"Don't Climb it, own it" - The story of broken dreams, determination, human endurance and triumph.
Well not really...But it was one bloody hard climb!
They assured us that we just needed to be fit and have no major health problems
I'm not sure if any of us were prepared for what was ahead of us when we signed up to climbing the Villarrica Volcano. Perfectly shaped, it overlooks the small town of Pucon at 9,340 feet. It is also known as Rucapillán, a Mapuche word meaning "House of the Pillán"...and of course translated to "House of Pain" for those who climb it. It is one of Chile's most active volcanoes and its last major eruption was in 1971 where it destroyed the Ski resort on the foothills of the Volcano.
Our guides came around the night before the climb to fit us out with our boots, crampons, backpacks and clothes. Holding the ice axe made it complete. The atmosphere was full of light-hearted banter as we tried to gauge from the guides how hard the climb would be. They assured us that we just needed to be fit and have no major health problems and it would only take around 4-6 hours. Satisfied with that, we proceeded to drink more wine and get a good night's rest
The following morning was filled with activity and nervous energy. Everyone had their game faces on, tempered with more light hearted banter and general crap talk. It was an early start and we were away by 7am, making our way by bus to the foot of the volcano.
As we drew near, catching glimpses of the volcano in the early morning sun through the trees, the Volcano seemed to grow. It continued to grow right up until we arrived at base camp where we all jumped out of the bus. I'm sure most of us were thinking "What's the cancellation policy on this activity?". Not me, I had been looking forward to this since the start of the trip. I had never climbed a mountain and have never really been affected by altitude sickness. This ignorance on my part probably helped.
Every journey starts with one step
I was already sweating after an hour of 'strolling'
After final adjustments of our equipment and quick happy snaps, we set off. Snow covered the volcano right up to the base camp and it started off with a slow gradual incline, walking alongside the ski lift that dotted the foot of the volcano. It was a perfect day for climbing, with the sun shining, hardly a cloud in the sky and little or no wind. I was already sweating after an hour of 'strolling'. I had 5 top layers of clothing and was regretting it. Luckily our first stop was just a little over an hour, at the midpoint of the ski lifts.
Looking up at the Volcano at this point, it felt like we had made no progress. But looking back, I could see we had walked quite a long way. We were still on the relatively flat part of the volcano so I took the opportunity to take stock of my layers and take the waterproof jacket off. It wasn't like it was going to rain. The atmosphere in the group was still very positive and there had been no casualties yet. The guides took this opportunity to show us how to use the ice axe, which up to this point, we had no need for. Everyone quickly put their game faces back on as he showed us how to do an ice axe arrest. This is a technique where you use your ice axe, along with 3 Hail Marys to stop yourself from sliding down the icy mountain if you slip. Oh, and that's what our helmets were for. I could tell by the looks on some of our faces that some of us weren't expecting this. I continued to take comfort in my ignorance.
Hail Mary, full of grace
Reflexes kicked in and before I knew it I was on my stomach
So once again we stepped off, the incline gradually becoming steeper and the ice more slippery. We had not put on our crampons yet so I assumed that it was only going to get more treacherous. My first slip came when we traversed the side of a slope which was well over 45 degrees. I lost my footing and I started off on "Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee". Reflexes kicked in and before I knew it I was on my stomach, body on top of the ice axe, digging into the snow and ice for dear life. I had only slid a metre before the axe caught on but it was another sheer 50m slide down the ice if it hadn't. A slide if I was lucky. A tumble if I wasn't.
I continued on and I wasn't the only one to slip on the same patch of ice. Sam and a couple of others also started off on their respective prayers and ice axe actions. I was really worried about Sam and it got to the point where I was nagging her at almost every step to be careful, or use the ice axe properly. I think she was tempted to turn around and do an ice axe arrest on me at one point. I was just being the loving, caring, worried husband. No brownie points for me there.
Cramps and Crampons
Vamos Jon, Vamos
We made our way to the old Ski Lifts that had been destroyed in the 1971 eruption. It's charred remains still jutting out of the snow. I think everyone was relieved to have a rest and we all swapped some close call stories. A few of us were already lagging behind and some of the guides had to drop back to accompany them. We had been climbing for over 2 hours and a few of us were ready to call it a day. To make it to this point was a great effort but with the introduction of the crampons, some people thought it better to admire the view from here and make their way back down. Sam and I had discussed it and agreed that it was better she head down as well. I was still worried she would send that ice axe through my head if she continued.
As soon as we set off on crampons, the wind picked up and things started to get serious. There were a couple of other climbing groups making their way up and a couple of people were hiking their ski and snowboarding gear up there. I was planning to hike up with a snowboard but with the wind picking up, I was glad I didn't as I would have been airborne.
The cramps started coming in waves and the thighs were burning. Each step started to become laborious as we passed 6000ft. We weren't at the point where altitude sickness kicks in (around 7500ft) but there was more and more ice and steep slopes. Some of us were powering along, up at the front of the line. Erin was from Lake Tahoe and she was used to the high altitude and was leading the way along with the Guide. I was right behind Kim, who was a foot and a half taller than me and so her strides were large enough for me to have to make an extra effort to step in her steps. Lauren and I stuck together as we drew closer to altitude sickness zone. Trevor was drifting between groups as he took smoke breaks (jokes) and just behind us were Claire and Jon. At some points we couldn't see Jon but we sure could hear him. "Vamos Jon, Vamos" .... "F your Vamos!!" came the response. A bit further back and doing really well to keep up was Kat, with her own guide.
Thin Air and Small Goals
10 to 15 grueling steps, 10 second rest to catch your breath, repeat
I didn't notice when we hit 7500ft until a bit later on. We had a bit of a rest to enjoy the view and get down some much needed sustenance of anything that contained sugar. I had the best Salami sandwich ever (kinda like having a kebab after a big night out). There was only around 1500ft left but when we were told there was another hour of climbing, my heart almost sank. It's not that I was exhausted. I was actually fine when we weren't moving. It was the pain of putting one foot in front of the other in foot deep snow or glass like ice. The crampons felt like sacks of wet sand and I was swinging between hot and sweaty to cold and wet.
The last 1500ft was a constant cycle of setting small goals consisting of 10 to 15 grueling steps, 10 second rest to catch your breath, repeat. The air was thinning and every gasp for air was as grueling as the steps. The smoke that had been bellowing from the top of the volcano all day slowly came closer and closer but as we reached a ridge we thought would be the crater, we were faced with another ridge. After what I thought was climbing for an hour, I realised we had only been climbing for half that. That last half an hour of climbing was one of the hardest things I'd ever done. That includes the 10 day army exercise which rained every night, 30 degree heat in the day, and an average of 4hrs sleep. What actually helped me was the "Thumb in bum, mind in neutral" approach that the army taught us when we would do pack marches. Basically put your head down, put your mind in neutral, drown out the pain and keep going.
Volcano, you're mine
Duck and Cover ran through my head
Slowly but surely the smell of sulfur and the faint grumblings of the crater grew stronger. Before I knew it, I was there. I could see the final ridge and there was no mistaking it was the lip of the crater. I could see the origin of the smoke and the other side of the crater. It was one of the most amazing feelings and for a moment, I forgot about the lack of oxygen and almost ran to the edge of it.
We were greeted with a huge roar and boom from the crater. We all looked at each other, not really sure what to do. "Duck and Cover" ran through my head as I knew it would protect me from lava and pyroclastic flow..Yeah right. But there we were, looking down into the crater in awe, trying to avoid the constant gushes of sulfur clouds the volcano spewed out. Some of it so bad that you had to hold your breath until the cloud went over. The scenery was amazing as you could see the small lake town of Pucon and 6 other volcanoes in the region
We donned our sliding nappies
It had taken us approx 5 hrs to reach the top. What they didn't tell us was that it would take almost 2 hours to get back down. The coming back down bit had escaped me throughout the whole climb. We had spent that last 5 hours trying to avoid slipping and sliding down the mountain. Ironically, this was the very way we were going to get down. We were going to slide down the side of the volcano. The ice and snow had soften now it was late afternoon and we were assured it was safe to slide down on our butts. So we donned our sliding nappies (Wasn't sure what they were when it was first given to us) and one after the other, we sat down and slid down the volcano, using our ice axes as brakes. If the ice axe failed as brakes, we had our feet, hands, torso, body and any other part of the body to use. At that point, you were basically tumbling down, but it was all good fun.
Triumph and Satisfaction
A couple of near misses and collisions on the slide down and before we knew it, we were back to the top of the chair lifts. At that point, it was flat walking all the way back to base camp. That was one of the longest walks as it took almost an hour but felt like 3. The highs of conquering the volcano had long passed and it was just a matter of getting back to the hostel. Still, spirits were high, even if our bodies battered and a quiet feeling of satisfaction and triumph descended upon us as we rode into the sunset, back to our home away from home.
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* All people, places and events in this story are real, although some parts are over dramatized for impact and artistic purposes..kinda like bull, but not