Besides skiing, there’s generally one thing that visitors to Pucón come to do and that’s climb Villarrica – one of Chile’s most active volcanoes.
We got our first view of the volcano from the bus as we arrived. I was looking around for it thinking ‘well, where is it? I thought you could see it from the town’, and then I realised that the giant wall of rock that took up the entire windscreen of the bus was part of it. ‘Oh’, I thought.
On the day we were due to set off for our hike to the summit, it was beautifully clear and we could see the smoke rising from the snowy cone ominously. We would be climbing it right to the top, looking into the smoking crater and then sliding down the snow on a small sled.
We had been told the trip would take around seven hours, but what we hadn’t realised was that it only takes about an hour to come down. It takes six gruelling hours of constant uphill struggling through snow and ice to reach the top.
It was exhausting and, even though our guides bounced up the mountain beside us, our whole group felt the strain. We all looked forward to the next rest stop, when we’d be able to sit in the snow, have a snack and take a look at the view as we got higher and higher above the ground.
The worst part of the climbing was how the snow, although pretty, made the landscape unchanging – which made it hard to see just how far we had to go. Several times we (and other members of the group) would say ‘We must be halfway now’, only for our guide to tell us that actually we were only about a quarter of the way up.
After hours of leg-aching, back-breaking climbing, we made it to the summit.
We excitedly peered into the crater, which was still steaming away and colouring the pure snow around it a nasty looking sludge colour.
Although we couldn’t see any active lava pools inside the crater, it was easy to see that the volcano was busy bubbling away under the surface. Every now and again the wind would blow the acrid cloud of smoke over our way and everyone in its path would be choking as the air became acidic and sulphuric.
The hard part definitely over, we started our descent down the mountain. With crampons on our feet to help make sure we didn’t slip, we got to the ‘practice’ slope – where we would learn how to slide down the volcano on our bums!
The trick was to sit, dig your heels into the snow and use the ice pick as a brake – if you wanted to go faster you would pick up your heels slightly, to slow down you would push the pick into the snow behind you. Well, that was the theory anyway.
The most important things to remember were that we had to hold the pick a certain way – so it didn’t bounce and bury itself into your leg or face – and to try to sit with your knees bent in front of you. Our guide told us it was vitally important never to straighten your legs and lie back because it makes you go faster and lose control.
Practically straight away I was speeding along the icy ground on my backside at break-neck speed, bouncing right out of the track in the snow I was meant to be following. In my panic, I tried to dig the pick into the snow and ice as I’d been shown but, because I was going so fast, the pick was merely bouncing off the surface. In sheer terror (and in an effort to protect my face as I went flying down the volcano) I ended up lying back and trying to dig my heels in (which meant my legs were no longer bent). I knew I’d made the wrong move. Suddenly I was hurtling along like I was on a luge. ‘Noooooo!’ the guide was yelling behind me. ‘Don’t lie straight!!!’
Luckily I reached the end of the practice run without breaking my neck or sticking my pick anywhere nasty. ‘Maybe you should try going a little slower on the next one’ said my guide with a grimace.
Thankfully, I got the hang of it after that and was even able to try using a ‘spade sled’ (basically a round bit of plastic), which made you go even faster! Before I knew it I was flying down the mountain and bouncing over the snow with a huge grin plastered to my face.
It was a fantastic and exhilarating experience and something I will never forget. Who else can say they’ve climbed an active volcano (and slid down again on their bum)!