Hiking Llaima Volcano

VOLCANO LOVE Part 3: Llaima

Read VOLCANO LOVE Part 2 and Part 1 first.

The day after skiing Villarrica, we were in town pouring over maps, organizing camping equipment, and hiring a rental car for our next adventure: Llaima Volcano, one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Chile. I felt particularly excited about Llaima since it is situated within the borders of Conguillío National Park in the wilderness.

A mountain guide friend, Jorge Kozulj, was planning to climb the north side of Llaima the following day as well, and we wanted to meet their group at the northern base of the volcano tomorrow morning at 7:00am. Finally we get everything organized and start the three hour drive from Pucon to Melipeuco and then further north into Conguillío National Park, where we can camp for the night to avoid paying the absurd rates at available accommodations nearby. Our rental car is a Fiat Duna, the cheapest we could find, and we’re hoping that the roads in the National Park aren’t too gnarly, but really we have no idea. It’s an adventure all right!

As we approach the National Park,we’re both dismayed to see that we’re leaving the good weather in Pucon behind and heading straight to some serious cloud coverage, which could ruin everything. I pray silently for good weather the following day but I’m not too worried because I know how quickly the weather changes around here. As we drive deeper into the National Park, we pass through a forest of Araucarias, evergreen coniferous trees dating back to the Jurassic era and considered sacred by the indigenous Mapuche people.

Soon night falls. Only a few kilometers before Laguna Captrén, where we plan to camp, we come to a steep incline in the dirt road. We don’t have enough speed to make it, and on top of that there are deep ruts in the soft earth causing us to come to a stand still in the middle of the incline. Niki backs up – a little too fast – and in the darkness, oversees a deep ditch of 50cm on the side of the road. I scream for him to stop as I realize we’re going to get the back wheel stuck and he brakes just in time for the tire to rest right at the edge of the ditch. There is no space to reverse the car any further, so for the next hour, we try in vain to move the car forwards and away from the gaping ditch. It was useless. The front left tire kept burying itself in the soft earth and couldn’t get any traction despite our digging efforts and putting wood underneath the tire. We couldn’t get help as there wasn’t a human soul around for miles, we were on our own. The whole project of climbing Llaima was seriously in danger since it was getting very late and we still hadn’t reached the campsite, and maybe never will! We finally realize the only way out is to go downhill. Our plan: fill up the ditch with logs, rocks and bamboo so that we can steer the car down and back towards the middle of the road. We started filling up the ditch but realized it would take us hours yet to fill it up enough, we just had to get that back wheel a little away from it towards the left! In our desperation, we tried to physically move the heck of car with a “1, 2, 3, push”! The car didn’t move an inch, and just as I was about to give up, Niki said “just one more try!”. He must have developed magical powers because on the next push, the car actually moved 5cm to the left. We looked at each other with a big grin on our faces. Then we moved the car again, and again, until the back tire was 30cm away from the ditch. Now we’re ready to perform our maneuver. Niki steers the front right wheel over the filled-up ditch and it holds! He backs the car up all the way to the bottom of the incline and wants to give it one more try. It’s already 11:30pm and I want to camp right were we are and deal with it in the morning when we can see the track better, but finally Niki convinces me and he goes for it with as much speed as our little rental car can muster. With my heart in my throat I watch him sliding left and right in the mud and just making it past the incline by the skin of his teeth! We hoot and holler in the darkness, and I’m totally pumped with adrenaline as I run up the hill towards our little car, breathless and filled with excitement at the whole situation.

The dirt road in the Conguillío National Park that almost cost us the trip
The dirt road in the Conguillío National Park that almost cost us the trip
Laguna Captrén
Laguna Captrén by day

Thanks to Niki’s daring, the volcano project is saved and we manage to set up camp at Lake Captrén by midnight. We’re in for a very short nights’ sleep indeed. We have to wake up at the crack of dawn since it’s going to be a very hot day and we have almost 2,000 vertical metres to climb. I sleep fitfully in our tent and continue filling up ditches with branches and rocks in my sleep most of the night. In the morning I feel groggy but excited, I’m awake before the alarm sounds. Try as I might I can’t convince Niki to get up, so I make my way to the car alone and start preparing sandwiches for the long day ahead. To my relief, I see that the sky is clear and admire the twinkling stars still visible just before dawn. Finally Niki shows up but we don’t speak as we start the car to drive the last 300 metres to where we think the access must be. As we see Jorge’s car approach us from the opposite direction, I feel very relieved to know we really are in the right place, and we follow his 4-wheel drive through the lava wasteland, leaving the dirt road behind us.

Our cars at Llaima Volcano
Very proud of our little rental for making it this far!

We park the cars and see that the snow is still very far away. After 40 minutes of walking over volcanic rock and ash, we finally reach the snowline. From here we head towards to summit of the volcano in a direct line, making good time in the already soft snow. I doesn’t seem like the snow froze overnight. Apart from some clouds covering the top of Llaima, the weather is picture perfect. As I look closer I realize that those aren’t clouds, but smoke pouring out of the crater. I feel excitement bubble up through me and I can’t wait to see the top, still very far away. We push on, stopping every hour for a quick drink and to eat some nuts or a cereal bar. Finally, we decide to strap our skis to our packs and put on our crampons as the slope of 40 degrees above us becomes too steep to continue on our skis. The summit looks really close now, only about 300 vertical metres away. 1,000 vertical metres later we’re still boot packing in a direct line towards the summit, looks can deceive! Just below the summit we pass Jorge’s group who is already on the decent. He warns us of big holes and cracks in the snow caused by the heat of the volcano below, and to stay in his boot pack at all times.

Hiking Llaima Volcano
Niki hiking over volcanic rock to the snowline of Llaima Volcano (2,920m)
Valley Llaima Volcano
The valley behind us with a Araucaria forest in the distance
Mountains and Araucarias Llaima Volcano
Surrounding mountains and Araucarias during the ascent of Llaima Volcano
Ski touring Llaima Volcano
Reaching the snow line with the active Llaima Volcano ahead
Climbing Llaima Volcano
The last 1,000 vertical metres rise steeply to the summit, making for great skiing

Five minutes later we finally make it! Niki and I climb over a short incline of volcanic rock, unbelievably warm to the touch, right to the edge of the crater. We can’t believe our eyes as the huge crater appears below us, engulfing us in suphur-filled smoke. It is very warm and humid, soon my hair is soaking wet. I fight an initial feeling of wanting to flee and that we shouldn’t be here. This environment is so hostile and strange to me, I feel as if we’re on another planet. We spend hours there at the crater, drinking in the raw energy of nature’s power in pure wonderment. It was one of the most surreal places I’ve ever been and an incredible experience.

Niki summit Llaima Volcano
Niki on the summit with the crater behind
Lori and Niki summit Llaima Volcano
Me and Niki on the summit of Llaima Volcano
Llaima Volcano crater
The enormous crater at the summit of Llaima Volcano

I totally forget that the snow is getting softer and softer, I totally forget about having to ski down. We finally tear ourselves away from the crater and after a quick bite to eat, click into our skis. Although the first steep slope is still good to ski, the snow quickly becomes so wet, it sucks to our skis and makes the descent unenjoyable. My legs start cramping up, I dislike this kind of snow as it feels really hard on the ligaments. I’m happy to finally reach the car and click out of my skis. It is unbelievably hot and the lava rocks around us are radiating the heat of the sun. Niki and I are a little disappointed with the run, but then I realize that this adventure was so much more than just the skiing. I am filled with energy still now, the kind of energy you can only receive from an adventure in untouched nature.

Niki skiing Llaima Volcano
Niki ready for the almost 2,000 vertical metre descent of Llaima Volcano