Along with thousands of others, I first heard about Volcan Puyehue when I watched the iconic ski film All I Can. Although then I new it just as “that epic volcano in South America that they skied into the crater of”. The film dramatically goes on to report that the volcano later erupted and what they skied was “no longer there”. Once actually in South America I stumbled upon it again while reading a blog post about Volcan Lonquimay. The writer reported that the ski into that crater couldn’t possibly compare to the one they did into Volcan Puyehue. A flag went up in my mind right away. Could this be the volcano from All I Can? Some more digging confirmed that the Volcano in question was in fact the one from the film and, contrary to what Sherpas Cinema would lead us to believe, the crater was still very much in tact. Puyehue did erupt spectacularly in 2012, but it was in a different smaller crater elsewhere on the mountain. Jessa and I both agreed that we had to go and check it out.
There wasn’t much information available on how to actually access Volcan Puyehue and find the hut below it. I pieced it together as best I could from an old alpine climbing guide, some vague blog posts, a misleading Gaia topographical map, and the road mapping software Maps.me. We found our way to El Caulle, a restaurant/farm that we thought was the place to start. It turned out we were in the right spot, and the owner Santiago was a great source of information on the mountain. This is also where one pays the hut fee of 10000CLP/person/night. We parked the camper there and started the hike up to Refugio Caulle.
The trail starts as a road through farmland and pastures, before winding it’s way up into the hills. After about an hour and a half the road ends and the trail begins to climb steeply through forest. It’s a slog of about 1000m vertical to get up to the hut with heavy bags. We walked the whole way in the rain, hitting snow at about 1000m.
The 14-person hut is very basic, but the people at El Caulle have done a lot of work on the trail, installed a new furnace, and brought up lots of dry firewood. Being able to heat the place was worth the fee on its own.
In the morning we awoke to clear skies and set off for Pico Alaska on the west side of the crater. Santiago had told us that this was the best place to ski on the volcano. We skinned from the hut straight up to 1600m, before turning NW and climbing gradually as we traversed the mountain. It’s a climber’s trail and there are cairns to follow. We traversed to a large bowl that we ascended to the crater rim. Over lunch we took in views of Puyehue’s spectacukar 2km wide crater, and appreciated how lucky we were to have another day of perfect weather in Patagonia and the mountain all to ourselves.
It took longer than expected to get to the rim, and we still weren’t in a position to drop into the crater. The inside looked full on, with big cornices guarding the entrances to steep couloirs. Avalanches had ripped on all aspects after the last storm. Faced with limited time and uncertainty about snow stability we decided to call it at the rim and enjoy some nice turns down the big bowl we had ascended. In the background we got great views of Volcan Osorno, where we had skied three days earlier.
We carefully picked our way back to the hut trying to avoid the many shallow rocks. As we packed up a group of 12 arrived on a ski-guiding course, nearly maxing the hut capacity. Another group of Chileans followed. Our timing couldn’t have been better better. We made the long walk back down to the camper and arrived, completely exhausted, just as the last of the day’s light faded.