28. helmi, 2017

conquering the Villarica volcano

It’s still dark by the time the alarms on our mobile devices go off, telling us that It's 5.00 am Chilean time. After a quick breakfast I grab the packed lunch I prepared last night out of the fridge and stick it in our rucksacks. We walk the few hundred meters to the Travel agency “Florencia” and before long, other hopeful mountaineers arrive at the scene too. They look pretty fit and I wonder whether we might bitten off more than we can chew on this one. I'm not sure whether I'll be fit enough for this hike, which has been placed in the highest category of difficulty available. Feeling a little befuddled I twiddle the pieces of equipment in my hands, apparently we'll need helmets, pick axes, protective masks and ice grips for our walking boots.
Soon enough we're all stuffed into a minibus and as the sun rise paints the horizon in red, we arrive at the gate to the nature reserve. Our guide gets out and takes care of the entrance fees and other formalities. We've all had to sign a document beforehand, releasing the staff of the nature reserve off any responsibility, in the event that anything should happen to us. Before we set off, we also get told that we might not have the energy to climb fast enough to reach the top within the timeframe given to us. The rules of the nature reserve state that no one is allowed to the crater after 1pm, possibly to ensure that no one is left on the dangerous mountainside in the dark.
The bus stops at the end of the dirt track and so we all climb out and see the 2847m high Villarica volcano standing in front of us, looking challenging as ever. A steady stream of pale steam is constantly rising from its crater, reminding us that Villarica is the most active volcano in Chile. We get given a crash course on how to use the pick axe, and then we set off in an orderly queue, following the path towards the summit. At first the guides walking pace on the ash and gravel coated path doesn't seem all that bad, but every step we take is uphill. The pick axes come in handy in trying to keep our balance when the path takes us to bigger rocks and magma, which our guide tells us is from the last eruption, two years ago. Our breathing gets heavier by the minute and our drink bottles are emptying at a steady pace. When we finally reach the snow line, our heart rates are going through the roof. Thank goodness it's break time, so we tuck into our sandwiches and listen to some instructions for hiking in the snow. We take some photos of the amazing views from above the breaking cloud coverage. We can see villarica lake from here as well as the green hills surrounding it. A bit further on, snowy peaks of other volcanoes belonging to the Andes mountain range are also visible.

In the snow, I try to place my feet in the footsteps of those ahead of me. I notice that my legs are quite a bit shorter than average so I have to take some leaps from time to time. I strike the mountainside vigorously with my pick axe, aiming for a spot above my head either with my right or left hand, depending on which way up the mountain the path is taking us. Before the very last stretch of our climb we take a break and leave all of our stuff behind in a big pile, in order to lighten our load and get to the crater a little quicker. From this point onwards we are only carrying the essentials; our helmets, pick axes, protective masks and cameras.
The feeling upon reaching the summit is euphoric! The huge crater stands right in front of us and our guide warns us not to get too close to the magmatic edge. Pekka laughs and says he can now see why they want the payment beforehand. With the protective masks on our faces we brave it to just close enough to see the orange lava lake at the bottom of the crater. It's a truly unique experience, since there are only five volcanoes in the whole world with active lava lakes inside them. All of the sudden the crater in front of us start to make a rumbling noise and spews out ash and lava, which turns into crumbs of magma in the air. Delighted gasps and cheers from the onlookers sound all around.
We can't stay near the crater for long, because even with the masks, the maximum time allowed near the noxious gasses is only ten minutes. However, we have another wonderful experience ahead of us; we're gonna make our way down the snowy sections on gliders! Although the pick axes make for pretty effective brakes, it's easy for the speed to get a bit too fast on the rather steep mountainside. After the slide down, As I remove handfuls of snow from my trouser legs while feeling the melted snow running down my back, memories of my childhood winters in Finland come flooding back.
The last stretch of brisk walking down the gravel path ,goes pretty quickly using the technique our guide has shown us. As we sit down on the minibus with tired and achy muscles and wait for the last members of the group to catch up, we lift up our hands and go for a high five, we did it!