Volcano Fever

Saturday 02nd April 2016 –

I moved onto Puerto Varas, the town that Bauer had been singing praises about. A bus to Puerto Montt, followed by a collectivo, took me there. Kind of, anyway. Just as I got there I realised that my phone had decided to be stupid and not update my emails, so I had no idea of the address of the hostel I’d booked. Then, when the bus reached the coast, I expected it to turn left to the terminal. It didn’t. We turned right, and sped off down the lakeshore. I spent the walk back into town swearing at my phone.

A pretty cathedral in Puerto Varas.

A pretty cathedral in Puerto Varas.

I did eventually find my hostel, I reckon a testament to some rather brilliant navigational skills. A rather talkative Indian girl called Seep was showing another guy around, and suggested we go on a particular hike the next day. So we did. The other guy turned out to be a Mark, an American about to train in medicine, and we were up at 7:30 to get the bus at 8 to Petrohué. By the time we’d arrived there, about 10AM, we’d gathered another explorer – Emilie, a French girl.

I guess it was worth getting up this early...

I guess it was worth getting up this early…

The ground was soft, and not just in the Grand National manner. Nearby Volcán Calbuco blew it’s top less than a year ago, leaving the whole surrounding area covered in fine ash. Walking was significantly more awkward as a result, and I had to empty out my shoes constantly. It was pretty much a beach.

A safe bridge.

A safe bridge.

The walk itself was stunning though. It was hard to believe that I was actually less than 30 miles from where I had trekked with my dad in Argentina, thought you could see Cerro Tronador in the distance. Gone was the bamboo and rainforest like landscape, replaced by sparse trees, the shifting underfoot, and green ridges. Oh, and a volcano. Volcán Osorno looms here, and over Puerto Varas itself, with an ominous symmetricality. It’s the perfect snow covered cone, and it’s awesome.

It's a volcano! Pretty awesome, right?

It’s a volcano! Pretty awesome, right?

Our trio continued staring at it, mouths agape, most of the way around our loop. There were other sights too though. Jurassic like empty river beds drove through the landscape, plunging toward Lago Todos los Santos, and the Andean massif served as an unbroken line to the east. By the time our path had turned away from Osorno we were almost at the lake, where volcanic rock formed the beaches and sat under the crystal clear waters. It was so peaceful there, we just lay down under the warm sun and relaxed.

It's another world here.

It’s another world here.

Beers that evening were our reward for what had been, frankly, a relaxing walk. The next morning he weather had turned though. Rain spattered the ground outside, and mine and Mark’s original intention was to do nothing. Emilie, however, was determined to go to a local German town, Frutillar, so we went along too. This was less of a success. Despite my joking that we should just east some cake, that is exactly what we did. Cake and coffee in rainy frutillar.



Saturday 09th April 2016 –

I could have died. I’m not shitting you – I’m deadly serious. There was a real possibility I could have been left with naught but one of the coolest things you could surely have on a gravestone. The sort of thing which has still got to be a talking point even if you have died in a horrific freak occurrence. In loving memory of Doug – Handsome son and all round awesome person – Killed by volcanic eruption 03/04/2016.

Volcán Villarrica. Looks all innocent from here.

Volcán Villarrica. Looks all innocent from here.

The important thing to remember though, is that I am, believe it or not, still alive. So dry those tears all of you must have at the envisaging of such a devastating blow to mankind, and I shall recount the story.

Volcano climbers. We're a cool bunch.

Volcano climbers. We’re a cool bunch.

We began on the morning of the aforementioned date, in the most touristy of little Chilean tourist towns – Pucón. Darkness still encapsulated all when I woke at 5:30, and in fact would continue to do so for another couple of hours yet, but I was pleased. Somehow, I had wormed my way onto the day’s trip up Volcán Villarrica, despite my only arriving the evening before. Bad weather was projected to arrive by 3PM, meaning we would have to take the chairlift some of the way to save time, and so a German couple had dropped out. I snapped up the space.

Looking up from base camp.

Looking up from base camp.

By six we were ready, and our guides arrived to give us the stuff we would need, and fit our boots – big solid ones were needed to attach crampons to. Big inflexible boots I later swore were designed to blister. Nevertheless, soon we were off in Leo’s jeep, and bouncing up and down the track to Villarrica base camp.

In the interests of safety this chairlift has no bar in front of you.

In the interests of safety this chairlift has no bar in front of you.

Before I get any further, I should probably mention that Villarrica has previous when it comes to getting angry. In March 2015 it erupted after a month of threats, which is why people can no longer walk around the rim. In fact, it only reopened to tourists last November, and the Chilean government has set a strict time limit of no more than five minutes at the top. To compound the thought, for the past week or two much more magma had been visible in the crater than normal, though it was still at a green, climbable level of risk. It’s regarded as one of the most (if not the most) active volcanoes in Chile, and to be fair there are over 2000 of them.

There's nothing quite this high about.

There’s nothing quite this high about.

Once at base camp, we clothed up (it was a bit chilly) and quickly took the chairlift. From ~1400m to ~1800m it took us, apparently slicing off 90 minutes walk straight away. The crater lay at 2860m, of about 3 1/2 hours away. In the interests of full disclosure, the climb itself was not the most interesting, mostly looking at foot placement. However, some of that may have had to do with the heel blisters that I was rapidly developing. Still, the views were amazing, and the ice, when we had put crampons on, was nice and solid underfoot. Really, it was near the top that things started hotting up.

It's steep.

It’s steep.

As we sat down to leave our rucksacks for the final 15 minutes of the climb, radios began buzzing in every direction. Rapid fire Chilean exploded from them, and a few apprehensive looks got passed about. It was CONAF, the Chilean park conservation agency, and the government had told them they’d detected some abnormal readings from the volcano. The guides were to go up and check it out first, like canaries.

There's a little magma...

There’s a little magma…

After a few minutes our group went up anyway, eager not to miss out, especially now we were so close. One of the guides waved us down as we got close, saying it was dangerous. We weren’t sure if he was taking the piss or not. Then our guide told us we would only have one minute at the top, and we’d have to be really quick. It finally hit home.

No, there's a lot!

No, there’s a lot!

There was newly formed volcanic rock on the ground as we ran around the side of the crater. Fresh, and only just solidified. One hit to the face with one of those and you’re a goner. Quickly, we reached the viewpoint and saw what all the fuss was about. Bright red magma bubbled away inside the crater, spitting and spewing as it churned into itself. “Twenty seconds” we heard the guide actually count down, an element of panic creeping into his voice, and we were off. Reluctant, but understanding.

Suddenly, as we ran, the bass rumbled a bit more, and we all turned to see the magma explode into the air, well above the rim of the crater, turning black as it rose. The other guide screamed in excitement, and time paused for a few seconds, as if to process the moment. Then, as quickly as we climbed, we ran back down – sweaty and smiling as if in a fever. Volcano fever.

The journey to the bottom was much quicker than going up – a combination of our rushing, malleable sandy ash, and glacier sledding. Yes, we outslid the volcano, on our arses, with only an ice pick to slow our descent. This may have led to a few crashes, and maybe some angry looks (I can’t help other people being slow!) but especially with the fever still gripping us, it was awesome. By the time we reached the bottom we were knackered. Later, we were informed that the volcano was closed for safety the next day, and after that the magma ceased to be clearly visible.

A bit of sledging doesn't go amiss.

A bit of sledging doesn’t go amiss.

There was more to my stay in Pucón than the volcano though. After a much needed day to rest, I undertook another hike, which surprisingly turned out to be more tiring than scaling the volcano. Within Parque National Huerquehue lay the San Sebastian viewpoint, a mirador with apparent amazing views. After debating it for a while, I eventually made the decision to go sometime after 12AM in this morning, after finishing a bottle wine. Hence, after rolling out of bed and almost missing the bus, it was bad news when the park ranger told me there was nowhere to fill my water on the way – I’d only brought a 750ml bottle.

The three volcanoes can be seen.

The three volcanoes can be seen.

It didn’t help that the walk was ALL climb, either. Even plodding up the first section I was busy swearing to myself, as I continued to sweat out the previous night’s wine, and rationing my water became the overriding thought. Nevertheless, I couldn’t get the bus back till 5PM, so I figured I might as well get on with it. It was worth it, too.

Craggy peaks and rock faces are everywhere.

Craggy peaks and rock faces are everywhere.

Three hours and 1300 metres of ascent later, after a bit of almost vertical root climbing and scrambling over rocks, I reached the top. My god, were the views good. For dozens of miles around I could see, revealing not just the one volcano everybody hears about, but at least eight volcanoes, and yet more mounds of a suspicious variety. Included in these were Volcáns Lanín and Quetrupillán of the same perpendicular to the Andes chain as Villarrica, and Nevados del Sollipulli, far in this opposite direction. Really a spectacle to behold.

How many is too many volcanoes?

How many is too many volcanoes?

I put my body on the line again the next time I went out, for Hydrospeed. I’d never heard of it before, but apparently this is the only place in South America you can do it, so I, along with Shira, went to check it out. It’s a fairly simple premise – rafting, without a raft.

Some climbing around rocks is required.

Some climbing around rocks is required.

OK, so its not quite like that – we were each given a big foam board and a beasty padded wetsuit to protect us, and as we started out, the rapids didn’t look very big. They soon got big though, as we were tossed everywhere, slammed into rocks and flipped over by waves that suddenly looked like we were surfing one of those giant ones. One of the guys reckoned it had a danger level of nine, but I reckon it was probably only a four. Let’s face it – I’ve climbed an exploding volcano and looked death in the face – some rapids are no worry.

Hurtling down these is fun.

Hurtling down these is fun.

Before I left the next evening, a few of us including Shira, James and Maggie went out kayaking in the bay. I have to say the bay really, as I don’t think we could honestly say we really ventured into the lake proper – we were terrible. No matter what we did, we seemed to list to one side, and had an inability to go straight. It took some quick(ish) dodging to get out of the way of a couple of passengers ferries, at which point we got a round of applause from the passengers. Mad skills, see?

Beautiful sunset in Pucón.

Beautiful sunset in Pucón.

We made it back in the end, and it was almost time to go – hostel pub quiz aside. I’d spent some time in Pucón trying to figure out where to go next, and since Mark (and many others) had told me about workaway, I’d fancied giving that a try. Where could i go though? Wine regions in Chile? The beaches to try out some surfing? Mendoza? I eventually realised that I’d left these all a bit late to book, so I decided to save a workaway for somewhere else. For now, I would be off to Santiago, Chile’s capital, and Valparaiso.

N.B. On a completely different note, I have actually finally retrieved the picrure of me with a caiman in the amazon from back in September! Check it out here. I will also add another magma video to this post later, as soon as i figure out how! It’s magma, so honestly worth seeing a hundred times!

About Doug

Here you will find the (hopefully) up to date adventures of the incredibly handsome pioneering explorer, Doug. As modest as he is wise, as awesome as he is brave, Doug will endeavor to recite the tales of his travels with utmost accuracy. No embellishment whatsoever.

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