The Villarica Volcano is in the Chilean Lake District about 400 miles south of Santiago. It is over 9000 feet high and last erupted in 1986. An expected eruption is now overdue and smoke constantly puffs out of the crater. The volcano is a tourist attraction to the town of Pucon located on the edge of Lake Villarica. The lake has black sandy beaches from the lava previously spewed from the volcano Pucon is a focus of adventure tourism in Chile but the smoking volcano less than 8 jmiles away is a constant reminder that the next major eruption could obliterate the town. Pucon is very much like a Swiss Alpine town and the economy depends on outdoor activities such as skiing, climbing, white water rafting and mountain biking.
There is skiing and hillwalking on the mountain which has snow all the year round. It is probably not the best skiing but it does have novelty value to ski on a smoking volcano. I booked with a local climbing company to walk up the volcano as they provided a guide and all the necessary equipment for walking in snow and ice such as ice axes and crampons.
The road to the Volcano was through forests and up the mountain to the ski lift at 5000 feet. I took the ski lift up a 1000 feet to the snow line where we donned waterproof shell jackets and trousers as there was a cold wind despite the bright sunshine. The climb was a slow plod up snow for 3000 feet with the Guide setting a pace comfortable to the slowest person. This is good practice but can be frustrating for people who would naturally want to walk faster at a pace comfortable to them. I was quite happy with a slow pace as it was a steep ascent despite taking a zig zag route to reduce the level of incline walked. The snow was fairly slippery and we used the ice axes for balance. Very few of the Group had any winter mountain experience and did not appear to know of the use of the axes to break a fall. On the day we did not need to use the crampons but the Guide advised that some days the crampons are necessary depending on weather conditions.
We knew we were nearing the top as there was a strong smell of sulphur. The Guide advised us not to walk around the perimeter of the crater as an eruption would result in the lava flow to the other side The crater was about 300 feet deep and around 200 feet in diameter with smoke puffing out from various cracks in the inner walls. In the centre, there was a bubbling lava pool where flames shot up about 30 feet every few minutes. It was daunting to watch the forces of nature and stand in an area which had lava flowing over it less than 20 years previously.
The descent proved to be a lot faster as most of it was done by glissading on previously prepared downhill tracks on ice similar to the luge at the Winter Olympics. This involved sitting on the track and pushing off with the ice axe which was then used like a paddle. This is a technique which is not recommended in Scotland as there is the danger of hitting rocks or going over the edge of a cliff. However, this technique was used daily on this mountain and carefully supervised. It was like sledging without a sledge but it shredded the seat of the waterproof trousers which fortunately were owned by the outdoor company. My shredded trousers caused great hilarity in the Group where some people even took a photo of them!
Unfortunately, this trip did not have a happy ending and is a lesson to everyone thinking of going on mountains with snow. One member of the Group with no experience of an ice axe was running down the snow, singing and waving the ice axe above her head when she slipped and speared her leg with the sharp tip of the ice axe She had a very cold 2 hour wait for the mountain rescue and then required hospitalisation and surgery. Ice axes are dangerous weapons and should be treated with respect. They are an important part of winter walking but should only be used as intended for balance and to arrest a fall in snow.
Coming attractions include, a weekend in Ullapool, the Machu Picchu Trail and walking in Andalusia.
Don't forget to e mail me with your mountain chit chat on [email protected]
Thanks to Michael Reed of Dublin for the photographs.