Dirtbagging in South America: Burglary, Volcanos and Powder Snow
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I’m writing this post in English so that my non-norwegian friends, that I met on this trip, can read too (besides, you Norwegians read English very damn well).



Part One: The Mystery Machine

In the midst of finishing my master’s thesis this spring, I decided that it would be a great idea to escape the rainy Norwegian summer in favor of dry southern hemispheric snow. More specifically, I wanted to go to South America. Being overly busy with my work, I somehow managed to convince two friends to join me, and book plane tickets and a camper van in Santiago, Chile for the month of July.

Fast forward six weeks and I found myself on the plane towards Chile with 2/3 of the team and no plans. Vidar, who was supposed to make 1/3 of the team, called in sick on the day of departure and couldn’t make the flight. The now remaining half of the team, my since-long-ago friend Martin Johannessen, had done just as little research as I had, if not less. Complementing his lack of preparation by bringing absolutely no form of digital information gathering tools, we were well posed for a good adventure.

After being thoroughly hustled at the Santiago airport by some local bandidos, who claimed to be taxi drivers, we picked up our home for the next coming weeks. The word “discrete” was obviously not in Wicked Campers’ vocabulary. Rather, we were given no other vehicle than the Mystery Machine itself. The Mystery Machine, made famous by Scooby Doo, was painted green and blue in such as way that no South American crook could be mistaken that these guys were gringos on the road. Regardless, we made our way towards our first destination, namely Portillo, Chile.


Martin & The Mystery Machine

Photo: Martin & the Mystery Machine.


Being the only area with a descent snow pack at the current time, Portillo was a natural choice. Portillo sits right on the boarder between Chile and Argentina, and is the oldest ski resort on the southern hemisphere. In spite of Hotel Portillo’s somewhat luxurious atmosphere, we managed to maintain a very low standard of living at the parking lot.


Martin scoping out lines for the next day.

Photo: Martin scoping out lines for the next day.


During the first days we cruised around the resort to get acclimatized and acquainted. The surrounding area was truly stunning, seeing that it is actually the highest region in the world outside the Himalayas. The views towards Aconcagua (6961 masl.) were breathtaking (also because of the altitude), and the Laguna del Inca provided a deep blue contrast to the white mountains. After acclimatizing, we decided to go for the ultimate Portillo classic line: The Super C couloir.

The Super C is a 2000 vertical meter couloir that is is close to, but still very out of bounds from the ski area. Approaching the super C involves traversing and climbing over a steep terrain trap that is known as “The Meat Grinder”. Consequently, must avalanche conditions be absolutely safe when venturing into this area. Unfortunately, Martin did not do too well with the altitude and turned around before the traverse, leaving me to catch up with another team.


Cruising around the resort.

Resort skiing. Approaching the Super C. Pretty views. Aconcagua to the left.

Photo: Resort cruising and climbing Super C. Press photos for larger image.


Traversing above the Meat Grinder.

Top of the Super C. Happy locals. Down the guts of the Super C.

Photo: Given the icy conditions I was wearing crampons and an ice axe. These guys were not. However, because of the fact that they were locals, they were excused. 


The couloir itself was neat. Steep and consistent, with the top section around 50 degrees, and the lower flanks slightly less. Even though conditions were icy, they were smooth, so the skiing was great. After Super C, we skied the resort for another day and then decided to leave Portillo before another storm hit.


Steep and icy, but smooth.

 The exit. All of this amazing terrain was readily accessible.

Photo: The Super C was steep and icy, but smooth.



Part Two: Burglary, Rain and Volcano Rambling

Back home, Vidar tried his best to get another plane ticket to catch up with us. Knowing that he’d might show up, we decided to head back down into Chile instead of continuing towards Argentina. Seeing that there was a massive storm coming from the west, we figured it would be impossible for Vidar to reach us if we’d go into Argentina. We were probably right. However, Vidar never showed up, and instead, we got to experience the unpredictability of Chile for the second time.

Leaving our van outside a supermarket for 20 minutes, we were surprised to learn that we had been robbed. In spite of warnings from parents and travel agents, we’d previously responded with a shrug and said it would probably be fine. This time, we learned the hard way that we indeed were gringos traveling around in a Mystery Machine, and that no matter how hard we tried to be incognito, we simply couldn’t. The thief stole several items. Except for my sleeping bag, no critical items were taken from me. For Martin however, it was another story. Martin had decided to go for the fast and light approach on the overseas flight. In reality, this meant he had little more than one shift of clothes and his ski gear. Having his ski pack with all of his gear and spare clothes stolen, as well as his speed wing, the thief stole almost all of his belongings. Except from his ski boots and skis, he now had little more than the clothes he was wearing.

Dazzled by the event, we headed south. Prior to departure, my friend Marcus had told me that the further south you go, the nicer the people are. Right now, we wanted nice people. After two days of driving, we arrived in the city of Chillán, where we planned to replace our stolen items and file a report of the incident. However, our big city time limit of about two hours was rapidly shortened by a massive rainfall that flooded the city. Cars that were stuck in deep ponds created traffic jams, and frankly, it was a mess. We quickly decided to get out of there, and escape back into the Andes.


Flood in Chillán.

Photo: The flood in Chillán was a big mess.


The storm lasted for several days. And while the rain poured down at lower elevations, it was dumping up high. When we arrived in the small town of Las Trancas, there was almost no snow. However, as the storm raged, more than a meter of fresh snow fell in the surrounding mountains, eventually enabling the lifts to open. We spent our days touring, resort skiing and drinking red wine.


Touring around Nevados de Chillán.

Skins on. Red wine in front of the fire place. Snow chains were absolutely necessary.

Photos: Top: Great powder skiing in Nevados de Chillán. Bottom left: Martin puting skins on. Middle bottom: During the storm we sought shelter in a cabin, where we drank much red wine in front of the fireplace. Bottom right: Snow chains were an absolute must have.


Nevados de Chillán is one of the few places with tree skiing on the southern hemisphere.


Photos: Top: Nevados de Chillán is one of the few places on the southern hemisphere that offers tree skiing. Bottom left: Martin tries out a log ride. Middle bottom: Chileans kept making traffic jams with their summer tires on snow. Bottom right: Preparing for touring in one of our camp spots. 


As we drove up to the resort one day, we picked up a hitchhiker. Even though we had promptly decided to not to do such a thing (after the robbery), we pulled over and picked up a Canadian guy named Lane McMillan. As it turned out, Lane had been to Nevados de Chillán five years ago, and had some objectives he would like to do. Lane was pretty happy to find other people with transceivers, and we were pretty happy to find someone who knew the place, so we decided to join forces.


Martin touring in front of the first volcano.

Photo: Our first objective was the Volcan Chillán Nuevo, that can be seen in the background.


Our first objective was the 3185 meters high Volcano Chillán Nuevo. The tour turned out to be a pretty big day with around 1700 vertical meters of climbing in strong winds. We made it to the top and had a stunning view into the crater. The smell of sulphur was prominent, and as it turns out the volcano was on yellow alert as we stared into the crater. To our discomfort, the vulcano mildly erupted the next day, and two weeks later, a big eruption was reported.


Photo: The August eruption of the Volcan Chillán Nuevo. Photo borrowed from the instagram account of mikedski.


Of course, we did not know this at that point, so we continued on with our second objective, the Volcan Nevados de Chillan (3212 masl.). In spite of similar altitude, the Volcan Nevados de Chillan proved to be far more remote than it’s active younger sibling. Having to navigate through a labyrinth of volcanic rock, climbing the volcano turned out to be a massive 2800 vertical meter day. However, the stunning views of Chile and Argentina made up for the effort.


First sights of the objective well into the day.


Photos: Top: First sights of the objective well into the day. Bottom left and middle: Climbing up the ridge. Bottom right: Stunning views of Argentina.


Topping out.


Photos: Topping out on the Volcan Nevados de Chillán (3212 masl.). Press for larger photos.



Photos: Top: Lane McMillan dropping into the crater of the volcano. Bottom: Martin enjoying the ride down.



Part Three: Dirt Roads, Detours and Powder Snow

Weighting our options for where to go next, we had the choice between going to a rainy south or a sunny north. So far on the trip, we had only been to Chile, and we therefore decided to head northeast towards Las Lenas, Argentina. We invited Lane to come along in the van, and he gladly accepted.

Because of a series of strange events, our planned one day drive to Las Lenas turned in to a three day journey. Filing a report of our robbery turned out to be more complicated than expected, as nobody spoke English. We finally succeeded at the state attorneys office after hours long google translate sessions at four different police stations. Next up, a closed mountain pass sent us on a 930 km detour, driving on Argentinian highways that suddenly turned in to dirt roads. Just after crossing the boarder into Argentina, we were driving through the desert as we encountered a line of cars that extended for several kilometers. Apparently, truckers were not allowed to cross the boarder, and now created a massive traffic jam. As we were slowly passing the line of cars, an Argentinean man approached us in the desert heat, asking us for information. After we had explained him what we saw, he was upset. He took a sip of my water, looked to the sky, and said with a baffled voice: “this is Argentina”.


Photo: Driving on endless dirt roads in Argentina.


Photo: The 3000 meter high Paso Los Libertadores between Chile and Argentina was often closed during snow storms.


Finally arriving in Las Lenas, we realized we could be about to make a serious mistake. Having been on the road for three days straight, without wi-fi or other sources of information, we realized that a huge storm was about to hit the central Andes. With a week left of our trip, and a flight back home from Santiago, Chile, we were risking being stuck in Argentina after the storm, not being able to make it back to Chile in time. We made the difficult decision of racing back to Chile without any Argentinean skiing. Another day on the road.


Photo: Martin and Lane looking for souvenirs under the rocks in Las Lenas, Argentina.


Our plan B was to head back to Portillo, Chile, wait out the storm high in the Andes, and ski powder before the highway opened. That being said, our plan B turned out to be a pretty good option. We spent the storm days skiing couloirs, and after the storm cleared, we had a meter of fresh powder snow, bluebird conditions, and lifts running. Besides, we were totally isolated, as the highway was buried underneath all the snow, meaning that we only had to share the goods with the few residents of Hotel Portillo. Serendipity.



Photo: As the Chilean avalanche forecast was non existing, we dug several pits on the trip to evaluate the snow pack.


Photo: Lane and Martin climbing a couloir near Portillo. 


Photo: Lane riding a sweet couloir in some fresh snow.


Photo: Lane about to drop in above the Roca Jack.


Photo: Lane slashing.


Photo: Martin enjoying the fresh snow.



Photo: Lane stomping a nice air in front of the Laguna del Inca.


Photo: The days after the storm were memorable. 


Photo: Martin catching the light in top of one of the many chutes in Portillo. We could have gotten a photo when the chute was untracked, but it was simply too good to stop.



Photos: Top: The boys enjoying a local brew after a great day of skiing. Bottom left: Martin skiing a chute back down to the lift. Bottom middle: Martin cooking breakfast in the back of the van. Bottom right: Our parking lot camp spot.


Tips & Tricks

In spite of being robbed, traveling in Chile and Argentina was a great experience. Generally, people were friendly and helpful, and the amazing nature is a great place for adventure. Still, here are some recommendations for a first-timer going to South America:

  • Learn Spanish, nobody speaks English.
  • Don’t leave valuables in the car, or have someone in the car.
  • Get a camper van, it saves you much logistics.
  • Pay attention to the weather forecasts – weather can change quickly.
  • Don’t think you can see everything in one month. Chile is 4300 km long, and is divided into five different climate zones.
  • Don’t plan, go with the weather and have a great adventure.