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Tempting Fate on Volcano Villarrica

Volcano Villarrica View from PuconToxic fumes, molten lava, and suffocating ash. An active volcano has many potently destructive tools at its disposal. Add “swallowing” to that list.

The feature presentation of Chile’s lake district for adventure sports is reaching the summit of Volcano Villarrica ($65 including guide and equipment). Rucapillan, as it is known locally, is the tallest volcano in the Chilean Andes (9,340 feet). Why not climb an active volcano? Right? Rising at 6:30am, we met six other climbers and our two guides. After a quiet forty minute ride to the base of the sleeping giant, we checked our gear and began the four hour snowy hike. But not before our instructors showed us how to properly utilize the ice axe as a brake if we were to slip and slide down the snow. Not even half way up, two Brazilians became immensely fatigued and had to turn back. But the six of us twenty-somethings (British and Australian couples) had enough gas in the tank to keep motoring.

Volcano Villarrica View from PuconClimb for twenty minutes. Rest, water, chocolate. Rinse, repeat. We moved slowly in diagonal paths up the snowy pitch towards the billowing smoke. The snow was compact in some areas allowing firm footing.  In others it was mushy and every step was tough.  Either way, the grade of the incline made progress incredibly difficult. Reflecting unmercifully against the white powder, the sun baked our exposed skin as we poured with sweat. Towards the summit though, Ash’s tank-top became the first among five layers. The wind howled, the snow blew, and the temperature dipped sharply.

Destroyed Ski Lift Climbing Volcano Villarrica Required Rest

Like a window seat aboard a Boeing 747, we were high above the clouds enveloping Pucon far below. In the distance we gazed at two other active volcanoes and the azul water of the surrounding lakes. It was a peculiar feeling being so high above sea level. When not being taken away by the panoramic views, our eyes were focused on each carefully placed step. We came along an abandoned ski-lift shelter that was destroyed when Volcano Villarrica erupted in 1971.

View of Another Volcano Lakes and Clouds Endless Views

After four hours, the summit was in sight! We could see and smell the sulfuric white smoke emanating from Volcano Villarrica’s circular crater. The last bit of trekking required crampons because the snow had turned to ice and was quite slick. Upon reaching the top, we dawned gas masks to have a peak closer to the crater. No lava or crater bottom could be seen due to the sheer amount of toxic smoke being spewed into the atmosphere. Proud of our achievement, we relinquished our backpacks and followed the guides to the western side of the volcano for some photos. Big smiles temporarily.

That's No Campfire Smoke Sulfuric Smoke Cheers!

“HELP!!! HELP!!!” gasped a young woman. It was over as fast as it had happened, so it seemed. I was following tracks in the snow where several others had walked on this day. I was charged with photography duties and I took a couple quick shots, dangled the Canon SX10IS around my neck, then proceeded empty handed about ten feet from the crater’s edge. Ashley was twenty steps ahead of me carrying my ice axe on her way to the backpacks. Then as if a trap door were opened below me, I dropped straight down. Right through the ice. Remarkably, my two arms instinctively shot forward and I caught myself on the ice with my forearms before falling any further. I lack any memory of the next two to three seconds. The next thing I remember, my legs were dangling above the abyss below and I kept telling myself to stay calm and not move a muscle. A bearded guide (not from our group) wearing a red parka inched towards me over the now obviously thin ice. Careful not to fall through himself, he reached out and grabbed my arms. Perhaps a combination of his Chilean strength and my status as a featherweight, he was able to pull me out. Dazed, shaken, and stunned, I thanked the heroin and made a bee line for more solid footing.

Potential Icy GraveThe “what if” and “why” questions are haunting. What if I didn’t catch myself? What was below me? Why didn’t my arms break through too? If I survived the fall, how would I get out? No answers here, just conjectures. Our guide suggested the stone exterior of Volcano Villarrica was some feet below me. But he was quick to point out that he was simply guessing. As the photo suggests, it appears to be a black abyss. This experience is eerily reminiscent to a book I read three years ago, Into Thin Air. The author, Jon Krakauer, recounts the story of climbing Mount Everest. One particular passage tells of a Sherpa falling through the ice where several other climbers has walked previously. He fell over 100 feet, but miraculously survived. Regardless, every soul on the summit made a quick exit after recognizing the delicate state of the ice.

SleddingAnxious to get down the already treacherous volcano, we fastened rusksacks to our bums and did some sledding! Like human torpedoes, we cut paths down the slope. It may have taken us four hours to reach the top, but less than forty minutes to get back to ground zero. Ashley was hilarious to watch as she flipped, rolled, and twisted her way down the volcano. It was clear that gravity and friction were in control, not her.

Not wanting to tempt fate any further the following day, we decided a leisurely time in the vibrant mountain town of Pucon would suit us well. Indeed. We caught up on sleep, ate a hearty breakfast, and drank some beers as pedestrians strolled along. Ash and I had fallen in love with Negra, the hostel’s black lab of three years. So we took her on a gorgeous walk to Lake Villarrica where she enjoyed swimming in the chilly water and playing fetch. Only problem was that she liked to break the sticks, so fetch was more challenging than usual. It was the perfect antidote for the all the excitement from the previous day.

Pretty Gals Greg's Best Friend Playing Around  

We met up with the British and Australian couples from our trek for some beers and pizza in the evening. They informed us their hostel was abuzz concerning the “guy who escaped death on Villarrica.” Perhaps. Who knew a volcano could potentially swallow its victims too?

- Greg

Note: I write with sarcastic dry humor most times. Even when things aren’t so great, I try and find the best in it. Finally putting this story to typepad brought back some scary memories and confusing thoughts/feelings. My hands literally shook as I recounted what transpired in those fifteen seconds. Life is fragile, no doubt. Climbing a volcano shouldn’t have to remind you of that. But life is short (cliché, I know) too. If life is a bull, grab it by the horns.

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Going down Volcano Villarrica can be tedious. That is unless the trekking company allows you to sled towards civilization with a rucksack fastened to your bottom. Ensure your tour group allows this before booking. Of course, if snow has been replaced with stone, the Shoe String Express (walking) is your only option. Others hiked with skis and descended in grandiose style.

  2. Check the weather forecast with tour operators and pick a day with favorable conditions to summit Volcano Villarrica. Windy conditions blow the toxic sulfur smoke down the volcano into climbers’ faces forcing them to turn back prematurely. And don’t sweat a bad forecast for Pucon… you are well above that weather when on the volcano.

  3. Just after you are taught not to eat dirt as a young child, you are taught to be safe. Even in seemingly safe environments with qualified professional guides, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Better off safe than sorry as they say. Investigate your surroundings as well. It never occurred to any climber that the snow/ice was the roof of a cavern below.

  • hendosia

    Dietz–i didn't realize the extent of the fall in your original email. karma has always been with you, glad to see it didn't let you down.

    didn't your mom ever warn you two not to climb volcanoes??

  • fofs

    Lord Hendy – I never received the “don't climb active volcanoes”
    lesson from my Mum. Raised by wolves I was…

    - Dietz

  • fofs

    Lord Hendy – I never received the “don't climb active volcanoes”
    lesson from my Mum. Raised by wolves I was…

    - Dietz

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