Volcan Villarica

Those of you that know me well will be amazed when I tell you that, for once in my life, I am lost for words!

I spent most of yesterday trying to think of a way to describe what I was experiencing and feeling and, whilst I came up with a few thoughts which you will soon read, I fear that nothing in writing will do justice to what it was really like to climb Volcan Villarica.

Going back a few days, when we arrived in Pucon, saw the volcano from our bedroom window and discovered that climbing it was a popular activity, we made a decision to do just that but due to a combination of rainy weather and an upset stomach or two, we put it off and put it off.

After two days of eating dried crackers and reading indoors watching the rain, it was time to try the volcano, which can only be climbed in reasonable weather. Sadly, the morning we had planned to do it, the weather didn’t look that great and we weren’t necessarily feeling back to fitness so we postponed it again and hired a car instead for a trip to a local thermal baths.

The road to Termas Geometricas was unmade for the last 17km and our ancient Fiat Punto with its driver seat twisted slightly to the right made it an interesting ride which, having made my back ache like hell, at least gave me an ailment which could be treated by the natural hot springs! Suitably refreshed, we returned to town and, having been told that the days tour up the volcano had not reached the summit due to ice and booked our bus tickets to Bariloche for two days later, prayed for good weather for the volcano trip the next day.

We were awoken around 5am by a howling, gusty wind which sounded to us like the death knell for our proposed trip but trudged round to the tour operator at 7 just in case. The wind was, we were told, from Argentina and they could not be sure whether it would prevent us climbing or not until we took the bus up to the base of the smoking volcano so, once we’d all got dressed up, we bounced along the unmade road to discover our fate. The wind was, if anything, worse at the start of the ascent and we feared the worst but the guides insisted that we could do some of the trek and off we went.

It was cold at first – very cold. Only wearing all four layers and the gloves provided protection against the strong winds but, after an hour of slowly climbing up the rocky path, we began to warm up and get the blood flowing again. After a short rest for some food and another hour of ascent we reached the bottom of the glacier that sits atop the volcano. Volcan Villarica is 2800m high and, by this point, we had climbed from 1000m to around 2000m I think and so the last 800m would be on snow and ice, using crampons. At this point, pretty exhausted already, the real tough part began.

Taking around one pace every 2 or 3 seconds, we zig-zagged up the glacier, our ice-picks in the hand that was on the high side of us at all times, the steepness of the volcano being such, at times, that it felt like you were almost leaning on the vertical face of it with your pick. In silence we inched along, no-one having the energy to talk and trudge at the same time. I struggled with this section, I have to admit and my thoughts swum wildly round in my head, varying from football to home to blogs and being interspersed with thoughts of what might happen if I slipped and fell or strange calculations of how far we might have to go or how many metres we were climbing up each minute. It was all very odd and, when one guide said we’d have a rest in 20 minutes which ended up, it felt to me, like 45, I began to get really fed up.

Not-at-all suitably refreshed after a 10 minute rest we begun again, occasionally being subjected to mini-avalanches of tiny pieces of ice which regularly cascaded past from climbers that were further up. Then suddenly we were there! We’d made it. A hundred or so exhausted bodies, accompanied by their enthusiastic and energetic guides, dressed in a wide array of Milletts catalogue outfits were strewn on the ice, consuming fruit and chocolate at the bottom of a small slope which led up to the crater of Volcan Villarica! After more than 5 hours of climbing, we’d reached the top.

To say this moment was euphoric would be to underplay the emotions that I felt! Annika and I hugged for quite some time and our guides went around high-fiving us (despite them having done this trip a number of times, ranging from 350 to 1000!) and there were smiles all round. After a period of recuperation, we struggled to our feet and staggered over to the crater for photos and views. Sadly the volcano hasn’t spewed lava at the top of the crater in more than 3 years so there was no more activity to witness than the sulphurous smoke pouring from it which was extremely acrid and coughing was the order of the day whenever the wind changed direction.

After 25 minutes or so, it began to get cold just sitting or standing around and our guides suggested that we began to descend. Then it occurred to me how hard it was likely to be to get down this thing. We’d been provided with giant-sized plastic spoon-shaped sledge things which we were aware were to be used for certain sections so the journey down would be quicker than on the way up but the idea of sledging down a steep, icy volcano 2800m up sent waves of terror through my mind which contrasted nicely with the feelings of ecstasy that I’d had on reaching the top just moments before.

Off we went, simply walking at first (or slipping and sliding really as a lot of the ice had turned to powdery snow by the sun and the climbers movements) – I watched another group being told how to use their spoon sledges and thought us lucky to not have to be doing such things as the idea worried me greatly. I was even happier that we weren’t using them when the other group began to fly past us at speed, straight down the slope, as we zig-zagged back down on foot.

But soon after, our time had come. Our guides stopped to explain the technique – using the ice pick as a brake (a pretty bloody useless brake if you ask me!) and a rudder it seemed – and to point out the dangers of sliding too fast, losing control and careering into one of the many crevasses that were available for anyone wanting to end their lives quickly rather than perform the task which appeared to me as suicide anyway.

My first attempt was probably the closest I have ever come to dying from fear alone as I ground the pick into the snow as hard as I could to try and prevent my flailing body from reaching the bottom somewhat faster than I’d planned. Luckily, one of the guides (Reuben, who apparently has the record for climbing the volcano, at an hour and a half for the route that took us 5 hours!) was extremely sympathetic to my pathetic failure to be a man and helped me by staying nearby as I slid – somehow managing to run down the slope at the same speed as me, outside of the channel which had been created by previous sledgers!

Each slide was around a minute, I would guess, and was followed by a small walk and then another terrifying toboggan run of death, there being around 10 in total. My confidence grew a little with each one but I was never totally at ease and was very relieved indeed to reach the end of the ice and snow and see volcanic rock instead.

We packed up our cold, sodden sledging gear into our bags and began to walk down, sliding through black volcanic dirt and shale now rather than snow and, an hour later we staggered, exhausted beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before, into the car park at the base.

I now realise that, despite my earlier statement, I was not lost for words after all and in fact have produced quite a lot of words to describe this trip! Maybe now, a day later, I am returning to normal?!

It was such an incredible experience and one of the, if not THE, best one of my trip so far and it certainly won’t be forgotten.