This burst of activity that started with mountain biking didn’t disappear overnight. I don’t know if it is the clear mountain air or restlessness in our limbs but we decided to tackle the next challenge. One that took me right out of my comfort zone I could hardly see myself. We foolishly decided to climb a volcano. Yep this one poking out of the clouds.
The rock star of this pretty sleepy town, Volcano Villaricca, stands proudly against the deep blue sky, its glacier covered sides gleaming out at us. A guy in the hostel had told us that it was a highlight of his trip and wasn’t too difficult a trek. It’s 2868 metres high and one of Chile’s most active volcano’s, although the last eruption was back in the 1970’s, gave me little comfort.
Having hiked round the Himalayas and surprising myself at my hidden level of fitness we decided to take his word for it. If I could find him now I would have laughed at his ‘joke’. Even the word itself, volcano, says no! But we didn’t know what lay ahead as we packed up a packed lunch, put our warmest clothes on, were handed a bursting backpack full of crampons, helmets and an ice pick at 6am still under the illusion that this would be a walk in the park. I guess the glinting ice pick should have given the game away but we were picked up with other intrepid explorers looking as sleepy as us and trundled in a minibus up to the meeting point.
We had two guides with our group of 10 people who made sure we were prepped, warm and had enough water to get us through the climb. We had the choice to take a ski lift which meant shaving an hour off the journey and saving our energy. Having never been skiing I was giddy with excitement to get on the rickety rather unsafe looking metal chair that wobbled precariously up the side of the snow covered volcano. High winds, cloud cover, avalanches and the threat of the volcano itself can all cause hikes to be cancelled at any time along the route and that if were were to get to the top and back we would be lucky as lots of groups don’t get this experience. Pah lucky!
Our guide then showed us how to use the ominous looking ice pick in a swift manoeuvre to grip onto the edge of the ice if we fell. Oh sweet Jesus. He said we had to follow the person in front in a wandering line stepping in their footprints as a path. We were to zig zag our way up the steep side using the pick to steady ourselves and for those not too keen on heights it was better not to look down. When someone tells you that you instantly look down and what I saw made me nearly pee myself. A practically vertical drop of blinding bright snow with nothing to hang onto just you and the ice pick, my newest best friend.
Forcing myself to man up even though the rest of the group looked like pros, all muscular calves and weathered faces, we started our hike to the top. Rest stops were for five minutes after 45 minutes of stepping into large footprint steps. With nowhere to sit we had to dig out a bum shaped hole and rest there gulping down water and clinging onto our bags in case they fell down the side.
We climbed higher than the clouds watching the town slip away in a green haze. After 5 hours of crunching, stepping, sweating and huffing we made it to the top. Wanting to celebrate this achievement but it was so cold, the wind slapping our stinging red faces and the sulphurous smell from the volcano that made me gag and think of burnt chicken flavoured pot noodles that we had a few pics and got ready to go back down.
This would much easier and quicker the guide said as he strapped on a thick nylon nappy thing to our thighs. We would be sliding down on our bums. Using the ice pick as a brake we had to sit on the cold snow and push ourselves to the edge of the never ending drop and slide down to the bottom, taking about an hour. Oh god.
Greg sped off his adrenalin pumping and expected me to follow but I froze. All I could see was a white death trap and as I started to whizz down I freaked out at how fast I was going and forced my pick to the side gripping on to slow myself down. The guide saw how panicked I was that I didn’t have any control at my speed and kindly urged me to cling onto the backpack of another guide who would gently ease our way down. Although he lost control and we ended up spinning to the side then flipped backwards and hurtled down as snow filled my mouth, down my top and I screamed for help! We only came to a stop toppling into a couple who had stopped for a breather. I was crying, furious and desperate to be back on the ground. But knowing the only way was to continue, although facing the right way, I sucked up my fear and pushed on alone not caring how fast I went just wanting it to be over.
At a slower, gradual pace I actually found myself enjoying the ride and when I got to the bottom and stumbled around trying to kick the slush and ice from myself I found Greg at the bottom. His face lit up saying in a thrilled voice ‘that was brilliant!!’ Well at least one of us got our adrenalin kick!
My legs wobbled like after a great work out, my arms had deep purple bruises on them from being bashed about and our faces were burnt from underestimating the power of the sun but we had done it. That feeling of achievement was so warm and fuzzy that I guessed this is why most dare devils keep searching for the next fix. As we had a cold beer in the sun looking up at the volcano we had reached the top of and made it down alive (ok I may be going a little too over the top here but this is what it felt like!) I was pleased we had stuck it out but trust me when I say never again!