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In a country littered with superlatives, this is a big call to make. But there’s something about scaling an active volcano through ice and snow to arrive at a bubbling lava lake in the summit crater that justifies it. This is one for the bucket list.
Imagine it – high above the clouds, surrounded by ice, just your ice pick in your hand and the smoking cone of the volcano above you, crowned by an achingly blue sky.
It sounds like something only experienced mountaineers could do, but Villarrica Volcano is open to total beginners. Anyone with an average level of fitness and a hefty dose of determination stands a good chance at getting to the top, if the weather cooperates.
That’s not to say the climb is easy. Mountaineering is dangerous, and you’ll need good equipment and an experienced guide who knows how to read the mountain and puts safety first. Luckily, those aren’t hard to come by in Chile.
Journeys start from Pucón, an adventure-driven little town on the shores of Lake Villarrica, an overnight bus ride south of Santiago. If you haven’t heard about the volcano before you get to Pucón, you will the moment you arrive. Adventure tour companies across town offer a wide range of day trips, like white-water rafting, kayaking, or relaxing trips to thermal hot springs. But it’s the volcano climb that gets everyone’s attention.
For my friend and I, attempting the climb was an easy decision. Other travellers raved about it. We were on board.
The thing is, it may have been helpful for us to have seen the volcano before we made our decision. It was overcast the day we arrived, and the looming silhouette of the volcano was shrouded by cloud, invisible from town. We thought we had signed up for a hike, with a bit of a slog through some snow to get to the top.
We had no idea what we were in for.
The day of the climb dawned bright and clear. The volcano, hidden by cloud the day before, was suddenly clearly visible over the rooftops. Pucón sits at an altitude of just 227m, while the cone of Villarrica Volcano clocks in at a much more impressive 2847m – it’s seriously imposing, with snow-topped glaciers reaching down the slopes.
That’s why climbers are fitted for crampons – metal spikes that attach to your shoes – and given ice picks for the trek. It was starting to make sense.
Climbs start from part-way up the slope, where the ashy volcano rock dominates the treeless landscape and dirty patches of snow cling to the shadows. Local tour operators send groups of up to 12 climbers with four guides and an expected climb time of six to eight hours. Having multiple guides is essential for keeping the whole group safe. The volcano is high enough that altitude can become a problem, and groups might need to split up if conditions change.
We gathered on the desolate mountain slope, rugged up against the icy wind blowing down from the glaciers, nervous grins on our faces. It was time to start climbing.
Climbing a steep, cone-shaped volcano is a hard slog. There’s no undulating foot hills, no gentle start to the climb – your every step is uphill, right from the start. The first section of the climb is usually across loose rocks, but it can be snow right away depending on the season. The newly formed porous stone is evidence of the volcano’s activity.
“When did the mountain last erupt?” I breathlessly asked one of our guides as we scrambled up the slope.
“2015,” he replied.
That’s… not very long ago.
“Don’t worry though.” His voice was cheerful. “The scientists monitor the mountain, and we check the activity every day. It won’t erupt today.”
Villarrica is, in fact, one of the world’s more active volcanos, and it has erupted at least 65 times since record keeping began in 1558. The snow and ice can become mud flows with the intense heat of eruption, which is bad news for surrounding villages. Several have relocated during the 20th century.
Reaching the snowline, it’s time to don ice gear. This is the main part of the climb, and the gear is essential for the glaciers to come. Once strapped into crampons, climbers are taught how to use the ice pick to keep steady, and to stop from sliding down the mountain if you fall. Everyone has to demonstrate how to fall and stop before the climb proceeds. It’s fun and scary at the same time. Lucky the guides seem to know what they’re doing.
Already, the view is stunning. Just part-way up the volcano, our group is high above the surrounding land, the nearby lake glittering below us in the clear sunshine.
In neat lines, groups of climbers follow the guides, zigzagging up the icy slope. Before long, the cold is forgotten, replaced by sweaty exertion. The ice is treacherous and beautiful, sometimes firm, sometimes giving way when stepped on. The walk isn’t difficult, but it’s hard work and you have to think about every step.
As well as the groups of climbers, a few skiers and snowboarders make the climb, gear strapped to their backs. It’s a long way, but most are experienced and they quickly outpace us novices, marching past a decades-old burned-out ski lift destroyed by an eruption in the 1970s.
Every so often, a skier or boarder whooshes past on their journey back down. It looks exhilarating.
We climb higher, well above the clouds. The brilliant sunlight beats down on us.
It’s starting to become a problem.
See, while the incredible blue sky makes for wonderful views across the whole region, warm sunshine and ice are a dangerous combination. The sun melts the top layer of ice, which drips back into the cold below the surface and refreezes into something more solid and slippery. The longer we were out, and the warmer the sun got, the more dangerous the conditions were becoming.
Our guides explained what was going on. They spent extra time choosing the safest routes and warned us some difficult decisions were ahead.
A bit more than half-way up Villarrica, a plume of steam from the crater drawing our eyes upwards, the head guide made the call. Our group would split in two. The fastest, fittest members of the group stood a fair chance of getting to the top before conditions got so bad that no-one could continue. For the rest of us, this was as high as we were going.
Not getting to the top was a shame, but more than anything I appreciated how seriously our guides took our safety. Regardless – the journey to that point was incredible, and more than worth the effort.
Perched on the side of that smoking, volatile mountain, snow in every direction, an ocean of clouds below and the vast blue sky above – there’s nothing else quite like it.
Worth the walk? Yes indeed.
But the day wasn’t over yet, and the decent is something else. Because you could walk down the hill, sure. Or you could slide down on your bum.
It’s the work of just a few minutes to strap every climber to a mini-toboggan, like a large plastic plate with a handle. Ice picks are repurposed as brakes, and suddenly we’re whooshing down the mountain, racing over kilometres of snow and ice that took hours to climb up, unable to stop giggling.
As a kid, did you ever see a picture of a steep mountain and imagine sliding straight down it? It’s that. It’s like an 8-year-old’s fantasy, and it’s brilliant.
Late in the afternoon, we’re reunited with the four members of our group who reached the summit that day. Their stories of bubbling lava emerging from the earth, sulphurous steam in the air, and the roar of boiling rock are tantalising.
Even without reaching the summit, the journey was spectacular. And the summit itself is a call to return one day soon, and see it for myself.
Climbs up Villarrica Volcano can be booked through a number of tour operators in Pucón, and cost around $180 for the day trip. Be sure to pick an operator with a good safety standard, as conditions can change quickly.
(Lead image: Travellers travel photobook / Flickr)