My apprehension of climbing a volcano began before we left Australia. When we chose Pucon as our base to enroll in Spanish lessons, Ben was excited to learn one of the major attractions to this pueblo (town) was climbing Volcano Villarica.
Ben had no hesitation in putting his hand up for this adventurous activity. However, before I make any decision I waste endless hours browsing the internet. In this case as my level of fitness is somewhat inadequate for such an activity, I research the difficulty of this climb, only to discover that 2 people died last year on a regular guided trip on this exact volcano. My inner alarm bells and my middle aged instinct of taking risks in life take a greater hold over me. I recall a friend Kate, who gave me a piece of advice before we left “Embrace the experiences on this trip Michelle!” Well this was sure to be one hell of an experience she was referring to – if only I can embrace my courage.
As we arrive in Pucon, there is no escaping the shadow of this domineering, perfectly shaped, snow capped volcano. Volcano Villarica is not only majestic but as we are reminded when she sends out smoke signals from the top, she is also active. During these times the trips are always cancelled. We have 3 weekends here, so unlike most of the travelers that visit Pucon, we have plenty of time to choose the perfect conditions to climb.
With time ticking by I need to finally lock in a decision. We are now down to our last weekend and I’m well known for finding excuses for getting out of almost anything that might be physically challenging. Fear of this climb and more importantly knowing I have absolutely no fitness ability to get to the top brought forward my hesitations. Constant reassurance from fellow hostel guests who had climbed helps but the final trigger is Ben’s pragmatic approach and his words “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a photo of the two of us on top of the summit to put on our blog”. It sounded superficial, but I suddenly conjured up images of Ben on his own reaching the summit with no wife to share the joy and now feeling a sense of defeat, I decide to make this my motivation trigger. I take the plunge and with a perfect weather forecast ahead and no more excuses, we book the climb for 26 January…how apt (or not) that this falls on Australia Day.
Our guide picks us up at 6.45am Saturday morning. It’s an old 80’s van with Bob Marley blaring out of the muffled speakers. We meet our fellow climbers, 3 German girls and a Korean lady and are taken to another hostel to try on our equipment. We are given a 40 litre backpack with helmets, waterproof pants, ski jackets, gaiters, gloves and crampons – another reminder we are climbing on ice. We add our sandwiches, nuts, fruit, 2 litres of water and of course lots of sunblock.
Our trip begins. We drive up to the base of the volcano which is a dirt road, similar to the Remarkables in Queenstown, and already the views are incredible. Meandering above the treeline we park at the bottom of a small ski field and gear up. I glance up to the summit and feel a sense of relief. It doesn’t look that far. How high is 2800 metres anyway? Ben reminds me I have no sense of dimensions. As it is summer, the snow has melted and the tip looks like a scoop of ice cream in a cone. It appears to be a small area of ice to climb, however I would later discover this optical illusion. We are given an option to take a chairlift for 7,000 pesos ($14) saving at least 1 hour of climbing. Any method to reduce my time of pain was going to be worth it. The rest of our group decline and start the arduous walk over loose volcanic gravel. As for me, I would have paid muchas pesos to have the chairlift take me to the summit. I even start scouring the area for potential helicopter scenic flights.
The basic 2 seater 1960’s chairlift with not even a loose chain to strap us in was my first encounter of taking things at your own risk. We chug along high in the air over the loose volcanic gravel below gripping strongly on to our backpacks resting on our knees with one hand and the other hand grasped tight knuckled around the chair. We can only imagine what the volcanic terrain below would be like in the winter; we quickly estimate this is black run territory. Reaching the top of the chairlift we notice it doesn’t even slow down and so yet another potential risk … oh my gosh what was I even doing here. Ok calm down Michelle. We manage to take a running leap off the chairlift carrying our fully equipped backpack on our chests without any mishaps.
Our guide informs us we will meet the others up further in an hour and also lets us know this is the last toilet break for the next 6 hours. Guess that means no yellow snow!
There are Nepalese prayer flags strung across a couple of old tents and this is where we take stock of our surroundings and enjoy the views back across to Pucon, Lake Villarica and the neighbouring valleys. With not a whisper of breeze on the flags, makes it truly perfect conditions to climb, (so we are told). Standing under the morning shade we slap on our 50+ sunscreen, load our backs on our pack and start the climb.
For the next hour we hike up a gravel path. We are grateful that we remain in the shadow of the morning light and the air is crisp. We wear special boots and glad mine are comfortable at least. Slowly we start to see other large groups arrive below us – January is peak season and it’s very busy. The terrain turns to large sharp black volcanic rocks and no doubt there have been a few ankles injuries in the past. My heart rate increases, breathing is rapid and I am now intensely focusing on not tripping over the larger rocks of the steep incline.
We finally arrive at our first break at the edge of the ice line to wait for the others in our group – I had forgotten about them. I am shattered already. Ben is also puffing regaining his breath. The morning skies are perfectly clear of any haze and we absorb the views in front of us as we rest on an old ski lift which was ruined in an earthquake 30 years ago. We rest here and fuel up on our snacks and water. Luckily we had 20 minutes to kill and Ben takes the opportunity to set up his tripod and shoot some timelapse videos. When we regroup, the guides then give us instructions on how to climb the ice using ice picks to balance ourselves and more importantly how to save ourselves in case we slip. There are still another 3 hours of climbing, this wasn’t even half way! I begin to suspect I had made a mistake.
Our guide decides the ice is soft enough to walk on without crampons. Our group walks single file at a slow steady pace with heads down focusing on every footstep as they zig zag up. We use our ice picks turned upside down and balance ourselves on the upper side of the slope. I last two zig zags and then stop every 4 steps to catch my breath. At this stage I cannot think of my fear of heights and even greater fear of sliding on the steep ice. Time goes slowly, every step is breathless. Ben has a longer walking stride than me but is extremely patient and acts as my protection by walking behind me reducing to my pace. I’m now slower than a snail and I have to step aside to let the other groups past. I have no embarrassment at this stage and I do not care…I just need to make it. The first guide and the others in our group start to look like dots ahead of me and the 2nd guide stays with Ben and I. He glances at me and says in his stern broken English “Rapido Lady, Rapido!” “Do not stop, keep rhythm and always move”. I am so puffed I ignore his advice and constantly stop. We are now an hour away from the summit and take another break. I cast a glance around and realise everyone else is puffing but that still doesn’t put me at ease. I look at Ben for some reassurance of what we just did was difficult and he nods. Our small group sits perched on black volcanic boulders fueling on more snacks and water. At this stage both guides have a look of doubt in their eyes about my condition but I assure them I will be ok.
I no sooner sit down and we are back on our feet again. If only I can rest here for another half hour. We’re told the last hour to the summit is now the most difficult. The zig zags are shorter and steeper. The sun is intense now…I suddenly feel the pull of my muscles and every minute of the climb hurts. “Rapido lady, we’re nearly there” chants the increasingly impatient guide. I stretch my neck to look ahead as I haven’t raised my head for the last 2 hours. I can see the edge ahead, but need to now climb a few more black boulders. My legs are literally jelly, breathing is harder, my face is red … the glare of the snow and the blue sky beckoning me to keep going. All I could visualise now was having that photo of Ben and I at the summit to post on our blog.
Finally we’re at the top!! Sheer exhaustion and pure relief. I yell out a huge “woooo hooooo” and a deserving profanity parts from my lips. Ben gives me a sweaty hug and high five. We scramble to some rocks to sit down, catch our breath, eat lunch at 2,800 metres high and process our surroundings. The steep crater is behind us with no magma, and there are amazing clear views of more volcanoes, and the Andes ranges extending to Argentina on the horizon. After fueling our bodies we get the strength to walk around the small part of the rim and take photos. The fumes are overwhelming and remind me of rotten egg gas but it doesn’t bother us as we absorb the views.
For some reason our guides start to hurry us to change into our water proof gear and prepare for the descent. We are a bit annoyed after the exhausting effort of the past 5 hours that our time at the summit is limited to 15 minutes. We then waddle back down on the ice and are given instructions on how to descend the volcano the fast way. This is by sliding down on our plastic paddle boards on a series of cut out snow channels or half trenches. This is the fun part of the entire trip. We slide down behind each other and gather enough speed to actually start needing to use the ice pick to slow down. There are about 6 slides in total and this takes about an hour. Eventually we get to the end of the ice and with much laughter and relief we shed our waterproof clothing and spend the next hour walking down on loose dirt and gravel to the base of the volcano. Reaching the car park with the sun still high in the sky at 4pm we realise our 5 hour climb and 2 hour descent has come to an end. Tired, hot and dusty I still haven’t processed what I have just achieved and am simply hanging on to the fact that I’m still in one piece.
Bob Marley is back on the car stereo and we drive back to town and return to the hostel where we left our belongings. Chatter and much laughter is now exchanged over some well deserved beers. It’s time to head back to our hostel and we only think of one thing … a hot shower.
Showered and dressed we both collapse on the bed gazing out the window with a direct view of the volcano in front of us. We laugh at how we ever managed to climb a volcano and the guide yelling at me “Rapido Lady, Rapido” will forever be embedded in our memories. Thanks Kate, we have our notched our first true experience on this trip.