Climbing Mount Villarrica. Chile.

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write up for a long time and have finally got around to doing so.

Last year, I travelled down to the Chilean Lake District.  I flew down to Buenos Aires on an excellent Lufthansa First Class fare, and then connected through from there to Santiago and then from there, down to Temuco (IATA Code: ZCO) with LATAM.

Temuco is about a ninety-minute drive from the town of Pucón where I stayed for the trip, with most of the journey down a pretty good highway, passing through the town of Villarrica on the way from the airport.

One of the main attractions in this part of Chile is the rather stunning Mount Villarrica, rising 2860m high above sea level.  Wikipedia explains that it’s a stratovolcano which has an active, but intermittent lava lake within its crater.  Its last notable eruption was in 2015, with prior ones in 1971/72 and 1963/64.

One of the most popular things to do is to climb the volcano and there are a number of tours geared up to do exactly that.  They’ll provide you with all the equipment and supplies you need – all you need to do is bring yourself, some drinking water, sunscreen and some sturdy clothing.

The day before the ascent, I was picked up from the hotel and driven to the company’s base to get kitted up.  This included some pretty tough boots with detachable crampons (more on that later), some overalls, a backpack, plastic sled, helmet, ice-pick, and a bunch of other stuff.  Having got kitted up, they promised to be back for us at 6am the next morning.

Getting up and ready, it was still pitch-dark out.  The minibus made a number of other stops at a few of the other hotels and hostels in Pucón, before starting the hour’s drive to the base of the mountain.  There was a further thirty-minute drive up the base of the volcano to where we would start our hike.  We arrived just as dawn was breaking, at around 7.30 in the morning.  It was pretty cold by this point, perhaps just 3 or 4 degrees out.

The first 400m of the ascent are via a very old and rickety two-person chairlift.  For those readers that have skied at any modern resort, this was very definitely not one of the newer high-speed six or eight person lifts with heated seats and bubbles!  You don’t have to take the lift and I’m told it doesn’t always work, but given how knackered I was at the end, I’d very, very strongly recommend it. 

Whilst there were about twelve people in our group, with three guides, there were perhaps another ten groups in total, meaning roughly 80 to 100 people making the ascent with us at the same time.  Whilst that seems a lot, everyone was very spread out so didn’t seem crowded in the slightest.

The lift ended at about 1800m ASL, giving us roughly another vertical kilometre to make the summit.

The next couple of hours were a relatively straight-forward, slow hike over small rocks and boulders, taking us up to perhaps 2200m ASL.  The scenery and views were breath-taking.

The first main break was when we reached the base of the glacier that surrounds the volcano’s cone.  It was at this point that as well as stopping for some water and food, that the guides helped us take our crampons out of our backpacks and strapped them to our boots.

Now I’ve never ever walked on crampons before, but it was really tough going.  It was another perhaps three hours walking up a further 400 vertical meters across the glacier.  The guides throughout were very safety conscious, telling us to walk directly behind them, and pointing out the known crevasses as we ascended.

Once past the glacier, it was back to climbing over rocks and rubble.  We had perhaps another 200 vertical meters to go and I was already feeling quite tired.  The group stopped for another ten to fifteen minute break to take in the views before making the final push to the summit.

Looking up at Mount Villarrica

The final trek up to the summit was a slog.  The rocks were unstable, the paths not very well defined and the altitude made the climb hard.

However the views at the top were worth it.  Thankfully while we were there, the crater itself was very inactive, with just a small amount of steam gently rising from inside the volcano.  One of the items in our packs was a gas mask which was there in case it was particularly active, or if there was a large amount of sulphurous gases being emitted.

Steam being emitted from the volcano

We perhaps took between 45 minutes and an hour at the top looking around, taking photos and admiring the truly incredible place that we were in.

The first 200m of the journey down was exactly the same way that we had ascended, leading us to the top of the glacier surrounding the cone.

This is where we noticed a number of gulleys in the ice, perhaps a meter wide and a meter deep, like small snowboard half pipes.

Rather than walk down as we’d walked up, we would all be sliding down the glacier, on bits of plastic, with the ice pick as a brake to help slow us down.  This was completely crazy, bloody dangerous, with no semblance of health and safety, but fantastic fun.

Sliding down Mount Villarrica

There were multiple slides over the course of the next two hours or so, getting us down to the bottom of the glacier.

From there, it was a further two hours of walking down loose ash to return to where we started.  By this point, it was a glorious sunny afternoon and getting pretty hot, at least 25C, with a strong sun beating down on us.

Roughly 10 hours after we left the minibus and started the hike up, we got back to where we started.  I was physically completely drained; utterly exhausted.

Thoughts

Climbing the volcano was one of the most incredible and amazing things I’ve ever done.  The Chilean lake district is one of the most beautiful places on the planet with when I think about, very few tourists compared to some places I’ve been.  The ascent of Mount Villarrica was one of the best things that I’ve done in my life and I can’t recommend this place and trip more highly to anyone.

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