My friend Andrea and I spent the New Year holiday in Villarrica, a small town in Chile’s Lake District. Villarica sits on the shore of sizeable Lake Villarica. A short distance from the lake’s clear, cool water stands the Villarica Volcano, one of the most active volcanos in the world.
In the days leading up to the new year, Andrea and I had discussed climbing the volcano. How adventurous this New Year’s resolution sounded – to climb a 2,847 meter, active volcano. But as I stared at the volcano from my bedroom window in the hostel, seeing the sulfurous gasses rising from the snowy summit, my mind planted a seed of trepidation, which germinated and grew within me.
Both Andrea and I had significant hiking experience. However, neither of us had hiked up a large, active volcano before, nor had we been hiking much recently. We weren’t in peak physical condition. We knew that many people summited the Villarrica Volcano every year. Maybe we were just psyching ourselves out. How hard could it be? We decided to not let fear and self-doubt lay waste to our resolution.
To hike the volcano, we’d need to join a guided group. La Torre Suiza, the hostel where we were staying, helped arrange guided trips up the volcano. We spoke with Ingrid, one of the hostel’s staff, who told us we could choose from two different guide companies, one being more expensive than the other. She told us that both companies were good, but the more expensive company provided the best gear. We decided to take a chance and go with the more economical company. We booked our ascent for the second day of the new year, figuring that many people would want to summit on January 1st.
On New Year’s day we wandered around Villarica, meandering along the lake and taking pictures. From the lakeshore, the Villarica Volcano loomed large. The volcano stood alone, making its prominence significant and impressive. I found myself repeatedly staring at the near perfect symmetry of its cinder cone. I found myself thinking how steep its slopes looked. In my mind I kept asking myself, am I really going to climb that? I then asked Andrea, “Are we really going to climb that?” She dismissed my question with laughter, tinged with a hint of nervousness.
I had been on some real death marches back in the U.S., such as hiking twelve hours in subfreezing temperatures through deep snow. But this volcano had gotten into my head. I was intimidated. I felt old, worn, and inadequate. These thoughts ruined my chances of getting a good night’s sleep before the hike.
The morning of the ascent, a shuttle van picked us up at 5:30 a.m. My mental torment over the impending challenge had allowed me only a couple of hours of slumber. I felt like dirt. The van took us to the nearby lakeside town of Pucon, which was larger than Villarica and much more touristy. In Pucon we were dropped off at the office of the guide company. At the office we met our guides and the dozen or so other people going up the volcano with us.
Legalities were taken care of first, as all of the participants were given a liability waiver to sign. Each of us was then given a piolet, a type of ice axe used for mountaineering, and a backpack containing a helmet and other gear. I didn’t bother exploding the pack to check the gear, which would prove to be a mistake. I was to find out that there are downsides to going with a more economical guide service.
The group squeezed into a large passenger van, and we department for the volcano. The paved road turned to dirt as the van entered the park encompassing the volcano. The dirt road ascended through an evergreen forest before ending at the parking area of a ski resort which operated on the volcano’s lower slope.
Our three guides assembled us in the parking area. Our lead guide, Ramon, told us that we could take the ski lift partway up the volcano, which would cut out an hour or so of hiking up a section of loose rocks. Taking the ski lift was optional, and those so inclined could go entirely on foot. I was inclined to take the lift, and Andrea didn’t disagree.
Andrea and I watched as one of the guides began briskly hoofing it up the rocky slope with three other intrepid participants. This little group would meet us at the top of the ski lift, where the snowpack began. Ramon led the rest of the group to the lift area.
As Andrea and I got on the ski lift, I was surprised that the chairs had no safety bars. As our chair rose, suspending us dozens of meters above the ground, it felt unsafe. We wore our backpacks in front of us, which was awkward. We could only use one hand to hold onto the side of the chair to keep from falling off. A stiff wind kicked up, rocking the chair. I had to fight back the sense of panic welling up inside me. I thought we’d soon be pitched off the chair, falling to our deaths. I kept my fear silent, not wanting to give it more power by giving it a voice. Andrea broke the silence, and put her fear into words. “I’m scared,” she told me. I laughed uneasily and told her that I was scared too.
We held on for dear life and made it to the end of the lift. We were now standing on the snowpack which ran up to the top of the volcano. The group was reassembled, and we were given basic instructions on using the piolet. If we fell and started sliding down the volcano, we were to dig the ice axe into the snow, arresting our descent. I’d used a piolet before, and felt comfortable relying on it to save myself, should I go down.
It was during the piolet instructions that I realize I had gear problems. The clasp on the chin strap of my helmet was broken, making the helmet useless in a fall. The packs they gave us had no waist belt, and the clasp on the sternum strap of my pack was missing. With no waist belt or sternum strap, my pack moved about on my body as I walked, causing imbalance. I pointed these things out to Ramon, who said that nothing could be done. I was annoyed, but continued anyhow.
Walking single file, we slowly made our way up the snowy slope. A narrow path of switchbacks had been stamped into the snow by hundreds of previous hikers. While we were given crampons, metal teeth for your boots, we were told not to use them. In my mind I questioned the safety of bare-booting up the slope. I wished that I had my stabilicers, an undersole with screwheads that I used many times in New York’s Catskill Mountains. If it were not for having the piolet, I probably would have refused to ascend.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we made our way up. Sunshine beat down on the slope, its reflected rays turning the snowpack into a blinding lens of white. Sunglasses were a must.
Several other groups had set upon the volcano. Within an hour after our start, a line of a couple of hundred people snaked across the face of the volcano. As I put one foot in front of another, I focused on my breathing, trying to ignore that fact that I already felt tired. We hiked to our first resting spot, a narrow, flat area that formed a natural shelf. The exceedingly dry air had desiccated my throat. I pulled the water from my pack and rehydrated. I told Andrea that I wasn’t feeling that great, and that if I couldn’t make it, she should continue without me.
After a short break, we continued on to the second and final rest area before the summit. Between the first and second rest areas, a tightness in my chest had developed. Occasionally, a sharp pain gripped my chest. Various thoughts went through my mind: Was I feeling the effects of altitude? Were my symptoms from lack of sleep? Or was I feeling the beginnings of a heart attack?
Shortly before reaching the second rest area, I told Ramon that I wasn’t feeling well. I described my symptoms, and he responded by asking if I’d signed the liability waiver at the office. I was angered that his first concern was whether or not I’d signed the waiver. I wondered if the waiver absolved me of any wrongdoing if I buried the piolet in the back of his skull. After I told him that I had signed the form, he suggested that I make it to the next rest area and see how I feel.
Upon reaching the final rest area, I saw that the smoking caldera was close. I could smell the sulfurous odor of the gasses. Ramon told me that it was only another twenty minutes to the volcano’s rim. Despite the pains in my chest, I considered forcing myself to continue. But after a few minutes of considering, I decided that it would be foolish to continue on. I told Andrea that I wouldn’t be going any farther, and wished her luck on the rest of the journey.
I let Ramon know that I was done. He told me that Maria, one of our guides, would stay with me while the rest of the group continued. Maria, an attractive, young Chilena with raven hair and dark eyes, instructed me to sit with some guy from Brazil who was also feeling sick. To my surprise, Maria then left me and the Brazilian, telling me she was heading to the top and would return in thirty minutes. Soon after she left, the rest area emptied of hikers, and it was just the Brazillian and me, sitting like lumps in the snow.
I tried talking to the Brazilian man. But he knew no English, and I didn’t speak any Portuguese. His face looked pale and greenish, like he might barf or keel over at any moment. He probably thought the same about the way I looked.
The two of us sat in silence, perched 2,700m up in the blinding white expanse. The minutes passed by slowly. The only sounds I heard were my own breathing and the snow softening under the sun. A frustrating sense of monotony set in. I alternately stared at my feet and the land below. I tried to enjoy the scenery as much as I could, to realize that while the rest of the group continued, I was getting to know this one spot intimately. Taking in the scenery was occasionally interrupted with the urge to immediately head down the slope. I thought that I would feel better at lower altitude. But I decided to stay put. Periodically I looked at the Brazilian, who was slumped over and silent, but still breathing.
It was over an hour before I saw people starting to come down from above. I felt better knowing that I would soon be going down. To descend the volcano, we were going to slide most of the way in a seated position while using our piolets as a handbrake. To do this, each of our packs contained a special piece of plastic to sit on. The plastic covered the butt, and had a tongue that went between the legs and connected to a loop in front of our mountaineering jackets.
Various chutes had been pressed into the snow from the practice of butt sliding down the volcano. Our guides sent us off one at a time down the chutes. Andrea was behind me as I set off sliding down the slope. I realized that dangerous speeds could be achieved quickly without use of the piolet. I saw people ahead of me lose control and rocket clear out of the chute, crashing onto the slope. I saw other people get run over from behind by out of control butt pilots.
Embracing the thrill of sliding down the volcano was addictive, and I quickly understood how these accidents were happening. I found myself wanting to go faster and faster, to push the limits. After almost being catapulted over a snow berm, I made more frequent use of my piolet, and reigned in my speed.
When the snow ran out, we walked the rest of way back to the van. Andrea told me about being on the rim, about how close they were to the caldera, about the thick, acrid smoke hanging in the air, and how being so high up and exposed gave her vertigo. She told me to open my hand, and she placed in my palm a volcanic rock she’d picked up at the rim.
Sometimes it’s not about making it to the top. Sometimes it’s about showing up, making your best effort, and knowing when to call it quits. While I didn’t make it to the rim of the caldera, I did spend a lot of time on that volcano, and lived to hike another day.