Summiting Volcan Villarrica

LavaBurstWhen, over breakfast at our hostel in Valparaiso, a young couple told us of a climbable active volcano in Pucón near the Chile-Argentina border we knew we had to go. Pucón, a hub for adventurous travellers, offers opportunities to hike, white-water raft, ski and snowboard. Its most famous attraction, however, has to be Volcan Villarrica which allows those hardy enough to reach the top a glance at a bubbling lava lake deep within its crater.

We booked one day in advance of our climb with a company called Summit Chile. Usually we looked to sort activities such as this well in advance but the late booking of this volcano ascent worked in our favour as it gave us less time to worry about if we were fit enough to make it to the top or if we would be incinerated by an unstoppable river of lava!

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The office of the agency we used to summit Villarrica

From the off the agency offered us a very professional service, starting with the young man in the office who was friendly and more than willing to answer all of our many questions. Once he had worked his magic, calmed us down and ensured us that we would be fine we handed over our $80,000 peso (roughly £95) payment and signed a few wavers as required under Chilean law when entering sites than can be dangerous. This payment covers everything required for your trip (except a separate $10,000 peso payment to use the lift at the base of the volcano) including guides, suitable attire and equipment, transport and  few light refreshments upon your return – should you make it! – to the office at the end of your climb. Be warned that, if weather turns during your summit attempt, your guides might force you back and even if you have only taken a handful of steps on the volcano you will not be refunded. This is a risk you must take if you wish to get to the top of Villarrica and, to the best of my knowledge, applies to all companies who offer this service.

Once our wavers were filled in, they were then placed above a storage box and we were fitted for our equipment. Once we had trousers, jacket and boots (which should be tight rather than loose) that fit properly they were then placed into our storage box which would remain ours until the end of the following day. The young man then handed us a sheet which contained a list of helpful facts as well as recommendations on what we should bring the next day. The sheet told us to eat pasta that night to make sure we had enough energy for our climb, to avoid alcohol and to drink plenty of water.

As for packing, we were recommended to bring the following for our ascent:

  • Two sandwiches to eat during rest periods on the slopes
  • Two litres of water to help keep you hydrated
  • Some fruit although bananas were discouraged as they get squashed in the bag by your equipment
  • Chocolate for instant hits of energy
  • Sunscreen as the sun is obviously stronger the higher up you get
  • Sunglasses which were especially important as the glare from the snow was absolutely blinding without them
  • Three top layers so you can add or remove depending on the weather
  • A hat to help keep your ears warm during cold blasts and windy periods

If I was to make a personal recommendation in addition to this list I would also bring along tissues as your nose will run like a tap the closer you get to the top of the volcano.

The following day we arrived at the Summit Chile office at 6am ready for departure at 6:15am. As we waited for everyone to arrive my travel companion and I looked nervously to the horizon and the volcano we would soon be climbing. Our group was made up of eight tourists and three guides. It is a thirty minute drive to Villarrica before your adversary begins to loom over you and you start to question why on earth you embarked on this madness and if you will in fact make it to the top. The volcano has an elevation of 2,860 metres and, from this viewpoint, the summit seems a very, very long way away.

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Villarrica Volcano as seen from the streets of Pucón

Once parked up your guides will introduce themselves and talk you through how to efficiently use your ice axe and crampons. Our main guides Claudio and Jorge were older and more mature than some of the guides we noticed leading other groups. Many of the other guides were much younger and were behaving in an annoying, juvenile fashion on the slopes that would have made me feel much less safe on the side of the volcano if I was in their care. Claudio and his team were chatty, friendly, constantly encouraging us and, most importantly of all, they exuded confidence and experience throughout the entire expedition. We couldn’t have asked for a better team to have led us up and down Villarrica.

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Decked out in all my rented climbing gear

Before you start your hike proper you can take a chairlift that will shave about an hour off your climbing time. Our guides highly recommended this shortcut and the entirety of our group made the decision to take the lift. If you do take the lift remember that, as already mentioned, it will cost you an additional $10,000 pesos. This isn’t cheap but come the end of your journey when your legs are aching and your knees are shot you’ll be more than happy you splashed the cash.

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View from the chairlift – there’s no safety barrier so hold on tight!

The ascent of Villarrica should take between four and five hours depending on how fit you and your group are. When there is enough snow you can use a plastic sled to slide down the face of the volcano which makes your descent much easier and quicker. However, as we summited in late summer, the chutes used for sledding were not in good condition so our guides insisted we hike down instead. Descent by foot should still take much less time – around two hours – but is no less strenuous than the hike up.

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Our group setting off on our arduous climb

Despite our worries about how we would make it to the summit, my travel companion and I actually found the climb to be less difficult than we feared. While scaling Volcan Villarrica is no cakewalk, if weather conditions and your fitness levels are good enough then you should manage to make it to the top without too many problems. Our guides set an easily followable pace and we were able to stop for breaks and refreshments every hour or so, sometimes even less. To make things easier you should use your ice axe for support and alter your gait as shown by your guides in order to share the strain of the hike across the muscles groups in your legs.

The views from the sides of the volcano are spectacular. If the day is clear enough you can see far into a distance that reveals huge lakes, scattered towns, rugged hillsides and the destruction left by lava flows from previous eruptions. As you stop for a rest and scoff down some sarnies, you’d be hard pushed to ask for a better view to enjoy. Peering up the volcano at the scattered snowy areas is no less eye-catching as they glitter and gleam like scattered diamonds in the sunlight. These areas, however, are far harder to traverse and sap your energy much more quickly than rocky areas. In addition, the blinding sunlight reflecting off the snow will make it almost impossible to progress unless you have sunglasses so, if there’s one thing you remember to pack, make sure it is your shades.

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Panoramic view from the volcano’s summit

The main event, of course, is the crater at the midpoint of your journey. As we approached the crater Claudio explained to us that Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes and arguably its most dangerous owing to the fact that the volcano also houses a glacier. Apparently, when lava and ice meet, the results can be explosive, often causing avalanches and spelling big trouble for anyone unlucky enough to be on the volcano at the time. At the lip of the crater you will be asked to take out your gas mask and make sure it is securely fastened – failure to do so can be deadly. If you are lucky enough to catch a day where the lava lake is especially active, carbon and sulphur dioxode emissions spewed forth by the crater can take your breath away even with your mask firmly in place. The awful stench is a continuous reminder of the toxic air around you, even with your mask covering your nose. Once everybody was safely masked up our guides finally led us into the crater and towards our first look at the lively lava at its centre.

It is hard to describe just how astonishing it is to see lava in the flesh. It is constantly bubbling, hissing and belching out of the chasm that contains it and makes the struggles of your ascent seem absolutely worthwhile. The lava lake is far below the lip of the crater and it is amazing to think that the earth can create enough pressure to force it explosively up the throat of the volcano. The throat itself is tinged green and yellow by sulphur deposited by emissions from the crater. If we had one complaint about our experience it would be that we could have used extra time to enjoy the crater and lava lake as, once our guides had taken photos of us, we were only given a few moments to admire the sight before we were huddled together and led back down the mountain.

If you have to hike down the volcano on foot I found you can make things easier for yourself by slipping and sliding down the areas where the surface is made up of fine volcanic rock. By planting your feet deep into these layers of loose rock you can sink down the face of the volcano a few feet at a time, similar to if you were walking down a sand dune. I found this method to be less strenuous on my knees which were growing painful by this point and if done properly there is virtually no chance of falling over.

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A ruined ski lift destroyed by the last big eruption – dangerous!

Once you get back to the Summit Chile office you can strip off your rented equipment (and you’ll probably be thankful to get those boots off if you’re anything like me) and will be served with homemade juice, fantastic craft beer brewed by the young man who runs the office and orange slices bursting with zesty flavour. The company didn’t have to lay these little treats out for us but they were welcome after an arduous day, and as such, I felt they were a nice additional touch.

After finishing our drinks and orange slices we soon bid farewell to our guides and fellow tourists and helped ourselves to a hearty meal and a few cold beers which we felt were hard earned. Soon after that we slumped exhaustedly back to our hostel where we slept the deep sleep of the dead. Even though the climb left us feeling footsore and weary it was totally worth it to see the innards of an active volcano and the glowing blood that flows within it. I’d always wanted to see lava with my own eyes and Volcan Villarrica allowed me to tick one more item off the bucket list.

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