January 27, 2009

Villarica Volcano

Dominating the landscape of Pucon, is the active, snow-covered Villarica Volcano. I’d been gazing at it for days while swimming, biking, running, and just walking around Pucon. So on the Tuesday following the race, I decided to climb it! I went with an awesome group: about 10 triathletes from Brazil and Argentina including Ana Lidia Borba (4th woman pro) and her aunt Roberta and Oscar Galindez (men’s pro champ) and his son Thomas. We signed up with a local shop, Sol & Nieve, and our guides were the best!

The day started out by meeting at the shop at 6:30am…yes very early in Chile (and for me too!) I had a 25min walk from my hotel and made it to the shop just in time. However, along the way, the 'watering trucks' were out. Basically a huge fire hose on a truck that they were using to water allt he flowers...I guess they are not used to people being out at this early hour in the moring, so I ended up getting sprayed and watered, along with my camera. What a start to the day!

We donned our hiking boots and grabbed our backpack full of equipment (ice pick, crampons, pants, jacket, boot/shin covers, ‘diaper’, plastic sled, helmet, water, and snacks.) We had a 30min drive to the base and once we arrived we found out that the lifts were not working so we would have to hike up to the ‘start.’ Off we went in our single file line. This first part was not snow covered, so that meant we were hiking up loose volcanic rock (basically like very loose black gravel.) It was extremely hard to get your footing and after about 45min of climbing, I looked up and it seemed like we hadn’t gone anywhere despite passing several other climbers. At this point I was thinking…Why am I doing this? Isn’t this supposed to be fun? I guess at least I figured out that I am not meant to be a mountaineer! So I kept on hiking and tried to enjoy the view and journey. Another 45 min later and we finally reached the top of the lift, boy it sure would have been funner to ride that thing up! We took a short break and re-applied our sunscreen since the sun was blazing and we just reached the snow level which would increase the intensity due to snow reflection.

Our guide showed us how to use our ice picks: wow, me with a snow pick :). He showed us how to catch ourselves if we fell and started to slide, how to switch depending on which direction we were climbing, and how to get good footing in the snow. Off we went again, this time on snow rather than lava! Thank goodness the beginning was pretty mellow and not too steep. This gave us the opportunity to get some ice/snow climbing experience before the tougher sections. Once we hit the snow, I was loving it! It didn’t take long for my mind to start thinking I’d like to hike the Himalayas or even Mt. Everest :). It was basically like climbing stairs since the ice and snow was relatively soft. You would dig your foot in and then step up. I slipped a few times and luckily regained my balance quickly. At times snow or lava rocks would fall from above and come swooshing by…I did not want that to be me! In some places the trail we were working out way up was dug out and the snow walls were looming above my head, easily 10 ft high. But for most of the time we were on the ‘top’ of the snow on the sheer edge of the mountain. We had a few breaks on the snowy section and they were great look-outs. We finally reached the peak, 2840ft, and we were on top of the world! You could see all around, in all directions. And then if you looked towards the center you could look down in the crater. It was pretty wild to peer over the edge and see the smoke forming at the bottom of the crater. A few times it began to rumble and you could feel the ground move ever so slightly. I guess the last time it erupted was in 1984, but just two years ago it was spraying lava. Our guide said it was mind-blowing to see the lava shoot up when you were just standing feet from the crater.

Now it was time to make our way back down. We got all suited up in our gear and it was time to go rip-roaring down the mountain side. We learned how to use our icepicks as either a brake or to help us go faster. We were seated on a plastic board (basically a small butt sled) with our legs out in front. Our legs could also be used as a brake. We would go down a section, laughing the entire way, and then hike over to another section. After a few runs our guide said I was ‘muy loco’ and said ‘no brakes!’ So, with my ice pick held high above my head and my legs lifted up off the ground, I went hurtling down. I started to lose a bit of control and did a 1080, then I was going down sideways, then backwards, and then at the bottom everyone was yelling ‘slow down!’ Thank goodness I was able to come to an abrupt stop. As you can imagine, with 10 triathletes, the race was on and it was oh so much fun! (I have some great video of the slide down plus the smoking/rumbling volcano and and am working on figuring out how to upload!)
And then for the final part of our descent…back to the lava. It actually turned out to be one hundred times better than the hiking up the lava. Since it was so loose, there was not much impact, and once you got going it was hard to stop. Once again, we got a bit competitive and the 1.5 hr hike up only took about 15 min on the way down!

Thanks to my incredible group, I had a fun filled adventure. And yes guys, I will be working on my Portuguese! Can’t wait to do it again next year!!!

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