This is entry seven of an ongoing travel journal. Click here to read the first. March 21, 2017 The only way to truly experience a landscape is to suffer through it. Sure, you could stand at the base of a volcano and pose for a new profile picture, but that picture would be one hell […]
March 21, 2017
The only way to truly experience a landscape is to suffer through it. Sure, you could stand at the base of a volcano and pose for a new profile picture, but that picture would be one hell of a lot cooler from the top, not to mention the satisfaction that comes with conquering that volcano.
I’ve felt this way about nature for years, but five hours into the grueling ascent of Volcán Villarrica, I was beginning to question that outlook. My body that has spent the vast majority of its life at sea level was passing the point of exhaustion, my head was throbbing; my feet, knees, and hips had surpassed the first few levels of suffering and had moved on to an achy burning sensation that almost felt good. The wind whipped, visibility had become a loose concept, and the grade became steeper and steeper. I couldn’t help but thinking about how cool that picture would have been from the bottom.
I’d set out to climb the famed Volcán Villarrica in Pucón, Chile, that had its last eruption just two short years ago that caused over 3,000 people to evacuate their homes.
But my first attempt of the summit was called off. After waking up at 5 a.m., a hearty breakfast, a starlit walk to the tour guide’s office, and a 30-minute drive to the base of the volcano, too much wind and heavy cloud-cover caused a cancellation of the ascent.
As Chile is beginning its autumn season, it is common for climbs to be canceled at this time of year. Most of the snow has melted, the rock is unstable due to the recent last eruption, and with high winds and low visibility, the mountain is a treacherous place to be.
On the second attempt the following morning as I walked under the dwindling stars, off in the distance I could see the faint red glow of lava reflecting off the predawn sky – a beacon of hope for today’s ascent.
We departed from basecamp around 7:30 am, a group of nine in total. Six climbers – representing Germany, Holland, a Brazilian couple, myself, and one other gringo – and our three Chilean guides. There is a chairlift that often circumnavigates the first hour of the ascent, but it wasn’t running due to the windy morning. With this and other factors in his foresight, our lead guide reiterated time and time again, “We make a big effort today. But hey, no pain no gain.”
As the sun began to rise within that first hour, it painted the eye-level clouds a warm, rosy-pink, and illuminated the jagged rows of teeth across the mountainous Andean horizon, that seemed to rise and fall forever. In the valley at the foot of the Volcano, the sandy black beaches trace the expansive Lago Villarrica, and far off in the Northeast distance lies Volcán Lonquimay, pluming smoke into the early dawn atmosphere.
The sun also shed light upon the summit, or lack of summit, of Volcán Villarrica, as thick cloud cover had blanketed the peak. Our guides told us that if the weather continued to worsen, we would need to descend. In that first hour, our Brazilian friends had already begun to fall behind, and then out of sight, along with one of the guides.
By midday, after stumbling on loose and tumbling, ankle rolling rocks for the entirety of the morning, we reached the halfway point – the glacier. Strapping on my crampons (for the first time in my life) and pulling out an ice-axe, I felt like the protagonist from every adventure movie.
We zigzagged up the glacier as the blinding sun shone off the ice and an eastern gale grew so strong that I needed to lean into it to keep from blowing off the volcano. Clouds rolled in and surrounded us in a thick fog as we slowly trudged onward and dodged tumbling rocks the size of basketballs. The grade steepened, the wind screamed, and I kept thinking about that photo from the bottom.
Getting above the glacier, we reached the final push of climb. Weaving between the black, jagged lava-rock with wind-carved icicles stabbing out in every direction, in the thick fog and thin air, the landscape felt otherworldly – like I was climbing a mountain on one of Jupiter’s ice-covered moons.
Then the summit. The underwhelming views due to the heavy cloud cover didn’t dampen the overwhelming gratification of having conquered Villarrica. The blank-background photo-op is still one hell of a lot cooler than it would have been from the scenic bottom.
We high-fived, collected some volcanic rocks, and choked in the sulfuric fumes from the active volcano, and began our almost-as-grueling descent. For 3 hours the impact of each step rattled my knees and feet so bad that the only thing I could think about was the suffering and the cold beer waiting for me at the bottom.
Our Brazilian friends never reached the summit that day. One called it quits and waited at the first checkpoint, and the other made it within an hour from the top when a tumbling rock the size of a television came within feet of wiping him out. He was so rattled that he turned around and descended right there. In fact, more than half of the people who set out to climb Volcán Villarrica that day never reached the summit.
Looking back, through the strain and the suffering, I maintain my outlook on landscapes. Although I doubted my principles for most of the journey, once I reached the bottom and was able to look up, point to the top, and say I was there, every ounce of suffering was validated.