So there we were riding the white line towards Chilán. Our trip essentially over before it even started. The conical stratovolcanic shadow promised to hide us from the destabilized world. Curfew was upon us. A military imposed curfew at that. Strange times in a country stretched so long across the meridians of this earth. The bumps grew bigger and the chassis cried in pain as we made haste on the country roads. The Ruta Cinco (pan American highway) had been home to recent protests that we want no part of in our cartoon-laden van (see pictures of MEME Harry). As we made our way to the epicenter of the chaos we were working diligently to avoid the brunt reality of twilight in Santiago.
The nature of our decisions on a ski expedition would usually root in storm totals, temperatures, blue skies and white lines upon google earth imagery. But alas, we moved somewhat forcefully through the Chilean countryside into objectives that unfolded around the bend. The entity of our beings took a hit. Lack of sleep crept into view as we negotiated cramped van quarters (three humans in a Mitsubishi L300). Every day we caught a new glimpse of news from one of Major cities. Per usual, the news anchors shone light upon the doom and gloom of the situation. Our local friends translated the news to us in disbelief. Just days ago Chile was the most stable country upon South American soil. Now, amidst brutal inequality and frustration towards the government, it’s a country in upheaval. At the core of the Chilean discontent lay President Sebastian Pinera. Anger towards this billionaire politician was physically evident as we traversed a longitudinal path towards the Zona Sur. The clashing erupted in the urban centers and quickly cascaded towards the periphery. Amongst the visible signs and symptoms were spray-painted signs, human roadblocks, shattered windows, armed militia, and fires that entranced the eyes of chanting protesters. But it was the invisible momentum, the hearts and souls of the Chileans, which was overwhelmingly evident.
But I digress. Let me pick up the pieces from the beginning of our journey.
Smog hid the Andean Alpine to the east. We were touching down into Santiago amidst fires not unlike floral imitations of the trash below. The colors shone bright under the strong southern sun. We welcomed the smells, sights, sounds and series of clatters as the planes doors released fresh South American air into the stagnant confines of the Boeing 787 fuselage. Nine hours of recirculated air released back into the world. Customs came and went without a hitch and all of the sudden we were being recruited by all of the cities taxi drivers all at once. This was my first taste of Chilean Spanish. The rate at which words came out of their mouths was nothing less than impressive. We found our shuttle to the van shop, loaded up our somewhat embarrassing amount of gear, and made way. The road opened up to the smell of farms and fresher air after a couple hours of organization, paperwork, grocery shopping, and of course a wrong turn or two. We were en route to our first turns of the season: Volcan Villarica.
Villarica greeted us with blue skies and volcanic, velvet corn as we ascended roughly 6000’ to the smoking crater. The initial ascent started around one o’clock in the afternoon due to our long travels of the previous day. The warmth of the spring South American sun radiated abound towards our now melting bodies. This went on for a few thousand feet as dehydration and lack of sleep became readily apparent in our movement. About 1000’ from the “cumbre” we ran into a local Chilean who warned us that a shift in the winds meant a quickly approaching storm. And in the blink of an eye a storm started to move in as if the mountain itself was trying to envelop us within its icy hot grasp. We quickly transitioned off of the summit and down through some heavily rimed snow structures (think mushrooms) only to be bequeathed by beautiful turns in a pocket of moisturizing cloud. It all went white. For the next 2000 feet we rode by sight of our ascent path upon the Chilean corn. We arrived to the lower terminus of the volcano with happiness and glee that our first turns of the season were so delightful.
We stopped by our friend’s house on the way into town and gathered some information on how to continue our journey south to the Northern Patagonia Icefields. We talked about the discontentment of the people and how riots had begun in the city center of Santiago. This was the first of the political unrest news to us as we had flown into Chile and promptly taken our van for a ten hour red eye cruise into Pucón the night prior. As hindsight has it, the traffic and overall tone of the people seemed to directly reflect this occurrence. Though in our ignorance, it just seemed like a bustling that we were not accustomed to. Our friend told us of some good restaurants in town and we made haste.
Dusk was upon us with no less than a Chil-Asian fusion feast at our table. Unexpectedly, the streets were filled with people chanting in a seemingly angry tone and a fire was burning in the street. Police were standing by with inquisitive eyes as they let protesters expel their energy upon the glowing aura of the municipality building. The taste of smoke in the air paired well with the tambourines and chants that “la lucha es en calle” (the fight is in the street). After some time spent observing the scene, we decided to move on towards the prospect of free camping. Sleep deprivation took hold of our minds and our thoughts became blurs of reality.
Night sent us into a dreamscape through its light, tickling rains whispering upon the tin roof of our van. We awoke, drearily, to a deep-seated cloud. And so it happened that the weather nudged us further south. Our destination: Volcan Orsorno.
As we embarked, a local Chilean warned us that the revolution would mean limited resources amidst political and economic uncertainty. So we departed for our next volcanic voyage under the stressful notion that gas and groceries were going to be hard to come by. And indeed they were. We exited town back towards the main Ruta Cinco and passed hour long gas lines along the way before eventually deciding that we would need to join the ranks and wait our turn for a “quatro” or full tank. This stop got us all the way to the town at the base of Volcon Orsorno, where we again waited for almost an hour as the generator driven gas station crept slowly towards dry tanks.
Our fuel gauge now read full and we were slowly creeping up a steep, windy road towards complete and utter darkness. The landscape gave way from a riparian oasis into into a barren volcanic wasteland. The winds increased and the snow filled the road. We knew our two wheel drive van wouldn’t make it much further without the support of chains. So at midnight in the midst of a South American Blizzard we stopped the car in the middle of the road (there was no-one in their right mind within miles of us), got out the floor jack, and got to work. After some time spent amongst the bitter cold volcanic winds we were on our way. Only to hear an audible “POP” about 5 minutes into our drive. One of the chains blew but we had no choice than to keep our momentum upwards and try and make it to a flat area to reassess. The remaining chain championed an incredible feat as we pulled into a shared parking area for a Refugio and the CONAF (national park) office.
The clock struck one o’clock in the morning. We hadn’t eaten for 12 hours and we knew that the following day would be a wash if calories didn’t begin to replenish our little bodies. Two o’clock in the morning- dishes partially washed and our faces melted into the pillows with full bellies and a now warming van from our body heat.
We awoke to clearing skies, stiff winds and fresh snow in turbulent suspension amidst the backdrop of an endless white mountainside. The clouds moved faster than our words and halted any thought of attempting to climb into the uncertainty of what was above. This was a fairly metaphorical morning for the trip in general. So we posted up on the CONAF picnic table and started up a breakfast platter complete with dirty oatmeal and tea. At some point a CONAF officer came walking out of the clouds with a 100liter backpack amidst the cheffing that had ensued. He motioned for us to come inside and apologized for his lack of English. We communicated just fine with him and understood that he would not allow us to attempt the Volcano that day. We had other plans.
After breakfast, we packed up the van and departed for a different parking area (away from the sight of prying eyes). The weather had begun to shift and we decided that we would at least gear up and start walking to see if we could sneak a “cumbre” in for the afternoon. We walked in a peaceful serenade of clouds, softening winds, and rays of sun upon our backs. Lago Llanquhue shone bright below and the neighboring Volcan Calbuco loomed beautifully upon the horizon. What a beautiful day it was. We crested the summit ridge in near disbelief on both our timing and the microclimate near the top of the volcano. The winds changed from light to gale force in the blink of an eye, the snow texture changed from velvet to course under our very feet, and the summit (now 500 feet away) seemed a distant piece of our imaginations. We motioned to eachother that we needed to seek refuge and decide what next to do. So we pushed for a large rime structure that gave just enough protection from the wind to recalibrate our thoughts and decide that the remaining 200 feet were both unskiable and unbearable in the current weather. We transitioned and took a few thousand feet of beautiful turns above a glistening lake towards our van, Harold.
We stopped into the Refugio to get an update on political happenings and the news seemed bleak. After a few minutes we decided to try and get dinner and internet in a nearby town and figure out our next moves. Those moves were sure to be governed by what we would see on the television in the coming hours. Over the course of our previous 48 hours of travel, protests had turned violent and were surging in numbers. Multiple buildings had been burnt to the ground including subway stations, private energy corporations and super markets. Lider (walmart) had shut down its stores due to an estimated 60 stores being looted. Gas stations were boarding up their pumps, people were taking to the streets in peaceful and violent protests that were becoming indistinguishable to the naked eye, and the country seemed to be in upheaval from north to south. President Pinera issued a state of emergency and ordered military troops to the streets and imposed mandatory curfews for the first time since the violent Pinochet regime that ended in 1990. This, as we came to find from many locals, was unsettling to the populous.
Many flower child Chileans remember a life wrought with regular curfew, oppression, blatant human rights violations and military control for nearly two decades between 1973-1990. As the news of political unrest spread like wildfire, some were frightened that they were starting to see a flashback to those earlier times. As we spoke to a local, he tread lightly around that subject as if not to offend or discourage us from being in the country. Though, a quick internet search revealed that the Augusto Pinochet Military Junta was widely seen as a US backed coup d’etat when it overthrew the existing government in 1973. We were now in between keeping our skiing adventure alive and being all too entangled in a cultural adventure that blindsided us entirely.
We spent the next few hours trying to figure out a game plan. The government subsidized ferries that lead south towards our objectives were now closed. Human road blocks and outbreaks of violent protests curbed our desire to enter through major cities. Rumors of flight cancellations, and newly imposed curfews on the smaller towns were amongst other worries. So we decided to try one last hurrah and see if another couple of days would bring resolve to the situation. We put eyes on the nearby Volcan Calbuco. Modest in height but endurance laden, this peak was not on our original hitlist but organically bloomed from its proximal status.
We arrived at one of the access points for the volcano to find a closed sign. The sign said something along the lines of a danger of loose ground. We decided that resources were not focused on keeping people out of closed areas and decided that this would not affect our decision to continue on. But damn were they right. The riverbanks that lead up to the 2500’ snowline were obviously affected by significant hydro activity. Newly formed braids eroded away under our feet, basalt columns caged us into a beautiful array of rainforest-like vegetation. We were sure we were being followed by a band of ruthless monkeys. But alas, it was just the birds calling out danger as we may have been the first people to disrupt their habitat in some time.
The banks grew narrower and the basalt ribs deeper as the glacial blue water echoed in the narrow canyons below. Soon, we were upon an unusual surface that took a moment to identify. Lava! We were standing on hardened lava from the 2015 eruption of Calpuco. The flow was impressive at a mile long, maybe more. We meandered through the field towards an imposing cliff and thundering waterfall at the base of the snowline. After a few minutes we had gained the cliff via a weakness through steep, vegetated boulders. We were finally staring at the snow. The problem was that the scale of this dwarven peak was not unlike that of a peak five times its height. The intricacy of the knolls, cliffs, varying ridges, and complex faces would come and go with the wax and wane of the clouds above. The ominous curtain was seemingly being drawn as if only to wet the palette. We had walked for hours to get to a face that we quickly understood we would not be attempting.
It wasn’t a terribly hard decision to pull the plug on our objective given the lack of visibility at hand. But retracing out steps back to the van came with some difficulties. The steep, vegetated slopes that we had easily gained by grabbing vines and bushes were much more slick when trying to descend them. Though, we had ample daylight and took our time as we meandered back towards the lava flow. After a while we crossed our final river and were back at the banks that guarded our van.
We sorted some gear (mostly dry as we hadn’t gotten on snow), and mobilized to try and make dinner at our friend Connie’s house about an hour and a half to the west. The drive was quite pleasant as we meandered country roads through oddities and normalities of Chilean life. It wasn’t until we arrived at the town of Puerto Montt that we reemerged in the chaos of everyday life. Scars of previous nights protests were etched into the streets and tattered retention walls. We managed to avoid anything unsettling until we were upon one of the main streets that lead back onto the main highway. At that point we were approaching a group of people making very clear their position on the current political atmosphere. They did not seem violent but we didn’t want to stay to find out. About fifty people bashing on all sorts of household items and chanting words we were not quick enough to understand ebbed and flowed towards traffic as if to play a game of chicken. We swerved lightly towards the oncoming traffic before stepping on the accelerator towards Frutillar.
They say that hindsight is 20/20. But in this case our trip blurs into a near euphoric and surreal thought. Oh the joys of adventure…