Skiing South America: The Grand Finale – Volcano Lanin, 3770m

After climbing and skiing Villarrica and Llaima in Chili with variable conditions and then experiencing epic freeride powder skiing back in Argentina, I felt my motivations was a little over volcanoes!  These beautiful mountains look straightforward to climb and ski, but they are actually really hard work and difficult. The wind is always a damaging factor for snow and there is a lot of wind here in Patagonia doing its worst kind of damage.  Skinning up the face on skies is often not possible and walking on large bobbles of ice  (shaped by the wind) makes the going up on crampons slow and clumsy and most of the time, just annoying.  And that is even before we consider the going down on skis that can politely be called ‘interesting’ at best.  So when I said I was over skiing volcanoes I thought I meant it.

However,  I did have one exception, wrapped up in a few conditions. The biggest volcano Lanin rises majestically 3770 meters above the boarder between Argentina and Chili.  To not attempt a climb and ski this beautiful mountain would have been a shame.  But, I was only going to attempt it if the weather improved and it warmed up a little to soften the climb and ski and limit the chances of frost bite.  You can also do this summit in one hit leaving the base at 1am, or alternatively stay in a small hut over night (half way up the face) and summit the next morning.  I wanted to do the latter that meant we needed at least 2 days of clear weather. As weather windows are pretty rare in this part of the world I secretly hoped my conditions had ruled out a possible attempt on this trip. So when Ross spotted 2 days of no wind and clear skies I had to accept my conditions were met and we quickly packed our kit and drove the 5 hours to the border-crossing where the walk-in starts.

To climb this mountain you have to check in with the park ranger first and present all your safety kit that has to include a radio….. that we didn’t have. Luckily two Americans arrived at the same time armed with the needed radio.  After a quick introduction and agreement that we would look out for each other we set off on the long walk to the hut at 2315m.

Photo by Ross Hewitt

The walk in with my sleeping kit tied to the outside of my ski bag.  It was a long slow hike with the extra weight.

Photo by Ross Hewitt

The hut that was just a concrete structure.  Very basic but kept us out of the chilly wind

We arrived at the hut after the Americans.  With only one bunk bed in the hut between four of us Ross and I got the floor.  It was going to be a long a painfully cold night.  Still, we had a nice meal and chatted to the boys who wanted to ski the same East Couloir as us.  The following morning we arrived at the summit the same time as the guys. It was the first perfect windless and clear day of the whole trip.  The view across the Andes was just breathtaking.

Photo by Ross Hewitt

We teamed up with the two Americans boys and skied over to the top of the East Couloir from the summit.  Brody Leven dropped in and skied effortlessly down to a safe point to watch the rest of us ski.  Next, Adam Clarke dropped in but after a few tentative side steps he looked up and with a nervous voice told us it was too steep to ski.  My stomach did a turn, it didn’t look steep from the top but I started to worry a little that maybe things would be a little different once I got into the couloir.  Next was Ross who also hesitated once he got in surprised by the change in slope angle.  Now I was really nervous.

I got out my axe for security and stepped down into the top of the couloir.  They were right, IT WAS REALLY STEEP!!!! My heart started to speed up and my mind went into overdrive trying to sort out the best way to ski.  The slope fell away from me at an angel of 50 degrees or more and a cliff band 50 metres below and after that, the bottom of the volcano.  It was definitely a no fall zone! What made it worse was that that the three boys before me had scraped most of the snow off the route. I was standing on ice and I didn’t feel very good at holding my edges for long.  At this angle with fall consequences a normal ski turn is not possible.  Jump turns are the safest way down slopes this steep and they are hard with heavy packs and skis on.

I carefully side-stepped down and across the face to get to a snow band, still holding onto my axe that was planted in the snow.  I could feel the snow slipping under my feet as I stepped down, I couldn’t wait much longer as it was getting warm in the couloir. I either had to climb out or put my axe away and get going.  My stubbornness not to give up in front of 3 boys would not let me go back out so I put my axe away and gathered my nerves.  I was conscious that I was taking too much time so I just went for it.  I did the biggest jump turn I could and landed it…..phew!!! As I got into my rhythm I started to gain confidence and as I slowly made my way down the steep section the sloped leveled out to 45 degrees and I could open up my turns to meet up with the boys.  As the ski had been more challenging than anyone had expected everyone was smiling and pretty psyched when I met up with them – I was so happy to get the upper section over with. We were still high up on the face but the ski down to the traverse and back to the hut was pretty straightforward and on really good snow.

The entry into the East Couloir: doesn’t look that steep from here!
Photo by Ross Hewitt

The lower part of the couloir.  Here the slope has leveled out to about a nice 45 degrees and I managed to find some nice  powder turns Photo by Ross Hewitt

Lanin and the steeper East couloir marked in red. Photo by Ross Hewitt

We got back to the base at around 3 pm to a very excited park ranger who had watched us ski.  He told us that we were the first to ski from the summit this season and only part of a handful of skiers who had ever skied this  East line.  What was even more exciting was that he thought I was the only female to have ever skied this couloir.  I need to check and confirm this as a first descent, but more than anything this was one of the most inspiring and unique lines I have and probably will ski, definitely the highlight of the trip for me

The mid section of the volcano with the snow capped Andes in the background: Photo by Ross Hewitt