The atmosphere felt surreal as we travelled up winding roads in a full 12 seater van, the weather cloudy and U2`s song 'with or without you' playing through the stereo system, on the day we took on the 2800m Villarica volcano in Pucon, Chile.
A brief glimpse to the top
We had been playing the maybe, maybe not game since we arrived but the guides had decided on our last day that the weather was good enough to give it a try. We arrived at the chairlift and piled out of the van. We were explained the risks and likelihood of making it to the top of the volcano. At this point we can turn back and no charge, one step up and it is full charge of $50,000 Chilean pesos (roughly $100 US). We looked up to see the sky open up and glimpse the top of the volcano seeming to invite us (taunting us?). Most of us decided to go forward, having been provided with plentiful guides, clothing, and a backpack with all the equipment we might need.
Its a long slog but amazing views
Next bit of bad news, the chairlift wasn't working, this meant over an hour of extra climbing, all uphill. By the time we got to where the chairlift would have taken us we still had at least 3 hours of climbing and my legs were already burning. We ate and drank and took our last modesty intact toilet break. Off we went at a gruelling pace to try to beat the weather. One foot in front of the other became the goal until we got to a glacier for another rest and decision point. The weather looked threatening but we decided to keep going.
During a small break on a moderately flat area a shout went out. I looked up and a large boulder, larger than me, was rolling down the mountain towards us. I picked up Elizabeth's backpack and ran to the left with everybody else. Nobody was hurt as it rolled past us. Elizabeth remarked that she might put her hard hat on, I remarked that it wouldn't have mattered. Someone had an asthma attack and some others decided not to go on and were escorted to a waiting spot.
We kept going and started walking on snow around this point. We were told what to do if we started sliding down on the snow and how to hold our pick axes. It goes in the hand on the uphill side of walking (you walk in a criss crossing diagonal pattern) holding it by the end with the blade, if sliding you swing the handle into your other hand, twist over and dig the blade into the ice. The wind was getting fierce.
Weather going bad.
We kept going, and at times the views were breathtaking. One view I will never forget is looking down on the clouds, an amazing feeling, and seeing the top of another distant volcano pointing through. The weather started closing in as we got to another sheltered area and the guides started discussing the situation. At a height of 2500m and with only 300 more to the top it was recommended to abandon the attempt. Visibility had gotten to 10s of metres and the wind was getting fiercer. To say it was cold was an understatement, most of us were happy to accept the guides` recommendation.
Time to give up.
...and holding the axe correctly
Coming down was a whole different ballgame on the snow. You don't walk down. In our packs was a contraption that attached to the front waist strap on the backpack and then went between your legs to be used for sliding down. The guide would go first making a groove in the snow like a water slide and then you would perch in the groove on your paddle and slide down behind each other. We were whooping and crashing into the slow ones just like a commercial slide but wayyyy longer and in snow. In some parts we just sat on our bums without the paddle as those bits would make us go too fast otherwise.
We nearly made it...
At a spot past the snow we were told to wrap a protector around our legs that looped under our shoes to stop sand getting in. Then we were taken down a track where the sand was of a soft slightly moist texture and each step would take you half a foot into it. We got down in a third of the time it took to get up, exhausted and sore but proud of the accomplishment and richer for the experience. At some point on the volcano I turned 51 in Perth time (1pm Chilean time the day before).
The paddle used for sliding down on the ice.
In our 2 days here we also got to go to the hot springs and rejuvenate our tired bodies (the day before the volcano) but we missed a lot of sights. Music from buskers played until late in the streets (specifically drumming and a trumpet) and the people were friendly as we fell in love with this tiny charming town. This place feels like unfinished business. So a warning to that damn volcano (shakes fist in general direction of volcano shouting "Villllarrrricccca"), we may be back.