East couloir, Volcan Lanin, Argentina

The lake district in both Chile and Argentina is a perfect location to ski some volcanoes during the Southern Hemisphere’s spring. Most of them can be skied in one day. For two of them a multi-day trip is required. Mount Tronador is more of a mountaineering objective and therefore lacking a great ski descent. The biggest ski objective of all the volcanoes therefore is Volcan Lanin. A two-day trip will get you to the summit of 3776 meters from where you can ski down a beautiful couloir on the East flank of the volcano…

When skiing volcanoes you’re heavily dependent on the weather. A huge dump of snow will make the ascent extremely tough, cold weather will make the upper section very hardpacked and therefore difficult to both ascent and descent on skis and wind will usually blow all the snow of the upper part of the volcano. Thus, a warm day without too much wind is needed to ski a volcano, unless you want to suffer of course. Preferably a couple of days without snowfall preceded the actual day of skiing. I planned to ski Lanin together with Ross, a guy from Vancouver who I had met on an earlier trip. Ross had two failed attempts on Lanin already because of those earlier mentioned weather conditions. This time however, things looked into our favour. Three days of warm weather without wind were in the forecast. However, two of those days were in the weekend which would mean relatively large crowds going up. The night has to be spent in a small hut if you don’t want to carry a tent. Therefore we decided to leave on a Friday in bad weather to avoid the crowds and still have a great day to summit and ski down.

Volcan Lanin as seen from the carpark with the East Couloir marked in red

Volcan Lanin as seen from the carpark with the East Couloir marked in red

We drove from San Martin de los Andes to the border with Chile. Just before one arrives at the border there is a carpark where you’ll have to sign up with the park ranger so he knows who is going up the volcano. He checks your equipment including a VHF-radio to keep in contact. We had to ‘call’ him on arrival at the hut and the following day on the summit. We signed the papers and made a final check on our luggage. On this trip I had to put the following stuff into or on my 35 liter backpack:

  • boot crampons
  • ski crampons
  • extra shirt
  • skins
  • ice axe
  • extra jacket
  • toothbrush and – paste
  • deodorant
  • food (tortellini, polenta, chocolate cookies, water)
  • sleeping bag
  • sleeping mattress
  • gas
  • camera
  • headlight
  • spare batteries for both headlight and beacon
  • sunscreen and lip balm
  • probably some stuff I forget to mention here…

To make everything fit with skis on the side of my backpack, I had to wear my hat, sunglasses and extra jacket and attach the skins to the skis. Once I would transition into ski mode I could put the jacket on the side of my backpack if needed. A bigger backpack is recommended for a trip like this…

Finally we were good to go. The trail starts at around 1100 meters a few meters from the carpark. A leasurely stroll through the forest was followed by a hike in an open field before finally reaching the snow after more than an hour. We couldn’t see much because of the weather, it rained and was foggy…

We made the transition to ski mode and made our way up on the snow. There was another group of 6 going up and together we slowly progressed. The park ranger informed us that the refugio would suddenly show up, you couldn’t see it from a distance. I guess this was especially true with the weather conditions we experienced. After merely 3,5 hours we skinned up a little hill and there it was, Refugio BIM. This mountain hut is nothing more than a very basic shelter with a concrete floor. At least we were protected from the howling wind during the night…

Refugio BIM on Volcan Lanin, a basic shelter

Refugio BIM on Volcan Lanin, a basic shelter

The next day turned out to be a perfect day to ascend to the summit. It was bluebird,warm and wind was non-existent. However, we still had to climb the last 1450 meters of vertical which prioved to be quite tough. The altitude and the lack of sleep the night before in the refugio might have played a role here. We skinned up until more or less 3000 meters before we started bootpacking. Crampons were needed at this point because the volcano showed many icy parts in the morning. When we arrived at around 3200 meters we could clearly see the final stretch to the summit. The East Couloir however, was not visible at this point. We bootpacked in zigzags with more and more breaks the higher we got before we eventually reached the top. We celebrated our achievement and enjoyed the remarkable view. From the top one can see most of the volcanoes in the lake district of both Argentina and Chile. Three weeks before Lanin, I skied Villarrica and Llaima which were clearly visible. Very nice to be up there on a clear day!

happy to be on the summit of Lanin (3776 m)

happy to be on the summit of Lanin (3776 m)

Now it was time to start looking for the entrance of the East Couloir. One guy of the other group, Aurelien Routens (a professional snowboarder from la Grave), was interested in riding the couloir as well and together we started looking around. We went down skier’s right but according to Aurelien the entrance was too difficult and he boarded down. I went back up in order to find the couloir. Ross followed me carefully but was not too keen on a sketchy entrance. Things are relative here but I have to admit that, once I had found the entrance to the East Couloir, things looked pretty serious. A small traverse over a band of rocks with high exposure would bring me into the steep and quite narrow upper section of the couloir. A series of conservative turns had to be made in order to avoid a fall over rocks below before things would open up and mellow down a little bit. Ross preferred the normal route which meant he skied down the way we came up.

A little solo adventure was the result. Avalanche danger was not an issue but because it was already 4 pm the run was completely in the shadow meaning the snow was hard. I broke the run down in several parts. First I had to traverse the rocks and enter the couloir. That was the most scary part because of its immediate consequences. I survived. Next I had to make sure to arrive safely to the wider and slightly more mellow terrain which I managed to do. From there it was still a long way, the couloir is 400 meters vertical. Even though it would be a delight to ski it in spring- or powdersnow, I enjoyed every turn because I realized the serious character of the run. It wasn’t a casual groomer on a sunday afternoon so to say…

At the bottom I had to turn left as soon as possible to avoid ending up in crevassed terrain. The park ranger informed us about it at the start. The terrain was still a bit sketchy with avalanche debris and big overhanging chunks of ice and snow all over the place. I made sure I crossed this section as quickly as possible before I could link some easy turns back towards the refugio. I met Ross at the hut, we picked up our gear and continued down back to the carpark. Wow, what an adventure!

almost back at the bottom after a great adventure (the East Couloir is clearly visible from the top)

almost back at the bottom after a great adventure (the East Couloir is clearly visible from the top)

A ski adventure to Volcan Lanin is highly recommended if you’d ask me. However, flexibility is needed because of the variable weather conditions in this part of the world. I guess October or maybe even early November is the best time to go for it. A two-day trip is the best option in my opinion. Covering 2600 meters of vertical in one day with the altitude is not a lot of fun. Plus the fact that a night in the refugio, how basic it may be, gives the trip a completely new dimension. And finally, if you’re up for it, give the East Couloir a try. You won’t be disappointed!

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