By Bryan Singleton
Volcón Villarica. It’s the first thing you see on arriving and the last thing you see on departing. It towers majestically above the town, filling the sky to the southwest, a perfect Fuji-like cone of rock crowned in a glittering mantle of snow and ice, silhouetted against a turquoise blue sky, a whiff of smoke rising lazily from its summit. To say that the volcano dominates the town of Pucón is somewhat of an understatement. Its physical presence is matched only by its economic presence.
We stepped onto the deck of an attractive place downtown called Mama’s and Tapas for a beer and a sandwich, sitting on the patio in the warm late afternoon sun. All along the street on the way to lunch we noticed that everyone in town seemed to offer a trip, a tour, a climb–the volcano package. They also had a strange habit of dressing up mannequins and setting them out on the sidewalks completely decked out in all the gear they thought was needed to climb the volcano. Picture this: a mannequin dressed up in snow pants, parka, fleece hat, neck warmer, mittens, sunglasses, gaiters, mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe, and to top it all off a red plastic helmet, a gas mask of the type painters wear and a sign saying “life insurance included”. After seeing this, a trek to the top seemed somewhat less appealing and much more ponderous an undertaking than I had imagined. At any rate, sitting in the shade of an umbrella on the sunny patio of Mama’s and Tapas drinking a cold beer, the top of the Volcón Villarica seemed very remote indeed.
I happened to notice that the entire patio seemed to be filled with young Americans, Brits, and Israelis, and who should happen to turn up but four young Israeli guys we had last seen on the top of a mountain in southern Argentina near Bariloche. After the requisite greetings we learned that they had just climbed to the summit of the volcano the previous day and heartily recommended it. The problem it turned out was that the local park authorities had closed off access to the top that day for fear of an eruption. Just our luck–a day late. Anyway we were planning on being in town for a while so we thought if we were patient the mountain might open up again. We also learned that our Israeli friends had climbed to the top with a company called Lamay that was run by an Israeli guy, and was according to them the best deal in town at only 23,000 pesos ,or around $40 each, the next cheapest deal was over 7,000 pesos more and included some kind of life insurance. We figured it wouldn’t be any advantage to us having a life insurance policy we would never collect. If the mountain did erupt and shower us with hunks of molten lava so be it. It’s not every day you get the chance to die such a dramatic death!
After bumming around town for a few more days, we decided to do some day hikes in the araucaria forest, also known as monkey puzzle trees, these strange prehistoric looking evergreens are only found in the lake district of Chile and Argentina. They have a rough diamond pattern on the bark, and rounded frond-like branches that spiral up the trunk forming a large dense crown. They resemble some kind of strange palm tree and produce abundant large edible seeds like a pine nut, a staple food of the Mapuche, the original inhabitants of these forests. We were hiking amongst beautiful lakes, colorful beech trees turning golden yellow orange in the mid autumn sun, wild fuchsia flowering along the trail and the clatter of the large red headed magellanic woodpeckers working high in the trees. I could still hear the voice of the volcano calling my name.
Later that afternoon back in town again we checked in with the tour guides, and good luck, the mountain was finally opened again to the summit. It was a Friday afternoon and we found ourselves back at Lamay paying our money and being fitted for boots. We were meeting at 7 a.m. the next morning with 1.5 liters of water, a lunch, sunglasses and sunscreen. Everything else was being provided for a full day up the mountain and back.
The morning dawned bright and clear, with an autumn chill in the 7 a.m. air as we walked back to the tour guides office to don our gear and prepare for the climb up Volcón Villarica. That’s when I noticed that everyone on the tour was under 25, half my age, and had apparently just been released from the Israeli army. Whatever the Hebrew word for gung ho is, they were. There were about twenty of us in the group going up the mountain along with four guides, and I quickly realized we would be the odd ones out on this trip. After loading ourselves and our gear into four different vans we headed out of town, toward the Volcón Villarica and hopefully the summit. After 45 minutes we climbed up out of the valley away from the lake and above the trees, now on the flanks of the volcano we were entering a land of broken rock, ice, and sky. The summit of Villarica was shining in its brilliant mantle of ice and snow with a few scattered clouds high in the sky and the morning mist still clinging to the trees and the lake in the valley far below. As mountains in the Andes go, Villarica is not that high–only around 2,750 meters, around 9,000 ft–but tell that to your legs as you trudge up the steep ice and snow towards the summit, carefully planting one foot in front of the other, ice axe in hand to steady you and stop your slide should you fall.
When we reached the parking area at the base of the mountain there must have been at least a hundred people from other tours gathering in groups, milling about and queing up for the ancient wooden two-seater ski lift chair up the mountain another 1000 yards to the staging area. Yes there is a ski resort of sorts here on the slopes of this active volcano, and also the remains of a few others that were destroyed by lava in past eruptions, the last being in the late 80s. The twisted steel and broken concrete rubble, were a stark reminder of nature’s utter disregard for man and his futile attempts at control.
Claudia and I got into line with our group and paid an additional 150 pesos each for the ride up, this being by far the scariest part of the trip so far. We lined up quickly, crouching, knees bent, waiting for the ancient wooden chair to swing under and lift us and all our gear off the ground. We clung to the center bar with packs on our laps and nothing but air and a long drop to the scree and rock below. There was no snow yet this low on the mountain. At the top jumping clear as we reached the platform, the chair didn’t slow down, as each of us went a different direction. This is where we would form smaller groups with our guides and attempt to make it to the summit. I say attempt because reaching the top is in no way guaranteed. Conditions change suddenly. How would it treat us today?
Each group, although wearing almost identical gear, was dressed in a different color scheme. I guess that makes it easier to keep track of the various groups and lets the guides keep a better account of who is where on the mountain. Starting ahead of us were the red and black group, then the blue and yellow group, we were in the black and blue group. I hoped that was not more than a coincidence. Our group consisting of twenty young Israelis, two middle age Californians, and our four Chilean guides was now ready to tackle the mountain. We split into smaller groups, and as it happens we fell in with the fast crowd, five young Israelis, Claudia and I and our guide Oscar, who happened to mention that he had climbed the mountain 2,000 times. I found that reassuring.
We took off up the mountain when Oscar mentioned that if we wanted to reach the summit today it was possible but we had to go fast. This had the desired effect of whipping us into a race for the top, and we headed up the loose scree-covered trail at a fast clip. We were told that the trek to the top would take between three to four hours and the trip down half as much. The pace that Oscar and the young Israelis set up the mountain was brisk. In no time we were passing long lines of climbers who had pulled off to the side of the trail to rest. We continued our ascent up the rocky slope, loose scree slipping away beneath our boots.
Until now we hadn’t worn either our crampons or our bright red plastic helmets. As we got closer to the top, the more pieces of solid and black lava could be seen lying randomly about in the snow. We put on our helmets. The day had been warm, so the snow was soft enough to kick footholds in, with the ice axe for stability we never put on our crampons, just paid attention to our footing and carefully worked our way up at an angle to the slope. The youngsters and Oscar were bounding up the mountain by now, eager to reach the top, while Claudia and I were doing our best to keep up. When I saw Oscar up on the rim of the caldera urging us on I got a sudden burst of energy and started moving more quickly up the slope passing Claudia, who seemed to be running out of steam for the first time today. I really wanted to reach the top especially now that I was so close. I couldn’t imagine coming this far without looking into the heart of this volcano. I was now close, fifty yards more to the top, my legs were tired and I was out of breath, but I continued up, looking back to see Claudia another 50 yards behind working her way slowly up the icy slope. When I reached the top, Oscar’s outstretched hand was there to greet me. I was exhilarated.
On top Villarica leveled out, the snow and ice giving way to rock again, then after a few more steps I heard the volcano’s hot breath, belching, steaming, the air thick and shimmering in waves, as hot gas burst from deep down inside the massive caldera shooting hundreds of feet into the cold surrounding air with the sound of a jet turbine. The gas was escaping in intermittent forceful blasts out of a puckered rocky orifice some thirty feet across, like the devil’s own bunghole. The rim of the caldera was littered with broken multi-colored fragments of lava rock, twisted and melted together, a stark desert of rock, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, umber brown, grey black, with the sky a deep cobalt blue overhead. Looking back down the mountain I could see a hundred dark shapes slowly ascending up its snowy shoulders like a trail of ants on a mound of sugar. Claudia was on top now, greeted by Oscar and me. We took a few photos and looked around some more, all the while the hot breath of the volcano shot waves of heated gas into the sky, and thankfully nothing more. We had made the climb up in only 2.5 hours and already Oscar was prodding us to head down. We all wanted to stay on top longer, but we had to go.
The group of us set out down the slope glissading on the snow with our ice axes acting as brakes to slow our decent. After descending for some lunch back at our packs, we sat for a rest. Groups of trekkers made it up to where we sat and rested along side us in the snow for awhile, or pushed on past up the steep slope attempting to reach the summit we had just left behind. The way back was an easy slide on the snowy slope, tobogganing on our behinds single file, snaking our way down. Those rubber bottom pants came in handy. Then a short walk down the soft scree to our waiting van–the first ones up the mountain and the first ones back. On the ride back everyone was quiet and subdued either from fatigue or wonder. The day’s exertions had certainly taken their toll on me. I had been to the top of Volcón Villarica, looked into the gaping maw of the volcano, and lived to tell about it!