Jon versus the Volcano

November 29, 2005

The gentle, “chack, chack, chack” sounds fill my head. It is the tinkling of a tuxedo-clad butler using an ice pick to turn a block of ice in to something suitable for cocktails. Then the wind roars and I glance up and realize there is no butler, only a dozen trekkers 150 meters above me with their crampons and ice axes plodding up the ice covered Villarica volcano in Pucon, Chile.

Our day starts at seven AM, when Soyan and I, along with six former strangers that proximity has converted into pseudo family, arrive at Aguaventura and pick up the our boots and packs filled the previous day with crampons, gloves, snow pants and the gear of adventure.

We are bursting with the excitement that our hip, young, trilingual coordinator cum salesman, has filled us with, just as efficiently as he has filled our packs with gear. We were all anxious to get a close up look at Pucon’s famous volcano, and then to sled down on our butts, saving ourselves the trouble of walking.

As we arrive at the base of the volcano, while bundling up, we get a little speech about how there is no guarantee we will summit because of the windy conditions. Furthermore the wind might prevent the ski lift from running (adding an extra 400 or 500 meters to our climb). If we don’t want to go, or don’t think you can make it, this is the opportunity to say so. After a pause far too brief to let it all sink in they say, “OK, let’s go” and the trip has begun.

Five minutes later we discover that, it is in fact, far too windy for the ski lift to run. It occurs to me that they must have know this when they warned us of the “possibility”. What sounded like a standard welcome was in fact a, cover your ass, “we told you so”.

After we finished the walk up below the ski lift and stopped to put on our crampons. We received a surprisingly casual and brief tutorial on their use, and the use of our ice axe. I later learned that a lack of understanding, or perhaps a lack of interest, in these details led to the death of an Israeli tourist several years ago. I suggest the possibility of a lack of interest because apparently the Israelis have a reputation for being somewhat independently minded. They don’t seem to like staying in the single file line that is the mountain climbing convention. Later, in Bariloche, I’ll discover that for similar reasons, there is only one rafting company left that will still take Israelis on the class 3/4 river that borders Chile.

Returning to the Volcano, if you do take a tumble and begin sliding down the mountain, you’ll want to lift your feet up to prevent the crampons from catching the ice and breaking your ankles or legs as your body is tossed over your feet and sent hurdling head first down the mountain. With your feet up, you’ll want to slam your ice axe in to the crust of the icy surface and use it as a break. Failing to do this properly can result in a slide (or fall) of several kilometers, when the surface is windswept ice, as it is on our climb.

When we arrived at a concrete cave to take shelter from wind before our final ascent, a climber in our group unintentionally demonstrated how quickly and easily things fall by dropping the helmet that had been clipped to his backpack. Before anyone could react, the helmet was hundreds of feet down the mountain. At the end of the day, the helmet (both halves) were retrieved a mile below its release point. That was when I first wondered why we had not been instructed to wear our helmets.

In the end we climbed 3900 feet up an active volcano covered in ice before we were told that the combination of excessive volcano gas and the more or less constant 30 mph winds meant we could not make the summit and see the lava.

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself that sliding down on our butts using an ice axe as a break over 3 kilometers of ice sounds dangerous. It seems that you are correct. The volcano was deemed too icy for safe sliding and we had to walk back down. Nevertheless, the descent was so much easier than the climb up, that I could not complain. I managed to finish the trek with only a blister and a slight cough from the sulfur and I felt pretty lucky.