The clouds are well below us now and the summit is looking possible

VOLCANO LOVE Part 2: Villarrica

Read VOLCANO LOVE Part 1 here.

On the summit of Osorno, we met a friendly young Swiss couple who were taking an extended holiday in South America and skiing the volcanoes in Chile. They told us they’re heading to Pucon next to ski Villarrica, a volcano I didn’t even get to see when we were there a few weeks previously for the fun event “Avalancha en el Vulcan” due to the thick fog. Niki Salencon and I spontaneously ask them if we can come along in their rental car. We know that the weather forecast is ideal all week and conditions won’t get any better to bag some more summits.

After 20 minutes of packing and repacking, we finally all manage to squeeze into the small Fiat Duna that our new friends from Switzerland are renting. It’s a fairly long trip of 5 hours and unfortunately, we couldn’t stop to sample some of the great seafood close to the Pacific ocean. We press on and arrive at 10:30pm in Pucon, and to our horror we discover that Niki forgot all his documents and car keys in our friends’ car, which is well on the way to Bariloche by now. We drag all our stuff to a hostel and luckily there’s someone still home and we get a whole room to ourselves. By the time we get to bed it’s really late again and due to protests by Niki, I set the alarm a little later this time for 7:30am. Tomorrow we want to climb and ski the Villarrica volcano of 2,847m and the temperatures are meant to be high.

The next morning we wake to an absolute gorgeous day, Villarrica is bathed in red morning light, clearly visible from town. To our dismay, we discover that there are no buses or tour operators to take us to the base of the volcano, an 18 km drive from Pucon. We decide to try our luck hitch hiking. Half an hour later, my hopes start fading of getting a lift and on top of that, we see a weather front on the horizon, approaching incredibly fast. Just as climbing Villarrica that day was looking very unlikely, a friend of Niki’s who works in Pucon’s most popular café pulls up next to us with a big grin on his face. He offers to take us up to the volcano – finally some good luck!

Hitch hiking to the base of the volcano...anyone?
Hitch hiking to the base of the volcano…anyone?

As we drive up through the Cohue forest to the base of the volcano though, the clouds start to thicken until they cover the blue sky almost entirely. I can’t believe how fast the weather just changed, and as we start skinning up the first couple of hundred vertical meters, the fog thickens around us so much that we can’t see more than five meters ahead. We start talking about heading back, but something inside me wants to push on.

Niki fighting his way up through the fog
Niki climbing his way up through the fog

I feel that once we reach a certain altitude, we’ll punch through the fog, and at least we’re outside walking and getting some fresh air. As we climbed, the fogged thinned out and suddenly we could see the summit of Villarrica far ahead of us. Tiny black specks were inching their way towards the summit, having started out much earlier than us. Unlike Osorno, Villarrica is visited by a large number of climbers and skiers every day, considered one of the easiest volcanoes in Chile to summit. There are no crevices to fear and mountaineering equipment such as a rope and ice axe isn’t necessary. With ski crampons you can skin almost right up to the edge of the crater.

The clouds are well below us now and the summit is looking possible
The clouds are well below us now and the summit is looking possible
A tiny speck on such an enormous volcano
A tiny speck on such an enormous volcano

I settle into a steady rhythm, sliding one ski ahead of the other, taking large, slow steps. I choose a moderately steep line up the slope and although I’m doing more distance, start overtaking fellow climbers who prefer a steeper, more direct line up the mountain. Finally, we can’t continue on with our skis any longer due to the ice, so we srap our skis to our packs and put on our crampons. The wind is really strong here and is trying to blow us off the mountain, but step-by-step we approach the deep, open crater at the summit of the enormous volcano. My lungs start hurting and I dimly realize it is from breathing in the sulphur pouring out as smoke from the crater. At the top of Villarrica we can see an amazing view of Volcano Lanin and Llaima to the north, but we don’t linger too long since the wind is chilling us down to the bone.

Villarrica crater
Villarrica is one of only five volcanoes worldwide known to have an active lava lake within its crater.
View of Lanin from Villarrica
View of Lanin (3,747 m) from Villarrica, estimated to have last erupted during the last 10,000 years.

We quickly put on our skis and decide together to descend down the north-east face of the volcano, in hope of finding some powder there. Contrary to the weather forecast, the clouds prevented the sun from warming up the snow pack, leaving the snow very firm indeed. Niki is skiing ahead of me and warns me of a crevice with a sign of his ski pole. We gingerly skirt around it. The snow is firm yet grippy and we enjoy the steepness of the terrain. The sheer size of the volcano with its huge flanks, natural half-pipes, and bowls is mind-boggling. There must be more than a hundred lines to ski here! I feel very lucky to have been able to summit today, and although we didn’t have spring snow conditions as we had hoped, it was an amazing adventure that I’ll never forget.

Read VOLCANO LOVE Part 3 here.