathered leather faces of the gauchos cracked smiles as they loaded our crates of food, duffels, and snowboards onto the horses. It was a tedious process with our awkward gear, but by midday we were trotting toward the volcano-fifteen horses in total. DCP, Lucas Debari, Xavier de Le Rue, Shin Campos, photographer Scott Serfas, videographer Joe Carlino, our guides Jorge, Nico, Paula, and I were all laden with heavy packs, and given no horse-whispering instructions-just a bunch of snow gringos set loose in the Andes.
Xavier galloped and dodged around like a rodeo pro while the rest of us tried bonding with our beasts. The gauchos soon fell behind with the weight of our gear as the valley transformed from open pasture to dense, green jungle with thorny vines and colihue trees that resembled bamboo. DCP’s horse trampled and weaved off trail, whacking him with branches the whole way up while he carried on laughing, “Buen caballo, buen caballo.”
The trail continued to jut up and turned into a braid of steep, narrow, muddy ravines. The horses struggled. Serfas’ stallion stumbled and sank to its belly in mud then powered back out. With nowhere to go, nowhere to stop, and no horse “sense,” we kept riding up into the high alpine. Our legs became soaked with horse sweat from hugging them tightly up the steep grind. Then, one by one, our horses started stalling-their hearts pounding and lungs gasping with exhaustion. We had pushed them too hard with too much weight-and then we hit snow. We got off the horses, paused, and started to walk them in the deep slush. DCP and Nico started unloading gear from one of the caballos and it reared back, nearly crushing DCP.
By then the gauchos had caught up. They were irritated that we’d taken their animals so far. The snowy trail to our refugio (cabin)-the second base hut at treeline-was barred from horse travel. So, with bodies beat from saddles we hauled our gear, one heavy backpack load at a time up the steep, zigzagging trail to the refugio. It took numerous trips that night, and the next morning, to haul all our gear. It was foggy, wet, and cold in our mid-mountain refuge, but we were closer.
The El Caulle refugio was framed with thin trees from the nearby forests. Rough chainsaw scars showed in almost every piece of timber. The upright, uncut supports still had bark and bits of dried moss on them. A flaky white, metal roof topped it off and burlap sacks stuffed the rafters. Seven and a half bunks lined the inside, all cut from the same spindly trees and nailed with flat planks of scrap wood. The stove was barely larger than a shoebox and demanded constant tending if we wanted any heat at all. But then the gaping holes in the floor and the drafty seams in the door sucked out what little heat was generated. We squatted here in the fluctuating weather. Rain, snow, fog-it all came. A ripping gale tore across the tundra and strained through our hut on the second night. Our refugio rattled violently in the wind while each gust worked its way into our sleeping bags. The sounds of creaking metal and roaring wind laced into our dreams. Our refuge was dim and tattered, but it provided the shelter we needed. We gathered wood, read, and ate to pass time. We waited out the cold storms and constantly ate. It was an animalistic affair: someone constantly grubbed or spilled scraps here and there. Lucas became our Italian chef and the rest of us kept to scarfing and melting snow for drinking water.
The weather finally lightened up, but a halo still hovered over the summit. It was just clear enough to bring supplies toward the crater, so we skinned up with tents and food and stashed them a third of the way from the top, then retreated, fully engulfed in the lowering clouds. That night we celebrated DCP’s 30th birthday. Here he was on his first splitboard trip, weathering out a storm with bottles of pisco, vino, and rounds of cachos (a Yahtzee-style cup and dice game) with a bunch of strangers on a volcano. We were packed in and swamped with wet gear that our little stove just couldn’t dry. But his rambunctious personality burned inside the hut and infected everyone while frigid temperatures and snow hammered outside.
The day broke with clear skies and we anxiously pushed for the summit. We charged as fast as we could up the gully with our heavy packs as the clouds soared past. Then it hit-white, everywhere. The crew was socked in on a steep, sketchy face. The clouds had moved in so quickly we had no idea what was above, below, or around us. It was all white. So we waited. And waited. After almost an hour the fog cleared slightly and we continued our trek. Every step was cautious and dizzying-surrounded by the whiteness; vertigo was messing with us. It was late in the afternoon and our daylight was fading. We reached a relatively flat area and pitched our tents in the cold fog. Just as camp sprouted up the sun started to break through. The fog gradually dissolved and a juicy sunset emerged. Massive lakes opened up in the valley below, and finally, we glimpsed into the crater.
Breakfast Of Champions
“You guys should get out here,” Serfas murmured from outside our tents in the predawn cold. “Quit f-ing with us, Serfas!” spit from Lucas And DCP’s tent. Up until this point, Serfas’ ceaseless whining pegged him as the trip’s scapegoat. In this bitter cold, who’d want to leave their sleeping bag? “It’s clear, seriously. Get out here,” Serfas yelled again. “C’mon, really?” Joe groaned. Then the sounds of swishing nylon slowly started. Joe and I crawled out of the tent to clear, emerging daylight-the first we’d seen since we arrived. Our camping spot had been choice. Fifty feet from camp was the rim with endless lines plummeting to the crater floor. Waking up to the sun’s warm rays and newly fallen snow atop a peak of countless lines was like shedding a frigid cocoon and emerging anew. This exact moment is what we had dreamed of. Everything it took to get here suddenly didn’t matter anymore.
The whizzing of camp stoves and zrrrrp of zippers created rhythm and rejoice as we warmed up to the new day. Lucas defrosted his frozen-stiff boots by blasting them with his Jetboil. DCP fiddled with his splitboard. And before half the crew was even dressed, we heard Serfas yelling from the rim, “Xavier’s ready to drop, get up here!” Everyone stopped fidgeting with their iced-up gear and trudged over.
Xavier already scoped a line and was poised to drop. Then … Shhcrrakkkk … shcraaakk! He hacked a few turns into the icy face then plunged toward the crater’s bottom. He’d been awake for no more than 30 minutes-no tea, no breakfast-and tore into a hair-raising line while the rest of us still had crust in our eyes. Watching him disappear into the volcano snapped us right awake.
Morale teetered after the first run proved the snow was crap, though. Maybe it just hadn’t softened up yet, we thought-we hoped. Where was this new snow we’d seen? With 360 degrees of lines before us, one aspect had to hold powder. Lucas hiked further up the ridge. Then, “Dropping!” and more icy, gashing sounds echoed back. Meanwhile, DCP had trudged off in the opposite direction, up over a ridge to the north face. He disappeared for a while then came into view around a few massive cornices. He radioed, then dropped. His first turn threw up a tall spray of white. Hoots went up from camp as he continued to slice his way down the wall of spines and gullies throwing up pow. It was on.
Lucas, Xavier, David, and Shin started to hammer this face, working further east around the edge. They linked lines and dropped cliffs, then climbed back up the steep crater walls with ice axes. With his faint French accent and gasp of excitement Xavier raved, “It’s so good over there! It’s packed in and dense, but still powder-like AK snow!” He then laid into a turn on his third run and the entire bowl fractured. It was big, but it was shallow. He cut out over a rib, paused for a second to give a quick glance back, then continued down, dropping a cliff as the avalanche discharged to his left into the crater. Xavier was hardly fazed.
After lunch the runs continued, but distant clouds threatened the clear sky. The satellite phone brought a rudimentary weather forecast, and it wasn’t looking good. The possibility of getting socked in on the crater’s lip looked inevitable. After debate, we decided that we’d retreat back to our refugio or risk getting stranded on the volcano.
While half the group packed up camp, a few of us chased last runs in the crater. DCP, Xavier, Shin, Nico, Paula, and I ventured to the opposite edge of the volcano. We moved along the crater floor and the pungent smell of sulfur stung our noses as the massive flat of snow enveloped us. DCP and I crawled up the ridge and the sulfur smell intensified. Atop, we gazed north and saw rolling snow mounds and patches of steaming earth with vapors trailing into the sky. “Holy shit, it looks like the whole Whistler backcountry out there!” DCP barked with laughter. The rolling, treeless snowfields went as far as we could see. The Cordon-Caulle volcano occupied the west, the massive Mencheca rose in the east. The ridge led us to a giant wall of open faces ready for the taking. We spread apart and each slashed one last run into the crater. After we inched out, we slung our 60-pound packs over our backs and the entire group headed to the refugio in the fading light. This time we weren’t retreating-we had conquered.
The next morning we woke to Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) and barreling rain. Jorge told us that no Chilean in their right mind missed this celebration, especially not the 200th anniversary and the entire country would be hammered drunk. That meant no gauchos or caballos would come to get us. We packed our bags to the fullest-the weight tearing them at the seams and crushing our shoulders. Then rode and tumbled down what snow was left, and tromped through mud, sweat, horseshit, and rain for hours until we finally reached the verdant valley floor. One by one we dropped the packs from our bruised shoulders, tore off scuffed gear, stretched our worn bodies, and simply gazed back up to the summit as if it were a world away.
¡Vamos A Chile!
Andes Cross Personal Guiding
Want to ride a volcano? How about Andean backcountry? For snowboarding, hiking, climbing, or just a soak in some remote termas calientes (hot springs), Jorge, Nico, and the crew at Andes Cross Guiding will make it happen-with a cheers the entire way.
A base camp for backcountry adventure. Farm-fresh food, addictive empanadas, remote hot springs, fly-fishing, and backcountry riding all start from here. One-hour drive from Cañal Bajo Airport (Osorno), Chile.
Termas Aguas Calientes de Puyehue
Soak your weary bones before or after your trip. Rejuvenating hot springs on the river, a half hour from El Caulle.