Sledging on a volcano

Trip Start Dec 05, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Chile  , Lake District,
Friday, January 14, 2011

Early start on the 12th. Out of the hostel in Santiago to say hi to the 15 newbies joining our roadtrip to Rio! Bit of a mix of people: 1 bloke from Hong Kong; 2 couples from UK; 1 Dutch girl; 1 English bloke; and a Dutch couple. So, setting off South, we headed for Pucón, an outdoors adventure retreat offering loads of different activities from rafting to windsurfing to quadbiking. But for me, I wanted to climb the local active Volcán Villarrica (2847m).

After a long drive day, arriving in Pucón just before 8pm, we learned that the weather for the next day looked grim, the volcano climb was not possible in such weather and any attempt would have to be postponed until Friday. Though half an hour later, those of us that were interested headed to an outdoor activity company´s headquarters to be measured up for equipment and to meet a couple of our guides for Friday’s climb.

Amid clouds, rain, and a bit of sun, the next day was spent relaxing in town, online, going for a short walk – it was too cold for a swim in Lake La Poza– then back to the campsite, just five minutes walk away from the small town.

05:30 start! Too early for the civilized world, but necessary in order to go and collect our equipment, then head out to the base of the primarily snow-covered , smoking volcano and beat the crowds to the base. It´s a popular climb, and since it was closed the previous day there was an estimated 250 people expected.

Upon arriving, the first option was to take a chair-lift up to the beginning of the snow, or to do the 90 minute climb up to the snow. I was here to climb a mountain! Not sit on a seat! So climbing it was. Though it seems as though I still climb a bit too fast, and had to slow down in order to keep pace with the guide and other three people who had opted to climb. With the stair lift having taken only about 10-15n minutes, the rest of the group had already long left when we arrived where it terminated. There was now also a number of other stair groups there busy donning their helmets and crampons, and taking out their ice axes in preparation for the journey ahead. Likewise, we kitted up, then head off up the ice sheet which had an approximate angle of 45 degrees.

30 minutes on we met one of the chair group heading back in the other direction with a guide. The climb was too tough for her. Zigzagging higher and higher, the views became more and more impressive, with Pucón and Lake La Poza stretching out beneath us, and the really high mountains visible in the background above smaller peaks that we´d already climbed higher than.

As the slopes got steeper, we passed the concrete shell of an old stair lift that had been practically destroyed by the last eruption in 1971. Higher still, we caught up with the other half of our group who had taken a 15 minute break on the slope. While they now set off again the other three, who had opted for the initial climb alongside myself, sat down for a rest. I had been finding the pace slow, and so skipped the break and head off with the first group.

Keeping balance on the sloped ice was not that difficult, but as the sun continued to melt its surface, keeping grip with the crampons proved more difficult. About an hour later we stopped for lunch and took off out crampons. The final section up to the top would be off the ice and up over loose rocks to the volcano crater´s edge. About five metres below the top, a lot of us burst into a fit of coughing as we gasped for breath as the acrid smell of sulphuric smoke poured over the edge of the crater to mix with the air we were inhaling. It tasted awful!

A couple of metres on, and it was at the top, with the massive smoke-filled crater in the centre of the peak with beautiful scenery stretching off into the horizon behind us. Looking across the crater ahead was not possible due to the dense smoke rising out of the lava filled centre – unfortunately due to the angle of the drop and the thickness of the smoke with the bright sun reflecting off it, we couldn´t actually see the lava.

Walking around part of the crater´s rim, more than about a quarter of it was inaccessible due to the wind blowing the smoke over the edge up ahead, blocking the path. While the smoke continually caused us to cough all around the top, it would have been impossible to breath if we had walked directly into it.

After admiring the views, we donned the rest of our equipment – thick waterproof sallopets, gaiters, and a heavy overcoat, alongside an even thicker garment that wrapped around the upper legs, backside and lower back. This would be our final level of protection for the journey back down the glacier that had taken us several hours to ascend. We would now be sledging all the way back down the slope, alternating between tiny plastic bumboard sledges and sitting directly on the snow, depending upon the steepness of the slope.

Off the rocks and onto the glacier, the first section would be on sledges. Placing it on the snow, I gently lowered myself onto it, then shot off, with the ice axe gripped in my hands to act as a brake when needed. This first section was pretty much a free-for-all on the slope, bouncing down the ash-stained surface. The next five sections would be down mini bobsleigh-like shoots moulded into the glacier. These ranged in depth from a couple of inches to about two feet. And with more timid people ahead of me at times – and with it being more difficult to control myself at higher speeds – crashing into a couple of people and forming a kind of train heading down the mountain together, or shooting off the marked tracks to bounce over the rough slopes on either side was inevitable! Digging the ice axe into the slope and gripping on tightly to slow down was often necessary to avoid hitting even more people… Great fun!!!

About an hour to descend what had taken 4-5 hours to ascend, soaking wet, surprisingly not bruised!

Back to Pucón on the bus, it was chilling out on the rooftop drinking cold beers in the sun before heading back to the campsite.
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