Close to the heat

Thursday, December 1st 2005

Pucón is a popular place to go in Chile, with all sorts of adventure sports happening in the surrounding areas. For me, the big draw was Volcán Villarrica, a perfect Fuji-like snow-capped conical mountain to the south of town, which has an active lava lake in its crater. I wanted to climb it, and get closer to lava than I'd managed on previous trips to active volcanoes in Sicily and Central America. I'd seen lava fountains at Etna, watched glowing house-sized boulders tumble down the mountain side at Arenal in Costa Rica, and listened to the roar of Volcán Santamaría as I camped on its summit in Guatemala, but here I had the opportunity to stand on the rim of an active crater.

Disturbingly, I was woken on my first morning in Pucón by wailing air-raid sirens. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked out of my window half expecting to see a cataclysmic volcanic eruption underway, but Villarrica was just gently steaming and the sirens stopped as soon as they had begun. They went off several times during my stay, and I never worked out what they signified. Around town there were various signs detailing the procedure should any volcanic emergency occur, but they didn't mention air-raid sirens at all.

At 7am the following morning I was in the offices of a climbing company, kitting myself up along with two Germans and four Spanish women, getting ready for the climb to the top of the 2,850m mountain. I'd watched an amazing sunrise over the volcano, and the weather looked like it was perfect for climbing. By 9am we were at a ski station at the edge of the snowline, getting on our crampons and setting off for the top. Wearing heavy rigid boots suitable for ice climbing made the going slow at first, but I soon got used to them and wanted to up the pace a bit. Unfortunately the Spanish women proved to be appallingly unfit, and although we had two guides with our group of seven and could have split up, our guides kept us all together at the slow pace. I got more and more frustrated, and started talking to the Germans in German to slag off the Spanish women. The three of us agreed that they shouldn't have been allowed to climb, and united in our anger we trudged on up the ever-steepening slopes.

I could see clouds coming in from the east, but we continued at our interminably slow pace. The Germans taught me useful insults and we cursed our way up. By 2pm we had only a few tens of metres to go, but had to wait while one of the Spanish women overcame terrible laziness to motivate herself to carry on. At about 2.30pm we finally made it to the crater's edge, at the same time as the clouds, and for a few minutes I was furious as visibility was reduced to zero. Luckily it was patchy cloud and soon after the summit was uncovered, revealing a small patch of glowing lava, steaming away. Soon a small explosion sent lava spattering around inside the crater, and then a much larger explosion hurled glowing chunks to some height above the crater rim. We could feel the heat strongly, and despite my annoyance with the Spaniards I was enjoying this.

We walked a little way around the crater to a better viewpoint, and I took as many photos and videos as I could. Unfortunately the cold meant that my digital camera batteries ran out ridiculously quickly and I only managed to catch one small explosion on video. Then suddenly the earth shook and the lava lake fountained out a huge spray of molten rock, which covered the area we'd been standing just a few minutes before, and sent some other climbers running for cover. "We'd better get out of here", said the guide. Having climbed for five hours I'd wanted to spend a little bit more than 20 minutes at the top, and I told him I'd wait until I'd seen one more explosion, and would catch them up. The Spaniards set off down, I saw one more good explosion and felt the tremendous heat from the molten rock, before reluctantly heading down.

I was still in a bit of a bad mood, but when I realised that our plan for descending a mile and a half back to the snowline was to sit down and slide I got a lot happier. The slopes were so steep that we quickly built up tremendous speed, and I had to use my ice axe to stop myself from sliding out of control. Although I feared that it would result in me picking up fragments of optics and electronics at the bottom of the mountain, I decided to take some footage of the descent, and managed not to drop the camera. Barely 45 minutes later we were back down at the snowline, and even though the Spanish women even managed to be really slow at sliding down icy slopes, we returned to Pucón pretty pleased with the day. I spent the evening watching the mountain top glowing red in the distance from the shores of the lake at the edge of town.

The next day I realised that despite my best efforts with sun block, I'd missed a bit. The sunlight reflecting off the ice had burned my septum, and it was astonishingly painful. I spent the day moisturising intensively and trying not to breathe through my nose. I was aching from the climb despite its slow pace, and spent most of the day relaxing by the lake. But I had to move on, and at 5pm I headed for Temuco, to catch the overnight train from there to Santiago.

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