Ice ax. Right foot. Left foot. Repeat. A little more than an hour into our climb of Pucon’s only volcano, the most active of Chile’s 127 active volcanoes, and I thought of little else besides those precious instructions. This silent and focused mantra helped move me in unison with my fellow climbers, snaking upward toward the sulfur-spewing summit.
In my hand, I held an ice ax: a metal climbing tool topped with a hammer-like head, one side sharply pointed, the other flat like a crowbar. An essential piece of climbing equipment, the ice ax added stability with each step, and was the last thing that stood between me and a dangerously fast and uncontrollable slide down an icy mountain side dotted with clusters of volcanic rock.
My climbing boots dragged heavily due to the weight of my crampons. These steel-toothed contraptions resembling upside-down bear traps helped my boots dig further into the snow, making that last-resort swing of the ice ax a little less likely. As we marched, I could hear only the wind-muffled crunch of ice under steel and my fiancée Cynthia’s canvas pack strap, flapping in the wind against her hood, just inches from my face. The alpine air was cold and sharp. Looking down, the ski lift we’d taken 30 minutes earlier now looked like strings of unlit Christmas lights, lazily strewn about a snow-covered lawn. With four hours to the top—and unsure if the overcast sky would even let us summit—I faced forward again to continue. Ice ax. Right foot. Left foot. Repeat.
Five days earlier, Cynthia and I traveled to Pucon, Chile, expecting a much shorter stay. A small town squeezed between the coast of Lake Villarrica and a volcano by the same name, the city of Pucon lies in Chile’s Lake District, a beautiful region of lakes, rivers and snow-capped mountains about 500 miles south of Santiago. We decided to visit Pucon as we’d read the town served as Chile’s year-round outdoor adventure center. In winter (July-September), the city is alive with visitors who ski the base of the 9,000-foot volcano. In the warmer seasons, visitors enjoy a multitude of activities including biking, hiking, white-water rafting, horseback riding, kayaking and, of course, trekking to Villarrica’s summit.
Arriving in mid-November, just before Pucon’s summer high-season, we walked down Pucon’s main road and soon learned that anyone, regardless of experience level, can join one of the daily volcano climbs available from the city’s numerous tour operators.
Thousands of hikers climb Villarrica each year, but merely having the desire, the stamina and the money to do so (around 50,000 pesos per person or $100) isn’t enough to get you to the top. The weather must be near perfect to attempt an ascent. Tour operators monitor the forecast constantly, tracking storm clouds and planning the next day’s tours. The wind can be particularly problematic, sometimes directing the volcano’s toxic sulfuric fumes toward the path of approaching climbers with little warning. Unfortunately for us, the weather was dismal our first few days in Pucon, and we were continually told to stop back later to see how things developed. On our fifth day, despite less-than-ideal weather conditions, hikers were allowed to climb.
We arrived at the tour operator’s office at 7 am, the room bustling with the day’s hopefuls. As we stood just inside the doorway, the guides made an announcement over the early-morning murmurs of the group: due to the volatile weather, there was no guarantee how far up we could go; if we had to turn back, at any point, we would still be expected to pay the full price. We nodded in agreement knowing this dreaded fate would be treated no differently at any of Pucon’s other tour operators (we checked).
We were led to our assigned backpacks and reviewed the contents. In addition to the ice ax and crampons, there was a ski jacket and pants, a helmet, snow boots, mittens and gators (canvas coverings that wrap around each ankle to prevent snow from getting into your boots). The boots and helmet were high quality, but the clothing was thin with Velcro instead of zippers, merely providing a protective layer for our clothes underneath. The last object in the pack was a tiny red sled, complete with a contoured seat and a short handle. Once suited, we were quickly rushed into the buses without receiving any further instruction. Continued on page two...