Fire and Ice in Chile
I once found myself being interviewed by Chilean TV News as the Villarica volcano threatened to blow its load all over the town and the stupid gringo tourists, like myself, threatening to climb it as it did so. Villarica was on the front page of the newspaper that day due to sudden eruptions threatening to ruin my adventure, along with the popular holiday town of Pucon. The town looks like an Austrian ski village, full of red wooden cabins and the smell of fireplace. It serves as a popular Chilean lake resort in cabin country, but the gringos flock in their droves to see lava spew in the air, and discuss this experience in detail at the popular bars that line Bernado O’Higgins Street. “The Chileans come for the lake, the gringos for the volcano, and neither seem to want the other,” says William, one of the tour operators. That’s because Chileans have smarts, which gringos don’t, which is why at 8am the following morning, I was on my way to climb a volcano in the midst of a seismic orgasm.
As we approached this frosted, upside-down ice-cream cone of potential death, the clouds burned off to reveal a perfect, sunny day. Sol y Nieve, the tour operator, provided boots, backpacks, razor sharp crampons, an ice pick, waterproof gear and a helmet, to stop the lava burning your hair when it runs over your body. We suited up, and mercifully caught a ski lift up the first couple hundred meters, revealing a magical view of mountains, the huge lake near Pucon, granite rivers where lava once flowed, and another volcano cone in this distance. The hike began in ashen granite rock, heading up towards the icing sugar snowline. Crampons turned my puss-in-boots into big cat monsters, with sharp teeth ready to tear apart any squirrel unfortunate to venture too close. Zigzagging single-file up the steep icy banks, putting one foot in front of another, required supreme effort, but simply turning my head to the side revealed a staggering view. Contrary to the media's depiction of Villarica as Mount Doom, the volcano seemed peaceful. Then I reached the top, where we had to ditch our bags and make a hasty final ascent. Our guide Oscar, who has been doing this for ten years and is a member of the Chilean Mountain Rescue squad, looked nervous. We could hear booms from above us, and helicopters were circling overhead. Still, we'd come so far, so we powered up the last 300m to the crater edge. Exhausted, I had to concentrate really hard to not pee in my waterproofs. The loud, primal scream of an erupting volcano is, frankly, the scariest audio my one good ear has ever had to process. It is like a lion roaring in your face shortly before it eats you. It is the sound of a tidal wave destroying an Empire State Building made of ceramic. It is the roar of a jet fighter taking off in your sphincter.
Contrary to our expectations, there was not a river of red cherry lava at the top, but rather a chocolate rocky filling letting off steam like a geyser. It would erupt, spewing lava and ash about 50 metres in the air with a tremendous roar. Then it would cool off for a few seconds, deciding whether now is the time to kill everybody in proximity. I nervously took some pictures, and made a cowardly retreat as fast as my rubbery legs would take me. Villarica was not happy, and I didn’t need to read the newspapers to believe it.
Fortunately, getting down the volcano is the most fun you can have on two ass cheeks. Narrow channels had been carved out for our bums to bob-sleigh down, reaching serious speed as we flew down the banks using ice-picks as brakes. After a 2-hour ascent, it only took about twenty minutes for this frozen water slide to deliver us to the bottom. I stuffed my inflatable travel pillow (101 uses) in my pants for a smoother ride, but still managed some spectacular wipeouts, fortunately without impaling myself on my ice-pick.
Villarica didn't end up destroying Pucon that day, or any day since. She continues to grumble, but tourists in Chile continue to climb her, as well they should. Icy-hot fun for the adventurous soul.
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.