Snowboarding down an active volcano
Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
50Trip End Dec 16, 2008
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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.
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.
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.
"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?"
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."
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.
So I planned to climb this thing... with a snowboard on my back.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
Where I stayed