Volcán Osorno – Basic Background
Each year about 600 climbers summit this glacier-capped stratovolcano (8701’/2652m) at the southeast end of Lago Llanquihue. On a clear summer morning, the reward is an incredible panoramic view of a slice of the Chilean Lakes District (X Región de Los Lagos).
- Down below is the lake, Lago Llanquihue, Chile’s second-largest.
- To the southwest sits Volcán Calbuco;
- Lago Todos Los Santos stretches some thirty kilometers from Petrohué to Peulla and the border with Argentina to the southeast.
Osorno’s last eruption was in 1869; another half-dozen have been recorded going back to the 1600s, including one witnessed by Charles Darwin, who was nearby on the HMS Beagle in 1835!
- easily accessed;
- an excellent Refugio at the trailhead
- great panoramic view on a clear day;
- fairly challenging hike up a scree trail leading to some glacier traverse
- and a bit of 60º ice climbing to get to the top
- you can leave Puerto Varas in the early evening, sleep at the Refugio, do the climb, and be back in Puerto Varas at three the next afternoon!
When To Go:
Primetime climbing is during the summer months of December, January and February, though people climb it year-round.
What You Need:
- A CONAF permit
- Mountaineering boots and crampons
- Climbing rope
- Ice axe
- Waterproof gloves
- Trekking poles – optional
How To Go –
On your own – bus from Puerto Varas to Ensenada at the east end of the lake and then hitchhike or walk up to the Refugio Teski Club. The road is paved all the way up to the Refugio which sits at 1300m. and was built in its present location after the previous hut was destroyed in the Great Chile Earthquake of 1960.
With a guide – as a solo traveller and novice climber, my choice!
Puerto Varas – The Starting Point
I arrived in Puerto Varas on a Thursday afternoon, a bit tired. Having left Toronto at 11:00 p.m. the day before, I had missed a night’s sleep as I flew to Santiago and another one thousand kilometers south of Puerto Montt. A $20. cab ride from the airport and I was at the Hostel Melmac Patagonia in the room that would be mine for three nights until my Sunday morning departure for Bariloche.
After a walk down the stairs from the hostel to the downtown area and to the shore of Lago Llanquihue, I saw the two cloud-draped peaks in the distance. In the panorama shot below, the 2652-meter volcano on the left side is Osorno; on the right side of the image is Volcán Calbuco, somewhat lower at 2000 meters and missing the snow cap since its recent eruption in 2015.
Osorno or Calbuco – Which One To Do?
I hoped to start my Chile/Argentina hiking & climbing trip with an ascent of one of them. But which one? I needed to find a local guiding agency to help me make up my mind and then provide a guide who would take me up!
In the evening, I started a flurry of emails with Huella Andina Expeditions (HAE), a local mountaineering agency with a 5-on-5 -star rating on Trip Advisor. It is family-run and has been in operation since 2009.
This email the next morning (Friday) helped me make up my mind –
To Osorno – The regular program starts today at 7:30 p.m. driving to the Teski hut. There we eat, prepare equipment, and start the climb at 5 a.m. We do not use the chairlift because it starts running at 10-11 a.m., so all the way is by foot.To Calbuco – We start the regular program at 5 a.m. from Puerto Varas, and we arrive with the car at the beginning of the trail at an altitude of 500m.In numbers: Osorno and Calbuco are both 1,500m of elevation gain and approximately 7 km to walk (one way).The main difference between them is the character of the climb. While Osorno is a glacier climb, Calbuco because of last eruption is a “rock climb”: basically volcanic scree and to crawl / climb over some boulders in 2 sectors of the ascent: a ridge in the middle of the climb and a 30m climb to arrive to the summit.
I ended up choosing Osorno. Even though it is 600 meters higher than Calbuco, the 7-kilometer distance covered is actually the same and in some ways, Osorno is an easier climb. Also, a client was already booked for Osorno, which made it cheaper to do than the Calbuco climb with me as the sole client.
Huella Andina Expeditions is totally deserving of its 5-star rating on TripAdvisor.
- Excellent initial communication via email to set the trip up,
- easy online payment,
- pickup at my hostel door,
- supper, and breakfast at the Refugio Teski included in the price,
- first-quality equipment (helmet, ice axe, crampons, harness, waterproof and insulated gloves),
- professional guiding by a very competent José Miguel Potthoff Pugin who also turned out to be totally simpatico – a nice guy to spend a day with. The fact that he is fluently trilingual – Spanish, German, English – made communication clear and precise.
I am embarrassed to admit that I initially hesitated at the $280. U.S. price. Given the all-inclusive nature of the package, given the technical nature of the top part of the climb … well, there is a reason why you need to register at the the CONAF hut at the trailhead ! I like that Huella Andina was confident enough in their service that they never offered to lower the price to get me interested!
Off To Refugio Teski
José picked me up at about 6:00 p.m. at the Hostel Melmac Patagonia (another service deserving of its. 4.5/5 star rating!). Already in the vehicle was Sarah, an Aussie adventurer who had just recently been climbing volcanoes in Ecuador. We drove along the south shore of Lago Llanquihue to Ensenada and then headed north on U-99 until we got to the turn-off for V-555. This paved road would take us through lush forest terrain until we came to a series of switchbacks that would take us up steeply to Refugio Teski Club, our base camp for the next day.
You can see the last bit of the road in the Google satellite image above. The road goes as far as the CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) building just behind the refugio. We would drop in there first; José took care of all the mandatory registration details, and I stepped outside to snap my first photos of the side of Osorno!
Behind the CONAF building is a volcanic ash road that goes further to a restaurant. Osorno’s top was covered in clouds; I hoped for a clear morning view when we got to the top!
We drove back the 120 meters to the Refugio Teski Club. Behind and above the Refugio are a bunch of other buildings – the Osorno Ski /Ski lift Centre. In the summer, the ski lifts take sightseers up to an elevation of 1670 meters for some fine views. We would only see the ski centre complex the following day after sunrise when we looked down at where we had come from in the dark!
The Refugio justifiably gets rave reviews for its magical sunset view of the Lago below. It is about 43 kilometres from the hut’s restaurant to Puerto Varas, and apparently, you can see all the way back on a clear morning. Evening cloud, haze, and dusk meant we had to be content with dramatic streaks of red on the horizon as the day ended!
By 9:30 or 10 – after a dinner that arrived soon after we did, thanks to José (I think) phoning ahead the order – it was lights out, and we all crawled into our sleeping bags. We were perhaps the only guests at the Refugio that night, so we each got a room of our own.
When it is busier, up to four people are bunked in those same rooms! At 4 a.m., we were up for our day’s adventure. I had slept fitfully – in fact, since I had left Toronto three nights before, I had gotten less than half of my regular snooze time! I would be dragging my butt a bit this morning – and it would mean I would get lots of great shots of my two fellow mountaineers ahead of me!
On Osorno’s Slopes
Instead of my usual Sony A77 and an assortment of lenses, I decided on this three-week trip to go very light. Left at home was all the fancy camera gear. Along for the ride was my Fuji X20, a camera I love to shoot with, knowing full well that it is just not in the same league as my “better” cameras. Instead of the 420 sq. mm. of an APS-C size sensor, it has one that is perhaps 1/8th the size! The low light and high iso performance are not the greatest. On the plus side, the X20 has a sensor twice the size of an iPhone or p&s camera and an excellent 28-112 zoom lens. It weighs twelve ounces/350 grams, and I am glad I decided to take it instead of the usual 3 kilograms. The 12-megapixel raw files I came home with were acceptable, given that none would be turned into billboards!
It took me a while to figure out exactly where to put the camera. On this first trip, I had it tucked inside my jacket. I would later come up with a much better system – I nestled it between the back of my neck and the top of my pack and was able to access it very quickly as I walked along the trails!
Shifting Into Mountaineering Mode –
With the putting on of the technical gear – the harness, the crampons, the helmet – the day’s hike became a mountaineering trip. One trekking pole was collapsed and put away, replaced with an ice axe. My light gloves – inadequate for a sustained stretch of hands-on ice climbing – had been replaced by José with a more substantial pair. (I am happy he noticed. I would have had some seriously cold – frozen? – hands! What was I thinking?)
Once the trip got more serious – maintaining a tightness on the rope, taking care of where and how I stepped, watching the climber ahead of me – the photos mostly stopped. A couple of times, when we took a brief rest, we would snap a few shots – but that would be it until we got to the very top. So – the forty minutes of 60º ice and snow slope that we kick-stepped our way up – no photos! See the end of the post for a Youtube video of a climber who attached a GoPro to his helmet during the ice climb section. It will give you a good idea of what it was like!
Osorno Summit On A Cloudy Day!
And finally – the top! High fives all around and a few photos! Then it was time for a quick snack as we stood in the clouds. I pulled out my orange Goretex jacket and slipped it over the other two jackets I was already wearing – it was a bit windy as we stood up there. As the following pix will show, we had an obscured view that morning! José mentioned that on a clear sunny day, we would have lounged up there for up to an hour enjoying better views. Instead, we were on our way back down after twenty!
The hike to the glacier’s edge is doable by anybody and we did meet a few people on our way back to the Refugio who were doing that. However, there is a reason why only 600 people summit Osorno each year. – once you are on the glacier and, even more, when you are faced with the final 60º ice and snow climb to the top, it is an entirely different situation. You are now in the realm of mountaineering, lack of necessary gear and experience up there as the weather suddenly changes for the worse, and the results could be fatal.
More cautious kick-stepping as we made our way down the steep part of the volcano cone. Already I was beginning to feel my quads and calves tighten up. The stress of keeping the muscles tight and engaged would mean that the last few kilometers of the walk back to the Refugio Teski would be a bit painful.
Back To Hiking Mode
It took less than an hour to get back to the edge of the glacier, where we took off all the technical climbing gear and packed it away. We were at the 2000-meter level; still to go was the 700-meter descent to the Refugio and a cup of coffee!
Thanks to the tightness in my legs, I got a few nice shots of the other two as they motored on down ahead of me! Since it was still dark when we had walked up this stretch, it was neat to see it now in daylight – and as the clouds swirled around, they added a bit of drama to the scene.
Somewhere along the way, I noticed the plaque below; it was a reminder that there is always an element of risk involved when you set off for a mountain top. No details were given, but you wonder – avalanche? Crevasse? Rockfall?
With the Refugio in sight, I told José and Sarah not to wait for me while I descended at a somewhat slower speed! They stopped every once in a while on our descent from the edge of the glacier so I could catch up.
At the Refugio, more high fives and that feeling of elation of having succeeded! We went through our gear and made sure that José got back all the stuff he had lent us. I sipped a cup of coffee and did leg stretches to counter the tightness. Then – the ride back to Puerto Varas and my hostel, a shower, and then a quick lunch with my climbing partner at Masala Chai, the nearby vegetarian restaurant.
I brought my Spot Connect (no longer available) to record a GPS track of the route, but for some reason, the device would not work, and 5:00 a.m. with two waiting climbing partners was not the right time to fiddle around with it – so no tracks! It may have been a battery issue – the device has always been reliable. It was working a few days later!
Wikiloc GPX Track
Wikiloc users have uploaded GPS tracks of the Osorno climb. This one by Claudio Riveros P titled “Ascensión Cumbre Volcán Osorno” comes closest (I think!) to the route we took to the summit. Just click on the image to access –
Youtube Videos of the Osorno Climb
The Youtube video below captures the feeling of the ice climb to the top. Also check out some of the other short Youtube videos of the Osorno climb.
Back In Puerto Varas
It was late afternoon when I wandered down from the Hostel Melmac into the image you see above. It was Dia del Kuchen in Puerto Varas! I knew all about kuchen (it means cake in German) thanks to my mother, who was born near Hanover – and here were the townsfolk celebrating at least one part of their cultural heritage!
I still had an evening to spend in town before my early morning departure for Bariloche across the border. I had already bought my Cruce Andino ticket before setting off for Osorno. My quads and calves were looking forward to a day of rest on the series of buses and boats that would get me to Bariloche!