25 April 2011

...cold, a little painful, but just so incredibly, stupidly, awesomely fun

Hey y'all. Remember that time I went to Chile and said I'd write about it, then weeks passed and I didn't really write much about it? Yeah. Good times. Now, to make up for that, I'm going to write a lot about what was arguably the best and most memorable part of my trip: climbing the Volcano Villarrica.

The adventure began the day before, on Saturday. Our guide, Mauricio, picked me up at my hotel and took me with him to meet the other people from my work that I would be climbing with. They had arrived the day before and contacted Mauricio and booked us on the Sunday climb. The four of us from my work ended up at Mauricio's house, and we all tried on gear. They provide you with the backpack, boots, pants, coat, gaiters, two pairs of gloves, balaclava, a piece of gear we called a pamper (which was like portable reinforcement for the seat of your pants), crampons, helmet, ice pick, and spade sled. After we were taught about the gear, we signed away our legal rights to sue should we die on the climb, then he told us what we need to bring  - sunglasses, 2L of water, and food. He also suggested we wear at least two layers under the outerwear they provided. He also warned us not to drink a lot the night before the climb and to get a lot of sleep. We went for dinner that night at the vegetarian restaurant and drank lots of wine. Apparently, we don't follow instructions well.

I didn't sleep well that night. I didn't have a proper alarm clock and was relying on the alarm on my wristwatch to get me up, so I was afraid to oversleep. I woke up and checked my watch a lot that night. needless to say, I didn't oversleep. We met the other mountain climbers in town at 6:30 and got all geared up before driving out to the volcano. It took about 45 minutes to get to the base of the chairlift, which is where the tourist hikes start. On good weather days, you can take the chairlift up a bit (for $5000 CP), then do the climb from there. We were there on a good weather day, so we took the chairlift up and started the climb from the top of the lift. It was -1oC at the base of the lift, and it only got colder from there.

At the top of the chairlift, we were taught the proper use of the ice picks, then we set off. There were three guides and about 10 tourists in my group. One guide led the group, one followed up the group, and another kind of came along side us. The lead guide set the pace and we were to literally follow in his foot steps. The pace was very slow at first, almost plodding. Of course, by the end of that climb the pace felt too fast, but in the beginning it was surprisingly slow. We took occasional breaks. The breaks were very short, 4 minutes or so. Mauricio said it was so that our body temperatures didn't have time to cool down, and also because there was hundreds of other tourists climbing up the volcano behind us and we didn't want to be overcome by the other groups. I think we were told the hike up was 5km long, and would cover 1200mm of up to get to the peak (~2800m elevation). After we got on the chairlift, I didn't once check my watch, so I really have no idea how long it took. I do know we got back into Pucon around 4:30pm or so.

Back to the climb. At every rest I'd shed another layer. When we got to the edge of the ice (they called it a glacier, but it's unclear to me if it's an actual glacier) they put the crampons on us and taught us how to walk in them, and also how to use the ice pick to keep us from falling off the mountain should we slide down. Let me tell you, at times the grade was so steep you could only walk on the edge of your feet, and sliding down to your death seemed entirely possible. I don't know if I was walking in the crampons properly. I found they really exhausted my calves and ankles. Mind you, I was already tired by this point, and this was after it became apparent that there was less oxygen than I'm used to, being that I live at sea level. Still. Once the crampons went on, the climb got - for me - much, much harder. At this point I was focusing on moving one foot at a time. I talked to someone in my group afterward who said the same thing. She was so tired she couldn't think about getting to the top, she could only think about the next step.

We took a break about 20 minutes from the top to remove the crampons because the terrain went from glacier to crumbly rock and snow. Then we carried on. At one point I looked up and Mauricio was in front of me and he shook my hand and kissed me on the cheek (a Chilean custom) and told me that we were at the top. The freakin' top. Somehow I made it. It's still pretty unbelievable.

The group rested at first, had some lunch, took in the view. I was also distracted by the dog begging for food, and by the world's best dressed mountain climbers:

Then we went over to get a look at the smoking volcano and tried -and failed - not to breathe in the sulfuric acid.

Mauricio tried to teach us some history but I've forgotten most of it. It's really hard to learn while you're looking at this:

Then, it was time to leave. The start of the climb down was fairly scary. We weren't using the crampons and it was icy and very steep. One girl in the group freaked out at this point and one of the guides literally took her by the hand and had to tell her where to place her feet for each step. We didn't have to walk for long, though, because we soon came to the point where we could slide. This is where the spade sled and pampers come in. The papers went on over our pants, and then we strapped the spade sled to ourselves, and we proceeded to slide down the volcano on our asses. Sitting down, back straight, knees bent, feet up. You use the handle of the ice pick to steer and control speed and you use the business end of the ice pick for emergency stops. We  went one at a time in a track made by one of the guides. People who had trouble on their butts used the spade sled for better sliding. I found that I went too fast with the sled so I rarely used it. There was about six separate "slides" with short walks in between. It was cold, a little painful, but just so incredibly, stupidly, awesomely fun.

We slid down most of the way and suddenly we were back at the top of the chairlift. From there, it was only about 30 more minutes back to the vehicles. We headed back into town and had Chilean beer and signed Mauricio's guestbook. The next day I was only sore in my biceps, presumably from breaking on the slides down.

All my pictures can be viewed at your leisure.


Kimm-my said...

When you mentioned that you had to bring 2L of water with you, I had a flashback image of you carrying the 2 giant water bottles that made it look like you had wings when we went on our outdoor ed trip.

And if you have forgotten about them I'm sure I can dig up a picture :)

Ellie Fish said...

Sure - try to dig up the picture. I'll be impressed if you can even find it. All my pictures from high school are completely disorganised.

Deb said...

This sounds ridiculously amazing! I want to toboggan down a volcano, too!! :-)