Pucon (aka Dean and Katy versus the Volcano......)
We arrived in Pucon and were pounced upon by representatives from local hostels.We fended off one, but the second in line grabbed our hands and led us the few steps to his front door. It's a decent place for a decent price and conveniently he also runs tours up the volcano. We agreed a price and whilst Katy sorted some stuff out, I head off to explore the pretty town. Not much to it really: a nice lake, a black sandy beach, twee wooden shops and houses, smart streets lined with restaurants and tour agencies...and all the while that volcano looms over it all, silently challenging those below.
Volcano Villarrica http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villarrica_(volcano)
It was still dark when our day started with a mini bus ride to the trek starting point with 4 other passengers. Maybe we were all still half asleep or mentally preparing ourselves for what was to come, but there was no conversation in the back of the bus. At first light we began our ascent, starting up the easy gradual incline towards the section of the volcano that is reserved for the skiers and snowboarders who would later be hurtling down its slopes. Our guide waited patiently as we stopped and took pictures of ourselves; laughing at how daft we looked dressed in our bright yellow and black jackets and trousers. You'll notice that we're all smiles in the early photos before we realised just how tough the challenge ahead was going to be.
I'd read reviews from other travellers about this trip and how hard they found it. As we progressed through those early stages I was wondering what all their fuss was about - this was easy! Feeling like seasoned trekkers, we marched on as the rising morning sun glinted spectacularly off the white slopes - stopping every hour or so for food, water and to absorb the incredible surrounding scenery, whilst chuckling at our helmets with 'CAMP' emblazoned on the front.
Soon we were instructed to attach crampons to our sturdy walking boots and began zig-zagging our way up the incline as the slopes got gradually higher, steeper and harder. We took regular stops too for an intake of air - only to have that breath taken away by the staggering enormity of the views across the Chilean lake district. To our right we could see the vast mountain ranges that stretch for miles dotted with the snowy peaks of the region's other volcanoes. To our left, we could see Pucon and neighbouring Villarrica, now looking like miniature toy towns far in the distance. We turned back to face the mountain and saw bad weather approaching from our right - dark, ominous clouds that would surely bring rain and snow. We would have to rush to reach the summit.
Upon reaching a crest in the mountain an hour later we encountered a group of hikers being led back down. The guides talked rapidly to each other in barely audible Spanish and we wondered whether we too would be making a premature return journey. The top of the volcano appeared to be just a short distance ahead and I was loathed to be turning back - we were so close! After establishing that everyone in the group was ok, our guide made the decision to continue.
I was uncomfortably sweating beneath my several layers as I remembered the words of 80's soul legend Billy Ocean. With "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" ringing around my head, I urged my tiring legs forward. The wind picked up as we ascended the now 45 degree incline and I noticed Katy getting more nervous and quiet. The sharp cold winds that greeted us with each onward step made me think of every snow based film I've ever seen - Cliffhanger, The Empire Strikes Back, Alive... the Lord of the Rings snow mountain scene when the fellowship are being led up Caradhras...Although we were on no quest, it now felt like a personal mission for us to make it to the top. As I plunged my pickaxe into the deep snow I was sure that I could feel the mountain trembling with anger....
When we paused again for a moment to take a breath and take in the amazing views I expected to be told that we were turning back, but to my surprise, we continued to forge on. All of a sudden the weather turned fierce and I began to feel nervous.
The wind was now blowing hard as we rounded a corner and passed the huge ice crusted lava formations near the crest of the volcano. The plastic ladle-like "sled" that was attached to my rucksack was repeatedly whipped up by the wind, constantly smacking my head so hard that at one point I was convinced that it had drawn blood. The clouds that we had been racing against earlier hung eerily overhead, pregnant with rain and snow. I urged my tired legs forward and raced the last few strides past my companions to the summit.
Like a howling banshee from a frozen hell, the wind immediately screamed its indignation and enveloped us in a furious maelstrom of freezing rain and ice that felt like shards of glass being thrown against our faces. In a daze, I got carried involuntarily towards the gaping chasm of the volcano mouth as though invisible hands were pushing and manipulating me like a marionette. I was saved from heading into the void by crashing against the thick crust around the crater rim.
From the volcano a thick sulphurous fog billowed in front of us so that we could barely see each other. I reached out to Katy who was staring straight ahead terrified and attempted to take a photo of us in the fierce tempest, but it was impossible to gauge where I was pointing or if I'd even pressed the button. This was not the fun we'd bargained for. I fought to keep at bay the feelings of frustration and despair that were threatening to take over whilst being constantly whacked in the head by my "sled".
We'd made it to the top, but I hadn't even thought about getting back down again. The guide grabbed hold of Katy and urgently pulled her away from the crater and started to escort her down. I held my hands up against the furious gale in an effort to hold my hood in place and to cover my face from the stinging icy shards. Within seconds they were numbed, so I fumbled with unresponsive fingers for the zip to my front pocket and pulled out the extra pair of gloves that we had been provided with. The raging torrent cocooned us as we began the slow descent.
After stumbling blindly downhill for a short time, the blizzard was still howling around our ears, causing the guide to shout to make him-self heard.
"Crampons off!" he yelled
We attempted to work the fiddly straps to release our feet from the metal spikes hindered by our huge gloves and the wind persisting in whipping snow up into our faces. There followed an absurd attempt to strap myself into a tough nappy like contraption so that we could slide down the mountain safely. This was supposed to be the fun part....
Trying to slide down a volcano on what is essentially a flattened toilet lid only succeeded in getting me a face full of snow and ice shards - I couldn't see or feel my face. I managed to slide a few metres again and alternated between getting stuck in deep snow and sliding so uncontrollably that I had to use my axe to stop. I'm getting more and more fed up with this....
We tried to slide down on the plastic biscuit tin lid a few more times before we gave up and attempted to walk. The going was painfully slow and we're constantly losing our footing so I attempted to use my sled again. This time I span wildly out of control and was tossed down the mountain like a rag doll. The full weight of my body sent me flailing down the sheer face of ice with nothing to grip onto. Scrabbling for any purchase the pick axe flew from my hand. I hurtled down the slope and was suddenly struck by how ridiculous this all is; I f***ing hate snow - what the flaming f*** am I doing?!?!
I finally somehow slid to a halt. I'm so hacked off and angry at being pushed around by invisible hands. Ice water was seeping through my boots and my toes had gone numb. I could barely see through my glasses that were encrusted with snow and ice. We continued the arduous long walk, by now feeling thoroughly miserable.
The walk was exhausting and my muscles were screaming in protest as I willed my legs to move forward down the unending slope. Heel down first one step at a time I felt I was walking like a Thunderbird. One moment my leg would plunge into the frozen snow up to my knee, whilst my next step would fail to find traction and send me flat on my back cursing the white menace.
I felt like I'd pulled every muscle in my feet as we neared the skiers and snowboarders that were being carried up the slopes gently on the chairlifts. Everything around us now was so calm and unaware of the harrowing madness we had encountered hours earlier. I focussed on the whiskey that had been calling my name for the past hour or so.
By the time we reach level ground at the bottom, the snow was falling gently. In this picture perfect Christmas card setting it's hard to believe we had endured such torment 2000m higher up. We were exhausted and felt battered and bruised physically, mentally and emotionally. Buoyed by adrenalin and the thrill of achievement, we began to relax and laugh with relief at having made it back down in one piece.
This was much tougher than anything else we've done, purely for the feeling of risk to life if nothing else. This is firmly on my list of "Things I'm Glad I've Done But Will Never Do Again".
As we approached the van, my feet disappeared from under me and I fell on my arse for one last time. Lying on my back staring up at the falling snow, I felt I could already taste the sizzling parilla and red wine that we would congratulate ourselves with later that evening.....
(This is just my version of events, I'm hoping Katy will write hers one day soon as this was an emotionally and physically challenging day for both of us and warrants both perspectives.)