Volcano Villarica is towering above Pucon and lake Villarica, sending clouds of smoke into the air. It has a perfect shape, almost symetrical slopes getting steeper towards the top and the crater cut into the topmost part. On a clear day the view from Pucon is so perfect, you can´t take your eyes off it.
The indigenous Mapuche people knew Villarica (pronounced as Vee-ya-ree-kah) by the name of Rucapillan, meaning 'house of spirits', and believed the mountain to be abode of their ancestors. The volcano is extremely active and unpredictable. It has a history of eruptions in 20th century, the strongest in 1971, when a 4km-wide fracture opened, releasing massive lava flows that destroyed a small town of Conaripe and only just spared Pucon. Despite all that activity, Villarica is the most climbed high summit in Chile. Almost a dozen outdoor-adventure companies in Pucon organise guided ascents the volcano.
After doing some research we decided to climb Villarica with Sol y Nieve, a reputable company that comes recommended by LP and sources on the net, but one of the expensive ones. In their office we were told that their group for the next day is full, because of a back log of people waiting to climb the volcano (the weather was playing out for several days, and in bad weather all the climbs are canceled), but the owner was nice enough to recommend another company - Elementos, which I guess they work frequently with. We headed over to Elementos and booked our climb.
Elementos provided all the equipment - boots, crampons, heavy duty jacket and pants, helmet, ice-axe, backpack and a sled. All the equipment from Black Diamond. We were asked to bring sandwiches for lunch, chocolates and other snacks for short breaks, and water + energy drink. Meetig time was set to 6:30am, quick half an hour breakfast and leaving for the volcano at 7:00am.
We arrived at the office on time and met our guide, Pedro, as well as another couple of climbers, father and daughter from Phoenix, Arizona. After some coffee and cereal we packed our sacks and were ready to go, but we spent almost an hour waiting for our transfer because it was stuck picking up the rest of our group from a hostel. They arrived around 8:00am and we headed out to the Villarica National Park.
We arrived at Refugio Villarica, 1420m, where the climb begins and got a quick safety briefing as well as an explanation of current weather conditions. It was very cloudy and damp. We were told that the chairlift that we were supposed to take part of the way up is not operational because of the winds and that it is not definite that we can reach the summit today because of the weather. Pablo said that based on the light he can tell that the clouds are not very thick, but it is up to us if we want to risk not making it all the way up. Obviously we decided to take our chances, put the equipment packs on our shoulders and began the climb.
Lucky for us the chair lift started working when we were just getting on the trail and we were able to take it up to 1882m, that saved us a nasty 1hr hike up a very deep gravel track. From there to the top it was about 3hr climb, to the 2847m summit. Not quite the Everest, but enough for a first mountaineering experience.
There is not much to tell about the climb. You walk in a line, one after another, drawing a zigzag on the face of the mountain, supporting yourself with the ice axe. There are many groups and all of them are following the same thin trail of footsteps imprinted into the snow. You look left and right, up and down and all you see is the snow and the clouds - at least for the first hour.
After the first stop a large part of our group started falling behind and Pablo led us, father and daughter, and another Brazilian girl, all by himself, leaving the slow part of the group to the other guides. With Pablo in the head setting the speed we were pushing on and soon enough were through the clouds. That's where we started enjoying the climb a bit more, seeing endless sheet of clouds with distant tips of mountains peeking through and with a smoking summit of Villarica above us really did make it worth the effort. Being a small group we were climbing a bit faster than the other groups, so now and the Pablo would take us off the trail to pass a slower group and we would draw a zigzag of our own in the snow. By the time we stopped for lunch we were fourth or maybe fifth group, and we were one of the last to start the ascent.
During lunch Pablo received news on the radio that the upper slopes are quite icy and that we need to put the crampons on. Following another short briefing we set on. Soon afterwards we passed a ridge and got out onto an icy slope leading straight to the crater. The wind, not blocked anymore by the ridge, was angry, and the trail was pretty icy, but with crampons it really wasn't an issue. More of an issue was a snow, that would get deep at spots and our feet would slide back down the slope making the progress slow and burning a lot of energy.
To make the story short, the last push was the hardest. The slope is the steepest before the summit. My legs were saying no to every step, while Jenn somehow got her second breath, after suffering most of the way up, and was pushing harder than anyone in the group to make it to the top. Maybe it was partially because she was dying to pee... Anyway, after another 40min or so we made it to the summit and it felt great.
The view from the top of the volcano was amazing, especially with all the clouds around it, it felt like we are at the top of the world. Unfortunately, looking into the crater we couldn't see much because of heavy smoke obscuring the view, but who cares - the surrounding view was greater.
We were one of the first groups to make it to the crater and as the limited area around it started filling up with new arrivals, Pablo led us back down to start the fun part of the excursion - getting down to the bottom. While climbing up is pain, descending is awesome. You sit on your ass in a trench in the snow, leading down the slope, trench carved by hundreds of other asses before you, and slide down! When the slopes get less steep you use the plastic sled to slide and pick up more speed. You brake using your ice axe and try avoiding the rocks sticking out of the snow.
We wished we had our snowboards, but sliding was lots of fun. It took us 45min to get down to where the truck left us. Tired, but with big smiles we changed cloth, got in the truck and headed back to town, munching on the remaining sandwiches on the way.
Villarica - check.