Our adventure began on Wednesday night, after a ride up to the top of the Costanera Center to watch the sun set and to see the city lights come to life.
Andi, Annie, Allie, Amber, Tanner, Lizz and I grabbed our packs and headed to the bus station for a 10:00 bus to the south. We sat on there for 10 hours, and were greeted in Pucon by cold mist which quickly turned into rain. After laying our bags in our hostel owned by some German girls with a large fluffy dog, we found a small music themed coffee shop and stopped for crepes, before going to the tour company to try on our boots. At the company I expected just to get the boots, but we ended up finding gas masks, crampons, ice picks, helmets, and blue astronaut suits for the climb. I knew then that we were in for quite a treat.
So we talked to Susie, the Canadian owner, for quite a while before braving the elements again in search of sunglasses, jackets, and trail snacks… three things they wouldn’t let us climb without. The sun began to show itself eventually, revealing a cloud-covered volcano just beyond the city, and we saw for the first time what it was we would be climbing. With dogs and chickens running about in the wet streets, we splashed our way back to the hostel to prepare for an early morning adventure. I found myself sitting by a fire beside a Christmas tree, reading a book with a sleeping cat on my lap while a family spoke German around the kitchen table. The weekend was clearly off to an interesting start.
4:45am: Lizz and I rolled reluctantly out of bed to begin making breakfast for everyone in our little hostel kitchen. We somehow made it out of the hostel by 6, and arrived at the tour company underneath beautiful stars in the cold, crisp air. About ten minutes later, once our hands were frozen to water bottles, Susie’s husband Claudio arrived to let us in and help us gather all of our gear. We were met by a Brazilian girl and four Irish friends, and we swiftly geared up and headed out into the van.
The drive was cold, and as the sun began to barely illuminate the landscape, we could see the volcano towering in the distance, moving closer and closer. This volcano, Villarrica, is the most active volcano in Chile, and erupted just one year before our ascent. We drove over cooled lava rivers and could see the devastation that it had caused. Just before the sun crested the horizon, we got out of the van, put on our helmets, and made our way to a small ski lift. We were told later that this lift was built over 40 years ago (reasons why it had no safety bars), and is no longer used for skiing (or maintained by the park officials). I hopped on with Lizz, and we watched the sun break over the horizon. It had been turning the side of the volcano into a deep reed, and the volcanoes and mountains in the distance into a pastel pink. From the lift we could see all of the surrounding mountains, the beautiful lake protecting the small city of Pucon, and the rays of the sun bursting through clouds. The ride took about ten minutes, and I tried to hide my frozen face behind my frozen hands to keep out of the frozen wind.
At the top of the lift some guides helped us off, and we took off up the mountain following and being followed by at least ten other guided groups. We waddled up switchbacks with our snowy gear until we reached our first landmark, an old concrete ski lift. This lift was in use until the volcano erupted and destroyed it, somehow leaving a hollow shell of blocks and twisted metal.
We continued up through the rocks, stopping for lunch at the base of the glacier, hiding from the snowy wind behind a rock. The little ice pellets were whipped off of the glacier like tiny shards of glass against our faces. There were at least 40 or 50 people at this lunch break, and the guides were all either huddled to communicate with park rangers or climbing up the glacier to test conditions. The wind was gusting around 50 km per hour, and pretty soon every other group had decided to go back down. Claudio said that he knew the volcano well enough and had trained in mountaineering, so after teaching four of us and the Irish man how to successfully use the ice pick and crampons when falling, we made our way to the ropes he and our other guide, Alejandro, had stuck into the ice. We braved the wind and the cold to get to the top of the ledge, where we crossed over the glacier and continued our ascent up the mountain. I felt like I was either in the movie The Day After Tomorrow on an Antarctic expedition trying to survive the elements for days in the blazing winter sun. The best realization was that within 4 hours we would be back down at a warm coffee shop, assuming we didn’t slip down the glacier, which seemed to be a real possibility. After throwing our crampon feet into each step and pounding our ice pick handles into the glacier in zig-zags up the volcano, we stopped less than 400 meters from the top at the order of a park ranger. Claudio explained that the park rangers don’t trust the guides, since many of them take groups even if they don’t have much training. He said that they make decisions that really only the guides should be making, but this ranger coming to us was one that knew maybe Claudio was doing the right thing. He got up to us and sat down, arguing with Claudio and Alejandro in Spanish, and eventually told us that we had to turn around. With that, we took our pictures and said goodbye to the smoking peak that was so very close to us.
Coming down was almost harder, as gravity pulled us down and made our crampons slip across the glacier. We somehow made it down the glacier, down the rocks, and all the way to our little van, talking about travel, philosophy, and books. Once we made it back to the van and drove to civilization, we returned to our hostel and to a small restaurant owned by a couple from California. We laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and we spent the evening wandering through artisan markets before finally giving into our exhaustion.
We woke up for another community egg breakfast, and headed out into the town for coffee. We all intended to read our books there, but again enjoyed the beautifully crisp air with our heavenly chocolate mochas and laughed the morning away. The afternoon was filled with adventure as well, as we rented bikes and rode throughout the town. We spent a good portion of the afternoon looking over the lake and the volcano, sitting in the sunshine and listening to ducks in their takeoffs and landings on the water. The crisp blue sky reflected off the shimmering water, all in view of the smoking Villarrica, standing high above the city. We marveled for a long time, and returned to our hostel to catch the bus.
One final meal of crepes at a music themed coffee shop overlooking the volcano, and we were off on another night bus back to Santiago. Pucon is a beautiful city. It’s quaint, like a classy, stretched out Gatlinburg, TN, and the scenery is astounding. We may not have peered deep into the earth like I was hoping to do, but we got the chance to trek across a glacier high up on the most active volcano in Chile, so I’d say we came down with quite a story to tell.