Backcountry Skiing in Chile
Backcountry skiing in Chile is a must do for those who like to travel and ski. The Chilean volcano circuit is an incredible experience if you like big days and ski mountaineering. If you’re coming from the northern hemisphere early fall is a perfect time to explore the onset of the austral spring. The days are relatively long, the snowpack is well settled and the weather tends to stabilize in September and October. The Chilean Andes are long and varied and offer many different possibilities for backcountry skiing.
To the east of Santiago the mountains tower over 5000m and offer a drier climate. Further south, in the Araucanía Region, araucaria trees and deciduous forests rise up to approximately 1500m and provide open and well spaced tree skiing. Araucaria trees are endangered and some of them are over one thousand years old. Above that, the height of land rises up to nearly 4000m and the expansive alpine yields boundless terrain for backcountry enthusiasts to explore.
The Chilean volcanoes are an incredible ski mountaineering experience. The towering peaks stand proud above their surroundings and the spring is the perfect time to seek them out. Their elevation ranges from 2000m to over 3700m and they generally offer incredible ski descents. You might get lucky and get to ski them in powder conditions, but more commonly the provide corn skiing and melt freeze cramponing to their summits.
After a night on the plane, I arrived in Temuco in the late afternoon of September 18th, Chile’s National Holiday. Town was basically shut down except for a cool little bar that serves pizza and craft beer. As I sipped my beer while I waited for my pizza, the waitress poked a bucket of coals and warmed her hands. The friendly service and a decent sized city that is heated primarily with wood made it plainly clear that I was now in Chile.
The following morning, I picked up my client at the Temuco airport and we headed to Curacautín, a small town just west of Volcan Lonquimay. The 18th blends into the 19th and most everything was still shut down. We took the opportunity to take in a bit of Chilean culture and headed to a local festival. Traditional Chilean music blared from 30 or so booths that were serving variations of the same menu—terramotos (a potent boozy admixture of chicha, pisco, grenadine and some other contents), empanadas, completos (basically a hot dog with guacamole and tomatoes), choripan (sausage on a bun) and skewers of grilled meat. While old men sipped maté and grilled meats over wood fires, the younger crowd proceeded to get fall down drunk. The scene was as poignant as the scent of the wood smoke blended with horse manure.
After a solid sleep, we headed to Volcán Lonquimay the next day. The clear morning gave us fantastic view of the summit and the surrounding mountains. However a cold front arrived when we were about 500m below the summit. The ensuing power flurries yielded whiteout conditions and marginal skiing in the treeless landscape.
We based out of a small mountain town called Malalcahuello for the next four days. Situated at 1000m between Lonquimay and Sierra Nevada, with a couple of different commercial hot springs nearby, it’s a great place for a town based backcountry ski trip. We were able to capitalize on some spring pow turns on account of the unsettled weather and got to tour through the 1000 year old araucaria trees on few different occasions.
When the weather cleared up we were able to ski off the summit of Lonquimay and enjoy a nice après cerveza on the Corralco ski area patio.
Our plan for this trip was to split time between Malalcahuello and Pucón. So the following day we hit the road and travelled south to Pucón. Pucón is a touristy town on the shore of Lago Villarica and below the mighty Volcán Rucapillán (Villarica). Rucapillán is very much an active volcano and currently smokes on a daily basis.
We had some unsettled weather one day and decided to check out some local hot springs. The lush Huife valley’s sinuous roads led us past pastoral farms where sheep and cattle grazed in the drizzle. Fog hung low in the valley and the river coursed past us as we sat in the well appointed pools of the Termas Huife. The contrast of the hot water of the pools and the cold plunges in the river made for an incredible rest day.
Fortunately for the last two days of skiing, we had clear skis and perfect conditions for Rucapillán. A solid melt freeze crust made for fast travel and sound cramponing up the slopes of the 2800m volcano. While the winds buffeted us from the northeast, we sought shelter in a scooped terrain feature to take a break and eat a snack. As we entered the feature we were greeted by a friendly crew of Pucón locals. Their stoke was infectious and they welcomed us into their backyard with open arms.
Due to the cold wind it was questionable as to weather the upper slopes of Rucapillán would soften that day, so we decided to ski a couple of fantastic corn runs on the lower half of the mountain.
Rucapillán is a massive piece of terrain and offered two days of touring in different areas—one could easily spend a number of days exploring the different aspects and features on it. However we only had two days to explore it and after we stepped out of our skis, we packed our skis, changed into street clothes, jumped into the van and headed to the Temuco airport to catch a flight to Santiago.
If I were to offer one piece of advice, it’s to plan a day in Santiago at the end or beginning of your trip. The vibrant city is more temperate than southern Chile and is influenced by northern Chile. There are interesting markets to explore and old parts of the city to see. You can sample incredible ceviche if you like and take in street music and art. From me, it was a great way to cap off a fun trip.