Climbing Volcan Villarrica

In a break with regularly (ahem) scheduled blogging – i.e. posts about New Zealand – here’s a post about one of our trips in South America. We’re here at the moment and trying to cram in as much as possible during our last three months of travelling, hence a bit of a lull in blog posts!

As with most of our trip outside of southeast Asia, Faye planned our route for South America. When she told me we were going to a small town called Pucon, in Chile, I thought nothing of it…until I found out exactly why we were going to Pucon.

Pucon is a sleepy village in a lakeside setting, making it very popular with tourists. Another reason for its popularity are the adventure sports possible in the surrounding area, from hydrospeed, to skydiving, to canyoning. One of the main draws is Volcan Villarrica, an intimidating, active volcano that can be seen from the town. Upon our arrival in Pucon, on an overnight bus from Santiago, the volcano wasn’t visible through heavy cloud. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I could see the scale of it and start to feel a bit apprehensive!

As a side-note – my phone is water-logged and has a weird black dot in the camera lens. Hence the weird blurry patch in all of these photos (sorry!)

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Volcan Villarrica seen from our hostel in Pucon

There are many tour agencies in Pucon catering to adventure lovers and we came across one or two who offered guided tours up Volcan Villarrica. Due to the nature of the trek, it is required that trekkers travel with a guide – there have been fatal accidents on the volcano. More rules and regulations have been enforced as a result, such as having only 12 people in a group and setting a time limit for reaching the summit to avoid falling debris in the melting snow. Still, you may understand my anxiety when it came to finding a guide, especially when the majority of operators seemed unenthused or borderline narcoleptic. We got lucky when we came across a company called Volcan Villarrica – somewhat annoyingly named as we couldn’t find them anywhere online – and were won over by the enthusiasm of a guide called Pedro.

We paid our deposit then and there, with the agreement that if the weather was to be bad, we’d get it back; in total, the trek cost us 80,000 Chilean pesos each, roughly £80. As the group was full for the following day, we instead trekked in the beautiful Sanctuario El Cani (Faye has written about this here). With very tired feet we went to bed earlier than usual, ready for our 5:30 am wake-up call as Pedro was coming to pick us up at 6.15 for our trek.

Whenever we have to wake up early, particularly if it’s for an activity that I’m slightly nervous about, I sleep really badly. It didn’t help that we had to check out of our hostel and therefore make sure we had all of our stuff ready. It was at this point that we think Faye left her iPod in the hostel, but it was nowhere to be found the following day. Nevertheless, we were ready for our pickup and chucked all of our stuff onto the minibus…then off again when we got to the office. At 6 am it was a bit of an effort; at times like these it would be nice to travel light, but we were carrying all of our camping equipment for Torres del Paine! At the office we squeezed in amongst the other members of our group – 10 Israelis – and collected our gear for the day – boots, crampons, backpack, back protector, helmet, waterproof outer layers, gas mask and plastic tray. We also got an ice axe once we arrived at the volcano.

The boots were very clunky and inflexible, but we were told we couldn’t wear our own. I imagine this is so that the crampons fit properly, but they ended up rubbing our feet quite badly – make sure to take your thickest walking socks! Mine also got soaking wet due to the snow. Other than that the equipment we got, while not brand new, was perfectly serviceable. Some of the other groups we saw had shiny new equipment but those tours ran a bit more expensive (100,000 pesos).

The money we saved by going with the cheaper outfit was spent on a fun little chairlift at the base of the volcano, which saved us an hour of uphill walking in scree, which is fun to run down but NOT to walk up. Kudos to the folks that did it.

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After the chairlift! (it was a lot of fun)
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The upside to an early start

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By the time we got off the chairlift, it was approximately 8:30 – time for the hard work to begin! Pedro’s mantra was to walk ‘slow and steady’, something we’re not normally good at (we’re more ‘fast and stop’ people), but which we tried to follow as it made reaching the summit more likely. Up we went, climbing a fairly steep slope of rock and shingle. After about 20 minutes, one of our group had pulled over with a cramp and a couple of others were struggling. We had a couple of breaks and some members of the group insisted on stopping for longer, something we really didn’t want to do as it was cold and we wanted to keep going after the slow warm-up. Pedro had three other guides with him, one of whom ended up taking four of our group back down because they were finding it too difficult. The other guys, Rodriguez and Jorge, were great motivators and instead of following the path, scrambled up the loose rock next to us like they were taking a stroll. I guess if you climb a volcano every day for a living, you get very good at it!

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Soon enough it was time to climb on the ice and the guides affixed our crampons for us. They also gave us a quick demonstration of how to walk in crampons but none of the guides actually used them!

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Crampon time!

The slope started to get a bit steeper but there was a well-trodden, if narrow, path for us to follow. As the morning wore on and the sun got hotter, we had to maintain our pace due to the risk of rocks falling from above. By the time we reached the end of the snow, we were pretty tired but out of the risky area and we could take a break. By this point it was midday, and we had to reach the top of the volcano by 12:30 to ensure a bit of time at the top! The guidelines state that groups must start their return by 13:00, although people were descending from the top past this time. Ditching our bags, we carried our ice axes and gas masks up some very crumbly volcanic rock from the last eruption, a year ago. It was weird to realise how new this landscape was. It also may have explained why it was so hard to walk on – Jorge said that they had to make new paths because the last ones were obliterated.

After about half an hour we made it to the top! We didn’t get to see any lava but we could definitely hear it. We also got a nice big whiff of the sulphurous smoke, which burned! The guides were calmly eating their sandwiches while we coughed and spluttered; we didn’t put our gas masks on as the smoke tended to blow away after a while…and we’re lazy.

Now came the part that gave me nightmares beforehand – sliding down the volcano, in the snow, on our backsides. Yes, you read that right. Our crampons were safely packed away and so this part involved a bit of sliding down to the man-made tracks in just our boots, which was a bit slippery. The guides very patiently guided us down and made sure we were all ok, which was necessary due to what happened next! Pedro gave us some guidance on how to use our ice axe as a brake, primarily so that we didn’t go shooting off the mountain but also so that we didn’t impale ourselves or anyone else. Great for the nerves. As a result I made us go last and see how everyone else got on!

The first members of our group started on the first slide and it became apparent that it was slipperier than we’d anticipated – people were flying down and struggling to keep their legs in check. This was a little worrying as someone had recently broken their leg after hitting a rock on the side. Next came my turn, and after assuring Jorge that I knew how to brake I confidently set off on my bum. After about five seconds I realised that my confidence was misplaced and that I was going to pinball down just as much as everyone else. My elbows bore the brunt (I’m pretty sure I ripped a hole in the jacket) and I pulled my triceps trying to brake at high speed. It hurt. Jorge ended up taking Faye down a different route and sliding in front of her so that she couldn’t go too fast!

On the way to the second slide, Rodriguez asked everyone to stand up and walk to the start. As it came around to my turn, I stood up and started walking…then went flying. We’d been told how to use our ice axes to stop us sliding off the mountain, but I failed to get a good grip and lost the bloody thing. I was actually sliding off the mountain! Brilliant. I tried to dig my hands and feet in but the bulky boots and mittens made it difficult to stop. Thankfully, Jorge was there to stop me falling; he picked me up and got me safely to the actual track we were meant to be following. I will forever be grateful to him! Faye also slid but managed to stop herself with her ice axe (like a pro).

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At the bottom fo the last slide

Thankfully, after the first two slides the slope was a lot less steep and I rarely used my brake – also because the girls in front of me were practically crawling down. We also got to use our plastic trays to slide faster, which was a lot of fun! The views were fantastic and it was a lot easier than walking down; the guides basically skied down using their walking poles and boots. After about an hour, we were sad to get off the snow, but by this point we were back to the top of the chairlift and only had a half hour of walking to get to the minibus. This bit was really easy – lots of deep scree that you could basically run down. The speed at which we were all travelling meant we were coated in a fine layer of dust by the time we got to the bottom. When we made it back to the office our guides even gave us beer, which is a first!

Faye has made a video of our day climbing Volcan Villarrica – you can watch it below!

Have you climbed Volcan Villarrica? Would you want to?

Some tips:
Use the portaloo at the bottom of the chairlift. Seriously.
Take the chairlift. Seriously.
That said, the chairlift isn’t always running – we were lucky, but prepare yourself just in case…
Make sure to take enough food to sustain you, especially chocolate!
The sun can get fierce so make sure to take sunscreen (and sunglasses)
Choose your guide carefully!
Try to book a tour as early as you can in case of bad weather
Try to enjoy it – as we struggled on the ice, one of our guides pointed out that being scared would make things a lot more draining. He was right.

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