Ami had always wanted to climb an active volcano. Our arrival in Pucón, on the foothills of Mount Villarrica – one of Chile’s most active volcanos – presented her with the perfect opportunity to do so.
‘You have to get up really early,’ I remind her – Ami hates getting up early.
‘And it’ll be really hard.’
‘And it’ll be non-stop climbing. You hate climbing.’
‘I know. I still want to do it.’
‘Alright. Let’s go.’
Trekking Mount Villarrica
The trip starts at 5 a.m. We roll out of Pucón in the predawn gloom, the summit of Mount Villarrica lit by an eerie, orange glow.
‘If the weather is good,’ Jorge, our guide, announces during the shuttle bus transfer to the trailhead, ‘we can catch the chairlift up the lower part of the volcano. This will save us an hour of hiking. Let’s hope the chairlift is open. Sí?’
But the wind, when we arrive at the foot of the mountain, is gale-force, and the chairlift is closed.
‘Looks like we are out of luck, mis amigos,’ Jorge says. ‘We need to begin our hike from the bottom. We will follow this trail, directly below the chairlift.’ The chairs swing lazily above our heads, mocking us.
The sun has risen by now, and with a clear blue sky overhead, and a little altitude below our belts, the surrounding landscape comes into view. We are in a region dominated by lakes, forested peaks, and snow-capped volcanos.
Mount Villarrica, it turns out, is just one of three major stratavolcanos situated in the Los Ríos Region of Chile. The three volcanos, Villarrica, Quetrupillán, and Lanín, form part of the Ring of Fire – the network of volcanos that encircles the Pacific Ocean (which contains 75% of the world’s dormant and active volcanos).
Mount Villarrica (2,840m) has erupted between 60 and 80 times since records began in the 1550s. The last major eruption occurred in 2015. A minor eruption, which occurred unexpectedly in 2017, sent terrified hikers scrambling down the slopes.
‘Vale, mis amigos. Let me tell you about this checkpoint we have on the mountain,’ Jorge announces, during one of our rest stops. He points to a map he is carrying; his finger indicating a spot approximately two-thirds of the way to the summit. ‘If you are going to quit the hike, then this is where you must do it. If you are feeling very tired when you reach this point, or if you are walking too slow, then you will have to turn around. Our support guide, Luiz, will escort you back to Pucón.’
‘Sometimes people who are too slow become very angry when I tell them they must turn around. But the hike to the summit is very long; if we take too much time getting to the top, then we will be coming back down in the night time. This is dangerous; this is how people die on the mountain. Many tourists have already died climbing Mount Villarrica; we don’t want any more people to die. So, I tell you now, if you are too slow, then I am sorry, but you cannot complete the climb.’
‘Don’t worry though mis amigos, you can all make it the top. I’m sure of it. Okay, vamos.’
After a long, gruelling climb we finally hit the snow line, and the hiking becomes increasingly difficult. The snow is soft, squishy; it squelches underfoot. The trail gets gradually steeper. And the wind is ferocious, merciless; constantly fighting your movements, knocking you this way and that, making everything that much harder.
‘I think I’m going to drop out,’ Ami advises me as we approach the checkpoint.
‘What!’ I say, shocked by the news. ‘You can’t drop out. You’re just tired because of the wind. I know your fitness level. You can do this.’
‘You’re sure?’ Ami asks uncertainly.
‘Alright,’ she mumbles.
We reach the checkpoint. There are no stragglers, everyone in our group has made it by the stipulated cut-off time. And yet, four people elect to drop out. Our group of twelve becomes eight. Ami decides to stick it out.
The trail gets steeper. We begin zigzagging our way up the mountain, treading in the footsteps of those who have gone before. The path is narrow, and slippery; a long, slide down the mountain to contend with should you make a misstep.
On one particularly steep section of the trail a middle-aged man in our group slips and falls. His partner reaches out for him, grabs him around the waist, loses her grip, makes a second go for him and manages to snag him by one foot. She holds him there while others in the group haul him back onto the trail and set him upright.
The hike is resumed.
By this point Ami has stopped talking to me. She is furious; her mind at war with itself. She really, really hates climbing, and really, really hates slippery conditions.
And I was the one that encouraged her to continue.
She’s so angry she won’t even look at me.
Time passes. The climb continues. Eventually we halt alongside several other groups of excited hikers.
‘Felicitaciones mis amigos; you have done it,’ Jorge shouts. ‘We are just below the summit. We will rest here for five minutes, and then make the final sprint for the top. But the volcano is pumping out much gas at the moment. You must wear your gas mask at the crater. And we can only stay at the summit for 10 minutes. So you walk to the top, you put on the gas mask, you look in the crater, maybe you see a little lava today, maybe you just see steam and smoke, then you come back down here. You no resting at the summit. Sí?’
The summit of Mount Villarrica
Ami still isn’t talking to me. She is sitting apart from the group, staring into the distance. The physical exhaustion of the hike, combined with that merciless wind, have emptied her energy reserves.
Several minutes of summit-time slip past.
Eventually Ami recovers sufficiently to be convinced to make a quick trip to the top. There is no sign of lava inside the crater today; just a maelstrom of steam and smoke.
Our ten minutes at the summit are soon depleted, and with that we must about-face and confront the much-dreaded descent.
It turns out to be nowhere near as awful as I had imagined.
Once we are safely below the steepest part of the summit, we are able to sit on our backsides, and slide the rest of the way down (until the snow runs out).
Practical information and how to reach Mount Villarrica:
The hike to the top of Mount Villarrica and back takes about 9 hours in total. Be aware that inclement weather will cause the hike to be canceled – it’s not uncommon to have to wait a day or two before being able to climb.
If you are suitably accredited then you can climb Mount Villarrica on your own. If not, you’ll need to be led there by a suitably accredited guide (i.e. on a tour). Mandatory equipment on the hike include (but is not limited to): ice pick, helmet, gas mask, and crampons. More info here.