Staring into the mouth of the devil – Pucon

15 Jun

If you can hike up it, jump off it, raft on top of it, swing from it, bike down it or climb it, they’ll have it here in Pucon. This small but perfectly formed town has earned itself the title of Chile’s adventure capital and rightly so as the range of adrenaline rushes on offer is endless. The landscape is extremely varied offering lakeside beaches, forests, waterfalls, hot springs and volcanos. The town is admittedly touristy but utterly charming. The town has been constructed on an easy to navigate grid system with Avenue O’Higgins filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and tour operators running through the town centre.

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The main plaza hosts a daily craft market selling souvenirs, jewellery and local food and there is large central lake that can be accessed from several places around the town – from a pretty harbour with a cluster of small sailing boats bobbing up and down, to a wide, black sandy beach.

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Puffing volcano Villarrica at 2,847 metres is one of the world’s top 10 most active volcanos and can be seen from everywhere in the town. When we heard that you can actually strap on crampons, climb to the top of the volcano and stare down into the sulphur pumping caldera, we felt a tingling sensation from the tips of our fingers to our toes as we knew that we just had to do it! Mountaineering experience is not required but the climb is taken very seriously and can only be completed when the weather conditions are good. The two days after we arrived in town were forecast to be clear and sunny so we took the plunge and booked with an agency for the very next day. We were kitted out with sturdy (but smelly) walking boots, waterproofs, crampons and an ice axe which they said was just to steady ourselves on the thick layers of ice and snow we’d cross to reach the summit – we were told that, in the worst case, if you slipped, it could be used to stop you from sliding off the side of the mountain! Gulp! All afternoon as we looked around the town we kept catching glimpses of the volcano out of the corner of our eyes and taking a deep breath at the enormity of the task ahead.

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Our guide picked us up the following morning at 6.00am and we drove 30 minutes to the base of the mountain. About 40 people were making the climb that day using a variety of agencies of which 12 were in our group. There is an option to take a chair lift on the first section of the route and save about 40 minutes climbing, however several of the group including us decided to walk it and save ourselves 7,000 Chilean pesos (approx 14 USD per person). It was still dark as we started the climb but half way up the first section we were treated to a sensational sunrise.

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There was a blanket of cloud below us covering Pucon and the lakes but several of the surrounding hills and peaks jutted through the clouds – it was like looking at a dragon’s scaly back surfacing from below. It was difficult to comprehend the colours we saw were produced by nature as vivid pinks and purples filled the sky. The rising sun created a vast shadow of the volcano and this was projected into the sky – a magnificent spectacle we had never seen before.

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The ground at this point was charcoal grey sand and black rock – the type of surface that makes for tough walking – and we looked at those who had taken the chair lift, and were relaxing above our heads at this point, with just a small hint of envy.

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Once we re-joined the rest of the group we had some good banter with them, asking if their conscious could handle it knowing that they’d cheated by using the chairlift and them asking us how we would feel when our legs gave out 40 minutes before the summit. We all laughed but secretly hoped there wasn’t too much truth in their jibes.

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It took us around 2 hours of climbing to reach the line of snow and ice and from there we attached crampons to our boots and took out the ice axes to steady ourselves. It’s a very weird sensation to walk steeply uphill on ice when your instincts are telling you that it isn’t a good idea and you’re going to end up slipping over, but the crampons dug in and in a bambi-like fashion we edged ourselves safely upwards. A few Neil Armstrong moon landing jokes were flying around at this stage as we all seemed to be walking with wide legs in slow motion. “One small step for man!”

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The guides showed us how to use the ice axes in the event of a fall and they stressed that successful use of the axes could be the difference between a 2 metre slide with a few bruises, or death!

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We shuffled on – up and up – taking regular breaks to catch our breath. The views of the volcano and the surrounding countryside were immense. The snow was all around us and it seemed to make everything seem a little muffled and even more beautiful than before.

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We climbed in silence apart from the crunch of ice underfoot and our own heavy breathing in our ears. Lines of climbers stretched up the volcano in front of us making zig-zag paths to the summit and reminded us of the documentaries we had watched about the busy Everest climbing season.

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Our guides, who in peak season can make this climb five times a week, were extremely fit and light-footed but they took it easy and kept to a good pace for us novices.

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We climbed on the ice for around 1.5 hours and the time went quickly. The last 30 minutes of the climb were on volcanic rock without snow and ice so the crampons came off and we trekked just in our boots once more. The rock was dark brown and almost black in places but when we looked closer the rocks glowed with minerals coloured gold, purple and blue. On occasion we lost our footing and took hold of the volcanic rock to steady ourselves. It was particularly sharp and hard so we had to take care not to cut ourselves.

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The final push to the top used up our remaining energy but the sense of achievement when we stepped on top of the volcano made it all worth while.

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We took a few minutes to catch our breath and then to take in what our eyes were seeing. In front of us lay a huge, oval-shaped crater with sulphuric steam drifting out. Around the crater there was a layer of ice and once past the crater lip, the walls slid down steeply into a smaller, dark cavernous hole.

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Our guide explained that we’d stay at the summit for around 30 minutes and we had free time to move around to take some pictures and to eat some lunch before we headed back down. Our guide’s final words of warning before leaving us to it were something like this:

“Be careful because if you fall down there (pointing to the crater) you die…and if you fall over there (pointing to the side of the mountain) you die!”

We were suitably warned and tempted to just sit down and not move an inch! However, we crept closer to the crater rim to take some photographs and peer into the devil’s mouth.

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It was a strange feeling to know that one slip on the ice around the rim could end in disaster.

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Some of the other climbers seemed to have no fear and clambered around the crater rim searching for the ultimate photograph but we were too terrified to look at them. We’d read about 2 Israeli climbers who’d tragically lost their lives climbing on the volcano in the late 80’s and about a more recent avalanche where several people were seriously injured so the volcano had our utmost respect. We thought about how close to danger many travellers come when taking part in activities such as this and agreed it was probably best not to know.

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The volcanic rock around the crater was a rainbow of deep colours and was formed with many layers.

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The smell of the sulphur was so strong at times when the wind blew it in our direction we coughed as it caught in the back of our throats and whipped away the tears from our eyes.

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The views from the summit were mind-blowing.

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A line of volcanos filled the horizon like giant snow-covered teepees.

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In one direction deep ice fields ran off the volcano and down to the green valleys below and in the other direction Lake Villarrica filled the countryside and glistened as the sun’s rays danced over it.

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Our time at the summit passed very quickly but we soon started to feel cool standing at that height with a light wind blowing.

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Before heading back down we kitted up with our waterproof gear and put on what our guide called ‘the diapers’ which were indeed like giant waterproof nappies. To add a huge amount of excitement to the climb down and to speed up the return leg, the mountain guides have created toboggan runs in the snow – wide enough to fit a person sitting down and high enough to prevent you from flying out of the run on the corners. Roughly 5 or 6 of these runs cut a 2 hour upwards climb down to a 25 minute downward slide. The runs are steep and without proper control the speeds can be break neck so sitting in a certain position and using the ice axe as a break is imperative. The guide gave everyone a demonstration and slid down the first run like a Winter Olympic athlete. “He’s done this before” someone joked! Then the first volunteer was called upon and a confident young Polish guy stepped forward. He sat in the snow and lowered himself into the steep gully – “One…Two…Three” WHOOSH! He was off on a rollercoaster ride down the slope. Another guide stood at the bottom of the chute just in case the brakes failed and he needed to step in and stop ‘the slider’ from taking off from the side of the mountain.

Another willing participant stepped forward and then another and before we knew it there was no one else left in front of us. We edged from side to side feeling slightly uncomfortable in our large ‘diapers’. Our palms were sweaty and the ice axe felt slippery in our hands. The waterproof jacket seemed to be getting tighter around our chests and neckline as our breathing became deeper. “Vamos!” (Go!) shouted the guide and I lowered myself down gently and positioned my ice axe for ultimate braking capacity. In the blink of an eye I was off – taking corners like a racing car driver, hitting large bumps and occasionally becoming airborne, sometimes kicking up large amounts of snow and ice water into my face.

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At times a truly terrifying ride and all instructions for braking were forgotten but throughout the whole ride I couldn’t help laughing, perhaps a little hysterically, but for the most part with joy.

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I felt like a prehistoric cave woman by the end of the ride with hair everywhere, red eyes, tears rolling down my cheeks and my mouth open wide making incomprehensible noises. By the third or fourth toboggan run we were all getting a little cocky and instead of using our ice picks as breaks we were using them to paddle even faster. The adrenalin pumped through our veins and we grinned with sheer delight.

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The final part of the climb took us around 1.5 hours. Our legs were weary and our toes were starting to feel numb in our borrowed boots but we dug our heals into the volcanic sand and slid our way to the bottom. Rosy faces beamed and everyone chatted about their travels so far in Latin America and the experiences they still had to come. Everyone agreed that climbing the mighty Volcan Villarrica was an experience they would never forget and undoubtedly one of the highlights of this amazing continent.

4 Responses to “Staring into the mouth of the devil – Pucon”

  1. Carla June 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    Wow… Just wow. Nothing else to say!

    • latinchattin June 16, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

      We can’t quite believe we were there ourselves!

  2. Anna June 16, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    Incredible!

    • latinchattin June 16, 2013 at 5:34 pm #

      Looking at those pictures of the smoking caldera scare us even now! x

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