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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



25 September 2017

Exercise Northern Andes Serpent was an overseas ski touring expedition encompassing the difficult terrain of the Chilean Andes and several volcanoes. The expedition allowed three individuals to progress from Ski Foundation 2 qualification to SF3, a conversion of an old qualification to SF3, and the build-up of ski touring logbook hours for all involved, necessary for subsequent Ski Leader 1-3 certification. One member of the team has given a great account of their experience:

The first group of thirteen arrived in Santiago, capital of Chile, on 16th July after a fourteen hour direct flight. The team was composed of a mixture of roles from 22, 201, 203, 204, 205, 207, 256 Fd Hosp, 306 HSR, UOTC and Fleet Air Branch, and with varying levels of ski experience (SF2 upwards).

After one night staying in the city, we travelled in three rented pick-up trucks towards the volcanoes of Chillán. After spending our first of three nights in a cabaña in the Las Trancas valley, we spent the next day on- and off-piste for a skills refresher period. Our second day of skiing was our first day of ski touring. In our expedition packs, we had our avalanche probe and shovel, packed lunch, ski skins and crampons, and shared team kit including six man shelter, first aid kit, and rope. Each individual also carried a transceiver.

The first ski tour route had to be altered: the volcano we were intending to climb had a 3km exclusion radius applied due to increased volcanic activity. We therefore skied past the peak of Chillán Viejo and toured towards Chillán Nevado, reaching a small summit (2732m) before the turn back time.

The next day was a foggy four hour drive to Pucón, a small town with many ski equipment and outdoor activity shops. A cabaña to fit us all was found, supplies purchased and the fire lit for a cosy night in. The next day the looming Volcán Villarrica appeared through the murk, and the skies cleared as we pulled out of the driveway for the trip to the snowline.

On Volcán Villarrica, the team was split into two groups. One group practiced avalanche drills, then ski toured to a point known as the White Rock (2220m) before skiing down off-piste. The other group took a ski lift to several hundred metres, giving them time to ski tour to the summit of the smoking volcano (2860m).

Day eight was spent on Volcán Villarrica again, this time however fog and eventually snow leading to rain meant that the planned tour had to be cancelled. This day was spent in a snowy valley where transceiver drills were practiced, and a demonstration of snow profiling and snow anchors were given. Assessing the snow profile can give useful information about the composition, strength, and therefore avalanche risk within a snowpack. Snow anchors can be used to lower casualties or individuals down steep slopes using rope if required.

After one final night in Pucón, we packed up and drove to Puyehue National Park. We spent one night in small seven person huts before strapping our skis onto our backpacks and heading to the base of the massive volcano Puyehue. Our food was strapped to a rented packhorse, and we set off walking up the mountain. The initial portions of the mountain were thick with a temperate rainforest, giving difficult muddy conditions on the low, steep slope. Eventually the snowline was met, making conditions problematic for the horse and its rider. Several hundred meters into the snowline, the horse had to turn back, meaning all the food had to be shared and carried. Higher still and the knee-deep snow covered forest gave way to equally deep snowy plains. 

Eventually the mountain cabin was reached: a small but functional cabin, complete with log burner, sixteen “rustic” bunk beds, three windows and a door. A long drop toilet was located about 100m away.

The following day we rose early to give us maximum time to reach the summit and hopefully ski into the massive 1.5 mile wide crater. Despite our best efforts, the sheet ice and uneven terrain near the summit meant that we had to turn back; the bright side being that we were able to see into a small portion of the gaping volcanic crater. Ski conditions on the way down were a mixture of ice and small islands of snow: at lower levels the snow was quite good and we descended in a good time.

After one more night in the cabin, we set off at first light to scramble through the forest back down to our waiting trucks. Our early rise gave us plenty of time to drive to our next location, Lonquimay.

In Lonquimay we stayed in the Wenu Mapu cabañas, each housing about six people. We headed out through the Monkey-puzzle tree forests for our final volcano, Volcán Lonquimay. The group was split into two, one half going to attempt to summit, while the other went for a long distance route along a ridge-line to a small extinct volcanic cinder cone. 
The summit team reached 2400m altitude, but had to turn back a few hundred meters short of the summit due to gusting winds (80km/h) from an approaching front. We skied down the south-eastern face, following the appropriate avalanche prevention skills, before refitting our skins and touring up to meet the second group. Both groups then skied down and into the carpark, marking the end of the expedition’s last ski run.

Traveling to Santiago from Lonquimay took approximately five hours, and we were very excited to be checking into the Doubletree Hotel, a stone’s throw from South America’s tallest building. On the way we stopped at Laja Falls, a large waterfall with accompanying tourist stalls. Questionable food hygiene on the vendor’s behalf may have been the cause for some of the late onset stomach concerns upon our return to the UK.
The following day was mainly R&R: some deciding to take a cycling tour of the capital’s landmarks and markets; others visiting the zoo, museums and gaining a commanding view of the city and surrounding snow-capped Andes range from a large park in the city. 

The final day was marked with solemn thankfulness as the second, fresh-faced group arrived into the hotel. The prospect of sitting in a plane for up to fourteen hours was not a pleasant one, (especially as some had subsequent flights to Scotland or Northern Ireland), however we knew that we were the lucky ones to have even had the chance to come here, and were full of satisfaction that we had faced the volcanoes of the Andes and succeeded.