Lovely lakes and a volcano climb

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

After a lovely day walk and two pleasant evenings in Parque Nacional Alerce Andino (see previous entry), we returned to Puerto Montt to collect the customs papers for taking the hire car to Argentina. We arrived in town at about 10.30 am, and were told that the papers would only be ready at 2pm, so we spent the morning picking up emails and doing some shopping... our purchases included an FM transmitter for our I-River, which allows us to play our music through any radio, especially handy for the car! We´ve been looking for one of these since we spotted Simon Peakman´s (they´re not for sale in the UK), so were chuffed to find one for the equivalent of about 10 pounds sterling!

After collecting the car papers, we headed up north along the PanAmerican highway, a toll road, and turned off toward Lago Panguipulli. It was a sunny afternoon, and in the distance the snow-capped, perfectly conical form of Volcan Villarica rose from the surrounding forest. A stunning sight.

We found a campsite on the lake shore but facilities such as showers were not operational. A note to prospective low-season campers in Chile: though there are plenty of campsites around the Los Lagos region, very few of them are open this time of year - Chileans obviously love camping but do so in the high summer months only.

Our spot on the shore of Lago Panguipulli was lovely nonetheless. We had a swim in the lake in lieu of a shower, and Rich cast a few lines as the sun set. Another pleasant night around a wood fire - by now we were perfecting our technique of barbequeing meat on hot stones, as we still had no grid. Our chicken pieces were perfectly succulent.

The next morning, on Sunday, after Rich had done a bit more spinning (no luck), we hit the road to Pucon along a lovely winding, picturesque route that took us alongside Lago Calafquen, through the village of Conaripe, and through Villarrica on Lago Villarrica. The weather was turning: strong winds and dark rain clouds blew in, so we kept driving.

We arrived in Pucon at midday and found it to be a larger, more touristy town than we were expecting, but nevertheless a pretty place, with wooden Swiss chalet style shop fronts. Volcan Villarrica, which we had caught sight of the previous day while driving to Panguipulli, sat just beside the town but was now totally obscured by cloud.

We were fascinated by the idea of climbing it, as it is very active and lava may be seen in the crater. Many agencies in town offer a day excursion to the summit, so we asked around and compared prices. After a couple of hours investigating, we signed up with Mountain Life, run by two friendly, young guys who also offered the best price. We were told to return in the evening for an equipment fitting (waterproof suit and boots, crampons, ice axe etc) and warned that a final decision as to the suitability of the weather conditions would be made early the next morning, just before departure.

We figured that we deserved a bit of luxury if we were to climb the volcano the next day, so found a comfy guesthouse with the charming name of Hostal Willy - we negotiated a good price for two nights in a plush room with cable TV and en-suite. Ahhhh, luxury after a few nights of roughing it!

In the late afternoon, with dark cloud and high wind still around, we drove out to the Los Pozones hot springs, about 40km from town. There are many thermal baths in the area, but Los Pozones is special because it´s the only one where natural rock has been used to construct the six outdoor pools, which are charmingly set among gardens in a river valley. We spent a blissful two hours soaking in the hot and supposedly curative spring water.

On Monday, the day of our volcano climb, we awoke early to the steady patter of rain on the window. Not a good sign! We had an early breakfast nonetheless, and headed down to MountainLife at 7.30am as agreed. The guide informed us that the climb would have to be cancelled due to the rain, which increases the risk of avalanches on the snow-clad mountain, and that the weather forecast for the rest of the week was not good. However, we were advised to check in the next morning anyway, just in case conditions improved.

So, with heavy rain having set in, we had a bit of spare time on our hands. We wandered down to an internet cafe and took some time looking for zip-off trekking trousers for Rich (he had lost his faithful pair in NZ). Around mid-afternoon the rain lifted, so we drove up into the hills to Parque Nacional Huerquehue, about 45 km out of town, for a walk. At the ranger´s hut we met Kevin and Amy, a friendly couple from Boston, USA, who were on honeymoon. They gave us a lift up the last bit of rough road in their 4WD, and we spent a delightful couple of hours walking to the waterfall together and chatting.

Clouds swirled around the mountain peaks, quite a haunting sight, and I got all excited at the sight of monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria) high up near the snow line. Like the Alerce, the monkey puzzle is the subject of research and conservation initiatives at the Botanics in Edinburgh, and I had learned much about them from my botanist colleagues. How super to see them in the wild, their distinctive shapes outlined against the snow and cloud!

That evening, it rained heavily again, and we really were not expecting it to improve. It seemed to us there was very little chance of climbing the volcano the next day - we planned to move on and cross the border to Argentina instead. So imagine our surprise when we awoke early on Tuesday morning to dry conditions... not exactly sunny, but the clouds were high and the hills around town were visible. We dashed down to MountainLife at 7.30am, and the news was good... though equally surprised at this gap in the weather, the guides fully intended to use it.

After waiting for an hour or so to make sure the weather would hold, nine of us plus two guides piled into a minivan and headed up the road to the ski lift, which we took for the first 400m or so up the mountain. We were all kitted out in red and blue waterproofs, with sturdy waterproof boots, hats, gloves and ice axes. We didn´t wear our crampons, as the layer of fresh snow was soft enough for boots only.

So, at about 10.30am, we started our epic climb up the flanks of Volcan Villarrica. We´d just about given up on the idea the previous day so were elated to be underway! There were about 10 or so other groups making the climb that day, but ours was the smallest, so we shot ahead of the rest. We walked through snow all the way: the track of slow zig-zags is not defined, though the guides tend to stick to tracks created on previous days, where visible. With so much fresh snow on the mountain, we did a fair amount of plowing through virgin powder, a wonderful sensation but quite tiring!

Much of the climb was through cloud, obscuring what would have been a marvellous view on a clear day. However, at times we could spy the lake and green valley below, and most of the way the wind was not too strong. Most importantly, it stayed dry. With a couple of short breaks on the way, we finally summited at about 1pm - the first group at the top!

At the summit, we were engulfed by sulphurous smoke - we´d caught whiffs of it on the way up, and now, standing at the crater´s edge, we coughed and spluttered in the thick, acidic smog. The wind was howling up there, and the crater was not visible for all the cloud and smoke, but nevertheless it was a wonderful feeling... we´d trudged uphill for hours and we were now standing on top of one of nature´s most powerful phenomena!

As we started the walk down, the clouds lifted further, and we gazed out over the lake and green hills below. Marvellous! The method of descent was great fun: bum-slide in the snow all the way! Several luge tracks had been carved out by many hundreds of bums on previous days; everyone spread out and made their way down, some faster, some slower, some in ´penguin position´ (on chest, face first) and others rolling! There was great hilarity all round, and we were all thoroughly soaked by the time we reached the van. What a fantastic day.

We arrived back in Pucon at 5pm and headed for the Argentinian border. Andrea, a bubbly German girl we´d met on the walk, joined us in the car and the three of us took the road into the Andes, which was steep and windy, and soon turned to gravel. At about 7pm, we reached the border post, which has the most spectacular setting. The massive, conical, snow-covered bulk of Volcan Lanin straddles the border, and its lower flanks are covered in monkey-puzzle trees. The clouds around the summit were bathed in golden light at sunset.

Unfortunately, as we got out of the car at the Chilean border post, we discovered a flat tyre. Poor Rich raced against the clock trying to change the wheel and getting though immigration and customs on both sides - the border closes at 8pm sharp. We just made it through.

Just after 9pm that evening we arrived in the mountain town of Junin de los Andes, where we found rooms for the night in comfortable Res Marisa. We nipped to the supermarket for some food - found groceries to be much cheaper in Argentina than in Chile. After a late dinner and some wine, we headed to bed at about midnight - the plan for the next day was to explore some of nearby Parque Nacional Lanin. More about that in the next entry.
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