Winter is Coming to Lanín of Neuquén
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
The signs are all there. Only a couple of weeks ago the autumn nights were just “a bit chilly”. The rainstorms came and went over a matter of hours. Now they linger on for days as the snow line along the mountain top creeps slowly down the hill. Campsites aren’t picked by the most scenic view to wake up to, the most practical surface, or the most secluded location. Now I’m looking for the spot with the best line-of-site to where the sun will creep over the horizon the next day. Put the tent right next to a road? OK. In direct sight of houses? Sure. A few days of stuffing a still iced-over tent into your bags with numb hands has a way of shifting your priorities.
Frequently bouncing back and forth between Chile and Argentina shows a stark contrast. Where Argentina brings bitter cold and wind at this time of year to its relatively dry steppe. Chile leans a bit milder though significantly more wet as the moisture from the ocean pushes up against the western side of the Andes, permeating the dense forests.
Before the first major winter storm came in to complicate navigating these mountains, I was able to squeeze in a couple of lesser-seen highlights of the area, including a side-trip up to the Sollipulli Volcano where a major collapse resulted in a five-kilometer wide crater that is now filled with glacial ice. Single track trails line the rim of the crater and provide some of the best views in the entire region. If you go through this zone, don’t miss it!
After being forced to adjust my route around a border post that was now closed for the season, I set my sights on Volcan Lanín. The tallest in a string of volcanoes in the region, Lanín straddles the border between Chile and the Neuquén region of Argentina. While there is a nice looking paved road to the north, I first decided to take a chance at connecting small dead-end dirt roads with a piece of the “Huella Andina” trail to get a different perspective. When I learned that I had to take a canoe across a lake to reach said trail, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist giving it a go.
At this time of the year, though, the state of the trail itself was totally unknown, and no one even knew if the owner of the canoe would be there to take me across the lake once I spent the two days riding to that point. Either way, I’ve got nothing else going on so why not give it a shot?
In the end, I lucked out with the canoe as the family that lives at the lake was still around, and they were willing to take me across with the bike for the equivalent of a few dollars. “How is the trail?” I asked, receiving only a shrug in return. I signed into a sheet of paper for people crossing the trail, noting that the most recent signature was from many weeks prior… If the puzzled faces on the other family members at the presence of me and my bike didn’t give me an indication of what I might be in for, the calls of “Suerte!” (Good luck!) combined with laughter started to give me an idea.
After a very promising handful of kilometers of gloriously rideable single-track accompanied by amazing views of the volcano, the conditions deteriorated fast. The last day on the trail involved basically zero riding. Sloshing through knee-deep muddy water pits, massive downed trees, narrow river channels to push up, and a whole lot of lifting the bike over rocky, rooty, and overgrown tracks.
In bicycle travel, though, the toughest parts are almost always the most rewarding to look back on. This is especially true when you’re able to piece together a route through a place that you weren’t really sure was even possible when you got there. There are few better feelings than making it out on the other side and laughing at some of the absurdity that preceded.
I wasn’t out of the woods yet though. Shortly after returning to the road I ran into some locals who warned of a big winter storm the area was expecting. Looking at the distance I still had to cover to the nearest town, I knew I was in for it, so I pushed on and watched as the snow began to rapidly pile up, counting down the minutes to the inside of a warm hostel somewhere. Dreaming of what dry socks once felt like.
The snow kept coming and coming for days after I reached Junín de Los Andes, Argentina. Just when I thought maybe the ice-covered roads had thawed out enough to sneak over the pass back to the warmer confines of Chile, a fresh layer would pile on. After a couple of long and cold weeks went by, the pass finally cleared and I used that opportunity to brush past the Lanín volcano one more time and hightail it north to meet with family in the big city, and escape winter’s grasp!
My Route is on Ride with GPS.