Chile has more than 2000 volcanoes and DAMIAN HALL thought it would be good fun to climb one. He was in for an unpleasant surprise.
If you look tired or the weather gets too bad,” says our Chilean guide Juan in excellent English, “or if, for any reason, I tell you to turn back, you must. No argument. Safety comes first. Also, from this point there is no refund.” With a sardonic smile and clinical comic timing, he adds, “welcome to Chile.” The climbers titter nervously. The message that this will be no breezy gambol in the snow seems to have hit home.
In a country that boasts some 2000 volcanoes, it seems almost rude for the semi-adventurous not to try and clamber up one. It would be good fun, too, I had suggested – toast some marshmallows, play Poohsticks in the lava, that sort of thing.
The climb of choice is 2847m-high Vulcan Villarrica, which dominates the cosy town of Pucón, nestling in Chile’s greedily verdant Lake District, an overnight bus-ride south of Santiago. However, notions of an ascent being good fun take their first battering when the wispy white clouds hovering over the volcano’s summit turn out to be a steady plume of volcanic smoke. Usually a once-a-decade ejaculator, it’s several years overdue. Then an abundance of angry storm clouds conspire to make the climb unsafe for two days running.
Day three gets the green light. Any apprehension caused from Juan’s prep talk melts with excitement as we trudge giddily through the knee-deep snow, like eight-year-olds granted a weather-induced day off school. After a couple of hours we’re gawping at the rich woodlands far below, interrupted by discreet villages, vast lakes and hills worthy of Hobbit habitation. Indeed, the climb is about to go a bit Mt Doom.
As we break for lunch it starts to snow. Soon the white stuff becomes stinging hail, aided by a wind that whips us mercilessly and seems to be saying ‘get the hell off my mountain!’ After four hours, the weather, fatigue and a treacherously icy surface are causing climbers to stumble and slip frequently. Soon we’re lying curled up on the ice, while some misfitting crampons are seen too. It’s -9°C. I can’t feel my hands, my nose has quite possibly dropped off and my feet have given up mere hatred and issued a fatwa against me.
As soon as I tell myself it can’t get any worse, a snowstorm reduces visibility to five metres. Impenetrable murky whiteness swirls all around us. The radio crackles with the news that two of the three groups below us are turning back. Are we turning back too? My inner wimp has cast his vote. Eventually we move on, into our seventh hour of the climb, trudging numbly onwards, like lemmings. This is not what holidays should be about.
Then suddenly the storm clears, the wind drops and with five more strides, we’re at the top. The cold is forgotten and it’s smiles, victory cheers and handshakes all round. This is what holidays should be about. Although a sense of euphoria abounds, there’s not much else at the summit to impress. Poisonous gases gush from a huge hole. The conquered volcano looks about ready for a vengeful money shot.
Suddenly Juan runs, leaps and disappears from view. Follow me!” he shouts, and we do – sliding our way back down the volcano like a human lava flow, we hit the bottom in just two hours. It’s been utterly exhausting and unforgettably exhilarating. Though the marshmallows remain in my backpack, there is no danger of me asking for a refund. •
Other Chilean adventures
Chile’s most popular hiking spot, Torres del Paine National Park, can be found deep in Patagonia. It takes time to get to, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll regret the journey unless a CS Lewis-esque land of turquoise lakes, dazzling glaciers, granite towers, raging rivers and thick forests isn’t your bag. That’s not to forget the much-photographed Towers of Paine themselves, a stunning spectacle in anyone’s book. If you’re lucky you might glimpse a rare wild puma.
There are enough trails for you to hike for between one and nine days in the 181,000km2 Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and equipment can be hired in nearby Puerto Natales. The park is oversubscribed, however, so it’s best to avoid the summer high season (December-February).
If you don’t fancy sharing the trail with 45 others, try the island of Tierro del Fuego further south. It’s hard to get to, so you’ll be rewarded with some peace and quiet – and some inhospitable weather.
If you haven’t the time to head quite so far south, the Lake District has gratifying hiking, as well as offering whitewater rafting, mountain biking, kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, horse riding and fishing par excellence.
For something a little different, some companies can arrange guided treks in the world’s driest desert, Atacama, in the country’s far north. As the Andes run the entire length of the country, mountaineering possibilities are bountiful too – the season runs roughly from August-November.”