Volcán Osorno is a 2,652-meter (8,701-foot) active stratovolcano located in the Lagos region of southern Chile. It lies roughly equidistant between two large lakes, Lago Llanquihue and Lago Todos Los Santos. In a landscape defined by its amazing volcanoes, Osorno is the shining icon. Because of its remarkably symmetrical cone shape, it is referred to as ‘The Mount Fuji of South America’.
Between the years of 1575 and 1869, Volcán Osorno underwent eleven periods of eruption. An explosion of ash in 1835 was witnessed by Charles Darwin himself during the second voyage of the Beagle. In addition to explosions like these, basaltic lava oozed from the crater and down the mountainsides, giving the stratovolcano a smooth appearance. Upon close inspection, one finds that the basaltic lava found on the slopes of Volcán Osorno is of the a’a variation – that is, the type of higher-viscosity basalt that cools relatively quickly into sharp vesicular chunks.
The volcano has shown no sign of eruption since 1869, and is now blanketed in a thick coat of ice down to 2,000-meters. A ski resort on the south flank takes advantage of the ample winter snowfall, serving as a refugio for climbers in the summertime. The volcano is a popular sightseeing objective for tourists in Puerto Montt area.
Although I was down in Chile to investigate the recent eruption of Volcán Chaitén, the centerpiece of my nine-day trip was undoubtedly Volcán Osorno. I first saw it from the airplane as a delicious ice-cream cone rising above the clouds, and knew then that I absolutely had to climb it.
MONDAY DECEMBER 17th, 2013
Izzy and I have just spent the day on Volcán Calbuco, enjoying the company of her friend Amanda and conditioning ourselves for the ascent of Volcán Osorno. In the late afternoon, we return from Calbuco in Fredy’s truck. Bidding farewell to Amanda, the two of us follow Fredy into his mountain shop. Inside, he provides us with rental gear appropriate for climbing Osorno. This includes technical equipment to be used on the steep pitches of ice near the summit. He kindly labels the crux areas, and other points of interest, on a cute little hand-drawn profile of the mountain.
In his truck Fredy drives us up to the Refugio Nivel del Condor, situated halfway up the mountain at 1,300-meters. Before entering the refugio, Izzy and I must check in at the CONAF (Chile’s national forest corporation) hut to announce our intention to climb the mountain. An amiable man named Iván runs through a checklist to ensure that we have the proper gear and qualifications for the climb.
To climb Osorno, one must either hire a guide or demonstrate enough experience to serve as one. So I present a list of my mountaineering accomplishments and then Iván tests me on basic guiding techniques – for example, setting up a belay anchor using ice screws. This is important to verify because Izzy has never before been on a glacier.
Pleased with my capabilities, Iván registers our information and walks us into to the refugio. The building is a large stone-and-wood cabin perched on the edge of an escarpment. Enormous glass windows face out to the cerulean blue waters of Lago Llanquihue. We take time to watch the bright orange sunset from our ridgepoint. On the eastern shore of the lake rises Volcán Calbuco, and beyond that we see the Pacific horizon. Flags ruffle softly in the breeze; the scene is tranquil and beautiful.
Izzy and I are instructed to move in to the staff quarters for the night. This costs us 11.000 Chilean Pesos each, or approximately $17. The staff of the refugio consists of half a dozen young adults from around the world. They cook for us a delicious seafood meal in the grandiose dining hall. Perhaps thinking that Izzy and I are a couple, they arrange our table with candles and a wood carving of a nude woman. Whatever they think, they treat us like royalty. Things are pretty slow around the refugio in the summertime and I suspect they’re excited to have any guests at all.
Izzy and I stay up late talking, not paying attention to the time until we look and it’s 11:30pm. Admittedly we had gotten distracted by the refugio‘s impressive rock collection.
TUESDAY December 17th, 2013
My alarm goes off at 4:00am and the two of us spring to action. We gather our gear and step out the front door of the refugio at 4:30am. The trail starts as a brutal slog up loose bits of colourful scoria. Under a brilliant dawn sky we ascend to the top of the highest ski lift (1,700-m) and pause to catch our breath.
The sun is just now rising, and the scene behind us is unbelievable. Directly to the south we see the snowcap of Volcán Calbuco standing solitary above endless folds of forested mountains.
Scrambling up the loose scree, Izzy and I reach the start of the glacier the 2,000-meter mark. I take time to organize the gear and give her a crash course on glacier travel. We tie ourselves together on a 30-m rope for safety on the slick, hardened ice. Izzy doesn’t take long to get used to the crampons: within half an hour we are kick-stepping up moderate slopes of packed ice.
At 2,200-m, we pass a rocky landmark known as La Isla (The Island). The glacier gradually steepens as we climb to 2,400-m.
Here Izzy admits her uneasiness with the slick incline. Looking up toward the summit, I see that the grade only becomes closer and closer to vertical. I ask if she wants to retreat, and she says she’d rather “climb ten meters and then see how we feel.” A great mentality to adopt if you’re feeling over your head on a climb.
And so in this manner we continue climbing up the great ramp of ice, advancing ten meters at a time. There is only one other group on the mountain, a local guide leading a Dane and an East Indian, and they are about 200 meters ahead of us. The bipolar weather conditions are the result of an ongoing battle between the sun and the wind: depending on which is stronger, we feel either warm or cold.
A sudden event prompts us to hone our focus even further. On a 45-degree chute of hard-packed ice, Izzy slips and begins sliding down the mountain. Just in the nick of time, I use my ice axe to arrest myself into the mountainside and save us both from a nasty fall. From that point onward, we adjust our climbing style. I solo-climb the length of one rope, set an anchor using ice screws, and belay Izzy up. When Izzy reaches my anchor point, I secure her to the ice using her axe, so that I can go on to climb the next pitch.
There are three pitches of this icy 45-degree terrain until we reach a ledge just below the summit platform. As a result of poor timing, the other team happens to be rappelling to the same ledge at the same time. The tiny platform suddenly becomes quite crowded, making Izzy a tad antsy. But we succeed in working our ropes around each other while keeping everyone secure.
I take a deep breath and step onto the hardest ice pitch I have yet faced at this point in my career. It appears to be steeper than 60-degrees, requiring the use of two ice axes. My issue is that I only have one axe, so I am forced to rely on just one. The entire pitch is exposed enough to run the risk of a fatal fall; I climb with deliberate movements, testing each hold before putting my weight on it.
Less than ten meters below the top of this steep section, I reach the end of the rope. Hastily I screw an anchor onto the wall of ice, secure myself in, and call down to Izzy that it’s her turn. Despite voicing her initial concern at the intimidating level of climbing – remember, it is her first time ever on a glacier! – she moves confidently and joins me at the anchor.
Now we’re below a steep overhanging shelf of ice. The only route is to traverse a short distance to the left and pick my way up a weakness in the cliff.
Izzy sits glued to the ice wall in fear while I carefully ascend, free of rope protection. I’m hyper-aware that a fall from this point would lead to a bad injury or even death. I scale the near-vertical ice using my solitary ice axe, emerging onto the rounded top of Volcán Osorno.
I set an anchor above the overhang and give Izzy an extra-tight belay so she can get up the pitch. In a few minutes, I see her clamber over the lip with nothing but deep blue lake and ocean behind her. “Derek,” she says, gasping for breath, “I hate you, and I love you.”
Leaving the rope, I walk across the vast field of ice to the highest point, the 2,652-m summit of the whole volcano. When I crest the ultimate ridge and stand on the very peak, I nearly stumble backward in amazement. The VIEW!!!
Perched on the lip of a prominent snow cornice, I am able to observe a large chunk – if not all – of the Lagos regions of Chile and Argentina. Directly below, a ferry chuggs across Lago Todos Los Santos like a miniature toy. It’s as if I can reach out and touch the pointed spire of Volcán Puntiagudo (2,493-m) and the massive icy crown of Monte Tronador (3,491-m). Immense canyons and lakes everywhere the eye looks. In the far northern distance I clearly spot Volcán Villarrica and Volcán Lanín, two distinct shapes in a sea of white volcanic cones. To the south, the islands and fjords of northern Patagonia stretch to the horizon.
“This is the most incredible thing I have ever seen,” says Izzy when she joins me at the summit. I feel inclined to agree. From this perspective, the fjords of northern Patagonia compose a tantalizing mosaic of blue (water), green (forest) and white (snow).
At 1:30pm we begin the descent, afternoon sunbeam directly on the defenseless glacier surface. I belay Izzy down the steep summit pitch and then descend myself unprotected. It’s a nervewracking mission due to the fact that the ice is beginning to melt significantly. Choosing my holds meticulously, I climb down to reach Izzy safely.
The next pitch of downclimbing is also risky, but after that it all feels gentle. For Izzy’s safety I continue to construct anchors every 50 meters until we are down on the tame lower slopes of the mountain. We glissade down the softening snow all the way back to the glacier entrance. The sun is hot and blinding, reflected on the surface of Lago Llanquihue.
The two of us slide down the pumice slopes to the ski lifts, where a group of tourists is taking photos of their kids playing in the snow at the very bottom of the glacier. We continue the speedy descent down to the refugio, arriving precisely 12 hours after leaving that morning.
We are able to hitch a ride back to Ensenada with some workers, but we have to wait for their shift to be over. While we hang around, the refugio owner treats us to a free mug of Artesan Beer. We sit in the sunny living room chatting with the chef Joaquín about our ascent. At 6:30pm the truck comes and we all pile in to ride down off the mountain.
Down in Ensenada, Fredy is beaming from ear to ear at the news of our successful summit bid. He offers to me a free site in his lakeside campground for the night, and I accept. After setting up my tent I walk to the village store and buy a couple hot empanadas, which I eat while sitting on the beach. Like a true Chileno climber, I wash my empanadas down with Clos boxed wine.
The sun does not set until past 10:00pm; I stay to watch Volcán Osorno turn purple in the beautiful alpenglow. When the display is over, I stroll a kilometer back to Fredy’s campground and tuck in for some much-needed rest.