skiing volcan villiaria

 Skiing the North face of Volcan Villarrica

Time Round Trip: 4-7 hrs
Total Ascent: 5000 ft
Difficulty: Moderate- Skiing is mellow 30 degrees 
in good conditions you can skin to the summit.
Elevation: 9341 ft / 2847 m
Season: Best in Mid August to October 
Location: Araucanía, Chile, South America
GPS: 39.42108°S / 71.94036°W
Pro tips: Active volcano- bring gas masks for summit.


Getting there: This one is easy. From Pucon take Camino Al Volcan until you hit the ski resort. Consider chains if snowing.

Lines to come back for: The north face is the most obvious, but the east face is steeper and no one is around. You would end up with a big traverse to get back so maybe better to ski the steep shot from the top and summit again.

Summary: Villarrica Volcano was shrouded in the clouds, looming somewhere above another rainy down day. We were soggy and slightly down trodden after our first few days in Nevados de Chillán after a snow storm dumped 2 meters on the tiny resort in 3 days. Reminiscent of my days in the Pacific Northwest, the bottomless snowpack was rendered useless by warm temperatures and excessive moisture meaning we spent more time ringing out of our base layers and socks than skiing. 

Located just outside of the town of Pucón, Villarrica is one of the most climbed volcanos in the long volcanic spine of Chile. Pucón is a vacation capitol for Santiago with dozens of bars, restaurants, lakes and of course tour companies to keep you entertained. At times it seems like every other shop you pass is another turismo service offering to take you to one of the dozens of natural hot springs, canopy adventures or on a long conga line to the volcano's rim. Although we were going for more of the DIY adventure we did need to rent gas masks from one of the shops, for Villarrica is an active volcano and trying to peer in the crater risks burning eyes and seared lungs from the sulphuric steam billowing from it's caldera (crater). Respirators in hand, we were going for it mañana.

Waking again to the pitiful pattering of rain, we had to resist the urge to roll back over and dream of drier Colorado days. I glanced out the window and to my surprise, found where Orion had been hiding during our previous Northern Hempisphere August days and knew that this was the window we were waiting for. Now it was only a matter of how long it would be until our Peugeot 301 rental car equipped with pathetically bald tires would fail us on the 20km drive up the Camino del Volcán to the base of the mountain. A little over half way we hit a dusting of snow that left us pushing the car uphill for every inch and it seemed like adding 4km to the approach would be mandatory. Right when we were ditching the car into the closest snow bank, a pickup truck came rattling buy and we piled into the bed for another open air approach which were becoming iconic for the trip.

Ski mountaineering on volcanos can be completely different on any given day. There massive vertical relief insure entirely different climates from summit to mid mountain and again to base. In 2 years of living in Portland Oregon and training on Mount Hood I never managed to hit the mountain in good conditions from top to bottom. If it couldn't be done in a few dozen attempts on my local volcano, there seemed very little chance that our 1 day window to ski Villarricca would offer up a perfect top to bottom descent. Soon the darkness gave way to early alpenglow and the volcanic cone was blanketed with an uninterrupted shrouded of sticky white powder. Things were looking good.

Villarrica volcano ski tour

Doug begins the climb towards the powder and steam of Villarrica

We began the tour up a cat road road through the sleepy resort and were already finding deep soft snow to either side of the groomed strip. As we approached the end of the operating lifts and maintained trails, an Italian passed us at full Euro rando speed- unencumbered by his Dynafit Vulcan boots and Black Crows Navis Freebird skis. It took a few internal pep talks to remind myself that this was vacation and not a race to the summit, even if first tracks were at stake. We later found he was a local and the highest level of guide in Chile and his skin track and trail breaking was most appreciated.

Towards the top of a large bowl we were caught by another local and employee at the ski shop El Frances- one of the few proveyers of ski touring gear in the country. With locations in Nevados de Chillán and Pucón they are an excellent resource for mid trip binding malfunctions in Chile. There was one other couple on the mountain with us bringing total skiers to 7 including us! On a day like this on Hood, the volcano would be fully mobbed. This demonstrated that although gaining popularity, ski touring is still a rather fledgling sport in South America.

Summit ski ascent volcano Villarrica

 Brian and Doug eye up the final push, distance and scale are so hard to judge on volcanos

Gary and I put some distance on Brian who was methodically dragging his splitboard to the top. Since we were in constant contact with our BCA link radios we pushed ahead to get a quick bonus lap in a wide open bowl above an abondoned lift terminal. This short lap was a small taste of the dry yet supportive powder giving us quick slashing turns instead of the trenching wet ones we had experienced early in the trip. Satiatied with the small taste of powder, and knowing hundreds of more turns awaited us up ahead, we quickly transitioned caught up to Brian and hurried towards the summit together. 

There were a few final crux kick turns through the rime ice pillars guarding the summit but soon we were strapping on crampons to explore the active crater. Although this was my 6th volcano of a super extended 2017 season, nothing in the states from Shasta to Rainer prepared me for looking into the maw of Villarrica. What seemed like plumes of smoke from far below was actually a massive vortex of swirling steam, whiting out the entire crater. The east side of the crator offered the most precipitous views and when the wind blew just right we caught glimpses of lava erupting far below. 

Villarrica Volcano Summit crater gas and steam

Gas masks strapped on, Doug and Brian wait for the steam to shift to see the lava below

After thoroughly exploring the crater, and spending far more time than I was accustomed to on a summit, we were ready to descend. The snow gave way to softer and softer turns after a dozen or so jump terms through steep ice from the summit. The pitch of the north face was consistently between 25-32 degrees with a maritime snowpack and low avalanche danger despite the new snow, so we were able to simul-ski to the base. It is rare to weave in and out of your buddies while spraying plumes of powder up and we took full advantage.

The open bowls of the top half of the mountain gave way to giant gullies lower down with texture and features reminiscent of massive half pipes. The snow remained good although warming quickly and we eventually made it back to the resort. Although the skiing within the resort is incredibly low angle, it adds a whole new dimension to the descent. We weaved in out of beginner skiers, some of them carrying their skis up the mountain to try skiing for the first time on gear 20-30 years old, putting in perspective the widespread love of the sport at every level. 

One more hitchhike to the car left us with all smiles and a memorable day. Villarrica is truly a tour not to be missed on a ski trip to Chile.

Want to take a look into the belly of the beast for yourself? Check out a short GoPro video recap of Villarrica Volcano below. Cheers!