Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Volcan Villarrica

We first heard about Volcan Villarrica from an Aussie bloke named Clint in a hostel in Mendoza. He described for us a one-day adventure tour he had been on, which involved climbing an icy slope to peer into the flaming mouth of an active volcano. From that moment, the idea had me hooked.

Volcan Villarrica is just outside of the small town of Pucón in southern Chile, you can see her smoking plumes from the centre of town, and from there she looks so close you feel as if you could reach out and touch her with your fingertips.

Shortly after our arrival in Pucón, Alix and I booked a guide for our ascent to the summit. All we would need is drinking water, lunch and some snacks. "Wear a pair of hiking pants and a thermal top. Everything else will be supplied. It is a four and a half hour hike to the top, and the weather is good to go tomorrow, the day will be very clear."

7am the next morning, we piled into a minibus. We were fitted with outerwear, snow boots and helmets, carrying packs and ice axes to dig into the snow. Four of us were in the bus, Alix and me, a bespectacled Brazilian man and an attractive Japanese girl, very slender and very small.

We climbed steadily and soon we piled out of the bus at a ski lift station at the base of the volcano. The steaming mouth at the summit still looked like it was 'just over there'. A ski lift ride later and we had ascended to around 1800 metres, with about one kilometre, vertically, remaining to ascend.

We began our march in single file, falling in behind our guide, Joaquin. Joaquin's safety brief was exactly that- brief. "Hold your ice axe by the head, like this, and dig it into the high side of the mountain for good support. If you dig it into the low side, you may fall. If you fall, hasta la vista."

Our guide, Joaquin

After an hour's trudge we passed the derelict remains of the old ski lift station, shut down some time ago for a reason I wasn't curious to ask about. We were switching up the mountain in long sweeping curves, but the switchback turns were soon to get much tighter. The heavy snow boots were beginning to take their toll on slender legs, the small Japanese girl slipped once, and then again.

The white snow became flecked with blue ice around the same time we climbed above the line of the clouds. Our boots began to slip on the ice. Joaquin sat us down on the snow and visited each of us to fit our boots with crampons. My crampons concerned him; they didn't seem to fit my boots properly. Soon I was sliding around dangerously on the ice, my crampons slipped off my bootsoles once, twice, three times.

It was taking all of my concentration to traverse the icy slope and the shady crampons weren't helping. Each time the crampons slipped, Joaquin patiently refitted them to my bootsoles, wrenching the straps as tight as he could while humming quietly to himself. At first I recognised the tune he was humming but I couldn’t quite place it. It was the theme tune to the Sylvester Stallone movie, Rocky.

Eventually Joaquin swapped my crampons for his own. The sketchy ones I had hired seemed to fit his boots better than they fit mine. Alix was having some trouble with her crampons as well; they were slipping, but only a little. Each stop to refit crampons to bootsoles might have been an irritation, but the unspoken truth was that it was a welcome opportunity to suck back the thin air and admire the spectacular view from above the clouds.

It is hard to describe the warped sense of scale you perceive on the side of the volcano. Even with the assistance of a fancy digital camera, photographs do not do justice to the panoramic views; eight or nine photographs stitched end to end would only begin to approximate the vista from above the Patagonian clouds. Nor can our photographs convey the incredible extension of physical space on the icy ground, when the distance to the volcano summit is no longer perceived with your eyes or your mind but with the weight in your legs and the shortness of your breath. The Japanese girl and the bespectacled Brazilian man were no longer with us; they had both given up and returned to the safety of level ground prior to the final ascent to the summit.

Pucón is under the cloud below

The next cover of Mountaineering Monthly

The summit looks so close, but note the tiny black dots on the far left of frame. Those are other hikers about an hour's hike further up the slope.

The final ascent was a physical and mental challenge. The rewards were an incomparable view of the surrounding mountains and a victorious sense of exhilaration. We saw some lava spewing from the mouth of the smoking volcano, but the glimpses were brief and we neglected to properly photograph them. It didn't matter because we had made it to the summit, and that was enough of a thrill.

The way back down the mountainous slope was quite swift when compared to the way up. Having achieved our goal, the fear of slipping and falling pretty much melted away. Parts of the descent were still dangerous, and the tour guides had rigged ropes for us to descend with on the steeper parts, where the danger of slipping and sliding to terminal velocity posed a significant risk. On other, safer sections of the descent, we slid down the mountainside on our backsides, a method of movement known in mountaineering jargon as ‘glissading’. Having removed our crampons and fitted ourselves with a kind of nylon nappy designed specifically for the purpose, we slipped down the snow slopes until we were once again below the snow line, using our ice axes to steer and to brake. Occasional bursts of laughter punctuated our gluteus toboganning as people pointed out a particularly fast or messy descent.

A roped section of the descent


Finally, we stowed our ice axes and walked the remainder of the slope, the terrain having changed colour dramatically from snowy white to a rich, volcanic black, the dirt very soft and pleasant to walk on for weary legs and tender feet.

Thousands of people climb Volcan Villarrica every year; it is a mountain hike, not a technical climb. Most people who started the ascent walked to the top that day. But this isn’t always the case, and many hiking groups are forced to turn back or run the risk of calling on a volunteer emergency rescue squad from Pucón to fetch an unfortunate hiker from her icy slopes. Some days the blue ice that rings the volcano mouth is too treacherous for anyone to hike to the top. On other days the wind speed hits sixty or seventy kilometres per hour and the danger of being swept off your feet and down the mountainside is too great to continue. On still others, the cloud cover is so intense that you simply can’t see where you are walking and have no way of knowing if your chosen direction is the way up, or the way over a rocky precipice. But none of those things had happened this day. We had made it to the top, and we were proud.


  1. Beautifully written and photographed! I was there in the comfort of my own study!

  2. Hey Mr Kit LoadOut!! You mentioned that wool maintains its insulative properties when wet, but that is a lie! Wool infact generates heat when wet. The fibres actually get excited and cause heat to be generated. You will notice when hiking that if you get a little sweaty, you will heat up a tad (That's when you would be better off switching to the wicking material that draws away sweat.... xoxo

  3. Oh and you forgot to mention another named the G-shock watch on your right arm, the fake wedder on your left, but you didn't mention that impressive natural coating of fuzz on both arms, which ofcourse has it's own unique insulative properties, cannot be lost unless shaven or burned off, and might just scare off any would-be assailants who were thinking of robbing you of your G-shock watch and fake wedder!!!!

  4. You crack me up. Stay tuned for more Jace's Kit Loadout in July!