Planet Hiker
2005-02-19 Crawling up Volcan Villarrica, Chile


There are activities that are clearly designed for tourists and I try to avoid them at all costs. For instance, there is a "mountain" near by Pucon (something like 2800 meters - a large hill, really) and at every street corner there are tour agencies ready to sell an adventure - "A climb to the top of the world!" Yeah, right, how could I miss out on this... So instead, I packed my gear and headed out for a 4 day trek in a National Park Villarrica. It felt good to be in a state of self sufficiency again, with the trail for a challenge and vistas over lakes for treats. The trek was particularly pleasant, as it went along the timberline, at times diving into the shade of the trees and then coming back out to show off the volcanic range of the surrounding mountains.

On the second day of the trek, I ended up sleeping in late and did not start walking till about midday. With about 23 kilometers ahead of me, there was a lot of distance to make up, but I could not miss out on taking photographs whenever an opportunity presented. With this attitude slowing me down like a rusty axle, I got to the campsite not until the sun was already down with the chill of the night piercing through my clothes.

As I was approaching the campsite, another hiker, Pablo, came out to greet me. He acquired if i am tired, invited over for some cold rice and even offered to carry my backpack. It was all a bit strange to me, since it wasn't THAT much more trouble to carry the pack for extra 50 meters, but he seemed genuinely friendly and was a fun guy to talk to. It turned out that he was a violinist and was also studying farming (in case music career didn't work out). It's too bad that there wasn't a violin around but, when I took out my harmonica, he demonstrated a blazing talent of improvising classical pieces of Bach and Mozart, and even though me how to play the Beethoven's 9th.

The next day I got up early, quickly downed the breakfast and took off in a gallop to make sure that I wont be stuck searching for a campsite in the moonlight. But the trail was going mainly downhill and by noon I was out of the park. Shortly after, Pablo came out as well and we both hitched a ride back to Pucon. With the rest of the day to spare, we considered our options. One of the possibilities was to see if we could rent crampons, avoiding having to buy a tour, and climb the "mountain" Villarrica on our own. So we went to the ranger station and found out that last December an ordainment had came in that prohibits climbing Villarrica without a certified guide. We argued back and forth that this is totally unreasonable, that we have lots of experience doing this sort of thing (which wasn't true actually), that this is a very easy mountain to climb, but all to no avail - we had to go with a tour, which costs a minimum of $45 dollars.

Pablo was a but disappointed but was ready to fork out the cache. I, on the other hand, had strong doubts whether it's worth even bothering with this whole thing. I have been on other active volcanoes before and the experience amounted to lots of sulfuric smock and a burning sensation in the lungs. Plus, I knew that there is going to be somebody really slow in the group and we'd all have to drag along for hours. But then I remembered that just a few days ago I treated myself to a fancy dinner (a huge, 500 gram stake with all the trimmings and excellent Chilean vine) which cost me nearly $20 and really, I have had lots of dinners but not that many climbs to active volcanoes, even if they are touristy. Thus, after some moaning and complaining, I committed to the "adventure".

The following morning, we got dressed into colorful mountaineering outfits, complete with helmets, gloves and backpacks, and were even handed ice axes and crampons for the proper effect. I knew that we didn't need most of this stuff but the tourists were paying for experience of mountaineering and the tour agency had it all prepackaged.

We then crammed into a little van that took as to the base of the mountain. During the winter Villarrica is also a ski resort but now the ski lifts were all halted, except for one. Instead of going all the way to the beginning of the trail, the van stopped and we were told that we have to options - either take the ski lift or walk. By the words of the guide, the lift ride takes about 10 minutes and costs $6 dollars while walking takes about an hour but is free. He was also strongly recommending the first option, claiming that the terrain is too difficult to climb and that we'd be burnt out if we don't take the lift. Ahead of us were several other tourists groups, all in line for the lift, and it was clear that the resort operators have made a deal with the tour agencies to squeeze out a few extra bucks from the cash cows. Naturally, I declared that I am walking and along with Pablo, charged up the mountain.

Picking a fairly slow pace for the purpose of a proper warm-up, it still took us only 25 minutes, reaching the top of the lift just after the rest of the group. The guide smirked at us, searching for the signs of fatigue, but Pablo and I both had steady breathing patterns and we were ready to continue without the need for rest.

Thus, we all lined up and began the crawl. The pace was so slow that I realized that the previous warm-up was totally unnecessary and began contemplating about putting on the jacket so as not to get cold. Ten minutes into the "climb" we stopped - this was to put on sunscreen. I waited through the shuffling of the bags and tried to get to the front of the line to be in a position for rushing the guide but, foreseeing that, the guide told me to stay in the back and let the women in the group be right behind him. Finally we started walking again, only to stop 20 minutes later. This time it was for lunch. People were whipping out their sandwiches, taking pictures, chatting about the weather while I was cursing and swearing at all touristy activities, promising myself never to sign up for such bullshit tours again.

When I was calm enough to talk but with my hart rate still racing, I approached the guide and asked if I could go ahead of the group. There was only one path, so it's not like I could get lost, not to mention that there were lots of other groups ahead. The guide did not like the fact that I was challenging his authority and declined my request, announcing that the next break is in 40 minutes. Grinding my teeth I went to the back of the line... I tried convincing myself that this does not have to be a "sport activity". That, I could just walk slowly, enjoy the weather, smile and gaze at the scenery. But that notion made me sick, going against everything I hold true of mountaineering. The boiling frustration inside of me kept pumping more and more adrenaline into the bloodstream and accelerating my hart rate even further. But to my surprise, 10 minutes later the guide signaled me to go ahead of the group. I exploded into action, blasting to the top.

Crushing snow and ice I practically ran up the traverses, soon catching up with another tourist group. Without waiting for them to let me through, I jumped off the path and headed straight up, pulling myself up with the ice axe over a 60 degree slope. This maneuver burned ridiculous amounts of energy but got me passed the group. I continued at the same pace, breathing hard but glad to be doing this my way. Maintaining the blitzkrieg strategy, I kept passing one group after another, without ever looking up to see how much more is there to go or turning back to check how far behind is my original group. All of my concentration had to be focused on the next step and the steepness of the slope was leaving me with no room for error.

At some point (I can't say how much time had passed since the beginning of the climb) the terrain changed from white ice to glittering metallic black of the volcanic soil. By now, my quads were burning of lactic acid and my mouth was dry but I was still pushing hard, knowing that I will crash if I slow down. Squeezing out the last few drops of energy, I stepped over the ridge and almost fell back, drowning in a powerful heatwave from an wall of flying lava. The creator, about 100 meters in diameter, had a throat at its center that was spewing liquefied orange and red rocks high into the air. The lava would then land on the other side of the crater, highlighting its slopes in deep red, and then slowly fading into black. All that I was hoping to see was a little bit of a glow through the smoke. But just there, right in front of me, was a full scale, National Geographic style eruption that stunned me into a halting surprise.

When I finally got my senses back to look around, I noticed that following the ridge it's possible to climb another 20 meters to a small spot overlooking the whole crater. It was clearly risky to walk that way, but another hooligan tourist was already there and I could not let myself be cheated out of a better angle for a photograph. Without further adieu, I made my way in the midst of the sulfurous steam, along the edge of the crater, balancing between the boiling lava on my left and a 2800 meter drop on my right. The last 2 meters had no walking space so I had to let go of the ice axe and mantle up, clinging to the porous surface of the rock. When I pulled myself over, I heard the words "Hey Andre, how is life?". To my wildest surprise, the hooligan tourist was Thomas - him and I met in Ecuador while taking the tour of Galapagos Islands. And now, nearly 4 months later, we ran into each other in the most glorious of circumstances, at the pinnacle of Mountain Villarrica, over the fireworks of flying lava. Having also broken away from his tour group, he got up here early, hoping to find a better angle for a photograph. Marveling how our paths had crossed at such coincidence, we sat back, enjoying the reward of the unprecedented spectacle.



This photo was taken by Pablo while we were trecking in National Park Villarrica (I asked him to send a photo of himself as well and hopefully, I'll be able to post it soon):