Volcán Calbuco is a 2,015-meter (6,611-foot) active stratovolcano in the Lagos district of southern Chile. It is situated across the waters of Lago Llanquihue from the iconic 2,652-m Volcán Osorno. First-time visitors to the area might notice the disparity in appearance between the two neighboring volcanoes: Calbuco’s stumpy, scabrous figure contrasts the divinely-sculpted white cone of Osorno. This is accounted for by a variation in magma composition. Volcán Osorno’s magma is classified as basalt (the most common type of magma in the region), meaning that its eruptions are relatively slow and goopy. Volcán Calbuco’s magma is andesite, meaning that it is more viscous and tends to produce fast, explosive eruptions. It is said that the two volcanoes used to be nicknamed Las Gemelas (The Twins) before Calbuco’s series of explosive eruptions in the late 19th century. These explosions ejected basketball-sized bombs over the lake in the process of violently dissecting the top of the volcano and reducing it to the form that we see today.
These two volcanoes define the idyllic countryside around the German settlement of Puerto Varas. They can also be seen looming above the large port town of Puerto Montt.
MONDAY December 17th, 2013
It’s Monday morning, my first morning in southern Chile. I slept last night on a deserted beach near the rural community of Ensenada. My plan is to go and climb up around Volcán Calbuco with Izzy (one my study abroad classmates in Perú) and her friend Amanda. So I bathe myself in the lake, eat chocolate oat biscuits with peach marmalade for breakfast, and head to the highway to meet Izzy and Amanda. They stayed in a hostel back in Puerto Varas and had planned to take the first public bus to Ensenada. Why Ensenada? It’s the closest community to the volcano, and it’s rumored to have a mountain shop.
Izzy and Amanda arrive around 9:30am and, after some wandering up and down the highway, we locate the aforementioned mountain shop. The proprietor, a shaggy mountaineer named Fredy, says he knows a route that leads up to the level of the snowfields high on the mountain. He even offers to give us a ride up the rough dirt road in his 4×4 truck.
So there we go, we bump along through the forest, past humble abodes reminiscent of Switzerland, and across lupin-dotted meadows until we encounter a wall of trees.
“The trail starts here,” Fredy informs us.
The three of us scan the dense forest for an opening but see none, and thus voice our skepticism at the presence of a “trail”.
He grins and says, “It’s not much of a trail… but I created it. Enjoy your day on the mountain. I’ll meet you here at 6:00pm.”
And what a trail it is, slicing a crude portal through thick vetchy shrubs, twisting around huge mossy trunks, threading between small groves of slender bamboo. Heat seems to radiate from all around us, the humidity concentrated to the level of a steam room. The path is steep, muddy and overgrown with spiky plants. The insects lay relentless siege on our poor exposed skin, but we dare not put on long sleeves for fear of overheating. Our first hour on the trail has us wishing we had never started. From ahead I hear a sweaty, bugbitten Izzy mumble under her breath… “La f#@king selva.” (Selva = jungle).
After nearly two hours of hacking along on Fredy’s faint trail, we at last emerge onto an exposed ridgeline, from which point we are rewarded with an unobstructed view of the volcano. The sharp peaks and ravines crate a chevron pattern on the skyline – a far cry from the symmetrical cone shape of Volcán Osorno. Patches of snow high on the mountain perform their daytime melt routine, sending water cascading off ledges of grey andesite. It’s a refreshing view, appropriate to reward us for our time spent suffering in the low steamy jungle.
The going is straightforward but tedious following the ridgeline, due to the alpine ground being composed of a fine tooth-grit ash and also due to the presence of small cliffs that require delicate movements up cracked, brittle blocks of cooled lava. At one point, Izzy and Amanda decide they’d rather sit and enjoy the view looking north. I certainly can’t blame them:
Leaving the girls there to rest, I make a quick jog up to the prominent spur just above us, a definite point of bare volcanic rock. I put my head down and slog up the loose ash, taking care to choose the safest route up each short cliff section. After spending four months in the high Central Andes of Perú and Bolivia, it’s liberating to be climbing a mountain and not feeling the slightest effect of altitude.
The scramble up to the spur winds up being worth the effort. At an elevation of 1,600 meters, the combination of wind and sun is perfect for reclining on a comfortable rock. From here, three colors dominate the Andean landscape: the cerulean blue of the lakes, the rich green of the forest, and the brilliant white of the snowcapped volcanoes. My view extends all the way to Argentina, as heralded by the gigantic 3,491-m Monte Tronador. At the foot of Volcán Calbuco, inactive lava flows form sinister grey fingers that protrude the forest.
Behind me are the pointed pinnacles that comprise the summit area of Volcán Calbuco. I note that, in the direction of the summit, my own ridgeline dips to a slim, knife-edge saddle before rising in steep, snowy cliffs. Given my lack of time (only two hours until we have to meet Fredy back at the trailhead), I deem it best to turn back and slide down to where Izzy and Amanda are waiting for me.
I come sliding down topspeed to the beautiful spot where Izzy and Amanda are peacefully soaking in the view, then the three of us race down the ash-covered volcano together. In no time we’re down in the forest, fighting through the thorny plants and bloodthirsty insects of La F#@ing Selva.
Eventually we emerge from the forest and enter the meadow where Fredy had dropped us off. Remembering that he had requested that we meet him further down the mountain (to avoid putting his truck through the torture of the upper sections of the dirt road), the three of us continue down the gentle rolling hills, past quiet grazing cows and through mindblowingly delightful wildflower fields. It’s past 6:00pm but the southern summer sun is still high in the bluebell sky. We spy Fredy’s truck on the side of the road, and there’s reliable Fredy sitting there with sunglasses and a big toothy welcome-back smile, waiting to take us back down to Ensenada.