Today we climbed an active volcano. It’s not everyday of your life you get to say that!
Villarica volcano is an active volcano close to the town of Pucon in central Chile. It is 2850 metres (a little under 10,000 ft) in height and last erupted in 2015. To be fair when we first discovered that it was possible to climb we both thought it would be a good hike and a great experience. We discovered it was much more than that…..
We set our alarm for 5.45 am and crawled out of our tent to meet the other 10 Didingo passengers who were doing the hike too. We had a banana and a yoghurt for brekkie and we all walked into town to meet our guides and collect our equipment we had been sized for the day before. We all got boots, a jacket, some waterproof trousers and a backpack containing some odd bits and pieces. A minibus arrived for us and we all jumped in. The previous 3 days had apparently been too cloudy or windy for the trip to go ahead but by now the sun was rising and we saw beautiful clear blue skies.
At 8am after a 40 minute drive to the start of the climb we left the minibus and started off with our 4 guides in pretty cold temperatures. Initially it was a low gradient on hard lava which was pretty easy going. It soon changed to a steeper gradient on hard lava, then a steeper gradient on soft crushed lava which was a bit like walking in coarse sand. We were warming up both with the exercise and the sun. After an hour we hit the snow line and then after another 10 minutes we were asked to sit down and put on our crampons? “I didn’t bring crampons” said Steve. “They’re in your bag” replied Sarah. Sometimes she must just want to disown him. After a bit of assistance from the guides the crampons were on…..all right a lot of assistance….in fact the guides put them on in the end! We were then asked to get out or ice axe!! “Get out of here” shouted Steve!!! We were then given a very brief demonstration on how to use the ice axe and off we went. To be honest I thought the whole ice axe/crampons thing was a bit of a gimmick to build up the tourist effect. We soon found out this most definitely wasn’t the case…. it was an absolute necessity. We trudged up into the snow in a long line of 12, like a train of ants moving up the volcano, with a guide at the front setting a slow steady pace, one at the back to make sure there were no stragglers and the other 2 were walking parallel to our line to catch anything or anybody that slipped down the volcano. There was a real potential for this to happen as we moved ever so slowly zig zagging up the slope which was extremely steep.
We moved through snow, which varied in depth quite a lot so the technique was to follow the guides footprints. Every 45 minutes or so we would stop for a rest and some food and water. We had to dig a hole in the snow, put our rucksacks in, sit on them, grab a drink and something to eat.
As we moved further up the volcano the snow became harder and harder and eventually turned to ice. We were now several thousand feet up on a slope of at least 45 degrees, walking across ice using an ice axe for stability, some not daring to take their eyes off their feet. At the next stop we had to use the ice axes to dig the holes and push the crampons into the ice for stability. Suddenly a full plastic water bottle came skidding past and shot off down the volcano on an unstoppable path to the end of the snow line and beyond. A real reminder of the risks. The bottle incidentally belonged to someone called Sarah! She obviously denied it was hers, but from then on she was begging anyone and everyone for a drink!
Onwards and upwards and people were getting tired. Heavy breathing could be heard in the line, talking was at an absolute minimum and the extra one or two requests for a rest were being made. We got to within a couple of hundred metres of the summit and we made our last stop. We were told to leave our rucksacks, ensure we had our cameras and, as we were about to pass through a toxic cloud, we were told to put on our gas masks. “I definitely didn’t bring one of those, what is going on here?”
At 1.30pm, 5 and a half hours after we had started the climb (notice it’s a climb now and not a hike) we made the final walk through the toxic cloud to an unbelievable view and the volcano crater at the summit.
It really was amazing. Sarah had an enormous grin on her face (in fact she still has it). She said it was the most challenging thing she had ever accomplished. Steve said it was “OK” but secretly he thought it was pretty amazing too. We had the opportunity to take some great photos and Sarah also took the opportunity to make some yellow snow!!! On the top of an active volcano at almost 10,000ft, really? The girl has NO standards!
Now the fun really started. How do we get down? We walked back down and collected the rucksacks and continued down for around 20 minutes. We were descending faster than the ascent, but not by much. This was going to take ages. We were then told to put on a weird piece of clothing. It was like a big canvas type nappy that fastened around our thighs????? There was also a plastic dish with a handle on about 12 inches in diameter inside the rucksack and this was hooked onto our waist and dangled to the front????? We were then given clear instructions on how to sit on our backsides with our knees bent, position the ice axe as a break and slide down the volcano ????? The last instruction was to ensure the plastic dish remains at the front the whole time. “DO NOT SIT ON IT!!”
Off we went shooting down the volcano. Now this WAS faster than the ascent! We descended a few hundred metres and stopped at a natural plateau and waited until everyone got together and we moved on a short way to another decent of similar distance. I noticed that Andrin, a young Swiss guy in the group suddenly shoot off ahead. Steve tried to mimic his position but couldn’t go anywhere near as fast. When Steve got to the bottom of the second run he asked Andrin what his technique was and his whispered reply was, you guessed it….“The plastic dish”.
Start of the third run, this was much longer, 600 meters, maybe more. Plastic dish in position…. Here we go! …. Holy S#!T. Steve took off down the volcano like a bullet. Sarah thought “I don’t remember sliding down an icy volcano on plastic dish being covered in the hazardous activities section of the insurance policy”!! What a feeling, a little out of control, but just about staying on course, ice axe in the air, who needs a brake and legs out in front kicking up the snow and ice as Steve went flying downhill. It was like sledging through a blizzard. By the time he got to the bottom his sunglasses were covered in snow, he had snow in his nose and ears, and somehow in his pockets? He couldn’t stop laughing.
Now onto the last run. At this points the guides introduced the plastic dish concept to the others with the standard safety warnings. Off we go again. This time on the way down Steve wondered “What happens if you lay down with your feet out in front of you while ice sledging on a plastic dish” The luge, that’s what happens!!!! He said it’s the best adrenalin fun he’s had in decades!! and no insurance claim needed. Even though Sarah didn’t discover the plastic dish till later she enjoyed the whole experience just as much.
We then all walked the last leg on the lava together with stories of a fantastic day.
In the evening a few of the group headed out to some hotsprings to relax our tired muscles. 5 pools of varying temperature all heated from the underground heat of the Volcano. We stayed in the pools until well after dark. It was a great way to end the day before collapsing into our tent. No problems sleeping tonight!!