Exploring The Andes

Dakota Jones ruminates on the challenges and glories of exploring the Andes.

By on June 25, 2014 | Comments

The Andes in the central parts of Chile and Argentina are much lower than in the north near Aconcagua, and less striking than in the south near Torres del Paine. But we weren’t there for technical climbing. We were in the market for mountains we could run up wearing only running shorts and running shoes, and the volcanoes that the Lakes District (in Argentina) or Region Ten (in Chile) offered were perfect. Think of them like this: a great spine of mountains, heavily forested, running north to south for 2,000 miles along the border between these two countries. Dotted throughout this range are numerous high, glaciated volcanoes that top out between eight- and twelve-thousand feet. The Andes in general, and these volcanoes in particular, are the result of the subduction of the Nazca and Antarctic tectonic plates beneath the South American plate. The resulting compression of the latter has created the longest mountain range in the world. We wanted to climb the volcanoes, for the same reason people want to climb peaks anywhere–they look awesome. Conical in shape, foisting great wrinkled glaciers, they dominate the surrounding mountains, standing out as the most aesthetic climbs in the region.

The lower slopes of the mountains are heavily clothed in trees, and the Chilean forests in particular are magnificent. The area is ecologically somewhat similar to western Oregon and Washington, meaning Chile receives lots of rain and humidity while the eastern sides of the mountains over in Argentina are cast forever into a dramatic rain shadow. The moisture in Chile gives rise to thick forests grown even thicker by dense undergrowth. Bamboo features prominently in the landscape and we soon learned that, in Chile, if there is no trail through the forest, you don’t go anywhere. It’s not so much that you’ll get lost as that you simply can’t get through the impenetrable arboreal fortress that creeps up to the edge of every field and road. The animals, of course, rely on such impassability for safety. But for human purposes the forest is inaccessible. This ecological fact caused us to rely heavily on maps to tell us exactly where we could go, which gave rise to a great deal of strife. But we’ll get to that.

Chile is 217 miles across at its widest point, and much narrower in some parts. This means that the geography between the mountains–which form the border with Argentina (where we were)–and the ocean is dramatic. The mountains are supported by long east-west ridges that taper perpendicularly into a long north-south valley running between Santiago and Puerto Montt (you should probably look at a map for this.) And in said long north-south valley, where most people live, the forest has been shaved into a checkerboard pattern of fields and roads. I was struck by the area’s similarity to the French countryside. We often found ourselves jogging down rolling dirt roads lined by tall poplar trees. Fields of thick grass stretched on both sides containing bell-laden cows and goats, or else grew tall alfalfa… reeds? stalks? whatever. Set back from the road a quarter mile, and reached by gently curving lanes hemmed in by crossed wooden fences, were ranch homes with big porches and wells and tire swings. It was super cute. I wanted to show my mom.

However, getting anywhere was sometimes difficult. I don’t know how Chilean and Argentinian people know how to get anywhere unless the information has been passed down through generations within families, or maybe everyone just takes buses, but whatever the cause, good maps are almost impossible to come by in that area of the world. The maps that exist are generally so bad as to be worthless. For one thing, topo lines do not exist. That is just not something they have figured out. And only the major roads can be relied upon to be marked on the map. All other roads are sporadically marked on some maps and not others, or just partially marked, or simply not there at all. Many times we found ourselves on hours-long rutted dirt roads when we expected pavement. One time we found the opposite. But no matter where we went, we always had several maps at our disposal, spread out over the dashboard and passenger seat, cross-referencing roads and trying to figure out what exactly went where.

Despite all these difficulties, we managed to do some pretty cool stuff. Our first mountain was a volcano called Calbuco, which required about one and a half hours of driving to reach. The maps only showed the existence of a park around the mountain, and hinted at the existence of trails. What we found, to our surprise, was a beautiful trail that led from the parking lot through thick forest cut by striking lava flows, up a steep ridge dotted by native trees and on to the summit, glacier and all, eight miles and 5,000 feet up. The trail was clear, the weather perfect, the views incredible. We could see the ocean to the southwest, the huge lakes to the northwest, Volcan Osorno to the north, and the spine of the Andes to the east with the magnificent glacier-ridden Tronador at their crest. A cloud bank obscured our view to the south, but occasionally gave glimpses of rugged, steep terrain topped by glaciers. That was our first expansive view of the area and the possibilities it revealed gave us great hope for what we could accomplish on our trip.

But over the next few weeks that hope was almost entirely extinguished.

Such success on the big volcanoes turned out to be more the exception than the norm. Over the next three weeks we were turned around or strong-armed into paying fees on almost every mountain we climbed. We were refused access to Volcan Lanin because we didn’t have the required gear–sleeping bag, tent, stove, boots, ice axe, and more. We went to great lengths to circumscribe such regulations on Volcan Osorno by climbing a less-followed route, only to find ourselves stymied by gaping crevasses and steep blue ice. On the one volcano we were able to climb–Puyehue–we were obliged to pay $20 each just to cross two acres of private land at the base, in order to reach the only trail within Puyehue National Park. Throughout these trials my initial surprise mounted to a towering rage, and our experience on Villarrica nearly pushed me over the edge.

Volcan Villarrica is a magnificent volcano. It has a perfect conical shape and is hung by a thick glacier for nearly half its height. Villarrica’s crater is also the site of one of only two open lava pools in the world. The sides are mellow and the glacier smooth, which means the climbing route is nothing more than a long hike. In the summer months, often over 200 people climb to the summit daily, past the ski-area lifts and on to the crater. Greg and I could have run it in three hours roundtrip, and we drove up to the base intending to. But the guides refused us entry. We stood around in the crowded guides hut for 30 minutes until they finally asked for proof of “acreditacion,” meaning accreditation, meaning some form of identification, like from a guide’s service or the American Alpine Club, saying we were fit to climb the mountain. But we had nothing of the sort, and they simply refused us entry while allowing busloads of tourists to pass. I nearly exploded and ran up the fucking mountain anyway, but eventually Greg cooled me down and we drove up to some trails on the other side of the mountain.

A few hours later I found myself sitting on a rock on the side of Villarrica staring at the glacier and wondering what had gone wrong with our trip. The extensive Villarrica glacier spread out before me in a great black sweep of frozen disquiet, with massive seracs colored by the volcanic soil slowly melting into woven streams below. My torrential anger–fed by three weeks of stupid, pointless disappointments–had faded to a calm flow of frustration. I looked at the glacier and tried to understand the events that had led me to this place. I felt sad, sitting by this glacier, seeing how beautiful was that mountain and knowing that I was not allowed to climb it simply because of the whims of a few sanctimonious guides. We knew we couldn’t continue failing on the big peaks without even getting to try. Something had to change.

From the vantage point above the glacier we could see a long way north, east and south. To the east rose the iconic sweep of Lanin, one of the tallest peaks in the range, freshly dusted with a new layer of snow. Lanin is the peak to climb down there, but it was off-limits to us. However, in the foreground, between us and Lanin, rose a much smaller, rounder volcano that we had seen on the maps called Quetrupillan. Initially we had glanced over it because of the nearby prominence of Villarrica and Lanin, but now it held some interest for us. Perhaps if we weren’t allowed to climb the big peaks, the smaller peaks might offer us the experience we were looking for. We decided to check it out the next day.

I don’t really need to go into detail about the run itself, except to say that it was wonderful. All of the roads and people and regulations of the big peaks were absent from Quetrupillan, leaving us the opportunity to do what we had come to do: simply to run up mountains. We found a series of dirt roads that eventually thinned to singletrack that led all the way up to the top of the peak, along the way taking in some steep vertical and a few snowfields. The summit was lower and less striking than some of the nearby mountains, but it was free. And it was legal. And the views were surely just as good, since the peak itself was really only about 1500 feet lower than Villarrica. Our run up Quetrupillan was a watershed for us, in that we realized how to change our goals so as to salvage the trip and find the experiences we were looking for. The smaller peaks ended up being much more desirable than the big, prominent ones.

The experience we wanted was not to be the fastest or the lightest people to climb the big peaks. We just wanted to climb the most striking and beautiful mountains in the area. That our style happened to be light and fast was only a reflection of our mountain experience and goal of efficiency, not a statement for the rest of the world. We didn’t want to ‘conquer’ the peaks or beat anyone else. All we wanted to do was climb some really cool mountains in our own way. I was disappointed to find that the one-sided opinions of a few people were enough to prevent us from doing that on the biggest mountains, but luckily Chile and Argentina have lots of smaller mountains, too. The smaller ones are less sought-after, less frequented and less developed. But they gave us what we had come for, namely to be able to simply run, run, run along the trails, through the trees and along the ridges. We could go where we wished without being hassled by anyone or told to go in a certain direction or to climb in a certain style. We could be individuals. We could do what we love.

Traveling seems to be about finding or making a home far away. The act of going out into the world is often difficult, uncomfortable, and even scary, so we work to find comfort among the adversity. That is an obvious analog to running in the mountains. Mountain environments–and long-distance running–can also be difficult, uncomfortable, and scary, but the more time one spends among such conditions, the more comfortable one becomes with them. If you make yourself at home on the trails and in the mountains, the undesirable bits gradually become minor annoyances that are simply hallmarks of the trade. Cold wind, bad weather, the burn of steep slopes, the danger of falling rocks–all these things and more become familiar enough to feel like home. It’s not so much that you have to get used to discomfort; it’s more that the uncomfortable aspects change in character with familiarity with the whole environment. Home is really just a mental concept anyway; it can be molded to apply almost anywhere.

Thereafter, we made our goal to find the smaller, less well-known mountains in the area. These still provided us with plenty of vertical and adventure–like our three-hours-longer-than-expected circumnavigation of the Volcano Casablanca, or the wet, muddy free-for-all through the jungles in Cochamo–without any of the bullshit. Of course, on popular mountains regulation is very necessary to preserve the environment and climber safety, but too often this regulation devolves into a bureaucratic generality that favors inexperienced masses over skilled professionals. (Just look at Rainier or Everest.) We didn’t want to argue with anyone; we didn’t even need to be ‘right;’ we simply wanted to run in the mountains. And on the smaller peaks that wasn’t a problem. So we adjusted our sights to the lower and decidedly less-sexy sub-peaks, and our stoke level shot back through the roof.

Ultimately, we chose to find the happiness we sought in what was available.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation while exploring abroad, by being held back from doing something you are capable of doing by bureaucracy?
  • If so, how have you solved your problems in order to enjoy your adventure?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.