Staring into the abyss of an active volcano and living to tell the tale
I tentatively put my gas mask on, securely sealing it in place before climbing the final few hundred metres to the summit. There, waves of sulphur were pouring off the active volcano making my eyes water, but still I was grinning from ear to ear.
To the right of my I could see the crater of Volcano Villarrica, the rock tinged yellow from all the sulphurous gas, while to my left I could see a huge white glacier, a place where hardly anyone steps foot.
Turning around, I looked down the volcano past all the ice and snow to the lake in Pucon glistening in the midday sun, seeing just how far we had come in one morning.
It didn’t matter that I was only 2,848 metres high, it felt like I was on top of the world.
My alarm went off at 5:30am. Not the earliest of starts, but still enough to question what I was doing.
Armed with my packed lunch and water for the day, I walked the 10 minutes from my hostel to Summit Chile, the guys who I was climbing Volcano Villarrica with for the day.
There, I grumbled a hello to everyone as they already had their kit laid out before them, and in almost solemn silence we started packing our bags for the hike to the top of Villarrica.
Despite the early hour, Claudio, the owner and chief guide of Summit Chile, was already working at a million miles an hour making sure everyone was happy and comfortable with their kit, stating that it was a good day for climbing.
Once we were all ready, we jumped into the minibus and made our way to Villarrica National Park.
If there were any doubts about climbing an active volcano, one that erupted as recently as March 2015, now would’ve been the time to back out…
After a 45 minute ride, we arrived at the car park in Villarrica National Park at the bottom of the volcano.
I’m not going to lie, I was so surprised at how many people there were rushing around getting ready. I thought there would be a few dozen people hiking to the top of Villrrica, not a few hundred people, but Claudio assured me that once we got on the volcano it wouldn’t matter, that we’d find a slot that’d make it feel like it was just us. Considering he’s been doing this for 20+ years I decided to believe him.
After a brief demonstration from Claudio on how to climb (keep those knees bent people!), we walked a short way to the ski lift.
From here you can clearly see the summit of Volcano Villarrica, far off into the distance. I’m not going to lie, it looked pretty daunting.
That’s why, when Claudio asked if I’d like to take the ski lift for $10,000 or climb for an extra hour and a half to the top of the ski lift, I jumped at the opportunity for an easy start to the day (it was still early after all!)
Peacefully swaying back and forth as we slowly crawled higher, the view of the volcano became clearer and clearer. The anticipation grew. It was time to climb.
The first stage was a steep 45 minute climb over rocks to get onto the slope of the volcano from which it was a straight line to the top.
At our first stop where we ate some nuts and glugged down some water, we had 10 minutes to catch our breath and appreciate the views which were already something else.
The next stage was another 45 minutes, again over rock, to get to the bottom of the glacier where Claudio showed us how to put on our crampons and gave us a demonstration of how to walk on the ice.
And then it was time to walk on the glacier itself, a blanket of white before us.
I won’t go into all the details of climbing up Volcano Villarrica – a lot of it was just me putting one foot in front of the other, very comfortable in the silence of walking, almost overawed with where we were – but it’s safe to say that the views just got more and more spectacular the higher we climbed.
We stopped off a couple of more times for a rest and to gather our energy again, especially for the final assent.
That’s when we put our gas masks on, for the final push to the top.
Then, after hours of climbing, we did it.
Claudio timed it perfectly so we were the last group to summit Villarrica, and once we got to the top there were only a few other people up there with us; it felt like we had the volcano to ourselves.
It felt so good being at the top of Volcano Villarrica – it really did feel like being on top of the world – and the views were just the best yet. They were simply astounding. It was hard to believe how far we’d come, and looking back down the volcano you can’t help but feel a huge sense of achievement.
As you’d expect, getting from the top to the bottom of the volcano was so much quicker, but not for the reason you’d think. We tobogganed down.
One thing we’d been carrying around with us all morning was a round piece of plastic, just big enough to sit on, so that’s what we did.
Again, Claudio showed us how to use these bum boards, and it wasn’t long before we were all sliding down, throwing ourselves around corners like we were professional lugists. And if you’re looking for an adrenaline high to top standing upon an active volcano, this is it.
Once we made it back to the ski lift again, it was a short 20 minute walk through the loose gravel back to the car park and the opportunity to finally relax a bit.
It’s hard to summarise hiking to the top of Volcano Villarricca – I’ve climbed a lot of volcanoes in the my time – but this is up there with the best of them. There aren’t many places where you can climb to the top of an active volcano in a day, but at Volcano Villarrica you can.
Add in the fact that you’re climbing on a glacier – no doubt a first for many people – and tobogganing back down to the bottom in an adrenaline-fuelled rush, and you really do have one of the best day hikes in the world.
A full day tour hiking to the top of Volcano Villarrica with Summit Chile costs £93 ($122) and includes all transport costs, guides and equipment for the day. If you’d like catch the ski lift to cut out an hour and a half of climbing then make sure you bring an extra $10,000.