Snowboarding down an active volcano

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Flag of Chile  , Lake District,
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The main reason I came to Pucon, Chile was to climb Villarrica, the perfectly conical volcano that provides a lovely backdrop to this quaint little town - but my plan was a little unique - I wanted to snowboard down the massive virgin powder field!

Until recently, Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in the world - normally spewing red lava fountains up to 200 feet above the somewhat nervous backpackers who regularly climbed to get a close encounter with molten rock.  

However, Volcano Llaima, just up the road, blew it's top spectacularly in January 2008 relieving pressure from the system.  Other than a smoke ring every hour or two and a lava burp on Sunday that got everyone talking, Villarrica has been relatively quiet this year. 

There is still a lava pool down in the crater, but it is too far down to see - and I wasn't about to get close enough to the ice funnel to get a glimpse.  However, if you zoom in on the map above and you can look down into the crater and see the lava.

"How deep does this go?"  I asked my guide, peering into the smoking crater.

"All the way to Hell." he said with a smile.

For more on the Llaima eruption, click here:

Interestingly, lava itself is not the dangerous part of an eruption - molten rock moves slowly and typically doesn't go very far.  Around here, people are most concerned about water.

When the Patagonian volcanoes erupt, all the snow and ice melts into a massive sheet of boiling water and mud called a lahar. Villarrica's snow cap is over 20 feet deep - so we're talking about a serious amount of boiling water.   


"A lahar will raise the lake 2 meters" our guide said enthusiastically pointing down at the huge lake next to the town.  

He was a little too precise and confident for my liking.  "How often does this thing melt?"

"The last ones were 1971 and 1984.  Technically, we're overdue - but she's quiet now."

If you zoom in on the map above, you can also see two washed out areas where boiling mud ran into the lake.  The big path is the 'normal' lahar route, but in '71 people got a little surprise when the lahar came down a new path.  Onlookers were killed when they falsely assumed the lahar would take the normal route and wanted front-row seats for the show.   

"There is still a guy in town who lost his leg in '71 - he was logging the area, heard the lahar roaring down and tried to climb a tree to get a better view - but got a surprise when the lahar was heading for him.  Unfortunately he wasn't high enough and one leg was boiled off." 

That's some serious mud.

Water isn't the only problem.  During an eruption, the volcano can toss out fist and canon-ball sized rocks like a geological popcorn popper.  The landscape is littered with them.  Every few inches, as far as you can see, sits an innocent little baseball or basketball sized rock, which, when dropped from the stratosphere, is capable of taking out a car or probably even a house.  

The third deadly part of an eruption is probably the most sinister and is what got the people of Pompeii - a volcano will occasionally burp a huge gas cloud (called a pyroclastic flow).  The gas is heavier than air and rolls down the face of the mountain quietly displacing all the oxygen and asphyxiating everyone in their sleep. 

Fun stuff.

So I planned to climb this thing... with a snowboard on my back.

The best part is that hardly anyone does it!  The volcano is blanked with endless untouched powder and there were maybe two tracks.  It is a snowboarders wet-dream.  

Although around 50-100 people climb the volcano every day, most of them slide down the face.  Climbers strap a heavy-duty piece of fabric to their rear, sit in an icy track and fly down the mountain in a butt-luge with only an ice axe for brakes. Check out the video on the right to see it in action.      

"Oh my god... no one told me I could take snowboard up here." was the most common reaction when people saw me doing the 5 hour climb with a board strapped to my back.

"How much for that board?" a Swiss guy asked me with sad longing.  "I'm serious - I have cash."

 "Shit - now I have to climb this thing again tomorrow." a girl from California told me, obviously distressed.

It took five days of waiting for the ideal weather conditions - I needed two sunny days in a row, which is harder than you may think - the climate is similar to Seattle. 

The big day needed to be clear so I wouldn't get lost in a cloud on my way down.  The prior day also needed to be sunny to soften the path so I could climb the volcano in snowboard boots and not have to use crampons - which are normally required.

Every day, I'd go into the climbing shop and ask "it was sunny this afternoon - how's the forecast for tomorrow?".

"Rain.  Try again the day after tomorrow, unless tomorrow afternoon is sunny." 

It wasn't... so I waited.

But patience paid off... and I finally got my perfect day.

Five hours of lugging a board on my back, an hour of peering into the volcano crater and running for cover when it belched a sulfur cloud, and 20 minutes of some of the best snowboarding in my life...  until the avalanche.

OK - it's not as bad as it sounds, but I triggered a little avalanche. 

Near the bottom of the volcano, I started to go down into a canyon -  if I had proceeded, I would have had to hike out - and after five hours of hiking, I was done.  Instead, I cut across the canyon wall to get back on to the main slope of the volcano - and the entire canyon wall fell out below.  

The avalanche was only a couple feet deep and in a remote area, so no damage was done - in hindsight, it was actually fairly cool to be above of an avalanche and watch it fall below you - but still a little dodgy.

When I got to the bottom, a Brazilian couple greeted me with "Was that you?  That was so awesome!!!  We video taped your avalanche!"
Next up - White water kayaking lessons... and finding that I need a LOT more practice, especially that whole rolling back upright thingy. 
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