What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica

April 15, 2013 at 10:03 am

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

Burning my lungs, I could taste the sulphur. Trying to use my glove as a breathing mask I attempted to gasp some ‘clean’ air. To my surprise, at 2800m I was not affected by the altitude at all. My legs were burning, but dodging the toxic fumes in between happy snaps was definitely my priority as we walked around the perimeter of the smouldering crater.

I made it to the top of Volcán Villarrica!

Being able to climb a volcano was by far my highlight of our time spent in Chile. Standing at the top as she huffed and puffed I couldn’t help but think about the reality of the situation.

We are but mortal humans standing on such an active volcano.

It certainly didn’t feel like only six hours earlier I’d questioned whether I’d even start the ascent. Being able to get out of the house at the crack of dawn and make it to 2800m, leaving a breastfed 8 1/2 month old baby at home, was definitely an achievement for me.

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

Getting out of the house at 6am was muy difícil.

That morning, it felt like everything was conspiring against me. Ollie had ‘slept through’ on and off for the past few nights however this particular morning he decided to wake around 4.30am. I had to be out the door and on my way to Pucón by 6am. We were staying in Villarrica, some 30km drive from Pucón. After feeding Ollie (yes, he was still having a night breastfeed at 8 1/2 months) I attempted to put him back to bed, but he wasn’t having a bar of it.

It was like he could sense I would be leaving soon.

Alec attempted to resettle Ollie. After an hour with no success Alec was at breaking point.

We’ll lose the $100 tour fee if I stay.

After a quick pep-talk Alec had his game face back on and resumed pacing the living room with Ollie.

As if being awake since 4.30am, about to climb a volcano 2800m high (having not done any real exercise besides walking and yoga since Ollie was born) wasn’t enough, the gate to our accommodation was closed. I couldn’t believe it. Only the day before I’d pointed to the open gate saying to Alec

“I wonder when they shut the gate. Probably in the quiet season when no-one is staying in the cabañas.”

Wrong. They closed the gate every night. We just hadn’t been out and about late enough to see it shut.

After ringing the pager at the reception a number of times with no response I finally got hold of someone by ringing the number on their website. My Spanglish was clearly not cutting it. Five minutes later, she finally realised I was not ringing to inquire about accommodation, but that I was stuck behind the locked gate.

Determined to make the most of my ‘day off’ I headed out into the dark and drove to Pucón. Note: This was the first time I had driven by myself in Chile (where they drive on the other side of the road to Australia). Luckily we had driven to Pucón a couple of days earlier for a recon. Driving with no traffic around was a little confusing at times, but I remembered a handy hint from a friend

Always make sure the centre line is beside you, not on the passengers side.

The view at the start of the climb was spectacular!

The volcano created a shadow at sunrise, which I’d never seen (or heard of) before. Very surreal. Particularly since the moon was still out. We parked the car here at the bottom of the chairlift, 1400m high, and got kitted out with our mountaineering gear: waterproof jacket and pants, helmet, boots (and crampons in our backpacks for higher up), ice-pick, and plastic bum sledding device for the descent!

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

We took the chairlift for the first 400m, then set off up the gravelly slope at what felt like the pace of a turtle. Tatiana, the other person on my tour, was not impressed. Not surprising given that she had just completed three weeks hiking in Patagonia. I felt slightly faint on the drive out to the national park as I heard about all her expeditions. How was I supposed to keep up with these two; Tatiana and our guide Claudo!

Claudio, from Summit Chile, was super professional though.

I want you guys to walk like Frankenstein.

What? Oh, I see. Placing our feet solidly and locking our knees back with each step. Apparently this keeps you more upright ensuring you continue to breath adequately rather than hunching over reducing lung capacity. I’m not sure if it worked, but it was definitely something to focus on when my legs felt like lead weights and ‘left, left, I left my wife in New Orleans with 45c and a can of beans, cos I thought it was right, right, right from my country whoops-e-daze’ wasn’t cutting it. His demonstration of acting like a monkey on the way down was also particularly impressive!

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

In 1971 Volcán Villarrica erupted.

Claudio grew up in Patagonia. This, coupled with his passion for mountaineering, made for a particularly informative tour. Pointing out the many lahars that can be seen during the ascent, Claudio explained that although they look like riverways, they were actually caused by a considerable amount of snow/ice melted by the lava.

Chile is known for being on the ‘Ring of Fire‘, a horseshoe shaped area skirting the pacific ocean consisting of 452 of volcanos. What is unique about Villarrica, Claudio dropped into the conversation at one point, is that it is also in a line perpendicular to the ring of fire with two other volcanoes, Quetrupillán and Lanín.

Great, this volcano sits on not one, but two active faults!

Claudio also mentioned something about volcanoes either being acidic or basic, which cause different types of eruptions. Villarrica is actually neutral in pH (or so I think he said) which means it is capable of both types of reactions. For the life of me, I cannot find anything about this on the net. So please excuse my naive volcanology. Perhaps some buff can fill me in by leaving a comment below!

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

The weather can change in an instant when mountaineering.

Being one of the first tour groups to make it to the top of Villarrica, we enjoyed a monopoly on the best spots for photos without hordes of people. We took our time refuelling and changing into our get-up for descending the mountain including a very attractive waterproof nappy for scooting down on our bums (until the plastic bum sledding device was required for gradients that were not so steep). Before we headed back down though, we got to check out the crater lake.

Villarrica is one of only a few volcanoes world wide to have an active lava lake in it’s crater. The burn from the sulphur as you breath hits you smack in the face.

This is a live volcano!

No sooner had we started the walk around the crater did the wind pick up. I felt like a tiny ant perched on an exposed rock. At some points I had to stop walking and crouch down for safety. Claudio quickly ushered us over some rocks to the most amazing viewing platform! Quick snap of the GoPro, and it was back over the rocks to start our decent.

What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com
What I Learnt About Climbing Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com (Source: thanks to Tatiana for this great photo!)

Climb Volcán Villarrica // intrepidmonkeys.com

  (Source: …and again for this one, thanks Tatiana)

Getting down the mountain was far easier than the hike to the top. Skidding down ice chutes with our pick axes as brakes was great fun! Some of the chutes even had some sweet berms. Unfortunately a lot of the snow had melted being the end of summer, but it was still a great descent. The rest of the descent consisted of ‘monkey, monkey’ stepping with light feet and going with any stumbles.

At one point we stopped for a breather on the way down, and a rest for the knees. Now I know what a lot of tour companies don’t take people over 30! I’m not there yet (just), but my knees were killing me. Never fear though, Claudio had the perfect solution if we ever got a knee injury. Bee stings.

Get a bee, and sting yourself multiple times on your knee.

You’ll be back walking within a couple of weeks. Or so his story went. Fascinating. We also discussed how cabbage is good for arthritis, oh and preventing mastitis when breastfeeding which I swear by!

So there you have it. An epic post about what I learned about climbing Volcán Villarrica. If you still have more time to kill, check out my video of the climb:

I’d love to hear from anyone else who has climbed Villarrica and what your experiences were like. If you’re thinking about doing the climb, do it! It’s fantastic! Definitely go with a reputable tour company though. Lonely Planet recommends only two, including Summit Chile, but there are many others touting their tours in Pucón. I felt completely safe and in good hands. Returning in one piece was a must for me since I was leaving my little man at home for the day.

If you like this post, don’t forget to share it by clicking one of the buttons below, or pinning your favourite photo above 🙂