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Climbing Volcano Villarica

Written on: Monday January 28th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Pucon, Chile 

Author: Julie


We arrived at the Limay Tours office at 7 AM with our snacks and raingear. We quickly got checked in and each assigned a large backpack, helmet, snow pants, snow jacket, large mitts, crampons, an ice axe, and boots. I was allowed to wear my hiking boots and they provided us with gaiters to go over the boot and the lower half of our pants. We added our snacks, cameras, and sunscreen to the backpacks and we were ready to go. We were about 20 people who loaded up into the vans waiting outside and headed towards the base of the volcano located within Villarica National Park. The 30 minute drive took us out of Pucon, slowly up towards the base of the volcano, while passing into the national park. We disembarked at the base of the ski resort and near the chair lift. We were introduced to our four guides and explained the plan for the day. The winds were very strong and those that wanted to attempt the climb another day could but they had to decide now to get their money back. Anyone turning around once the climb had started would forfeit their payment. This also meant that because of the winds, the chair lift that would have taken us up the first 300 meters up the mountain was not operating and we would have to walk an extra hour and half. Kevin and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. What?s a little wind? 

The walk up to the first stop where the chairlift would have dropped us off was a nice warm-up for our legs. It was mostly loose stone so the climb was a bit slow with two steps forward, one sliding step back. We were quickly covered in dust as the wind would catch the dust that our footsteps kicked up. It was a quiet affair with everyone naturally falling in behind each other and focusing on their next step up. At the top was a rickety building where other groups had gathered to eat a quick snack and receive instruction for the next leg of the climb. We were at the snowline and it was important we learn how to use our ice axe and how to arrest ourselves if we were to fall and slide down. There were some high drop offs further above and it would be easy to slip, fall, and slide down off the edge of one.  

The next three hours involved us walking by kicking our feet into the snow to form toe holds up one switchback after another. My calves quickly started to burn. We had to lean into the side of the mountain with our axe securely buried to keep our balance. The higher we climbed the more the winds were picking up in intensity. Quite a few times we had gusts grab us and attempt to throw us down the mountain and the axe was the only thing holding us in place. The view from the mountain was incredibly beautiful with lake Villarica, the town of Pucon, and the surrounding volcanoes of Llaima, Choshuenco, Quetrupillán, Lanin, and Lonquimay off in the distance. We passed an old ski lift that had been blasted in an eruption in the 1970s. Looking above and below us, we could see other groups snaking their way up the mountain. 

Close to the crater rim, the snow line disappeared and we stopped. We could see various sized rocks laying in the snow with a dust trail marking the line they had tumbled down. We dropped off our bags and followed the instructions of the guides to put on the winter jacket, snow pants, and mitts they had provided. They warned us to be extra careful from this point on to not send any loose rocks tumbling down. It was extremely dangerous for those who were below and someone could easily die from a large rock falling on their head. We were also warned to follow the guide trail closely since the winds were blowing strongly at the top and the volcano was releasing quite a bit of sulphuric gas into the air. If the winds shifted directions we could be blasted with pure sulphur fumes.  

We climbed up slowly for the next hour, paying careful attention to where we put our feet but it was difficult to not knock small rocks down since everything was loose. The ground below our feet was new as it had been formed in the last 6 months during small eruptions at the brim. It had an iridescent sheen the various colors of the rainbow with electric blues, bright reds, and verdant greens. I grabbed a couple of small, delicate rocks as keepsakes. A few moments before we reached the crater, the winds shifted quickly and we were caught unaware with a blast of sulphuric gas. I felt the oxygen leave my lungs and the gas invade and burn them. I gasp for air but there was none around us. It was an intense feeling to try to breath in air but not be able to, I?m sure I felt exactly how drowning victims feel. It was only a few seconds but it was enough, the winds changed again and sweet, blessed air returned and we were all gasping deeply for it. The volcano had let us know who was the master. The guides quickly changed direction and we crested the crater rim at a different location away from the vicious gases. Unfortunately, the gases were strong that day and the winds were wiping them around so we never had a clear view down into the crater. We had read there was a volcanic lake but it was obscured by the sulphur. We spent 10 minutes at the top, admiring the view around us and knowing that here we were at the top, wearing winter jackets and pants with strong winds and that at bottom, at the lake?s edge people were sweating under the heavy heat and trying to cool off in the lake. From the crater, in every direction, we could see old lava flow lines that had spilled down the side of the mountain and destroyed the forest.  

We descended the rocky peak within 30 minutes, again trying to not tumble any large rocks down. From the top, we were afforded a clearer view of how many large boulders had rolled and how far. I was happy to not be around during that moment when people from the top had yelled ?Cuidad (danger)!? to those at the bottom as one had came barrelling down at them. At the bags, I started removing my heaver winter coat and jacket when the guides said to keep them. They had a surprise for us. We would be sliding all the way back down to the start of the snow line. They had specially made butt skirts that wrapped around the waist and the legs. They showed us how to hold the ice axe as a break, to slow down our speed or to come to a full-stop. We each lined up at the shoot and when it came to my turn, I pushed off, went around a corner in the snow tunnel and fell down a slope 4 feet high. Another push and I was down again. I realised that I could get more speed if I lifted my legs and navigated with my hips. I barrelled down the slide quickly, all the while controlling my speed with my axe. I met Kevin at the bottom, he had just finished his run and was getting up. We were both laughing hysterically, like children. For 30 minutes, we slide down one long slide after another. Sometimes we would plane out and end up stuck on a flat part, jamming up those behind us. It was great fun and by the end everyone couldn?t stop laughing. We were all disappointed that it came to an end so soon, we thought about climbing back up but no one was ready to attempt the 3 ½ hour climb. At the ski lift stop off, we stored all our waterproof/winter gear and stripped down to T-shirts and short as the sun was really warm at the lower altitude and the wind had abated. The remaining walk down to the awaiting shuttle was quick but dusty. The shuttle driver was an enterprising man and had cold beers and soft drinks for sale at a decent price. The group bought out his supply and we toasted our great day. 

We returned to our hostel tired but happy. We shared our experience with our new roommates who had taken the room vacated that morning by the German girls. There was a man name Marten and his son Szambor from Budapest. They had just arrived in Pucon and wanted to know about everything there was to do so we were quite happy to tell them about our experience of the day.