Holy crap. Today was the most continuously dangerous day of my entire life. Amazing. And I have to show for it, among other things, my first glance at molten lava and the worst facial suburn I`ve ever had.
I just got back from climbing the Volcano Villarica, one of the most active in South America. I`ve never been more afraid. Jumping out of a plane is scary for a few seconds. Taking your first fall when you`ve climbed 100 feet up on a rock wall is scary for a minute. Getting struck by lightning is scary for half an hour. But standing on the edge of volcanic crater 200 feet away from the vent from which “an eruption is now long overdue” with smoke and magma shooting out and the volcano guides trying to get everyone immediately down the mountain is beyond heart stopping.
Our day started at 6 a.m. Dan and I managed to roll out of our beds with a little more time to spare than we had the day before. Breakfast wasn`t near as hurried, but still eggs, yogurt, and grapes. We headed for Limay tours and arrived among the chaos of twenty-some other people trying on boots, heavy duty pants, jackets, etc. After what seemed like hours (but couldn`t have been more than 40 minutes) we were packed into a decrepit van just as the sun cracked the horizon. We headed up the mountain, bumping along a gravel road and passing every vehicle we came upon. We swung toward a hitchhiker on the side of the road, and to my surprise, picked him up. Turns out he was actually one of our guides, Rodrigo.
We got stopped at a checkpoint on the way up the mountain: Chile`s Forest Service making sure everyone had the proper equipment. Funny, though, they only check two people from each group, and the guides always offer up two of the few who have all the proper equipment. I was one of the lucky volunteers, a paying customer complete with the sunglasses and helmet that half the people in our group didn`t have. The plan was to drive the old van up to the foot of the ski lift where you could choose to pay $6 to be carried to a closer ascent starting point. However, turns out a van meant for 8 and loaded with 15 doesn`t do so well on snow packed roads. After sliding backwards for 100 ft., the driver told us we`d have to walk the last 1/2 mile. Fine by me!
When we got to the foot of the ski lift, it was go time as far as a decision on the $6 ride or the extra two hours of ascent. Dan and I had decided, steadfastly, two days previous, that of course we would just walk. What kind of weenie takes the easy way out? It`s a whole different story, though, when you`ve got 9,000 feet of volcano looming in front of you waiting to be climbed. Not to mention that at 3:30, whether you`ve summitted or not, you have to turn back for the base. I reluctantly pulled out my $6 worth of pesos and handed it over as I skeptically eyed the welds on the lift that I knew had to be well over forty years old.
I should mention that guide service is owned by an Israeli guy, which means he gets most of his business from young Israeli`s who have just finished their mandatory stint in the army and have gone travelling. Long story short, the entire day I was surrounded by a cacophony of Hebrew, enough English to have brief conversations, and almost no Spanish. This turned out to be somewhat of an issue later in the day when our “bilingual” guides, who weren`t so bilingual, couldn`t communicate the importance of several safety issues.
Anyway, Hadar (a young woman from our hostel) and I took our turn on the lift platform and were soon creaking our way up the mountain. We conversed in broken English as I nervously eyed the deep crevasses conveniently located between the lift poles. At least 100 yards down at some points! Now, I don`t know how many of you have ever gotten off a ski lift without ski`s on, but it`s not near as simple as you think it would be. Especially when the lift is so old that it doesn`t slow down at the loading and unloading platforms like the newer ones do, and you have to deal with a healthy-sized pack complete with a climbing axe sticking out the side. Not to mention, upon your arrival at the unloading platform, there are four men shouting frantically in Spanish to try and keep you in the tiny safety zones and get you off the platform before the next chair arrives. We made it off in one piece and had a few minutes to admire the breathtaking views of the valley before beginning our ascent to the lunch spot.
The first hour or so was REALLY slow going. Initially, they failed to divide the groups into those who want to go quickly and slowly, so we ended up shuffling at the slowest pace I`ve ever experienced towards our lunch spot. Although I had applied sunscreen in the van, I could feel my face burning by the time I pulled out my sandwich and banana. Maybe my sunscreen is expired? I started borrowing from others, and one of the guides gave me his baseball cap, but it was pretty much too late. The damage had already been done. At this point all I could do was try and keep it from getting worse.
As we ate, the guides ran around putting on crampons for everyone. To my horror, I had been given crampons that were too small for my boots. GREAT! Now what? Am I supposed to cross an ice field without crampons? The guides assured me that I would be able to trade with someone else, but I my anxiety mounted as I kept hearing “tan pequeÃ±o” from all the guides. Turns out there were lots of folks in my boat. Thank goodness I was one of the first on the list. I got crampons that fit and was ready to ascend the last 6,000 ft. with the second group. Finally I was travelling in small pack of five climbers, all of whom wanted to move quickly. Our guide, Alvaro, who had given me the hat, spoke no English. Our group (four guys and Jema, as per the usual) spoke no Spanish, me being the exception. I knew we were in for an interesting day.
Consistent with the way things had been going, Alvaro neglected to be sure we had all learned how to use our ice/climbing axes. (It`s what you use to stop yourself if you slip and go sliding down the snow and ice covered slope). Thanks to Daniel, I knew how to use one and set straight everyone in our group. I only had to use mine twice, and only slid about 15 feet each time, which is more than I can say for the others in the group. By this time I wasn`t at all surprised that we also never talked about avalanche safety or crevasses, which made for a tense moment later in the day.
With Alvaro and I headed up the pack, with a Swedish guy hot on my heels. He spoke enough English to complain to me about the slow pace and the quality of the guide service nearly the whole way up the mountain. As we ascended, the volcano started to make noises it hadn`t made all day, and the ground started to shake. I assumed this was normal, but would later find out it wasn’t normal at all. You see, the week previous, I had met up with a couple in Mendoza who warned me not to expect to climb the volcano in PucÃ²n, because it was closed. “Closed?” I asked. “Yes, it`s been too active lately. Since you can`t get within 300 yards of the top, none of the guide services are ascending.” When Dan and I had arrived in PucÃ²n to find that the volcano had settled down enough to remove the safety restriction, I was pleasantly (and skeptically) surprised.
A few hours later, we were about ten minutes from the top. Alvaro pointed to a rock laying on the ground and said something I couldn`t understand. Then he pointed to several more and said the same thing again. Then I understood. All the little chunks we were seeing, consistent with the noises and rumbling the volcano had been making, were fresh chunks of cooled lava. We met two other groups coming down, one from our guide service and one from another. The guides started yelling back and forth to one another. The two guides who were coming down yelled to Alvaro that volcano was too dangerous today, and that the Forest Service shouldn`t be letting people up here. Both of them advised Alvaro to let us take our photos and get the hell out of there as fast as possible. Both the guides coming down sounded pretty frantic, so I begin to suspect that maybe I shouldn`t be standing on top of this “ready-to-blow” volcano.
We crested the top of the crater minutes later, and Alvaro shook our hands and told us that if we wanted to get any closer to the vent then the outside edge of the crater, it was our responsibility. He then settled himself as far away from the vent as possible where he could still keep an eye on us. I noticed that the two descending groups had been wearing helmets and wondered to myself why Alvaro hadn`t said anything about putting them on. I asked him if we were supposed to wear them. He said, “technically, yes, but it`s up to you.” Just then the vent started making this unbelievable noise, like a jet engine at take-off. You could see the heat waves being blasted from the center of the crater as the vent spewed smoke and lava rocks came raining down in the crater. Despite our healthy fear of the volcano`s unexpected activity (I think my fear was more healthy than the rest of the group`s), we tiptoed our way toward the edge of the crater as close as we could get to the vent. Then, we took turns daring to turn our back to the vent to be photographed in front of the spewing smoke. Every time that jet-engine noise started up, we ran like hell towards the outside edge of the crater. We`d only been there about five minutes before Alvaro told us we should walk to the other side of the crater, see the view of another volcano (Lanin) on the border of Argentina/Chile, and head down. I told the rest of the group, and they told me to tell him they weren`t ready. They wanted to eat, and the complainer from Sweden wanted to have himself a cigarette.
Fifteen minutes later, Alvaro and I had managed to convince everyone that for our own safety, we really should go. The boys were just strapping on their packs as the volcano began to make the loudest noise since we`d been there. It rumbled and rumbled and suddenly smoke, then rocks, and finally tons of magma came spurting out! It was INSANE. I could feel the heat from the blast on my face, and I stared open-mouthed as I watched the liquid rock spray everywhere. The color is something you can`t even imagine. You definitely have to see it to know. Somewhere between blood red and bright orange. That was the final straw for me, and for Alvaro. I wanted to get the hell away from the vent, pronto. The boys seemed to be almost completely unaware of the danger of being on the crater (probably due to the lack of Spanish speaking ability), and were pissed that they didn’t get pictures. They tried, in broken English, to finagle a few more minutes on top, but Alvaro wasn`t having it. I breathed a sigh of relief as we started our volcanic descent.
Alvaro was pretty fed up with the rest of the group, and apparently had decided he didn`t care if they got down or not, so he and I trekked at a quick clip down, down, down, leaving the others several hundred yards behind most the time. We passed a hip-high stick with a bunch of ice frozen onto and I asked him what it was as I approached to check it out. After three tries, I still couldn`t understand what he was saying, but his voice was getting louder the closer I got to the stick. Suddenly I recognized the vocabulary. “Crevasse,” he was saying. I stopped short, still a good ten feet from the marker, in disbelief at the significant lack of safety. I stayed there for a minute until the Japanese guy caught up so I could tell him not to go near it. I could only imagine the fate of the Swede and the two Israelis when they came upon it.
When we got to a place where crampons were no longer necessary, we waited for the rest of the group to catch up, apparently they had passed the crevasse marker without incident. I started to realize just how slip-shod this whole production was. Once we had packed away our crampons, I realized that there was no specific trail as my foot repeatedly came down on the wrong side of rocks buried beneath the snow. As we tumbled haphazardly toward the bottom, the Swede asked why we couldn`t ride the chairlift back down. It turns out my suspicions were entirely justified. The chair lift had been condemned, scheduled to fall apart any day now, and therefore used only for ascending. I was glad I hadn`t known that six hours earlier as I swung 100 yards or more above canyons of rock.
We reached the bottom of the volcano without incident where the vans were waiting to collect enough passengers to justify a trip back to town. I got in with the first load and did my best to hide from the now scalding sun streaming through the window. I was fried. Reminded me of the time Brandon Opfer had his driver`s license picture taken after a weekend of skiing only to receive the hard copy in the mail with an apology letter stating that he could have his picture re-done for free since there had obviously been a terrible mistake with the computer imaging.
After getting all the gear returned and changed into dry clothing, I went to check on bus-ticket availability. The plan was to head north to Santiago that night, but Dan and I had decided to wait to buy tickets in the event that we returned too late from the volcano to miss the bus. We didn`t figure seats would be hard to come by, given the small size of PucÃ²n, but boy were we wrong. By 5:30, Dan`s group still hadn`t returned, and there were only four tickets left to Santiago. I decided to give it fifteen minutes before I would settle on it being every woman for herself and buy one. The last group finally returned to the tour office, complete with Dan and two young women he`d been travelling with the week previous. They decided they wanted to go to Santiago with him, so they gave me their money and I ran to only bus company that still had tickets just in time to swipe the last four tickets. The guy in line right after me would have bought them all up!
We had dinner at an awesome restaurant, complete with the most delicious dipping sauces I`ve ever had, and jumped on the 7:30 bus to Santiago just minutes before it took off. What a day!