Skiing Volcanoes in South America

The Mute Devil and the Volcanoes of Southern Chile

“Trust in dreams for in them is the hidden gate to eternity.”  Kahlil Gibran

Volcan Villarica erupting in 1985

The first time I saw Volcán Villarrica, it was exploding, and torrents of fiery lava were pouring down its slopes. We were busy kayaking the Río Trancura, and the thought of skiing this pristine mountain never even crossed my mind.

Kurt Casey skiing Volcan Villarica

Volcan Llaima at sunset, 7000 vertical feet of perfect corn.

The magnificent rivers of Chile held me in their grasp for many years, and I enjoyed some incredible voyages, but the great mountains kept beckoning, and I finally answered their call.

Volcán Villarrica towers above the trendy tourist village of Pucón, Chile, and climbing the volcano has become one of the most popular pastimes in town. During the warm, summer days, dozens of adventurous tourists put on crampons for the first time in their lives and amble up a well-worn but steep glacial trail to the summit of the lofty volcano. In good conditions, it is an easy climb. But in bad weather, which is very frequent, the throngs of novices on the icy slopes have suffered many accidents and a few deaths, so the authorities managed to convince us that we had to have a guide.

Peruvian ski lift for Nevado Ishinca

Guiding climbers up the volcano was the biggest gig in town, and the rates were very competitive. But finding someone who would also rent skis — and allow his clients to take off by themselves — took some doing.

“You want to ski the volcano?” the skeptical owner of Sol Y Nieve (Sun and Snow) asked.

Though there was a small ski area on the lower part of the mountain, the idea of summer skiing had not yet arrived in Chile, and he looked at us like we were a bit crazy.

John skiing perfect corn on Nevado Ishinca, Peru

But, he didn’t want to turn down business, so he found the key to his ski storage area and rented us the necessary equipment. The skis were somewhat ancient, but they looked reasonable, and he seemed to be the only source in town, so we paid a small deposit and made plans to meet him the next day.

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Traveling in Peru:

Top Ten Adventures


1. Go on a multi-day sea kayak trip and try to live off the sea. The Caribbean offers warm water snorkeling and the North West US offers tons of sea life and great fishing.

2. Ski Jackson Hole and jump into Corbet’s Couloir. This world class mountain offers hundreds of challenging runs, but Corbet’s is a true classic and is actually quite reasonable on a big powder day.

3. Learn to surf.  Surfing is a very challenging sport, but the rewards are worth the effort.

4. Go canyoneering in the great Southwestern desert.  The hundreds of pristine slot canyons in Southern Utah offer exciting journeys into another world that are impossible to describe.

5. Climb and ski a big mountain. One of my favorite thrills is to climb to the top of a mountain and ski back down. The many great mountain ranges of the world offer a huge spectrum of summits and descents and Wild Snow by Lou Dawson is a great guidebook. Mount Shasta in California is highly recommended.

6. Spend at least one winter in a ski town and join a town race league. You’ll meet some very interesting people, enjoy an incredible thrill and really improve your skiing techniques. Extra points for the Aspen Town Downhill. The Masters League is another alternative which doesn’t require moving to a ski town.

7. Kayak the Colca or Cotahuasi Canyons in Peru or climb one of the many great mountains. The Colca offers a truly surrealistic journey through the deepest canyon in the world and the Cotahuasi flows through a spectacular desert canyon filled with the ruins of an ancient Inca civilization. A few brave companies offer commercial raft trips. Peru is also famous for big surf, ancient Inca villages and pristine jungles filled with exotic birds.

8. Kayak and climb or hike in Nepal. This mountain paradise is home to some of the best whitewater on earth. The vistas are stunning and the locals are very friendly. Don’t forget to ride an elephant.

9. Take a climbing trip to Thailand or SE Asia. The weather is a great, the food is awesome and a wide variety of bolted routes provide a climbing mecca.

10. Climb a desert spire. The great Southwestern desert of the US is home to some great sandstone spires and they offer a wide range of thrilling challenges. Layton Korr said that a spire was worth 3 big wall climbs and I tend to agree. Extra points for “Moses” in Canyon Lands, Utah.


Top Ten Non-Extreme Adventures

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A Summer in the Needles of South Dakota

If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”   — Henry David Thoreau


Fast food in the seventies

Fast food in the seventies

“Wow! That was really good for my psyche!” exclaimed Pete Delannoy, as I caught him after a 50 foot lead fall.

It was the longest fall that I had ever witnessed, and I caught him just a few feet from the ground with a running belay. It was good for his psyche because he was afraid that he might have hit the ground.  Pete was trying to climb a classic Needles route called “Hairy Pin” and his fall had been stopped by one old quarter-inch bolt. After a brief rest, he tried again, with the same result.

Pete Delannoy on the 1st ascent of The Crack of Earthly Delights.

Pete Delannoy on the 1st ascent of The Crack of Earthly Delights.

“Thanks for a great belay! I think I have the move figured out now,” he said, and immediately went up for a third try.  The third try was the charm, and I had a chance to follow with a tight rope. I also fell, but my fall was only a few inches, and I managed to make the moves on the second try.

The South Dakota Needles were the closest climbing area to my home state, and I had the luxury of hanging out with some top “rope guns” for the better part of a summer in the mid-1970’s.

I had met Bob Archbold at the Devil’s Tower, and he invited me to join him at his deluxe camp. Bob and his friend Jim Black had started a climbing school at Sylvan Lake and had set up very luxurious accommodations.

The camp site they had chosen was in a beautiful, remote setting and had a large rock overhang to provide shelter. A few pitons provided anchors for a deluxe racking system, and we also had a picnic table and a large hammock.  Most of the local climbers called it the “sex cave,” but it was really just an overhanging rock.

The guiding business wasn’t very good, but some beautiful Midwestern gals were very impressed by the manly climbers, and the cave family grew.  The warm summer days were spent climbing and hiking, and the evenings were spent socializing around a warm fire.  We discovered a variety of mint plants, that made some very tasty tea that complemented the simple gourmet meals that we enjoyed in our wilderness paradise.

There were only a handful of climbers in the Needles that summer, but Bob seemed to know them all and it was a very friendly family. Many new routes were being established, and I had some great opportunities to try them.  I was somewhat of a fledgling climber, but it was a wonderful experience to hang out with all the heroes, and my skills gradually increased. The many spectacular spires offered some incredible summit vistas, and the lush meadows between them provided a maze-like setting with hundreds of secret places.

One of Bob’s best friends was a legendary old climber named Paul Muell, who had served the U.S. Military in a special forces unit.  He was also an explosives expert and was working on the Crazy Horse Monument in it’s early days of construction.  Paul was an excellent climber with a very cool head and bravely led the Needles classics, which were considered very dangerous leads in most of the climbing circles.

Climbing in the Needles has a very interesting history, which centers on Herb and Jan Conn. They started climbing in the Needles in 1949 with only tennis shoes and a sixty-foot rope, and they managed to summit more than 200 spires.

All of their routes were climbed free, and they used a very minimal amount of fixed protection, which was always placed by the leader. This standard has survived the test of time and has left a paradise of pristine rocks that are uncluttered with bolts and webbing. Drilling a hole in granite with a hammer while standing on a small crystal with a twenty-foot run-out is quite a bold task, so the few bolts that exist are very well placed.

“The protection is adequate, and you don’t need a big rack,” remarked Paul, as he reached into his tobacco can for some ground up rock dust.  He didn’t use chalk, and he often climbed in the Conn style, with some old tennis shoes that he called K-Martos. But, when the going got really tough, he would put on his PA’s and would occasionally reach into his back pocket for the tobacco can.

Climbing with Paul and Bob was a real joy, and I had the privilege of experiencing the summits of many of the classic routes.

The Needles is still one of my favorite places on the planet, and I have very fond memories of our little cave family and the magical summer that I spent there.