Bikepacking with Brendan, Part 2: Puyehue!


Llica, Chile.

I’d been traveling with Brendan James for 3 days so far. We’d laughed, spoken in strange accents to mask the frustration at non-existent trails, and on occasion even ridden our bikes. After our river fording and bike-dragging adventures in the Huilo-Huilo Reserve, he invited me to join him in exploring a trail he’d discovered which crosses the Puyehue National Park, which would traverse the Western slopes of the massive Volcan Puyehue. We didn’t know the terrain. We didn’t know how rideable it would be. Honestly all we had was a dotted line on one map. Somehow that was enough. 


After a fantastic afternoon soaking in the warm waters of Lago Rango we stocked up on supplies in Llica, heading toward the Northern entrance of Parque Nacional Puyehue to find our roost.


Random roadside waterfall. A family gathering around a selfie stick. Of course, in typical form I took a photo of people taking a photo, of themselves. Humans are infinitely interesting.


We soon cut off the main paved road onto dirt, leaving behind the cacophony of cars for whispering winds and vast valleys as the sun swept behind the hillsides. 


That big old moon just beckoned us to follow it…


Was there ever a more inviting road? Farms and pastures, gigantic mountains beyond. 


The light was getting low, so it was time to land for the night. We’d had a full day and needed to store up energy for the adventure ahead. 


We noticed a small trail leading down to the river from a bridge, and followed it down to a perfect little campsite with fire pit. We cooked and joked and told stories as the moonlight travelled across the riverside. 


I awoke a bit before Brendan, and walked along the river, I noticed steam rising from multiple locations and wondered if there might, by chance be hot springs nearby?!?


 There was after all a volcano just South of here… Unfortunately I didn’t find any pools or sources of the steam. Alas. We packed up and began our steep climb, directly from our campsite in the river valley, and rarely stopped climbing for the rest of the day…

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We stopped in to the National Park “office” to pay our entrance fee (really just the farm of a sweet old man with tons of stories). A funny man who, upon hearing we were from the united states, said “hijos de Trump” (Trump’s children). He’d been living on the property for 30 years and it showed. But he was sweet and warm, even gave us a “discount” on the park entry fee. We filled up enough water to get through the night, assuming we’d be back down off the volcano by the following afternoon… first mistake. The owner saw us with our bikes and made a gesture signifying how we’d be pushing or carrying our bikes up the terrain with enormous rocks, insane grades, and a recent volcanic eruption that “may” have completely occluded a large section of the trail around the volcanic crater. Nonetheless, we advanced. (all Picsporadic labeled photos taken by Brendan James)


The climb was intense.  Luckily a tractor had been through the lower section, grading the track. But the very loose dirt and the insanely steep grade got us walking right off the bat. It was here that my lack of restful sleep and dubious feelings about the route got me dragging ass. I even told Brendan I was considering this might not be a good idea. Luckily his zeal was infectious and so I pushed on. 


And I do mean “pushed” on… there were VERY rare moments when we mounted our bike to pedal for a few meters before again dismounting to continue the uphill slog. 


We reached the official border to the park by mid-afternoon. We’d already been pushing for a few hours and were getting slightly concerned that we’d overestimated our average speed and underestimated our water supply. No streams in sight. No confirmation that any would be ahead… hm…


Fantastic to actually get on our bikes for a little section in the park! This fun and wiggly trail through the trees reminded me of some sections on the Arizona Trail. So did all the hike-a-bike actually! The single track started from there, climbing at first gently through a gorgeous forest of unknown grey tree trunks, barren of leaves, making it a whole new world. The ground was dirt by and large, covered with tree roots, but the trail, where the dirt had been turned up, was grayish white. The further we climbed, the more all the ground transitioned into this peculiar color. Ah yes, we’re in a volcanic area in which a recent eruption had occurred within the last couple of years. This was all ash! A LOT of it. 

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 Around a corner the trail became a wall. Following up a steep ridge, it didn’t bother to switchback as it went directly up a grade no less than 40%. We shoved, grunted, screamed (well, I did all the screaming) and dragged our bikes up that climb, repeatedly asking what the fuck these trail builders were thinking and how horses possibly descended down this grade…  Then around another corner was another wall of trail. Even steeper. We had to stand on the uphill side against the trunks of the now diagonally growing trees (due to the steepness of the hillside) and do vertical bike pushups to get our rigs up, one shove at a time. Fun!


Strange and interesting trees around here…

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At one point we encountered our first human travelers on the trail, two men hauling gear down from a trekking group. Upon request they told us that there was indeed a water source within the next few kilometers. Sweet! But, not even the guides knew the trail we were hoping to take along the volcano… a bit disconcerting.


A gap in the forest revealed a vast view of the peaks surrounding us. This wilderness is immense. So much to explore. 


The sun’s rays became progressively oblique, casting long shadows as we crested above tree line. The trail got no less steep, solely transitioning from dirt to loose rock. The walking continued. 


Glancing back over my shoulder to take in the mountains I noticed the trail behind us… this would be really fun to ride… DOWN. Alas, we kept pushing. 


A short descent and we saw before us a rocky cliffy face of sandy rock that the trail sharply zigzagged up. A sigh and we continued. From there this was the pattern for the rest of the evening. Up a super steep section to another terrace that only revealed the next terrace upon reaching its top.


Cresting another steep hillside we saw the trail actually descending into a valley, and were able to actually get ON our bikes!


We rounded a corner to see billows of steam ahead. Geysers?


Yep. Brendan rode around the geyser field so I could get a shot of him riding the smoky ridge. So fun to ride with someone with high-level photographic skills. He was always considering interesting angles and frames. I learned a lot just by watching. 


Evening was approaching and we’d covered about 11 miles over a full day of pushing. Humbling to say the least. Wondering where that water source was to which the horsemen had alluded, we came across a TINY stream. The water was approximately 1/2” deep at it’s deepest point, trickling between rocks. Was this the water source??? No way. But we couldn’t pass up an opportunity. The question was, how do we collect it?? Our filters and bottles would not even pick up the water in such low levels. Brendan even tried to drink it out of the ground, with no success. 


Crunching a small plastic bottle to collect the trickle, Brendan managed to get about 3oz of water in about 10 minutes of trying. It was grey, full of sand and silt. It smelled of sulphur. Discouraged, we passed it by and pushed on in hopes of water ahead.


With some high winds on the flat hilltops and lowering light, we needed to find our camp. We noticed a big valley ahead and decided to stop somewhere down there. 


A fun little rutted downhill path led to a lava field in the distance. We’d aim for that. But as we approached we noticed a small group of tents off in the distance. Rolling up on them, we realized it was a group of hikers we’d met that morning at the park entrance. As we approached they greeted us, asking if we had any way to make fire. As it turned out they’d not planned particularly well and had no way to cook food, and between 8 of them had no water at all. I was amazed at how over prepared I  felt all of a sudden by contrast. One guy emerged from his tent, asking if by chance we might have a couple of band-aids…


As it turned out, he had unwittingly stepped into a geyser. Yep. Not quite sure how someone does that, but he’d sucked in up to just below his knee in steam and boiling water. 

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My WFR skills were pretty rusty by this point, and upon pulling out my dirt-caked med kit from the bottom of my frame bag I realized the condition of my kit matched those skills. Something inside had rubbed a hole in the bag and all my bandages were covered in muck. Brendan had a clean roll of athletic tape, nothing else. Hm… We were both deeply concerned about him. While he and his party seemed calm, none of them were prepared for being out here. They’d brought tents and sleeping bags, but no food, NO WATER. Unfortunately we had none to spare either. They were asking us if they could keep going or if they should turn back. REALLY?? It was getting dark and they were 10 rough hiking miles away from their vehicle, at least a 5 hour walk. I was worried about him losing circulation in his lower leg. We dressed the enormous blisters as best we could trying to keep them protected and suggested he keep his shoes on as that would be harder to do as the swelling increased. None of them seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation, but we didn’t want to worry them. We firmly suggested they head back at first light and go immediately to a hospital. Thanking us for what little help we could offer, we bid them good luck and pressed on to find our camping spot. 


2 tents, 2 bikes and a huge pile of lava ahead. Brendan had developed an angry good-old-boy southerner accent with a Clint Eastwood influence and I’d found my own version of the same. He shared stories of his past and his path, but after a short while I lost the ability to concentrate due to exhaustion and excused myself to sleep. We awoke and glanced across the wide valley behind to see the group had already packed up their tents and left. Not sure what happened in the end. Really hoping that burn victim was okay.


We both studied our maps, his gpx track of the trail, and surveyed the land ahead. There was a problem. The trail as it was marked seemed to go directly through a MASSIVE lava flow. 100+’ high lava cliffs defined it’s edges and the gigantic rock crumbles inside could be treacherous if crossable at all. We’d have to find a way around it, but had no idea how far it reached as this eruption must have happened since the trail had been originally marked. 


We’d get occasional perspective on the crater of Volcan Puyehue, knowing that we were shooting for its Southern (right in this picture) flanks. But that wall of lava was ominous to say the least. 


Our best guess was that the flow was carried from this small crater across the valley and ran to the right. So we cut right hoping to reach its terminus and “ride” around it. 


After some route finding we found the edge! From a distance it looked like a perfect gap to easily pass through. 


Closer investigation revealed the crossing would be less than easy. 


Razor sharp lava rocks. Steep cliffs. Loose sand in between. Sweet trail! We aptly entitled this section La Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Doorway). 

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“This is no place for a fucking bicycle!”

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But there we were. In a lava field. With bicycles. 

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The terrain choices were interesting: either try edging though the sharp lava or stay high on the steep slope above it in deep, sloppy sand. We tried both at various times, in the end often opting for the sandy choice. This was not “a” volcano. it was a whole volcanic area, and we were stuck in the middle of it. 


There were actually some rideable sections of the route that day, where the endless sand pits hardened up enough to pedal and the steep traverses calmed. 


It was, at the very least, fantastically gorgeous. The entire way. 


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As the walking resumed, we realized our plan to be down the far slope of Puyehue by mid afternoon today was far from accurate. But our water supply was getting quite low. Given we were in the middle of a huge volcanic desert, surrounded solely by lava and sand, there was little hope of a river up here. We both accepted the next chunk of time was going to get harder. 

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Glancing down a steep ravine, Brendan swore he saw wet ground way down there. I thought it was just shadows. But we hiked way down the steep banks to make sure, we didn’t have enough water to risk missing the opportunity. On the way down Brendan had to hop off of a small cliff to get down there while scouting ahead. Following him, I tried to ask how he’d imagined returning back up it as the walls were all loose sandy rock and it was too high to jump back up… no reply. I hopped down after him and hoped for the best.


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Success!!! Seeping slowly out of the sandy drainage below was the headwater of a small stream!! We screamed with joy as we happily filled our bottles and bladders.

On the way back up we had to create a route back up the small cliff we’d jumped. I suggested we pile up rocks from the bottom until we could stand on them enough to climb out. After short deliberation we went for it. I grabbed bigger floating rocks from below and brendan picked at a steep wall of them aside the drop creating a pile that we could shove into the space to gain height. After an hour or so of piling and digging, we made it out and returned to our bikes for more shoving. 


Once back to the bikes, we approached the next challenge: Ruts. Never a calm moment. Prior rainwater had created an endless field of them, varying in depth from little cracks to enormous chasms. Given our route across the South slope, we’d be traversing them ALL.


Sometimes it would be as simple as a little 1-2’ dent in the route, even hop-able while riding on occasion. 


Other times it was a small canyon, requiring us to drop the bikes down into the sand below and hoist them in sequence up the other side. 


Each new crossing required stopping, scouting a safe route, attempting, sometimes failing and retrying. 



As evening set it we luckily hit a section of rideable terrain, now searching for flat ground for the night. 

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 We soon came across a swedish guy camping on a hillside below the trail. “Isn’t it hard traveling through here with bikes?” he said. “Nah, it’s fine” we replied.


As darkness set in we found a small patch of flat ground and collapsed into our tents as the sun was completing it’s glorious descent below the horizon, revealing fantastic colors reflecting against a distant lake. Only 6000’ of steep descent lay between us and the road below. But that would have to wait for tomorrow.


We awoke to fantastic views of the mountains to our South. Would we embark on yet another mountainous adventure into the next set of peaks? For now, we just wanted to get through this one.


Not a bad place to camp!

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We set off down the steep single track the following morning. I unfortunately had a problem with my brakes locking up every other time I attempted using them, resulting  in repeated endos over my handlebars. Shit!


Frustrated, I suggested Brendan ride down ahead of me to enjoy the descent. I unfortunately had to walk most of it due to my failing brakes. Alas. the one mostly rideable section of the Puyehue track wouldn’t be ridden by me. 


Hitting the paved road below, we stopped at the first signed house… fresh empanadas and humitas. We engorged ourselves for a couple of hours before hopping on the long paved section to reach our next food resupply in the touristy lakeside town of Entre Lagos. Very steep rolling hills with some prolonged climbs, it kicked my ass after so many hard days in a row, but Brendan’s relentless drive and power in the saddle served as motivation to try to keep up with him. He’s a beast. 

We arrived in Entre Lagos around 7pm, time to realize this was NOT the town for us. Basically a dingy Cape Cod type of feel but in Spanish. Lots of tourists but not a particularly pretty place. We stocked up on food and beer and rolled out asap. Unfortunately in our haste to get out we took the wrong road out of town and only realized it 5km up the road. Not enough light to return to the correct road, we hopped a cattle gate and set up camp on a dirt access road inside a small farm under eucalyptus trees on the edge of a dense bamboo forest. That night Brendan and I spoke of many interesting topics that night, including the creative process and how to facilitate productivity though setting small goals then linking them together, his longer documentary and how to get feedback for it, politics, art, music, relationships, and life. I eventually stopped and retired because my energy just wasn’t there to keep talking. It had been a long few days of travel and we’d not covered a lot of distance. But the story… unforgettable.

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Upon glancing ahead at the map, the towering Volcan Osorno and it’s associated trail system might be in our future if we so chose it… More on that next time…

5 Responses

  1. Iohan
    | Reply

    Rad as always! Added on the to do list!

  2. James
    | Reply

    Thanks for making so many posts in the last few days. Really enjoying them.

  3. Bill
    | Reply

    Very neat

  4. Lewis
    | Reply

    Hey Scott,

    When we left the tour in Ecuador to go back to the workin’ world back in June, I have been reluctant to read any blogs from The Trail so I wouldn’t be sad. I’m over that now and this is the first one I’ve read. I’m glad to see you still blazing on. It’s funny how easy it is to under prepare with water, despite the fact that we should know better by now. It’s crazy though how ridiculously unprepared those hikers were.
    We’re HQed in New Zealand now for the next couple years, at least, so hit me up if you come our way. You’ll have a place to crash in Auckland and possibly a partner for a short adventure or two.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Thanks Lewis! Big hugs to you down in Auckland! Sounds awesome!

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