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Mount St. Helens: Volcano Villarrica Scare Revisited

Months have passed since that terrifying November afternoon in Pucon, Chile.  Yet I think of the experience often.  The near misadventure hit home a bit harder after reading about the Mount St. Helens tragedy on February 15, 2010 (thanks for the heads up, Steve).

My first plane ride was at age 12 during a family trip to America’s Pacific Northwest and Canada.  Mount St. Helens was a highlight for all four of us and left a curiosity of volcanoes with me.  Though the infamous 1980 eruption claimed 57 souls, the majestic stratovolcano remains dangerous.  The lastest victim was 52 year old Joseph Bohlig, an experienced climber.

Volcano Villarrica Summit Volcano Villarrica Sulfuric Smoke What Lies Below?  Glad To Never Know

Reading about his fatal climb of this Pacific Ring of Fire volcano left me shaken once again. The similarities are numerous. “Boom, it busted off and I saw him clawing for the edge with a startled look on his face, and then he disappeared. I was looking right at him, he was only 10 feet away, then he just disappeared,” said fellow climber Scott Salkovics. Falling 1,500 feet onto rock and ice, Joseph is presumed to have died from trauma related to the fall, no autopsy required.

To anyone reading this, I beg you to seek proper advice before setting out on a snow covered volcano. You simply don’t know the thickness of snow/ice whether in a flat area or on a cornice. Joseph was an experienced climber. Ashley and I had two guides. Accidents like these do happen, sometimes with horrific consequences.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

Read the Mount St. Helens story HERE

Read our original Volcano Villariaca, Chile post HERE

- Greg

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.

Driving Chile’s Lake District

Sweet Ride“Oh, I can drive a stick shift, no problem,” claimed Ashley. Engine starts. Stall. Engine starts. Stall. “Are they watching?” she asked. That’s as far as Ash made it behind the wheel of the high performance Chevrolet Swing hatchback. All seven inches in neutral, but it was a sporty coupe to be fair. Too much power in the four valve engine for this gal from Kansas, so I took the helm and righted the ship… out of the rental car harbor and into the mountains surrounding Pucon, Chile.

Volcano Villarrica - View from Pucon - v9Tourist buses bound for Location X, Destination Y, and Lookout Z were left in our wake as we enjoyed the freedom of our own transportation for a change ($60 for rental car, insurance, and petrol). Armed with a map that lacked any semblance of scale or direction, we headed into the Andes Mountains with majestic views of Volcano Villarrica (Chile’s tallest). Forty minutes and a long gravel road later we pulled into the quaint parking lot of China Falls ($4 entry). The 300 foot waterfall kept us in awe for quite some time as it poured over the edge from a lush jungle above.

Mountains Waterfall China Rapids

LizardNext stop was meant to be a short drive to view some spectacular rapids, but fate had a different objective. We made a wrong, perhaps correct, turn and met a kind old man named Refugio who instructed us how to put the Chevy Swing in reverse. Quite helpful considering we had been pushing the light vehicle out of tight corners up until this point. Refugio also happened to be the developer of a gorgeous assemblage of land and suggested we drive around and select our slice of heaven for $22,000 per acre. Rather than splurge on a piece of dirt, we imbibed on a glass of Chilean white wine and soaked in the views from the choicest plot. But we heard the rapids calling us, so it was onto our intended destination. The river was powerful and surrounded by dense forest housing insects, birds, and reptiles.

Lake VillarricaBy then our hunger was guiding us more than the dismal map, so we aimed for Lake Tinquilco but found Lake Caburgua. A bit lost but craving a late lunch of mozzarella cheese, salami, crackers, and bananas, the Chevy Swing was stowed away on a safe stretch of road as Ash and I made ourselves at home on the rocky shoreline. Not wanting to miss out on a chance to lose feeling in my hands/feet, I took a brisk, albeit short, swim in the crystal fresh water. Not only can Lake Caburgua pass as a suitable shower, it can also chill Chilean white wine quite effectively as we learned by submerging the bottle beneath large rocks. Having a working brain, Ash sat this activity out.

Lake Villarrica - v10 Lake Villarrica - v5 Lake Villarrica - v19

Suitably cold, the natural thermal baths outside Pucon seemed be the perfect antidote. Argh! Termas Las Pozones ($8) did not open until night fall. No worries. We drove one mile and found a hilltop upon which we could enjoy the sunset. The ball of fire descended behind the tree lined slopes as we traded fleeces for bikinis (I wore trunks). At first the volcano heated pools felt tremendous. Little by little though, the heat became unbearable and Ash clamored onto the surrounding rocks of the natural pool. Being a tough guy of course, I stayed in the warming bath… for thirty seconds more. Needing to cool down, Ash led me to the adjacent stream via light from the digital camera. Feeling the cold mountain water on my ankles, I gingerly submerged myself into the depths until the temperature proved unbearable. Thankfully, Termas Las Pozones has four pools of varying temperature and we found the second to be accommodating. As I tried to relax in the soothing pool, Ashley kept pestering me about her being the first female President of the USA (okay, I just wanted to include this hilarious photo). After gazing at the starry night, we dried off and drove back to Pucon thoroughly worn out.

Pre Thermaling Neighboring River Worth $100

Err, I drove back.

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Hostels and Adventure Groups offer various tours of the surrounding area of Pucon. DIY (do it yourself) can be the way to see more for less. When sharing with at least one person, you can rent a car for the entire day and see four days of tours in one day. Not too mention, tour groups hit you hard for transportation. For example, hostels charge $15 per person to hit the thermal baths at night (basically $7 for transport). Simply splitting a rental car with like minded people will save you cash and allow you see more on your own terms.

  2. Pucon offers an incredible amount of things to do: white water rafting, skydiving, volcano treks, mountain biking, thermals, etc. Purchasing two or three activities through one provider provides you with leverage. But even if you prefer just one adventure, check around for prices and negotiate.

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