Climbing Villarrica

Posted on Sep 29, 2011

I prepared to write about my South American journeys later with a drawing tablet in hand, aided by excellent write-ups and pictures of trip-mates.  Climbing Villarrica in Pucon, however, was an experience unique to me.  This entry will thus be out of order with the others in this series.

Pucon is a small town in the Chilean Patagonia, west of the Andes.  We arrived at Pucon from Puerto Varas after crossing the Andes from Bariloche.

Chile is a country with incessant earthquakes and countless volcanoes.  Several active volcanoes are nearby Pucon, with Villarrica being an accessible one about an hour’s drive away.  This is late September, the end of winter in the southern hemisphere, and the snow covers a greater extent than seen in this satellite map from Google.

Climbing the volcano is one of the attractions here: others have written about their adventures (and attempts) here, here, and here.  While their records are from the summer, our attempt is on a windy winter day and weather makes much difference in the scenery and conditions for the climb.  (The summer picture courtesy of AroundThisWorld.)  Amongst the difference is the number of trekkers: while in summer there would be up to 300 making the attempt, there was only about a hundred that I’ve met on the day.

At 8am we began our hike from the parking lot, where the snow more-or-less ends, at an altitude of 1400m.   On our trip was Oscar and Patricia, our local guides; Claire, an Irish gal; Rosie from Edmonton; and Filip from Belgium, all of us in our early 30s.

After the first hour the snow and incline required us to zig-zag in single file up the mountain; at the end of which we put on the crampons (spikes on the bottom of shoes), as there begins significant passages where the surface is too steep and icy for hiking boots.  We also brought out the ice-picks, for balance, and to arrest a fall.


Another hour of slow climb brought us to the end of the ski lifts and lounges, where roads would reach and hikes would begin in summertime.  We lost Claire at this point; the hiking boots supplied by the trekking company did not fit her and makes a hard climb impossible.

Yet another hour came and gone, and the terrain was steeper than before.  Rests are less frequent as many parts are steep enough to make stopping precarious.  Finally we reached “The Chapel”, the structure protruding from the snow in the left in the next picture, a ski-lift shelter destroyed by Villarrica’s 1971 eruption.

Several larger groups of 15-20 camped out, or plain turns back at this point.  Filip had major blisters (from wearing two pair of socks), but braved on for another hundred meters to catch sight of the top; the structure of the volcano was such that what appeared to be the end was actually some two hours before the real thing.  The climb was arduous and it was disheartening to learn that we have barely crossed the half-way mark.

The remaining path would become harder, as the ground becomes increasingly icy, and sounds of broken glass accompany every footstep.  The winds up here are stronger than where we started, and looking back down it seems as if a faux pas will send us tumbling down. The view, however, was striking, for which my pictures do not do them justice – I had difficulties removing gloves and fish for the camera (while keeping the gloves from flying away – which would be certain end of the expedition), and the touch-screen/electronics was simply not working properly in the freezing temperature.  Note the clouds in the picture – we will cross the layer up in the remaining time.

I had a lingering cough and IT band injuries on both knees before the hike, and soreness goes and returns with every step.  Strange for a failed catholic and failed Portuguese learner, all I repeated to myself in the next hour was “O Senor e meu pastor, e nada me faltara” that I once saw on a boat in Brazil; Portuguese for Psalms 23 “The Lord is my pastor, and I shall miss nothing”.

By the 4-hour mark Oscar accompanied Rosie down; our tough Canadian girl was one of the 15-20 to make it to that point.  I could do little than keeping my head down, counting left-right-left-right one step at a time as I kick out footholds and puncture the ice with the pick.

The last hour was brutal.  The ground was covered in crystalline bands of ice about 15cm/7″ in width, neatly stacked on top of one another (presumably these formed in the direction of the prevailing winds?)  Every step required double-kicking to carve footholds in these solid ice, and the climb grew to a constant 40-60 grade, at times veering into crawling territory.

The winds were relentless, and often Oscar and I found ourselves braced against the wall (“strong legs!” as he admonished in accented English), picking up our feet only when the wind eased off.  Blasts of ice hit our face and sun-glasses constantly, and larger chunks tumbling down from above hits the helmet with loud noises.  My right hip was sore, and the soreness in the knees is now a stabbing pain, but on these slope there was no rest for the weary.

The last skiers have turned back, and left were Oscar and I, and two ahead of us.  I was later told that we were the only ones to make it to the crater that day (trodden and head down, remember?) – they must have been only 15-20 minutes away from the summit.  It took everything I had but I made it.  Going the distance gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment, but it was very humbling to think that for a living Oscar climb this every other day.

There was about 20m/60ft of flat near the top, before it drops off to the center of the earth.  The sight inside was abit of a disappointment, especially since I climbed Etna while it erupted in 99′.  This time there was no lava to jump nor fresh obsidian to pry apart; the magma was not even visible since the gas was too overwhelming.  Hot sulphurous fumes were everywhere, and I suspect it might be SO3 that forms H2SO4 in the lungs and windway, as everything burns and my eyes and nose waters and tears.  I was fascinated with the textures inside the caldera and wish I know more about the processes that make them the way they are.

The endless view of everywhere else from the top (2840m) was wonderful, but almost every picture I took had gloves in front of the lens.  We were only able to stand the fumes for several minutes before gasping for non-toxic air.

The normal way of coming down would be by sliding down the little plastic tobaggan we carried up in our pack, using our picks to control the speed.  The icy conditions today, however, means that we need to walk back down for about 1.5 hours before being able to do that.  But that was fun, and the day ended with Oscar waving to the peak, “See you tomorrow”.

Aftermath: The base of the palms were bruised from slamming down the pick some ten thousand times, and I limped about for a day as the right hip and both knees would not bend without pain.  There was, surprisingly, no blisters at all – during the climb it certainly feels as if the ankles were rubbed raw.  The sulfur smell lingered either on or in me even after showers.  The ego got a healthy boost for being able to put down a feat of solid determination, and it was a good night’s sleep that night indeed.