Volcano Villarrica

It’s strange, but I think we had actually missed being in the van after having spent the better part of two weeks on non-driving activities, between Torres del Paine and the Navimag trip. Driving off the ship it felt good to be on the road again.

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Our first stop was Puerto Varas. I wish I could say that we stopped to enjoy the German heritage of the region, or to participate in one of the various outdoor adventure activities in the area like rafting or kayaking or trekking… instead we stopped to find internet. Embarrassing, but true. Wolf had a few things to take care of for work, so we sat in the plaza, enjoyed the free wifi, and tried to block out the flute-synth band in the background.

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From Puerto Varas, our first stop was Armin Cerveceria ­­­, a Bavarian brewery and beer garden in the middle of Chile’s Lakes District.

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We’d read about this little hidden gem and figured we couldn’t continue without checking it out, so we stopped in for a quick beer and coffee and enjoyed the sunshine in the garden.

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The entire region has a lot of German influence so it was fun to see some familiar architecture and some fun cultural components (for example: everyone advertises küchen, rather than cake or pastel).

One final push for the day brought us all the way to… Pucón. Like dejavu all over again. Our first attempt at climbing Vulcan Villarrica had been thwarted by bad weather, so we had chatted and soul-searched and eventually decided that we were excited about the idea of summiting and wanted to give it a second chance. It wasn’t an easy decision. Selecting this route north meant passing up Bariloche in the Argentinian Lakes Region, a place many, many travelers have told us was one of their favorite cities. Hopefully we’ll come back one day and give Bariloche a try, but for this trip, we felt we were meant to climb that darn volcano.

Our plan was nearly thwarted when, after exiting the highway toward Pucon, our van decided that a sticking gas pedal would be a fun new issue to throw at us. Wolf did an awesome job staying calm, throwing the car in neutral, and pulling over quickly in order to shut off the engine, but it certainly scared us quite a bit. Since then, knock on wood, it hasn’t been an issue. Over the next day or two, Wolf spent some time researching what the issue could be, worked some WD-40 magic and adjusted a few components with the help of some feedback from the Volkswagen community on The Samba. Don’t worry, Mom. We’re fine. Just another memorable moment :)

We arrived at the tour company in time to try on all our gear and book a spot on the next day’s tour before a quick stop at the grocery store and settling in at our campsite for the night. Since our last visit in December, Pucon had turned into a different town; clearly the high-season had arrived. At our last visit, the streets were sleepy, cafes were empty, and we had our choice of nearly any campsite. This time around, the streets were packed with traffic, parking attendants lurked at every corner, bars and cafes seemed to overflow into the streets and by the time we arrive at the same campsite, the only option for us was on the front lawn (we were shocked, but it actually worked our great).

Our call time at the shop the next morning was 6:15am so after an early breakfast we strolled through a quiet town, excited that the weather seemed to be looking good. Pretty soon we had climbed into a big van and were snaking our way out of town and to the base of the volcano.

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We took a ski lift up to the base of the trail, where we regrouped for a quick lesson in using the ice axe, and what to do if you suddenly start falling off the volcano…. Hmm.

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What had we gotten ourselves into?

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And then, our guides were off, blazing a trail through the ice with the help of their axes, weaving a path back and forth across the sheer face of the volcano.

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We were lucky to have a gorgeous sunny day with perfect views across the lakes, and to the nearby mountains and snow-capped volcanos bordering Argentina. The guides acted like this whole thing was no big deal, but for me…. It was interesting. And definitely a bit scary. Since Volcan Villrarica is a typical, cone-shaped volcano, the faces we were climbing up were steep, without much in the way of terrain, which meant we were picking our way up a huge sheet of very steep ice. Not exactly in my comfort zone. Looking down was almost too much for me. I kept thinking that if I fell, I wasn’t convinced there would be a way to stop myself from just sliding all the way down the ice…

With those comforting thoughts in mind, I kept on trudging upwards. A couple of times, the guides told us it was time for a break, to eat and drink something so we kept up our energy. I certainly felt like my body was working overtime to figure out what was going on – while certainly not the highest of peaks, we were climbing to summit of 2,840m, and we had already gained a lot of altitude as we made our way up. To me, stopping for a break on the sheer, icy side of a volcano seemed like a joke. I could hardly stand, let alone figure out a way to sit down and rest. But, the guides showed us how to dig a pit for our packs and then sit on top of them, creating a nice little picnic nook.

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At our second break, they told us we should open up our backpacks and put on the pants packed inside. The water/wind proof pants would be helpful later on, and for now, it once again seemed comical to me that I would be able to put on another layer of clothes while standing on the side of this volcano. Somehow it worked and we continued up, now kitted out in pants, gaiters, snow/ice boots, and helmets, with ice axes in tow. It all felt pretty legit.

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The last push to the summit was gusty and a bit scary. I felt like the strong wind might pick me up and carry me away, but I put my head down and slowly picked my way through ice and volcanic rocks, until finally reaching the summit. We were so excited to have made it, and to have stellar weather and amazing views to top it all off.

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We didn’t celebrate too long, though. Since Villarrica is an active volcano, being at the summit meant ground zero for the gas and fumes and smoke constantly seeping out of the crater.

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It sure smelled bad for you and, depending on the direction of the wind, was almost too strong to be able to breathe without a mask. We had each carried gas masks up in our packs just in case the conditions worsened, but for now we were fine as long as we made our visit quick.

After a few photos, we put on the rest of our kit, including more wind and water-proof gear: gloves, and a jacket, as well as an interesting Gore-Tex diaper-type contraption and a bright orange snow disk…P1070989 (1024x768)

And then we all walked together to the edge of the summit where we saw a few tracks that made me think a bit of Olympic luge events. The guides pulled us aside, gave us a few pointers and then… we each started sliding down the mountain. I sat down, gave myself a few starter pushes with the ice axe, and then all of a sudden, I’m sliding down the side of a volcano like it’s no big deal. The whole thing was a tiny bit scary, but mostly a total blast. The snow had been carved into a bit of a path so sliding down was a bit like the luge – eventually I figured out how to lean into the turn so that I would slide to the top of the track walls, using the ice axe like a rudder or to slow down. I wish I had video of the whole thing to share – it was super memorable to slide down the side of a volcano, looking out to the view with more volcanic peaks in the distance, huge lakes across the valley floor, and a steamy, smoky volcano crater behind me.  I wish I had photos or videos of the whole thing, but I may not have made it down alive if I had tried to work a camera at the same time.

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So after spending 4.5 hours climbing up the volcano, we took about 15 minutes to slide most of the way down. At the bottom of the toboggan track we pulled off all the snow clothes and finished the hike downward, where ice gave way to volcanic rocks, and then to slippery, gravelly scree towards the bottom.

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Back in Pucon we were stoked. It had been a picture perfect day in terms of weather and we felt accomplished and exhausted.

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We had initially planned to try some nearby hot springs afterwards but we were hot enough already so instead we opted for cold showers at the campsite and an afternoon relaxing. Well, sort of. Wolf worked on the car for a few hours, I did some laundry and blogging and wedding stuff, and we celebrated another good day.

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One thought on “Volcano Villarrica”

  1. Bariloche was visited by Alma and I during my final retirement trip to Argentina.  Beautiful and remote area. My Argentinean manager said we had to see that area and it is very popular with Europeans during their summer. Grandpa

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