By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.
For me, Chiloé was, for better or worse, a little like a Sunday. A perfectly pleasant, but slightly dreary, Sunday. Pucón has one of the most active volcanoes in South America. Pucón can never be a Sunday!
Climbing the House of Spirits
Kitted out with my bizarre yellow boiler suit, crampons, ice-axe and helmet, I have to admit my confidence was quivering useless somewhere in the toes of my standard-issue mountain boots. We had first heard about the Villarrica climb from our Andorran trekking mates in El Chaltén. They had made it to the top, but only barely. Of their group, four summited out of an initial fourteen. A gauntlet had been thrown. Damien was eager for the challenge. I was less so. Four out of fourteen – those really aren’t my kind of odds! And yet, somehow, here I am, quaking at the foot of one of South America’s most active volcanoes, Volcán Villarrica, or Rucapillán (House of Spirits) as it is known in Mapudungun, the language of the indigenous Mapuche people.
Step by step, our group of nine follows the deep, frozen footprints in a slowly weaving trail up the face of the volcano. We’re a silent bunch, each concentrating on making the climb, our ice-picks crunching out a steady rhythm. An hour in and two of our number turn back. The slope is steep and the going is slow. Our guides are setting a comfortable pace. From a distance the volcano had seemed a perfect, smooth cone. In reality, its surface is composed of peaks and valleys, sculpted icy outcrops and untouched snow fields. It is beautiful.
As we begin to rise above the clouds, the going becomes tougher. The climb, though not technical, is a constant medium-level effort – akin to climbing a steep staircase for 5 hours. My breath is coming more raggedly now and I can feel the mountain boots systematically paring away the flesh of my heels with every step. In a moment of perfect timing, our guide announces a lunch break. Plonked on the snow, we eat our packed lunch, guzzle our water and gaze at the view stretched out beyond our feet.
Ten minutes later, we’re off again, picking our way upwards. Defeated, a handful from another tour group make their way past us. I will my bloody feet on, determined to reach the top. At this point, my gremlins of doubt are beginning to uncurl themselves. Strategy: ipod! Distraction is obviously a goer for me because I manage the next two hours with no huge difficulty. Saying that, my perspective of “difficult” has probably been altered slightly since having to claw my way up mountains in Patagonia!
If feet could scream, mine would be howling by now. Again, distraction works – just as I’m about the slam into “the wall”, our guide announces that the summit is only forty-five minutes away. So close! A hand squeeze. Damien, grinning. Bolstered by the outrageous thought that I might actually make it, I attack the final ascent. A noxious, choking cloud of sulphur and volcano gases envelopes us and we pause to drag some oxygen into our lungs. Nearly there! The last five minutes are definitely the hardest and as we reach the summit, I almost can’t quite believe that I’ve made it. I am at the top of the Villarrica and the feeling is overwhelming! We peer into the crater and can hear the rumblings of the lava lake below. It’s a bit of an Indian Jones moment! Insane but wonderful!
What goes up…
The next thing I know, I’m wrapped in canvas, straddling a plastic luge and hurtling down an ice chute with only my ice-axe as a brake. It’s a two hour long helter-skelter of pure exhilaration! By the time I finally bump my way to the bottom, I’m converted. Skiing-schmiing – next time I’m bringing this plastic thingie!