Ice climbing

Sunday, September 25th 2011

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I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I'm in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I'd been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.

It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.

But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.

At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn't get our money back if we didn't make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.

We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.

We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn't seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn't very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn't think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides' advice. Reluctantly we turned around.

Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.

That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I'd seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I'll be back before long to try and see it up close again.

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