Volcán Villarica

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

After the first half-hour climbing Volcán Villarica, I began to wonder if I'd made a tragic error in convincing myself that the ascent was a metaphor for my entire study abroad experience.

The symbolism certainly worked. I was walking up unstable, foreign ground-in a place I'd never been and unsure of my footing. Getting to the top would be accomplished pacing myself with small steps; every day here, with classes, meals and work is like a tiny victory. I knew, once I got to the top and was offered a chance to look back, I'd realize it was all worth it.

And, hell, it was only a 5 and 1/2 hour climb, and I had all day to do it. Much in the way I know I've convinced myself that I'm going to make it through studying abroad just fine.

So, when offered the chance to take a chairlift up the first part of the volcano (a long-dead ski area runs up the lower part of the cone), which was reputed to be the most difficult part of the hike, two friends and I refused. We would do it all ourselves, aided only by our will to go on and some sturdy rental boots.

I forgot, however, that climbing a mountain is a group effort. And in winter, our guides told us, if you don't make it to the top by 2:30, you have to stop short and go down with your head hung low. The weather can change at any moment, apparently, and especially in the afternoon. Who'd have ever thought people would treat an 8,000-foot peak like Everest? And when Ben, Josh and I reached to top of the chairlift, winded and beginning to cramp up, the guide waiting for us said that the rest of the group, about 15 strong, had left 20 minutes earlier. We still believed we would be able to catch them.

Our guide was a woman, in her early 40s, who had worked in the Chilean Navy as a psychologist. Her name was Yvonne ("first a mountain guide, and then a psychologist). And soon enough, we began to rue aloud our decision to skip the easy route, saying that older men might have ignored the urge to prove their masculinity and insured a visit to the crater. She told us we were young men, and we would make it to the top any way we had to. She told us to be quiet, to save energy. She knew what to say and how to say it, by profession.

Yvonne set a safe, slow pace, and we caught the rest of our group at the edge of the glacier that, over the years, is receeding up the edge of the mountain. They were lunching, and strapping the crampons onto their feet. We left the camp about 20 minutes after they did, heading up with the stragglers-if any of you are reading this, I apologize for that word-of the other group. My feet had long been hurting, as I had to force myself into a pair of 11-size hiking boots, provided by the guiding company and mandatory (because they could handle a pair of crampons). My shoe size is a 12 1/2, minimum.

Hiking on snow made it easier, though our group of had to assimilate two Ecuadorians, wealthy, young and from the beach town of Esmeraldas. Walking up the hill in huge, stylish sunglasses and hot-pants and a puffy jacket, she was complaining from the start. He, in jeans and a black satin shirt, was a 5-year-old stuffed into a 30-year old man's body. He treated her terribly, repeatedly offering to carry her bag up the hill in the most patronizing of tones . He would hack at things-rocks, huge chunks of ice-unconcerned that he might send them barreling down the glacier, where their bounding masses could nail a hiker downhill, probably killing them on impact and sending their limp bodies rolling down the mountain. I kept him in front of me, needless to say, where I could see him.

After 15 minutes, we were leaving her behind, and Yvonne radioed the guide downhill to pick her up. Her boyfriend talked down to her some more and then continued up the volcano without her. He had demoniacal eyes.

The view downhill was utterly impressive. Chile hasn't seen much rain, even though the current La Niña weather pattern usually stirs it up. What does crawl into the valleys is a light mist. And as the sun began to rise, the fog retreated west across the lakes, toward the Pacific. From that height, the placid lakes reflected the clouds above them, so peaceful they seemed frozen. A friend said it reminded him of Glacier National Park. Either way, we could see fold after fold of mountains, all the way into Argentina, where a few tall peaks flaunted their deep snow-pack and dizzying heights.

Pucon, where we were based, is a tourist town in what's called the "Lake District." It's a tourist town with a developed center (Lacoste and The North Face own storefronts) with colorful buildings and good restaurants. It reminded me of home.

Some call the region the "Switzerland of South America," though that's as much a result of heavy European immigration as it is the geography: a chain of lakes that stretches south all the way to Patagonia.

I lack pictures of the view because I was intent on reaching the top, where the view was certain to be better. And up we went. We lost one member who had heart problems about an hour from the top. She walked down with the Ecuadorian woman who, my friend said, immediately took out her cell phone and made calls to everyone in the phone book-complaining when she didn't have service. Crampons and cell phones make an odd combination, as if the frozen side of a volcano at the end of the world was the logical place to place a call.

We nearly lost another hiker only half hour from the top when she began to panic. She said she couldn't breathe, though anyone who's been at altitude knows that 8,000 feet (not much higher than dad and I's cabin in Durango) doesn't yet have thin, unbreathable air. When she began to hyperventilate, our guide's psychological training kicked in. Staring the girl down, Yvonne told her it was all in her head. Telling the girl she would reach the top, that there was no turning back, Yvonne somehow brought my fellow student's breathing back to normal. When it did, she gave her a hug, and we continued.

And we continued up, all the way to the top, following a zig-zag trail until, removing our crampons, we walked up warm rocks over the lip and into the crater. In the summer, 500 people make that climb daily (it's winter down here). Only about 40 people waited at the top that day: Brazilians, Americans, Brits and Chileans among them. Though it was tough to see the actual magma boiling deep inside the crater, the rocky funnel seeped yellow, smoking sulfur from the pores in its rock. Some of the cinders at the top steamed with volcanic gas. When the wind came in the wrong direction, Villarica's breath was more than we could handle: burning my eyes, nose and throat like tear gas.

Our Ecuadorian friend threw a rock into the crater. The guide told him to stop, saying that he would "make the volcano angry." I guess, when dealing with 5 year-olds, every reason must be a nursery rhyme or a creation myth.

From there we could see the mountains in the north of Chile, a long chain of lakes, the hills covered with a rich green forest and the mists, beginning to come back for the evening. I'd killed myself on the first third of the hike, but I'd stuck with it, even though my big toes had begun to ache and two companions had to turn back. We walked around for a few minutes, and then began the trek down.

"Trek," though, is a bit of a harsh word. We pulled waterproof pants and jackets from our packs, and strapped a "toboggan" onto our behinds (basically, it was a big, red, waterproof diaper). We slid down rivulets in the glacier, scraping our picks into the ice as brakes, keeping our feet together and taking in the scenery. Some of the most beautiful places I have seen, I saw through a car window, and there's something that movement adds to an amazing view-a fourth dimension of dynamism that you just don't get from pull-offs and scenic viewpoints.

But, as the last to the top of the mountain, we were also the last to the bottom. And once we got off the glacier (our Ecuadorian genius decided to go flying off of the last ice chute, hitting our guide and knocking the wind out of her), and into the rocks, we ran downhill. The cinder that had been so hard to scramble up, shifting under our feet, now gave way to scree slopes of tiny ash and cinder that we ran down in leaps and bounds, sending up plumes of dust and ash as a wake. The idle ski lifts swung in the late afternoon breeze to our right, and we dropped into a gully.

When the ground leveled out, and when I was no longer hiking up or tumbling down, I noticed how badly my feet hurt. 7 hours in boots a size and a half too small was not the greatest idea I've ever had, and as I walked the last 400 yards to the van, each step was on nails. In the van, I didn't take off the boots; I didn't want to see what was under my socks. The experience had been too moving, and the views too gorgeous to temper them with blackened toes and broken toenails.

And the sunset was intense, glowing-one of those that you just can't get the camera to capture. So, on the ride home, I opened the window and let the cool night air run across my face and the dust creep into the van. No one cared, and when we got back to our basecamp, I took of the boots and my socks to find toes perfectly normal in appearance, though a little tender to walk on.

If I've focused on The Volcano too heavily here, it's because it was the milestone, the accomplishment of the trip. I don't feel the need to tell you about our tour the previous day (to lakes, perfectly serene, and to waterfalls hidden in the woods). I don't need to tell you how I spent Sunday (Mother's Day) browsing for artesanías in the local fairs. I even got something like quesadillas at a place the claimed to offer Mexican food.

In truth, though, the Volcano gave the trip a sort of symmetry. Reaching the peak was a sort of midpoint, and everything before and after it blurs together in an upward or downward slope. There were equally long bus rides there and back, we ate at the same restaurant the night before and the night after. But over every rooftop in Pucon, you see the perfect cone of Volcán Villarica. It not the tallest of the Andes, nor is it the most difficult climb by any means.

But going south, to a country and a town much like my own-and leaving schoolwork behind-was exactly what I'd been waiting for. On Monday, the trials and annoyances of being a student began anew. I'm already trying to arrange group projects, to write papers, to meet Chileans and to better fit myself into the dynamic of my host family. It's all frustrating, but I feel like I'm confronting it all with a good night's rest-though I'm still adding in a nap here and there.
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