Trail Hunting amongst volcanoes in Chile
In Part II of his blog, Euan continues his trail hunting amongst volcanoes in Chile.
Words: Euan Wilson;
Photos: Dan Milner;
Riders: Matt Hunter, Rene Wildhaber, Matty Miles.
Stalking elusive, unknown trails in Chile
It’s not often that you actually ride trails that no-one has ever ridden before! That’s quite a tall order and hard to come by in this day and age of adventure, but they do still exist, you just have to find them…
“You just have to find them…” is very easily said whilst sitting here in the warmth of our office in the Highlands of Scotland on a wet winter’s day with a cup of tea steaming in front of me. But it was on a day like this a year ago when I was trail hunting amongst volcanoes in Chile for our new Chile + Patagonia mountain bike tour, that we touched on a section of trail that we realised had probably never been ridden on before, and that got the cogs turning inside my head.
“You just have to find them…”
As luck would have it, not long after my return from Chile I was on a call with Dan Milner, top notch mountain bike photographer and a good friend of mine, and we got talking about trail hunting amongst volcanoes in Chile and an idea he had been percolating for the past 20 years since his last adventure in the Volcano Region. This area is carpeted in Araucaría trees and punctuated by towering snow-capped volcanoes that trigger your inner child’s imagination to visualise dinosaurs roaming amongst you.
But alas, no prehistoric animals, just a relatively unexplored region with what looks like sublime singletrack weaving through some challenging and remote locations, that see very little human traffic these days, certainly not since the old smuggling expeditions into Argentina came to an end, and certainly not mountain bikers.
The character of this part of Chile is unmistakeable. Araucaría, snow-capped volcanoes and unbelievable singletrack (both up and down),
The calm before the storm
We ride in this exact region during our Chile + Patagonia mountain bike tour, and cherry-pick the best riding in the volcano region for our tour. But on my adventure with Dan we’re trying to ride point-to-point from Lanín volcano to Villarica volcano and the town of Pucón. We’ll be camping and looking after ourselves on this expedition, finding our own way and filtering water when the opportunity arises, riding within ourselves to save from injury and saving energy should the day turn more epic than we expected! And indeed it did…
The team is made up of Rene Wildhaber, Matt Hunter, Matty Miles, Dan Milner, myself and Ernesto our Chilean guide. A strong team with years of experience of travelling in exotic locations and who also know a thing or two about riding bikes.
As we arrive in the Volcano Region we are met by our good friends who transfer us to the first night’s camp spot deep in the forest. We arrive late, very late, it’s been dark for a number of hours now, and as we travel up a very long and dark road we struggle to get our bearings after just landing and driving straight here. We are all a little on edge, with our senses on high alert until we get to know our world within the narrow field of our head torch.
After pitching tents and getting some much-needed food into our stomachs we climb into our sleeping bags and settle into one of the best night’s sleep in recent weeks. Fresh air and the sound of a distant river settle the mind, almost like some primeval instinct.
“We are all a little on edge, with our senses on high alert until we get to know our world within the narrow field of our head torch.”
We rise at 8am, wipe the sleep from our eyes and unzip the tent to explore the camp and surrounding landscape, secretly hoping we haven’t built camp in the middle of a large roundabout or something similar. We had nothing to worry about, as the tent flap pulls back the clear blue sky is interrupted by the pure white conical shaped volcano of Lanín.
Eventually we all exhale after what seemed like a lifetime and start laughing at how incredible the landscape and camp spot really is, all under the canopy of the enchanting Araucaría trees with a towering volcano on one side and a jagged ridgeline on the other. We’re all now itching to hit the trails. The views are to die for, the trees are knarled and creating mesmerising shapes, and the dirt is in prime condition for enjoying some loam riding.
Kit packed and breakfast in our stomachs we hit the trail for what were to become some of the longest and toughest days on a bike I can remember. The skies were clear and the sun was hot, the trails were not used very often, gradients were tough and occasionally sandy in nature, making a lot of the forward motion difficult and certainly testing our sense of adventure. But I was, for sure, in the right group of riders when it came to self-sufficient mountain men who want nothing more than an epic day in the mountains of this amazing South American country.
Above: After a calm but cold night we awoke to find our frozen bikes sitting under the shadow of a cartoon-like volcano and epic sunrise.
Below: One of the hardest but most rewarding days of trail hunting I can remember. It had everything in no small measure.
The volcanoes strike back
After eleven hours of trail hunting and riding through forest, alpine mountain passes, along desert-like valley floors, and around the side of a volcano, we pushed our bikes back up to the top of the tree line at 8pm, taking our cumulative ascent for the day to well over 2000m. It was at this point that the first signs of the varnish cracking started to show. A few frustrated grunts and knowing glances, as the daylight was slipping away from us and we were wrestling with an ascent that was so close to being ridable, but kept resisting us at every turn.
With 1000m descending to do to reach our camp for the night, and 20 minutes until the light would be behind the volcano, we set off downhill on a trail we hoped to be amazing, and not as frustrating as the ascent.
The discussion before dropping in was, head torches or no head torches?
We went with no head torches and disappear over the brow of this classic South American ridge that was basked in golden evening light with dust clouds hanging behind each rider for what felt like an eternity. As we hit the first hairpin we disappeared into the thick Araucaría forest, twisting and sliding around a hundred- or even a thousand-year-old trees for a grand total of 34 switchbacks that had us laughing so hard that the crew at camp could here us coming for ten minutes before they could see us.
As we stopped the clock on arrival at camp, we had been on trail for 12.5 hours, over 2000 meters of climbing and around 200 spiky goats’ head thorns in my gloves. An epic day to say the least and we all breathe a huge sigh of relief and reach for a beer, this is one of the most eagerly-awaited beers of all time and where is all the food…? Feed us!!
We were looking for big, epic, never-done-before, testing, challenging and truly one to remember for the rest of our lives, and this trip delivered in all aspects in bucket loads. We got exactly what we set out to get and this trip has left us with a lasting bond of friendship between the whole team, which is one of the many benefits of what putting yourself out of your comfort zone will do for you.