Feb. 16, 2011

Constanza Ceruti’s Ascent of Osorno

by Milbry Polk

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

Leaving Santiago, Constanza Ceruti and I flew to Puerto Montt where we had been invited to the lake home of publisher, artist, and philanthropist Roberto Edwards. Constanza -- a high altitude archaeologist and alpinist -- and I journeyed here so she could climb the volcano Osorno. From Puerto Montt we drove towards Osorno, which at 2661 meters, towers over the region. Arriving at Lake Todos los Santos under the eye of the volcano, Roberto met us in his boat and drove us across the lake to his home on the edge of the Parque Nacional Vincente Perez Rosales, the first national park in Chile. This is a spectacular region graced by dramatic steep mountains, active volcanoes, pristine primeval forests, and waterfalls created when water pours off the mountain glaciers.

Osorno, first summited in 1848 by Jean Renous, has attracted a number of climbers over the years. Its splendid beauty and sweeping slopes belie the challenging glaciers that cover the peak. It is also one of the most active volcanoes in Chile, having erupted eleven times between 1579 and 1869. Osorno itself sits atop an older volcano, the 250,000-year-old eroded stratovolcano La Picada that has a six-kilometer wide caldera. Fields of dark lava cover the flanks of the mountain and reach Todos los Santos and Lake Llanquihue. Roads cut through the lava channels at its base. Constanza found a local climber, Marcelo Altamirano, who pioneered routes on the volcano and owns the local gear shop, to accompany her since it is too dangerous to go alone.

The weather looked good, so Constanza decided it was time to climb. At 3 am we drove across the lake. The millions of suns of the Milky Way streamed a path across the sky. Shooting stars arched over the volcano -- a good sign. Marcelo joined us on the other side and I said goodbye.

Constanza continues:

Mount Osorno is called Pire Pillan in Mapuche. This means sacred volcano of snow. Professor Evelio Echevarria compiled the Mapuche legends about this mountain. One legend tells of a beautiful young woman, Licarayan (Flower of Fire) who was to be sacrificed to appease the mountain spirits. Her lover, the chief Quitralpique, had to carry out the sacrifice. According to the legend, she lay down in a field of flowers and went to sleep. The Chief cut out her heart, covered it with a branch of the sacred canelo tree. Then a condor flew down, ate the heart and took the branch to the summit. During the ensuing storm on the peak, the chief killed himself to join her in the afterlife.

I have always been drawn to mountains that carry a sacred meaning for the people and Osorno is one that is most important in this region. Climbing it gives me a deeper understanding of the importance and power of the individual mountain.

We started walking when it was dark, around 5 am. We ascended the southwestern side up slopes of lava flows until we reached the foot of the glacier. At sunrise we put on our crampons to start walking up the glacier. At this point our main concern was the crevasses. We were roped together as we zig-zagged around them. The danger posed by the crevasses was quite serious -- especially because the heat of the summer sun had caused a lot of unseen melt. After about an hour of walking through the crevasse field, we came to a steep ice wall that we had to ascend using axes, pitons, and ropes. Just a few weeks ago, two French climbers in that spot fell to their death, sliding hundreds of meters down the ice before landing broken in a crevasse.

Just below the summit we encountered a rimaya, a long deep crevasse at the edge of an ice field, underneath a bulge of ice, about 20-30 meters wide, which we had to traverse. Thankfully we made it over this challenging pitch. Suddenly the horizon opened up showing a vast area like a football field that lead to a gentler walk towards the summit. Once on top, we had a spectacular view of Todos Los Santos Lake and the distant Mount Tronador that straddles the Argentinian border.

We were worried about afternoon clouds but we had a beautiful view on the summit. It was as if the volcano was welcoming us. We had great weather coming down. But descending was a bit difficult because of the rotten ice. Under the heat of the sun, the ice melted. It was difficult burying the pick into the ice deep enough to hold me. We finally arrived at the top of the ski lift at 6 pm, tired, but very happy.

All day Roberto and I watched the summit, anxious, lest clouds come in. In the afternoon we drove to the volcano to find Constanza. We crossed innumerable lava flows -- some looking almost new -- as we traveled the long winding road up the side of the volcano to reach the ski resort. A series of gondolas took us up to the glacier. Far above us we saw two tiny figures. It was Constanza and Marcelo making their way down through the loose pumice. Constanza made it!! In celebration Roberto took us to a lovely nearby waterfall before we all made the trek back across the lake.

About Milbry Polk

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.