Climbing Villarica – one of Chile’s most active volcanoes
The sun is rising just as the minibus halts at the ski center, painting the sky in various tones of pink and orange. We’re about 1800 meters above sea level and already the views are quite breathtaking, but we have about a thousand meters to ascend by foot to reach the crater and the summit. In the distance we can see the outlines of a huge mountain, or maybe another volcano, through the morning mist. We are about to ask one of the guides about it when we realize that it’s neither a volcano nor a mountain, there’s not really even morning mist, it’s simply the shadow cast off the Villarica volcano, the one we are standing at. We enjoy the sunrise for a bit before heading towards the ski lift, where we can choose to pay a lot of money and save an hour of steep ascent, or hike up. We choose the latter. What’s an hour’s hike against all the avocadoes you can buy for 7000 pesos?
Active volcanoes, beautiful national parks, more adrenaline activities than my wallet could ever afford. Pucón is another one of those places, like Cochamó, that I had no plans of visiting – that I hadn’t even heard about before my travels – but that I ended up loving. Truth be told I hadn’t really done a lot of research for places to visit in Chile as my initial plan was to spend most of my time in neighboring Argentina, and then just drop over the border a couple of times to visit places like Torres del Paine, Santiago and Valparaiso. Luckily chance wanted it otherwise, as most of my favorite places in South America up until now have been in Chile.
I struggle as we walk up the sides of the Villarica volcano, the loose ground slipping a bit for every step I take. Luckily the ground it’s not nearly as loose as the volcano I climbed in New Zealand last year, but still it’s harder than I thought it would be. My lack of breakfast in the morning probably doesn’t help either. Originally I had planned to wait a day before I climbed the volcano, but soon after I arrived at the hostel in Pucón I bumped into Roos that I had first met some days earlier in Puerto Varas. She had already signed up for the volcano hike the morning after, and convinced me to join. It was too late to prepare for anything, so all the food I have is some extra bread I got from Roose, and a leftover donut from the bus journey from Porte Montt. I saved it all for lunch, probably not the best of ideas I realize as I struggle up, not feeling too well. I eat some of my bread during a little break and I make a mental note of never, ever to set out on a strenuous hike ever again on an empty stomach.
After a while we reach the glacier and we put on our crampons. After a short demonstration and testing of how to use the crampons and the ice axe in case we were to lose our footing and slide down on the ice we continue up. We are definitely not alone on the volcano: it feels even more crowded than Torres del Paine. There are about twelve people in our group and there are plenty of other groups from other companies as well. We are all walking in a line, all of us heading for the crater at the top. At times we have to wait because there’s a slower group in front of us. After a while we reach the end of the glacier, and we walk what little is left to the top without crampons.
Villarica is one of Chile’s most active volcanos. The last eruption was in 1971 and until quite recently you could sometimes spot lava when looking down into the crater. Not today though and the guides tell us that they haven’t seen it in at least a year.
After a long and well deserved break at the top we get ready for the descent. But it’s not going to be a normal descent; we are going to slide down the glacier. We put on all the gear we have been given, pants, jackets, gaiters and a special pair of “diapers” to protect the pants and maybe let us slide more easily down the snow. I saw a few of the slides on the way up, and they seemed terrifyingly steep. When we reach the first slide we are giving a security brief. We are supposed to sit with our legs up, the soles of our feet touching the ground and we are shown how to use the ice axe to break. I’m the first and I’m a bit reluctant as I set out down the slide, but as soon as I’m on all reluctance is gone. This is pure fun! And my worry of going too fast is very soon extinguished; on a lot of the slides I want it to go faster, way faster.
I have finally started to pick up a bit of speed, sliding down the last narrow snow track on my bum, when Leo – one of our guides – start waving his hands frantically and tells us to slow down. I dig my ice axe slightly into the hard packed snow and feel the speed drop instantly. It’s not until I reach the end of the slide that I realize why he wanted us to brake – a bit further up a girl from another tour group is loaded on to a stretcher. They were taking another slide down, a slide that ended on rocky ground, and apparently the first person who went down came with great speed and somehow smashed her legs into some of the rocks. A guy from our group heard her saying that she couldn’t feel her legs.
It’s not the first accident to happen on the volcano. In the beginning of March last year two tourists died and another three got injured on the same day when some of the tour companies kept on going towards the crater and the summit even though the weather was changing rapidly. In rain and snow and with bad visibility two guys slid straight to their deaths. Last November a Russian guy living in Pucón and two couch surfers that stayed with him got lost when trying to ascend the volcano without guides – despite massive searches none of them have been seen since.
Both of those incidents happened in bad weather. Today the sun is shining, there’s not a single cloud on the blue sky and the wind is just barely blowing. Still, there was an accident – a harsh reminder that a trip to the Villarica volcano easily can end badly. Not that it let us bother us too much though, what’s fun without a little bit of risk? I would gladly have jumped on the two first slides again – the second one steep and with high walls, almost like a bobsleigh track, where we actually got decent speed (most of the slides we would use our hands to try to gain more speed so as not to be stopped by the huge amounts of snow gathering up in front of us as we sled) and I used the ice axe to break because I thought it went a little bit too fast – if it weren’t for the hike up. Not that is an option anyways.
The rest of the descent goes easily as well, it almost feels like we are skating down the side of the volcano on the loose ground, and in no time we are down again. Ready to celebrate with a big barbeque at the hostel.