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Why Not Bike to the Volcano, Then Ski It?

At least, that was the plan for Chile-bound adventurers Lauren Cantwell and Matt Reid. But weather, snow conditions, and road closures don’t always comply with the best-laid plans.

Lauren Cantwell, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor from Reno, Nevada—who also doubles as a competitive cyclist and gravel racer and an avid backcountry skier—recently returned from a volcano bike and ski mission in Chile. She and partner and fellow adventurer Matt Reid had hatched a plan to spend two weeks riding their bikes, while carrying ski gear, to volcanoes around the Araucanía region of Chile. Like most epic trips, things didn’t go exactly as planned, but still, the duo tackled four unique volcanoes. Here are some highlights from their trip report down south. For more, check out Cantwell’s Instagram feed

(Photos courtesy of Lauren Cantwell)

The Start 

The first day was a telling start with several hours of riding in heavy 34-38 degree rain, which eventually switched to some brief snow on us over a not-so-high high spot of 2,400-feet in elevation. I think Matt thought I was a bit crazy carrying the extra weight of a thermos, but he very quickly appreciated the brilliance. We quickly found our Flylow Gear ski jackets were great rain layers riding as well and quickly dried when the rain finally broke! 

The Road Blocks

After I somehow convinced the park officials to let us go to the volcano despite the main road and rest of park being closed, we made an attempt on Volcan Llaima. Unfortunately weather came in and we had to turn around around 2,270m, but still got some good skiing on the descent!

The First Summit

After a relatively short pedal to Malalcahuello, we snuck in with the last bit of the weather window and tagged the summit of Volcan Lonquimay. Firm conditions up high gave way to springlike snow as we descended. We arrived safely down at our bikes just as the clouds socked in around the summit. The first flakes were starting to fly as we started back down the road and by the time we finished lunch it was raining down in town as well.

The Backup Plan

The original route was a solid no-go as it took us over a 5,400-foot pass to Lonquimay (the town) and we knew based on the snow levels we could see from town this morning that it was not going to be rideable. The backup plan required hitchhiking through a tunnel, which after coming though and finding even lower snow levels on the other side we decided to hold in that valley and not attempt to proceed over the next high point. We headed up the valley to town through continued 33-34 degree rain and found a hostel for the night. 

The Weather Swap

The sun came out and we got a move on! It actually turned out to be the warmest day we’ve had so far—the first day I was able to ride in short sleeves and shorts! The decision making from the day prior was confirmed with riding past lots of fresh snow although the road had at least melted in the warm sun. The highest spots still had up to 6 inches left on the sides by mid afternoon even with the warm temps. More rain forecasted tomorrow but looks like we may have a solid weather window coming as we head towards Lanin. 

The Big Day Ahead

After our short move in the rain we put in a solid push yesterday from Cunco to Curarrehue. It was quite a nice day with cool temps, only light drizzle for a few hours, too many waterfalls to count, and even some sun breaking through in the afternoon. We had only a bit over an hour to ride today to set up for tomorrow which will hopefully be a massive one. 

The Payoff

We went for a long walk today up Volcan Lanin! Our alpine start was a 3:15 a.m. departure from our cabin down the road and after 11 miles and 2,500 feet on our bikes in temps down to 23F in the dark, we started walking around 5:45 a.m., catching sunrise as we ascended. We were hoping to skin, but as the light unfolded we were surprised with the relative lack of snow compared to the other peaks we've been to. Further west maybe? Given conditions we decided on the dry ridge going straight up over loose volcanic debris in ski boots since this did seem a better choice than the icy bowl with ski crampons. 

Once we reached snow up high, the pitch proved relentless and we accepted our fate of 8,000+ feet of bootpacking. The upper 600 feet or so of the peak were straight sun affected rime ice so we retreated to where conditions were starting to improve and after about 2,500 feet of survival skiing through sun-affected, melt-freeze sastrugi we got to enjoy several thousand feet of corn and soft warming snow. A quick pedal back down the hill and if you can believe it we are currently staying at cabins by a brewery. 

The Last Hurrah

After returning to Pucon to complete our loop and resting a day, the allure of Volcan Villarrica nearby was too much to resist one more ski. We had ridden most of the way up the first day we arrived in Chile to test our loads but didn’t have the time or weather conditions to ski so had descended. We opted for a ‘vacation ski’ and caught a ride up the hill with our bikes and ski gear and got in one last spring ski before the return to winter in the northern hemisphere. The alert level is elevated currently due to increased volcanic activity, so summits are prohibited but we still got in a very nice ski on a beautiful day. A final huge mixed surface descent awaited us on our bikes once we returned to the dirt. 


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