Sledding down Volcan Villarrica

On January 4, 2014 by Peter

I climbed an active volcano today with the excellent folks at Summit Chile and then sledded most of the way down. It was an incredible experience. Claudio, the owner and lead guide, picked me up at 615 and we headed to Pucon to gear up for the climb. The top part of the volcano is still covered in snow, sits on a glacier, and is sometimes quite windy. I wore most of the clothes I brought — a good test of my light packing. There were nine other friendly folks in the group: 2 from the UK, one from Germany, and the rest from Brazil. Two other guides accompanied Claudio and the group. We drove to the base of the ski area, about a third of the way up the volcano, and then hiked a short distance to the one ski lift that operates in summer to skip over a very soft, sandy (volcanic ash) section at the beginning of the climb. We walked down it later and it would have been a calf screamer to walk up, especially at the beginning of the climb. None of us were particularly bothered by taking the lift. After all, if you really want to “conquer the mountain”, you would need to start hiking from the base in Pucon.

Here’s a shot on the old double chairlift, with my seatmate Bea from Germany:

Volcano chairlift

That’s the lake that abuts both Villarrica and Pucon. When we got to the top, it was time to strap on our crampons, grab our ice axes, and start climbing.

Heading up Villarrica Volcano

You can see the volcano “breathing” in the top left of the photo. Here’s another view back towards the lake:

After a bit of climbing

We would climb for 45 minutes or an hour and then take a break to eat, hydrate, and admire the views. This panorama, shot with the Fuji XE-2 and 18-55 lens — both of which made the climb along with the iPhone 4S responsible for many of the other photos, gives an idea of the views back towards the lake from the first third of the climb.

Pano view

The wind was blowing quite hard all day — up to 65mph on the summit approaches and summit itself, according to a weather device Claudio carried — and it was amazing to watch the clouds roll up the mountain, almost like waves breaking on the beach. Here you can see one of our guides, Osiel, with the clouds racing up the mountain behind him.

Clouds

It really was fun to watch the clouds blow in and then envelop us.

More clouds

One more, just because it was dramatic.

Yet more clouds

Soon it was time for a break, and I devoured the first of two PB&Js I made for the climb. Aside: it is indeed possible to buy peanut butter in Chile!

Break

And then we kept going. We had to step carefully on the varying surface conditions — sometimes very soft, sometimes a bit icy. The wind was strong enough to knock us around if we didn’t maintain a good grip on the mountain with our crampons and ice axes. The black volcanic rock was really cool looking. And the clouds kept building below us.

Volcanic rock

The volcano “breathing” makes it look like my head is steaming, but I was too cold to sweat.

Steaming

The wind was really blowing hard, and I was very glad I packed the windproof softshell at the last minute! We kept going up and we could tell that the summit was not far off.

More climbing

And soon enough we made it to the edge of the crater at the top of the volcano. The wind was nearly strong enough to knock us over up here, and the blowing ice bits and dust from the volcano made it hard to see when moving into the wind.

Summit

At this point, I had donned a pair of heavy-duty waterproof trousers in preparation for the descent. As the title of this post suggests, we sledded most of the way down, either on our butts or sitting on little plastic shovels, using our ice axes as brakes and to steer. It was an unbelievable experience. Claudio took some video with a GoPro camera: Sledding down Villarrica. It was amazing and everyone had a blast.

Eventually we ran out of snow and had to walk down the sandy volcanic ash we had sailed over on the chairlift earlier in the day.

Sandy

And then we emerged back below the clouds, walked down the path you can see snaking through the middle of the picture below back to the base of the ski area, and hopped in the van and headed back to Pucon after an awesome experience.

Almost home

Details of the hike here on Strava.

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