It was pure love of adventure which drove Harry and myself to Chile.
We didn’t know much about the country, but the pictures of snow-covered volcanoes and mountains sufficed to make us look for sponsors. I put together a small press kit, which was unable to draw sponsors for our Chile trip. After countless attempts at notable supply companies, Salomon was interested in supporting our idea to climb some of Chile’s volcanoes and snowboard down their slopes. At that time, Salomon put a new hiking boot on the market. We were to test the Salomon Super Mountain 9 for climbing but also as an alternative for snowboard shoes.
Well, we did not stick (always) to the plan because curiosity drove as to the sand dunes as well where we had lots of fun (and scratches) exploring the sand dunes with the snowboards.
A friend gave us a contact in Chile. Hans was a down-to-earth shift worker from Bad Hall, who, in the 90s, was fed up with life, took his scant savings and a one-way ticket to Chile, where he still lives today. He settled south of Villarrica, and the volcano of the same name, so we settled on this town as the starting point for our adventure trip through Chile.
Harry and I organized two big, sturdy ski bags to hold the snowboards as well as all our other gear. In the end, we had 96 kg luggage altogether. No wonder, since we also carried mountaineering tools like ropes and pickaxe. At the airport, we checked in our huge, heavy ski bags as sports luggage and really only had to pay a ridiculously small sum extra to get both bags to Santiago/Chile.
The true challenge began in Santiago de Chile itself because we still had to get our packs 750 km further to Villarrica. I can recommend two companies for this (and any other) bus trips in Chile. Even if there can be small difficulties and delays, they are both reliable and excess luggage is no problem.
Hans was already waiting for us in Villarrica, and thanks to his big pick up, our ski bags were no problem either. We drove over forest and dirt roads to his small farm and felt totally free. Far from home, somewhere at the edge of a town, we sat sweaty and content in a rusty banger, our heads full of adventures bigger than our luggage. Exhale … and simply enjoy. A gunshot echoed through the valley early next morning, thoroughly waking us despite the exertions of our journey. Hans had shot down a pig for us, which he grilled over an open fire a few hours later, in the style typical of (southern) South America CHILENISCHES ASADO
What a welcome, what a life … Bienvenidos a Chile
We stayed for two weeks on Hans’ farm and its magnificent surroundings. The main reason was our search for a car – unfortunately, no pickup or 4 wheels drive. Our budget and the small extra from Salomon wasn’t enough for that … an old Lada would have to do. We attached all our sponsors’ company logos and started out for the volcano around four o’clock in the morning. We parked the car near the small ranger station and started our ascent while it was still dark. The flashlights on our foreheads, combined with the reflections from the snow, shed enough light on the icy surroundings. The first hour we climbed without spurs/crampons, but the slope got steeper and the expanses of sheer ice got larger, so we attached the spurs/climbing irons on the Salomon Super Mountain 9 shoes.
We both had our snowboards attached to our rucksacks, and with the ice pick for safety, we ascended quickly. Shortly before the peak of Villarrica, a strong smell of sulfur clearly indicated that it was an active volcano.
The view from 2840 m VILLARRICA VULKAN is terrific, to be enjoyed for a longer or shorter time, depending on the volcano’s activity (last eruption in March 2015). We attempted our downhill descent from the peak, but due to the heavily iced areas, it was only possible to do so on a snowboard from appr. 2500 m, which made it a “short” pleasure trip, with the right gear and depending on the weather.
Next, our little Lada took us into the North of the Atacama Desert, where we intended to climb the Incahuasi. The drive from Villarrica to Copiapo was 1560 km and an adventure in itself, but we managed somehow. We still had to overcome another 200 km, and the Lada was meant to get us up to a height of 4281m.
It was an unreasonable demand for the vehicle and took us two days. The last stretch we had to drive in first gear and were overjoyed to reach Laguna Verde, LAGUNA VERDE our base camp for acclimatization.
The car served us as kitchen and bedroom but above all, it offered shade when temperatures climbed to +40° during the day. Extreme fluctuations in temperature like in the Atacama Desert, where within 24 hours they could vary by 50°, are hard to bear for the body. We experienced days when the thermometer reached up to +40°during the day and quickly fell to -10° after sunset. After three days of acclimatization and exploration of the closer surroundings, we placed our first steps up the Cerro Incahuasi 6621 m.
Heights is of course always an issue, but in this case, it was the fluctuations in temperature and the lack of water which made our ascent a big challenge. Next to our rucksacks, we each carried 14 l of water, divided into two canisters. Since the ascent is long and the snow border doesn’t start until appr. 5200M, you have to haul it. The tour got progressively more difficult for Harry since his constant headache was now joined by a persistent nosebleed, not uncommon at this height. The night in the tent was freezing and our mood corresponded. We eagerly awaited the first rays of the sun and sipped hot instant soup before repacking our bags with clammy fingers. Day two went well, but we couldn’t stem Harry’s nosebleed, hence the second night was an ordeal for him and we decided to forget tomorrow’s attempt at the peak for safety reasons.
The next morning I went up to 6000 m with my crampon and ice ax Penitente (snow formation) before our joint return. Harry’s condition improved after a few hours and a few hundred meters off descending, all that remained was the blood encrusted nose. We arrived exhausted but relieved that Harry was well again at our base camp, our Lada.
We had guessed that the Lada wouldn’t survive our whole trip through Chile, but its early demise on the scarcely used road from the Atacama Desert still surprised us. Broken front axle … at 4200m
We threw all our gear (the nearly 100kg luggage) and the two number plates into the Lada’s shadow, look at each other in silence, glance at the water canisters, and start swearing. There are few cars on this road, our minds wondered to worst fantasies of getting left behind here in the Atacama desert. There we stood at the side of the road, thumbs ready to hitch, waiting in the scant shade of the car …
On day one there were five cars that stopped, of course, after all, we were visible from afar. They all inquired what had happened, but nobody had any space for us! In the afternoon of day two, our prayers (or curses) were answered and a large family with two pickup trucks stopped and offered us a ride. After much rearranging and tying down of luggage, each of us stood on the bed of a pickup, protecting any exposed body parts with sunglasses and head scarf from the sun’s glare … and off we went. The two Argentinian drivers didn’t go easy on their cars. While we tore through the Atacama in clouds of dust and sand, this abrasive mixture of dust and sand ate through every crack in our gear and our mummified exterior.
Upon arrival at the main square of Copiapo, we promptly turned into an attraction, as everyone laughed at the two gringos who tried to get to grips with being mummified sacks of sand. Despite exhaustive (pre)cleaning – from our point of view – two hotels refused us admittance. We got lucky at the third and spent the next two days thoroughly cleaning our gear and in the bars of Copiapo. We had simply left the Lada behind; friends of us sent us a photo a year later when they went the same road on their motorbikes. Only its skeleton was left, the rest had found takers.
On the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales
We reduced our luggage and made the journey from Copiano to Puerto Montt by bus. The unbelievably rich seafood and offered fish in Puerto Montt’s harbor had fascinated both. Cooked over open fire, steamed or baked, you name it… we enjoyed all of it. Four days on board, the cheapest cabin and thirst for more adventure – that was enough to be in a good mood. Calm days, stormy days and really stormy days, as you know from the history of Patagonia. We crossed the “Gulf of suffering” (Golfo de Penas), where Charles Darwin wrote a large part of his theory of evolution on the HMS Beagle. A really beautiful place. Punta Arenas welcomed us and we felt overwhelmed in this little harbor town at the end of the world.
There were countless adventure stories to be heard in the bars and hot coffee by a crackling fire as you listen to the wind howling around the houses.
We were totally fascinated to get so close to the glacier that we forgot all the danger about it. Later and with great respect, we climbed even around on it. The play of colors at the glacier got us hooked as well and a day after we continued with the bus to El Chaltén. At that time, 1998, El Chaltén had no more than 75 people permanently living there! And just in summer time the amount of people increases because to tourists, climbers, hikers and seasonal stuff for the tourism industry.
There we were closer to the legendary stories of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (who delivered the mail by plane) and the climbing legends Cesare Maestri and Jim Bridwell amongst others. We could even go on a short expedition to see the remains of e.g. Jim Bridwell’s camp. We were simply thrilled and explored everywhere our feet would carry us within two weeks. Usually, the weather makes this difficult in this area, but in the summer of 1998, El Nino brought an unusually warm and stable summer to Patagonia. We explored what we could between Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy up to Paso del Viento.
Harry and I spent three months in all in Chile. Every plan changed due to the conditions on site, and so we simply enjoyed this instructive and exciting journey which captivated us with its myriad of features from start to finish.
Chile, spring 1998