November 28, 2005

…And the volcano won.

Promises of seeing flows of hot lava, peering into an active volcano crater, and the ability to slide down in carved ice chutes led us to hike up Volcan Villarica, located in the Villarica National Park in Pucon, Chile. It´s a perfect, cone shaped volcano, snow capped with smokey white fumes coming out of the top.

This was by far one of the toughest hikes I have ever done.

We went with a tour company with about 20 people, 8 of us f rom Hostel Victor (had a really pleasant stay there meeting nice people). They provided all the gear, outerwear, boots and backpacks, so each group trekking up the volcano looked like serious, uniformed mountaineers. I was excited to use crampons, which attach to the bottom of your boots and consist of 2 inch metal spikes to allow you to walk directly on ice. By the end of the hike, I fervently thought they were one of mankind´s greatest inventions. I also learned to use an ice axe. These scary looking things are useful to help walk up in ice, as well as indispensible for stopping you if you should slide down a mountain.

In just 5 miles, we climbed 3900 ft straight up . It was extremely steep (it serves as a ski resort in the winter), covered in snow and ice, with a fresh layer of snow that had fallen the night before. We had bad luck with the weather that morning as well, as the winds were so high that the ski lifts could not run, which added an extra 1.5 hrs to the hike to the summit. We braced ourselves as gusts of wind would whip snow and small pellets of ice at us. Clouds and fog swirled among us, alternatively giving us glimpses of sun, fog, and complete whiteout conditions. I had never experienced a whiteout before- it really is so white that it´s impossible to tell the difference between the surface and air. People in my own group disappeared from view only 5 ft in front of me. It was so windy (30-40mph) that we had to camp out in a shelter for 30 minutes to wait for it to clear.

Despite all this, there were some amazing things on the volcano. It was the first time I had hiked up above the cloud layer, and was rewarded by sun and a clear view of the volcano peak, with its plumes of sulphuric smoke. I experienced more types of snow than I thought possible in one hike :powder, corn (looks exactly like little styrofoam balls that break off bigger chunks), slush, thin layer of ice over snow, thick layer of ice over snow, packed snow, etc…

One of the coolest sounds I will remember is that of the tinkling cascade of ice shards down the volcano every time the crampons dug into the thin ice layer on top of the snow.

When we got closer to the top, a funny burning, acidic feeling in my throat and lungs appeared. So, this is what it was like to breathe sulphur fumes. Pretty unpleasant, and tough going as we were working very hard to hike up. We were then told that the winds were too strong, blowing the gases further afield, so we wouldn´t be able to make it any closer to the crater. To add insult to injury, we also wouldn´t get to slide down the ice chutes either. By that time I was less interested in reaching the top, and completely devastated by the overwhelming burden of actually having to walk all the way back down the volcano. In total, it was 7.5 hours straight up on ice, slush and powder, plus 3 hours to return to the bottom.

I am glad to have done it, but I don´t think I have the heart of a mountaineer in me. It struck me more of a journey of personal determination, and of browbeating myself to continue and not give up. There was nothing to look at on the way up except my feet. No birds or trees, plants or even lichen. Just perfect, icy, whiteness.

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1 Comment

  1. wow .. how exciting! soyan, you’ve become a wonderful writer!

    Comment by stam — December 6, 2005 @ 3:27 pm

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