How to Climb a Volcano - Atlas Obscura
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How to Climb a Volcano

When I told my Chilean friend Carolina that a trip to Pucón was in the works, her first reaction was, “Volcán Villarrica: it’s the volcano of your dreams.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“When you see it, you’ll understand.” 

Villarricca
Villarrica from town. Image via Flickr

Despite having grown up in Portland, Oregon with a backdrop of Hood, Saint Helens, and the Cascades, Caro was right… I’ve found no more quintessentially perfect volcano than Villarrica.  The angle of its sides are perfectly proportionate to its 9340 feet (2847 meters) in height, and it’s constantly erupting, so this silly little plume of smoke nearly always rises from its peak. 

Within a few days of arriving in Pucón, a fellow American and I had secured spots on the following day’s expedition up Villarrica for about $50USD.  No gear? No problem!  Just bring water, some snacks and sunscreen, ladies!

A few of the shop attendants assumed I couldn’t speak Spanish, and as we left I heard them shit-talking amongst themselves, saying something about placing bets as to whether “the pretty Americans” would make it to the top… However, this is not a story about conquest against all odds, proving people wrong, or whathaveyou – though it could be.  Just sayin’.

Prior to our climb, we did a little research and found out that–despite signing no waivers and having no gear of our own–we were about to summit a quite active volcano.  I spent much of the night hoping that not only would it not erupt so I could climb it, but that these hypothetical rumblings wouldn’t be like those in 1971, when the air turned so toxically sulphurous that 15 people died just from breathing in the same area as Villarrica.   So there was that.

Fast forward to 5:40am at the guides’ headquarters.  We were given everything we needed: coats, water-proof pants, gaiters, ice axes, and boots.  Now, I’m quite small, meaning I was relegated to children-sized parodies of hiking boots and some rubber-bottomed mountaineering pants that came in amazingly handy during the descent (more on that later).  “No helmets? Awesome, I hate helmets! I love Chile!”  

Villarrica
Climbing Villarrica. Image via Flickr

After a quick lesson on how to “sherpa stop,” we were off.  The five-hour ascent proceeded mostly as follows:

  • One foot in front of the other, up up up.
  • Snacks and water.
  • More upward trudging.
  • Opah!! Crevasse.  Better go around the mountain for a bit!
  • Water then snacks.
  • British lady decides she would go no further, waiting in that very spot until a guide retrieved her on the descent.
  • Take note of the 45-degree angle on which we were perched.
  • Upwards, ever upwards!

Villarrica crater
Looking into the crater. Image via Flickr

Upon reaching the top, we could approach the rumbling, 315-meter wide crater as closely as we felt comfortable.  I vaguely remember some warning to “watch for sudden explosions, a lava clump killed someone a couple years back…” but we were free to admire the crazy, mineral colors ringing the caldera.  Gasping for air at altitude and choking on sulfur, it’s safe to say that there are few feelings that compare to staring straight into the center of the earth at one’s own risk.

Now, for the best part: sliding down!  On the opposite side of the face than the one we’d summited, a bunch of trails led straight down the mountain.
One hour of:

  • Sit.
  • Slide.
  • Sherpa stop!
  • Crevasse.
  • Walk over to the right a little.
  • Repeat.

For your viewing pleasure:
Bajando el Volcán Villarrica de culooooo” - translation: “Going down Villarrica by assssssss

I’m sure I’m not the only one who read Mr. Popper’s Penguins as a child… and the descent was basically that book made reality. Thanks to the rubber-bottomed kids’ pants I alone was wearing, I could go twice as fast in the slides as the other grown-ups.  Ha!

For reaching the top in such fine fashion, my friend and I were given solid, manly handshakes and big smiles from our guides.

Veni. Vidi. Vici.

For more on Villarrica in the Atlas: Ice Caves of Villarrica 

(Please note that these photos and videos do not belong to the author of this post.  Quite sadly, she misplaced her photographic proof of this adventure at some point during the last eight years.  In the meantime, thank you, Flickr and YouTube users!)