Climbing Volcano Villarrica

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, March 20, 2006

Volcano Villarrica, one of the most active volcanos in Chile, dominates the landscape for miles around with its perfectly connical form, snowcapped top, and billowing clouds of gas emanating from the crater. At 2840m its not exactly easy to climb in a day, but we've heard that by a combination of driving and cable car its only necessary to climb 1200 metres to the top, making it a tough day-hike.

We sign up with Moutain Life Adventure in Pucon who offer to guide us to the top for 25,000 Pesos each (about GBP25.00). We have heard from another traveller (Katherine from Switzerland) that they are the cheapest in town, and as new starters are eager to prove their reputation as a quality outfit.

Having selected our boots, jackets, and over-trousers the night before, we catch the bus from Villarrica to Pucon and arrive still half asleep at 7.30am in the morning to gather up the rest of the kit, and meet our fellow hikers. The overall kit list includes: waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, gaiters, two-part mountaineering boots, crampons, ice-axe, hat, gloves, and rucksack (to carry what we're not wearing). In addition to this we have also brought along our food, water, sunglasses, and camera.

After a couple of days of rain and cloud, it is a perfectly clear day and I can see the volcano down the street from the shop with the sun's bright rays lighting up its steep concave flanks. It looks alluring and fightening at the same time.

There are 14 clients that day, so they split us into English Speakers and Spanish speakers to save time with the breifings. In our group we have 9 with two guides and in the other group 5 clients with one guide.

We jump in to a minibus and head off towards the volcano. The drive seems to take a long time but the roads are rough and steep. We overtake quite a few other buses crammed with hikers on the way, so I can already see its going to be a well-trodden route.

At the point where the road goes no further we get out of the bus and join the milling throngs of brightly dressed day-trippers all of whom are doing the same climb. This is clearly part of the 'Gringo Trail' in Chile and there must be between 150 and 200 people at the foot of the mountain.

Our guides advise us fairly forcefully to take the cable car up the first 300m, to reduce the amount of climbing required. As Rachel and I don't count ourselves as super fit, and as we have unfamiliar gear we decide to take the cable car for 4,500 Pesos (about GBP4.50) each. As we sit back in the chair together being hauled up the mountain we look at the steep snow-covered ascent ahead and wonder how we will manage. Rachel seems to be more nervous than usual about things and has already been to the toilet at least five times that morning.

We get off the cable car and rejoin our group, where our guide gives us some instructions on using an ice axe; in particular how to arrest a fall on a steep icy slope. As we progress throughout the day he keeps adding more information about how to use the different bits of kit that we'll need.

We walk for about 30 minutes and get to the first snow of the day. The mountaineering boots have extremely rigid soles and they grip well on the snow underfoot. Mind you its not that steep yet, and as the volcanoe has a concave form, its going to get steeper as we go on.

We take regular breaks and the guides set a good slow steady climbing pace that means we can keep going without getting over-tired. I can see one girl in the group is struggling a bit because she doesn't have confidence that her feet will grip when she places them in the snow.

As we progress, the view becomes an enormous panoramic vista; the huge blue lake below the mountain is revealed in its entirety and the little towns on its banks start to become harder to discern. We see more distant volcanoes and a range of low snow covered mountains towards the Argentinian border.

Soon we don our crampons - spiky metal shoes that strap underneath our boots for added grip. Once we have these in place the ice axe feels less important as it seems almost impossible to slip in them. Mind you - Rachel has first hand experience of falling down a mountain despite wearing crampons (when we were trekking in the Himalaya - see Manali, 26th June 2005 entry) so we still take good care.

As we get higher it becomes colder and I put on all my layers. Rachel is enjoying herself and we can't stop telling each other how great the view is. Apart from the smoke billowing out of the top of the volcano there are very few other clouds in the sky.

Looking up the mountain we see people have spread out a bit more and there are lots of little groups hiking up the mountain like little caterpillars one behind the other.

The last part of the climb proves to be the toughest and most demanding. It seems to take forever to reach the top. At least it is not a false summit. As we finally reach our destination we can see all the same hoards gathered to eat lunch from one of the best picnic sites in Chile.

The top of the volcano is a narrow rim of about 300 metres diameter. Looking down into the crater I can see lots of smoke belching upward so its hard to spot the bottom. The smell of sulphur dioxide gas catches me unexpectedly making me feel like someone has their fingers around my throat. There are lots of loud hissing and roaring noises which make the volcano feel very alive. I don't go too near the edge because I can see that its very hot down there. The rocks are coloured ochre, red, yellow and green making it a colourful place. At the top, piles of snow and the warm rocks are surprisingly close together as they battle for thermal supremacy.

After eating more and watching the view for a while, our guides decide that its time to head down the mountain. We go slowly and steadily until we get to the first sliding point. This is where the waterproof trousers and the ice axe really come in handy as we slide back down the mountain on our backsides using the ice axe as a brake.

Fortunately our guides tell us very carefully how to use the ice axe to arrest a slide because we see lots of people in other people wiping out as they loose control going down the mountain. Rachel makes sure she goes particularly slowly because she doesn't like the thought of another heed-over-heels tumble, or the mountain rescue that followed another hiker's misfortune in the Himalaya (see Manali, 26th June 2005 entry).

As we head down I start to feel more and more tired, and I can feel that the climb has really taken it out of me. I've already finished my 2.5 litres of water that I brought along and Rachel says my face looks sunburnt.

After lots of sliding, some walking, and some combinations of the two, we finally get back down to the car park and the awaiting minibus. Its been a gruelling hike, and I think I am suffering because of its my third day of heavy excercise in a row. My head starts to thump as we head back to the shop. I enjoyed the hike a lot but all I can think of now is lying down and sleeping for a bit.

Fortunately Rachel is in top form. Often we find as we travel that when one is down, the other is up; when one is sad the other is happy; when one is feeling weak the other feels strong. On this occassion, Rachel makes sure that a very tired out John gets back to Torre Suisse in Villarrica and tucked into bed.

That night Rachel looks out of the hostel window and exclaims excitedly that the volcano is lit up. I crawl over to see what she's talking about. A huge moon rises behind the silhoutte of the volcanic cone. I see the smoke coming out of the mountain is coloured red from the fires within the crater. As the smoke shifts and swirls, so the reflected red orange glow shimmers in the night sky. Its a fitting way to remember our climb because next day its raining again.
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newbegwiz08 on

I missed this one

Looks like Pucon was a blast !! I am going to miss this one....

Tonio on

In Pucón, there are dozens of small shops where you can find guides to take you to the crater of the Villarica and other tourist packages. You can go up to the top of the volcano and come down in less than one day, but the trip is really exhausting, depending mostly on the winds. But be careful with your choice of whom you will pay to be your guide. I wasn't happy to have Andesmar(a small shop located at the O'Higgins street in Pucon, where you can find most of them) as my guide. The guide himself who led my group to the top of the volcano was very experienced, and most probably he works for other small shops like Andesmar. The problem with the Andesmar was that they did not inform us of the real difficulties to climb the volcano. As we decided to split up our group in two, to go up seperately in two different days, the first group could report what happened, giving us the chance to keep up with our climbing or to give it up. And here is where our troubles with Andesmar began. It dawn on us that the lack of explanations before the climb was a setup to make us pay in advance, and not give our money back in case we quit, forcing us to buy from them other tourist packages.

From five stars, we are giving them just one, for such a bad service.

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