SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 3
The evacuation sirens blazed around Pucon’s centre, a shuddering pitch that shook me to the core. Instinctively I spun around to face the volcano, its white conical sides dominating the landscape. Smoke billowed from its crater, pushed eastwards by the wind. I was frozen to the spot but I knew I had to run.
I stumbled into a shop looking for answers, confusion and fear erupting inside me. I was greeted with a smile, not the panic I was anticipating. “It’s just a drill!” the saleswoman said with a thick Chilean accent. I felt the tension escape from my body only to be replaced by embarrassment and flushed cheeks.
Although Villarrica is Chile’s most active crater, the last major eruption was in 1985, every year it receives thousands of people hiking up its slopes. From mid-June to September it turns into a ski field but year-round tourists can climb the 2,847m leading to the summit. And I was just one of them.
I nearly was, anyway. I’d been in Pucon, Chilean Patagonia, for three days before I even saw the snow-covered cone. The weather had been so dismal with fog, rain and grey lingering clouds that any view beyond 100m had been obliterated. Even the day we set out to trek up Villarrica we were sceptical that it even existed.
Climbing Volcano Villarrica
After getting kitted out with the full climbing gear (crampons, ice pick, windproof jacket/trousers and waterproof boots), we drove 30 minutes out of town. The dense clouds meant that daybreak was scarcely making an appearance at 7.30am. Unexpectedly, as we drove above the cloud level, the volcano stood proud, basking in blue skies. The postcards in town were accurate afterall; its snow-white sides were shimmering in the morning sun.
At 1,400m, the base camp is situated halfway up the crater where white smoke blows from the top. To get to the summit from here is a four- to five-hour hike if the weather permits it. We snaked our way up the slope, carefully following our guide’s instructions. Wrong moves in the past have caused fatalities but reputable tour companies follow strict safety measures.
Plodding through the snow I caught glimpses of the surrounding Andes mountains, standing high above the seemingly impenetrable black nimbus clouds hanging over Pucon. The peaks formed jagged teeth with their snow-brushed tops waiting to swallow the fog below. Before long, they’d chewed up the bad weather and breathed out clear skies and we were rewarded with impressive views over the valley and Lake Villarrica and Volcano Llaema in the distance.
We could have been treading on a crystal mountain as shimmering clusters of ice slid down the volcano. Unfortunately, due to the cold temperature it was too icy to continue beyond 2,300m, even with our crampons. But once I turned around to walk down, I nearly had heart failure.
It’s all downhill from here
The descent was steep. The method was to slide. It wasn’t going to be pretty; I’d previously tried sand boarding but flopped down the entire dune. I’d also given snowboarding a go but rolled to the bottom. Now I was presented with nearly a kilometre of downhill sliding. I doubted I’d survive.
After several minutes of coaxing with a firm hand on my arm, I sat down and prepared myself for a massive accident. Was I insured for winter activities? How far away was that rock? How could I carry the gargantuan backpack with a broken arm?
Eventually I pushed myself off the ridge but instead of hurtling down the slope, I was virtually motionless. There was no need to break using my ice pick, instead I had to use it to build up speed. Luckily one of our guides saw my dismal descent and became my personal downhill taxi. With my legs attached to his body we began a speedy and safe downward slide.
I was glad to have been a ‘terrified girl’ after all, it has its advantages.
How did I wind up here?
After losing my bus ticket and leaving my laundry in a shop that closed for two days, I eventually left Bariloche, Argentina. I headed to San Martin, a small town in the Lake District close to the Chilean border. Unfortunately, without a car in the low season it’s difficult to get around the area.
Patagonia in the winter shuts down and unless you have your own wheels and you’re a hardcore camper – of which I am most definitely not – then visiting national parks and walking multi-day hikes are out of the question. So I border hopped to Pucon, a quaint town that is a definite must-visit.
VOLCANO TIPS AND TRICKS
- The walk up Volcano Villarrica itself isn’t very challenging if you have a decent fitness level. There are no minimum requirements to climb it, but if you struggle going uphill then maybe it’s best to sit this hike out, especially as it involves walking through snow.
- The trick to make it an easier ascent is to step in previous footprints and to use the ice pick as a walking stick as well as a safety mechanism.
- If you want to take photos on the ascent, leave the SLR behind and take the compact camera. You have very little time to take snaps and are discouraged from stopping in your tracks to snap away. If you’re quick enough, walk at the back and take a couple of sneaky shots but you get breaks on the walk which allow for photo opportunities.
- Wear a hat and a windproof hood to protect your ears. This is Patagonia, renowned for its harsh wind, after all.
- Wear only a few layers as you’ll build up a sweat on the hike – a thermal, T-shirt and a windproof jacket should do the trick. Keep a fleece and scarf in your bag to put on during breaks.
- You can hike and slide/climb down all year round, even during the ski season. If you’re a confident skier you can go on combined hiking and skiing/snowboarding tours to the top.
- Don’t forget your sunglasses and sun cream – you won’t be allowed to go up without them.
- Check out the tours run by Sierra Nevada or through the hostel El Refugio (who use Sierra Nevada)
- Check that the tour companies include insurance; will give a 100%refund if you get to the office and can’t leave due to bad weather; will charge no more than 4,000 Chilean pesos if you drive to the base camp and the guides decide the weather is too bad to climb; give you all the correct equipment; have guides that speak English or you won’t understand the safety instructions
WHERE ON EARTH?
- The thinnest country in South America with only 175 kilometres from coast to border
- The capital is Santiago, which either has a layer of fog or pollution, I can’t quite decide
- The country has borders with Argentina, Peru and Bolivia
- It has ski fields and desert and everything in between
- A quaint town with a laid-back vibe and it’s only 60km from the Argentinean border
- Buses run directly from Santiago, San Martin (Argentina), Bariloche (Argentina) and other destinations in Chile
- The weather is unpredictable so if you want to climb the volcano in winter, allow a week in your itinerary to give yourself the opportunity
NOTE: PHOTOGRAPHS COPYRIGHT OF JANE BATCHELOR