Local Knowledge: Chileans Know When the Snow’s Coming!

Posted By: The Ski Channel on October 20, 2012 4:49 am

Chile is a dramatic place.  The country averages 100-miles wide from west to east; the ocean is never far away.  The eastern boundary is delineated by the Andes mountains, reaching over 20,000-feet into the sky.  The drama of the landscape is matched only by the weather, which can be absolutely wicked at times.  Guiding in southern Chile means that a good part of each day is spent looking at forecasts and sophisticated weather models.  And for as good as that information can be, it’s amazing how much the locals can tell you – the stuff that doesn’t show up on commercial weather sites. 

A small lenticular cloud forms as the wind blows through this pass

Chileans have observed and described the weather patterns in the Andes and on the sea for centuries.  The famous weather patterns of La Niña and El Niño get their names from fisherman in northern Chile and Peru.  The Mapuche – the indigenous people of the Andes – say that the condors come out before storms.  And they are right; they do!  This year, I learned more about the Puelche winds.

The sky lights up as the sunsets under the unusual clouds.

The Puelche winds are like Föhn winds in Europe in that they are warm and come from the non-prevalent direction, in this case the east.  The weather models called for wind from the east, and warm temperatures, but this isn’t as interesting as what the local people could tell us.  The Puelche “always” lasts three-days, and then stops suddenly.  If it stops before three-days time, it will rain immediately; otherwise the event is followed by fair weather. 

The Puyehue from the Casablanca

We happened to be in the area of the Villarrica, Lanín, and LLaima volcanoes when the Puelche started.  Even though it was perfectly clear and very warm, the wind prevented us from getting even a third of the way up the mountain.  Knowing that the event would last three-days, we decided for a change in venue.  We headed a little south to the area of volcanoes Osorno, Casablana, and Puyehue.  The puelche was still cranking, but these mountains offered a little more protection because of their orientation, and location within the range. 

Cayo drains one last run on the Volcán Osorno

And what luck we had!  We managed to get in several great days of skiing, including one of the best of the season on Volcán Osorno.  It was incredible how the modern weather forecasts were the same for both areas, but local knowledge allowed us to find some relief from the wind event.  I often get overly romantic when talking about Chile, and it’s these types of stories that inspire this.  How cool is it that a huge group of folks with doctorates and graduate school education can’t match the information that comes from the local farmers and goat herders?  Very cool, in my opinion.  There’s no substitute for local knowledge.