Visiting a rumbling giant in Pucón, Chile

“Come, come!” is shouted at me while I see a wildly gesturing hand telling me to follow.   I put down the kitchen knife and follow the hostel owner outside. “Look at that! Look!” My gaze follows the index finger that he excitedly points high up the sky, to the top of the volcano towering over the village. “It just became active!” A cloud of smoke lingers over the mountain top, the giant has just awaken from his two-year sleep and clearing his throat of grey fumes. I am looking up at the volcano with a mix of utter excitement and outright worries. My eyes search the street for the traffic light shaped warning sign that indicates code green, amber or red in regards to chances on a volcanic outburst to the inhabitants of the small town. Next to me, the hostel owner is still jumping excitedly like a small kid seeing fireworks – he doesn’t seem worried the slightest bit.

I am in Pucón, Chile, and on my schedule for tomorrow morning is a 5 hour hike up the very same volcano. The man standing next to me is not only the hostel owner of the place where I had just been about to cook some pasta, but also the only guide in the village to offer early morning walks up the volcano that start when it’s still dark.

Hiking the Villarrica had actually been a recommendation from two friends who had come here during winter. They’d started the hike but were unable to finish it because it was too dangerous to continue in the amount of snow covering the slopes and bad weather conditions. Still, they’d been so excited about the ice axe and snow iron climbing experience that I was determined to experience this for myself. Looking around now, I see bright blue skies and green forest and I feel the sunshine on my face.

However, only two days before our arrival in Pucón, a terrible accident had happened. After a very sudden change in weather conditions, two young men had fallen down and could not be located due to the snowstorm. Their bodies were found only days later, when we had already arrived. We were on our guard.

I have to admit tonight was not the most relaxing sleep I’ve had. With sore muscles from the horse riding track the day before, and visions of a bursting volcano and deteriorating weather conditions I do not exactly wake up fresh. The alarm sounds at 3:30 for a quick breakfast followed by picking up our outdoor gear that we’d fitted the day before (special pants and helmet) and hopping in a minivan with six others to make our way to the foot of the Villarrica.

Moonlight guides us on the first part of the ascend. It takes us an hour to arrive at the finish point of the cable car that starts operating in the morning (and helps later hikers skip the first part of the walk). Sweating from the steady climb we halt for our first stop in the cold night air. I open up the bottle of water from my backpack to take a sip – still water I thought, but the sparkling water bursts out in a way I hope the lava will not erupt from the crater today. It’s so cold that I am not the slightest bit as amused as the other tour group participants about my exploding water bottle.

Continuing the path with a soaked sweater, the skies turn brighter with every step we take and so the landscape reveals itself to us in the morning glow of a rising sun. It’s truly breathtaking – and not because of the ascend (you need to be fit, but it’s not a difficult track). From the mountain slope we take in the far-stretching views of Chile’s Lake District, where water glistens in the rising sun over the lakes that are surrounded by lush forests.

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When the sunlight has spread out over the entire landscape it’s time for us to put on our crampons and to complete our outfit with an ice axe. It takes a couple of minutes to get used to the irons under my hiking boots. You need to lift your leg up higher than usual when taking a step to pull the triangle iron teeth out of the ice before drilling them back in again. We use the ice axe as a walking stick – it’s not so much-needed for the ascend as it is for the descend, either planned or unplanned. The ice axe is our brake in case we slip or fall, and so I hold on to it tight after the instructions of our guide on how to use it to stop yourself rolling down the slope. One hand just below the axe, the other near the end of the handle. When falling down on your back, you should turn and anchor the ice axe in the ice. Well, I’d rather not take that theory into practice. We continue our hike in linear formation, one guide in front of us and another at the back.

When we arrive at the top there are only four other hikers enjoying the 360 degrees view. Amazed by the size of the crater and the smell coming out of it, we switch our gaze from the black hole to the amazing and far-stretching views that we now also have of the land on the other side of the volcano. The Villarrica is just one of many volcanos towering over this part of Chile and we start counting the snow-capped tops of other seismic giants.

The Villarrica rumbles and our group gathers round the crater. Steam is coming out of it and I wonder if anything could go terrible wrong up here – the volcano erupting right there and then. But the sight of two men sitting behind a table with machines to measure the seismic activity, takes my worries away (surely, this is something they’ll predict?) and leaves me with an excited eagerness to see lava for the first time in my life. Another rumble and our guide tells us we should be able to see lava. Not yet though, we only hear some drops falling back on the liquid surface. But then we see some orange and red drops clinging onto the crater wall. As we zoom in for better pictures we hear a loud rumble, then “aaaaaaaaah”. All of us are jumping in excitement. A fountain of thick red liquid is shooting from a hidden place far below. High enough for us to see its bright colours against the background of the opposite crater wall, low enough to stay where we are – only metres away from the crater. I am no longer distracted by the smell of sulphur or any potential risks of an active volcano. Instead, I can’t wait for the giant to rumble again and give us another spectacular show. And so it does. I am completely blown away by this unique experience: we’re the first ones in two years to witness the beauty of an active Villarrica. And I think of my friends and how much I owe them for advising me to make this trip, and how much they’ve missed themselves.

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By the time the first late morning groups appear in our sight, it’s time for us to walk down. Partially at least. Before we hit the return path, we enrich our outfit with special gliding pants. As soon as we meet the ice, we sit down on the white and glossy surface for a short instruction on advanced sliding. In front of us is the glacier we’ve just mastered with the ice crampons, but there’s something different about this part of it. Concave passages divide the ice in two and form long slides to takes us downhill. What a thrill! As our group slides down we wave at the groups working their way up the volcano. I feel excited like a small girl in the playground, trying to slide down as fast as possible. The only thing slowing me down is the chunk of ice that found its way into my gliding pants. Coming close to the end of the slide, I use the ice axe to slow down and come to a halt. I get up and sit down on the next icy slope a couple of metres further and so on until there’s no more ice to slide on.

The last part of the descend to the base of the Villarrica can best be described as a standing slide. The amount of small ash grey stones covering the slopes cannot be counted. Trying to walk down, my feet disappear in a blanket of stones, as if I’m walking on a thick layer of snow. It makes an interesting combination of relaxed walking and exhaustion. It takes us only one and a half hour to descend what we’d walked up in five hours.

After two days of intense activity (my already soar legs from the horse riding activity are now killing me), we decide the next day to relax at a small Lake Villarrica bay in Pucón.

The warning sign in town has moved from green to amber. We look up at the fuming giant towering over the town and ponder how strange it is how such an incredible wonder of nature and amazing tourist attraction, could turn this tranquil city to ashes. Just like it did with the ash grey stone beach we’re sitting on.

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