I’m going to take this opportunity to apologize for the epic length of this post but I think it is fitting for the epic tale I’m about to tell…
Last weekend, my program planned a trip for us to Pucón, a town in the Lake District of Chile, south of Santiago. Pucón is popular because of its access to any outdoor adventure activity you could possibly imagine. Now, I’m not exactly known for my love of the outdoors. Sure, I love looking at the way the sun illuminates the Andes during the day and the brilliancy of the stars at night in the middle of nowhere with no light pollution. But then I like to go home, take a hot shower, and get into a nice, warm, comfortable bed. I enjoy nature from a safe, clean distance.
However, I’m in Chile, one of the premiere destinations in the world for outdoor adventures, so I thought I’d make an exception and just go with the flow. When in Rome…
The main attraction in Pucón is Villarrica, a volcano that looms ominously over the town. Still active, its last eruption was in 1984. The first activity that was offered to us for the weekend was a hike up the volcano. This wouldn’t be my first volcanic hike. I’d ascended Mount Etna in Sicily about five years ago. It was a delightful experience that I didn’t mind repeating, so I signed up.
Friday evening, the night before the hike, we met with one of the guides for the tour who gave us some basic information. He told us that it would be a tough hike and that we needed to be in pretty good physical condition, but it wasn’t a technical climb. I’ve grown accustomed to signing my life away on waivers warning that death (and often times a violent one) is a possibility when taking part in any type of activity that is described as an “adventure,” so I wasn’t concerned. Each time it had turned out that I would have really needed to try to hurt myself for anything to happen. I figured this would be a similar deal. The guide also told us that they would provide us with all the equipment we’d need, even boots. I thought of the hiking shoes I’d brought and how they’d be more than adequate, but figured I’d see what my guide could offer. We went to the office of the tour company and tried on some boots. He told us we could pick up the rest of our equipment right before the hike.
The following morning, our guide picked us up bright and early at 6:30am and took us back to the office. There waiting for us were the other guides with our equipment. I started going through the backpack that was handed to me: helmet, gloves, jacket, pants, nothing out of the ordinary. It was a tall volcano; it was probably pretty cold at the top. Then they started doling out the ice picks.
“Excuse me? I’m sorry. What do we need these for?” I felt like asking my guide, but I just kept my mouth shut, pretending that I was an expert ice picker.
We loaded our stuff into the van and headed off to the volcano. As we neared Villarrica, its size finally hit me. The van parked and we suited up. I stared up at the enormous volcano in front of me with excitement and a great deal of anxiety. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting. This thing was a freaking mountain. Mount Etna was a hill in comparison. Did I really think we could just merrily walk our way up?
My anxiety was initially assuaged because our hike began easily enough with a steady ascent. We zigzagged our way almost effortlessly up the base of the volcano. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all!
After about two hours, my optimistic mood was dampened. We’d reached the glacier. I didn’t realize that glaciers and molten lava could coexist. Apparently you learn something new about freaky geological phenomena every day. Now this glacier was one more thing keeping me from the crater.
Cue the ice pick.
Our guide also told us to don our helmets and to fish our crampons out of the bottom of our backpacks and strap them on. (For those of you unfamiliar with mountain-climbing equipment – I’d like to think of myself as something of an expert after my jaunt up this bad boy – crampons are these spiky objects that you strap onto the bottom of your boots so you can walk up ice like Spiderman.)
We then proceeded to crampon and ice pick our way up the glacier on the side of the volcano. If the thought of that isn’t ridiculous enough, let me remind you who is narrating this story and the fact that she thought she’d be leisurely frolicking up the side of a volcano. She was now scaling a glacier with an ice pick.
After about an hour of Spiderman imitations, our guide told us that we were done with our crampons for a while. I thought this meant that we were almost at the top. I was mistaken.
The remainder of our little “hike” to the top of the volcano wasn’t a hike at all – it was a climb – pretty much straight up. What on earth had I gotten myself into?
It wasn’t so bad at first. It was actually kind of fun. I felt like one of those hardcore mountain-climbing types in all of those inspirational posters about climbing to new heights. Then we reached the ridge of death.
In front of me I found a narrow ridge with a rope strung precariously across it. The idea was to essentially tightrope walk your way across the ridge while clinging to this flimsy rope for dear life without looking down and seeing the straight drop to your imminent and very painful death. I did NOT sign up for this.
Thankfully, I made it across without plunging to my death. We then continued climbing and then finally – FINALLY – we reached the crater.
I was overjoyed. The view was spectacular and there is nothing like peering into a giant hole that has the potential to spew molten death at you at any moment.
We sat down for our picnic lunch at the top of the volcano and our guide told us we’d have thirty minutes. “Why only thirty minutes?” you ask. Oh, only because after thirty minutes the sulfur pouring out of the crater becomes toxic.
Oh. Ok, cool.
Thirty minutes of coughing and eye-burning passed in a snap (that sulfur stuff is strong). Then a crushing realization hit me – we had to climb back down. Seriously, guys, you couldn’t have built an elevator or something?
So we started our descent. Let me tell you, climbing down is a lot scarier than climbing up. Climbing up, people can tell you not to look down. Climbing down, you don’t really have a choice.
We made it down the steep part and reached my dear friend the glacier. On our way up, I’d joked with my friend about how cool it would be if we could just slide down the glacier on our butts. She just laughed at me. You know who was right?
Our guide told us that this was the safest way down the glacier and then explained to us proper glacier butt-sliding technique and the correct way to use our ice pick as a brake. This made me extremely excited. This seemed like fun and also carried with it little chance of certain death! However, our guide knew just how to burst my bubble.
“Be careful,” he warned us in Spanish. “Make sure you brake in time. Otherwise you’ll run into the rocks and break all your bones.”
He just smiled and skied off down the glacier to wait for us at the bottom. At this point, I honestly stopped caring. Maybe if I broke all my bones, I reasoned, they’d have to airlift me off the volcano and I wouldn’t have to climb all the way down. Sick, I know. But six hours on a volcano can do strange things to a person.
I started sledding down the glacier and it was actually a lot of fun. We encountered few braking problems and no bones were broken. Success! We then strapped on our crampons again and Spidermanned our way down the rocky part of the glacier. We finally reached unfrozen ground and the rest of the hike down passed without incident. After eight hours ascending and descending Volcano Villarrica, I saw the most beautiful sight of the day: our van.
We stripped off all of our equipment, took some group photos as proof of what we had done, and collapsed in the back seat.
Climbing Villarrica was probably the hardest and coolest thing I’ve ever done. Given the opportunity to do it over again, I won’t say that I absolutely wouldn’t, but I’d have to think long and hard about it.
If there is one thing that I want you to take from this post, it’s this warning: If your fun little “hike” requires the use of an ice pick and helmet, you might be in for a little more than you bargained for.
Volcán Villarrica over Pucón
At the crater — Proof that I made it to the top
Other hikers also sledding down the glacier