In Patagonia Day 40
Over the years I’ve made innumerable hikes—day hikes, long weekends, or multi-month treks—and used a lot of different equipment, but never have I had to carry a gas mask until today. Pucón is a tourist town, with hot springs and winter skiing, but the main attraction is Villarica, an active volcano looming over the town, almost constantly smoking and occasionally erupting. Also known by its Mapuche name “Rucapillán” which means “spirit’s house,” its elevation is 2860m, so the peak remains snow covered year round. Almost exactly two years ago, I climbed Kilimanjaro which clocks in at 5895m, so a stroll up to Rucapillán’s peak seemed in order. Even though on clear days hundreds of people make the climb, it is anything but a stroll.
Not close to the height of Chimborazo, the volcano that pulled Alexander von Humboldt with such force, or Kilimanjaro for that matter, Villarrica does not require precautions for altitude sickness. Instead, because of its active status, care must be taken on the peak regarding the fumes which contain sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid. The climb was rigorous for a couple of reasons. In order to go up, you have to work through a tour company which provides the necessary gear including boots, crampons and ice axes. The first half of the climb is on fairly steep loose scree—basalt and andesite ranging in size from powdery sand to knee-high boulders—and big boots can be clumsy, particularly while using an ice axe as a trekking pole instead of standard height sticks. The last part is up the ice field and requires wearing crampons and following closely the hacked steps of the person in front. The day was perfectly clear—really one of the best days I’ve had on this whole wander—but the report called for higher winds later in the day, so the guides wanted to hustle to the top early and kept a strong pace. The group was small—some Israelis taking their post-military service world tour, some Chileans from Santiago on holiday, and Chloe, an Australian environmental scientist squeezing every last bit of excitement into the remaining hours of her trip. Though I’m in pretty good trekking shape just now, crampon walking uses muscles in a slightly different fashion, so I was hurting near the top.
All discomfort dropped away at the summit as the sky remained clear and the winds held off. From the edge I could see the lines of Andean volcanos stretching both north and south, helping me to understand Humboldt’s attraction to these mountains as he wanted to determine if volcanos were isolated peaks as they seem in Europe or part of a much larger geological system. Standing on top of Villarrica on a clear day shows just how big that system can be. A loud rumbling, banging sound prompted a turn away from the view out to the one in. Villarrica is the model for every child’s science-fair paper mache volcano. A perfect cone rising out of a flat plain with a nearly circular crater at the peak, spewing gas, occasionally showing a lava lake (though not today). Regular bursts of steam and gas came from a vent near the bottom, and once a large cloud of dark heavy material belched up, but most exciting or disturbing was the sound. I suppose Dante could provide some good descriptions but to me, it sounded like there were workmen in the basement taking apart a big furnace, which is guess is sort of what Villarrica is.
As if staring into the maw of hell wasn’t enough for one day, the tour group had another card to play. Descending from the crater’s edge, we gathered at the ice slope, put on heavy pants and coats along with a slick nylon “diaper” and proceeded to slide down the ice slope through tracks like crude bobsled runs. Braking with ice axes, we lost all that hard fought altitude in a matter of minutes, then trekked the last bit down soft, loose volcanic ash. It was a little over the top, but hey, it was a volcano.
T. Hugh Crawford