Volcan Villarica smoking
Pucon is a very pretty lakeside town on Lago Villarica on the nothern end of the Lake District in Chile. It´s a convenient stopover point when heading south towards the other lakes in the region or to Bariloche on the Argentine side of the lake district. It is actually pretty fancy resort town, the lakes in the summer and skiing in the winter, complete with high-end hotels, expensive restaurants, a casino, and even a Lacoste store. For me, the main reason for coming was to climb Volcan Villarica, an active volcano with a height of about 2800 meters. You have to go up with a guide and part of the climb traverses the glacier on the middle section of the volcano so you need crampons and an ice axe to make it to the top, even in the summer. The prices for the tours are pretty steep and varied from 33,000 - 48,000 pesos.
Trekking up the glacier
Naturally, we opted for the cheapest one we could find and in the end it didn´t seem to make much of a difference. We showed up at 7am the next day hoping to make the climb, prepared with sandwiches and water and some warm clothes. The weather, unfortunately, was not cooperating, with lots of clouds and rain so the guides told us that we couldn´t go up that day and needed to come back tomorrow when the weather would supposedly be better. So again the next morning we arrived at 7am and this time were greeted with perfect weather for the climb so we all piled into the van and headed for the volcano.
The first part of the climb consists of paying an extra 5,000 pesos to take a chair lift up about 400 meters, saving you an hour or so of walking.
Climbing the volcano with the lake and town in the background
This is followed by some semi-steep climbing of some rocky slopes up to the base of the glacier. Here you put on your ice climbing equipment and begin trekking up the glacier towards the summit. If you´ve never used crampons before then let me tell you that they are incredible. It is like the difference between driving a 1984 Chrysler with rear wheel drive and an Audi S5 with all wheel drive, you simple never slip, even an inch. Of course that only applies if you do it right, one guy managed to lose his balance and slid down the face of the glacier about 50 yards and slammed into a pile of rocks, luckily he was okay and continued on, but as this was in front of everyone putting on their crampons this served as a pretty serious warning about the dangers involved.
Across the crater through some smoke
For me, climbing up the glacier was the easiest part of the whole trek. Luckily everyone made it past the glacier without any problems. The last stage was steep staircase like climbing up the loose sharp jagged volcanic rock all the way to the summit. I think this was probably the toughest part but the climbing pace set by our guide was so slow that I never got tired. It was actually slow enough to make it harder as many times I could only take one step and then was forced to stop, losing all momentum and rhythm. Standing at the top of the crater was really amazing, you could look deep inside and we were hoping to see lava but our guides told us that right now the lava level had receded deep into the crater so we wouldn´t be able to see any lava.
Sunset on Lake Villarica
The weather was perfect, without a cloud in the sky and very little wind and volcanic activity. In a few instances the winds shifted and we were all blown over with noxious sulfur fumes that burned your nose, eyes, and lungs with every second. Due to this we quickly retreated back to the other side of the crater to look at the glacier fields before heading back down the volcano. The journey down was actually a lot of fun as we got to slide down trails in the glacier, making things much faster. The final slide was in a deep trough in the glacier and wound its way down the side of the volcano like a spiral staircase. The rest of the way down was simple as we moved quickly through the loose rock and sand, returning back to the van at around 4pm. After a nice dinner in town it was time to pack up again and get some sleep before the bus trip to Bariloche the next morning.