Climbing the Vilarrica Volcano

Next day 7am we were downstairs getting all geared up for the climb. Vilarrica is one of the only 5 volcanoes in the world that has an active lava lake within it’s crater, and it’s also the only montain in the region covered in snow. So it was going to be a proper climb, with crampons and ice ax and helmets and all. We knew that 2 days before the weather had gotten rough while up there, and 2 of the girls who were staying in the duplex pretty much freaked out, started crying and despairing and maybe thought that was going to be the end of them. They got back safely though, but when we started our hike it was with a mixture of excitement and uncertainty about how the weather would treat us and also how our bodies would respond to the 5.5hr climb.

Funny things happened while I was putting my gear together. First the pants I got had a huge hole in them so I had to get another pair. Then while putting my shoes on, the shoelace broke. Then the wind jacket I got was ripped, and they didn’t have any other in my size. Lastly, the backpack they gave me (with the crampons, gloves, helmet etc) could not be closed because a couple of the buckles were torn. So by this time I was wondering whether I should be on this climb at all, since I seemed to be the only one who had all these issues. Everyone else’s gear was perfect from the beginning!

I decided all these little happenings were not enough to keep me from going, so I got on the minibus ready for the day ahead. We were taken up to 1400m, and from there we had to do the remaining 1447m on foot. We had started to see snow while still on the minibus, so it was going to be with us from the very beginning of the climb. I didn’t mind that at all as I was seeing snow for the first time after 4 years, so I was indeed excited about it!

There was a lift there which could have saved us one hour of the hike; some people went for it, but we decided not to. When we started the climb I was right behind our guide… The only break we took was one hour later, when we got to the place where the people with the lift were waiting. The backpack I was carrying was not light at all, and making the next step soon became a struggle. I lost track of how many times I wanted to stop within that hour… but somehow I never did. By the time we got up there though I was feeling fainty and dizzy, and totally usure of how I was going to conquer the next 4.5 hours.

We drank some water and had a bite, so I quickly regained some strength. We were among the last ones to leave this time so we were far from being the first in line. But while this was indeed a competition, it was certainly not a competition with others.

The next break we took was again one hour later, but somehow I was finding it just a tad bit more bearable. ‘We walk always at a steady pace, and always in a one man line’ our guide kept saying. And so we did.

After about 3 hours the wind intensified and it was so strong that at times I thought i was going to be thrown to the ground any moment. We were makig full use of our ice axes and I could not have imagined going further without them. ‘Stay as close together as possible’ our guide shouted, ‘it’s going to be easier to advance’. For the past hour or so I had been walking at least 20 steps behind the person in front, and the person behind me was not very close either. So after the next break I made an effort to be in the middle of a line and I could not believe the huge difference it made! Maybe it was the fighting of the wind together, the combined energy, the team spirit, or just the inertia of putting one step in front of the next because that’s what everybody was doing… I don’t know what, but something about it was working!

I didn’t have sunglasses so Boca lent me her pink ones, and even though I didn’t know what I looked like, I kind of suspected it. My gloves were pink as well (I swear that was the only color they had in my size), so I could easily imagine what the others must have seen when looking at me: ‘Oh look, Barbie gone climbing!’. There was a girl in our group who had asthma, so whenever I felt I couldn’t continue I’d use her as my inspiration ‘If the girl with asthma can do it, so can I!’. So as much as I felt silly with my pinkish-ness on a volcano climb, I felt good knowing that I was surely acting as an inspiration for others. ‘If the girl with the pink sunglasses can do it, so can I!’. That kept me going as well :D.

4 hrs into the climb, we were walking on ice by now. We had started using our crampons and other pieces of equipment already, so the good thing was my backpack was getting lighter. ‘Giving up is not an option’ was the thought that automatically came to mind whenever the going got tougher… which was pretty much all the time! I was using different ways of keeping myself going, and one of them was to do nothing but focus on my steps, each one at a time. I kept saying it like a mantra ‘One more step, one more step’, and so it seemed a lot of ‘one more step’s turned into many many steps. Another thing that worked was thinking of times in the past when I had felt full of energy, times of achievement, of joy. Many times i’d get completely lost in these images, and before I knew it we had climbed another few dozens meters already.

Carlos had also taught me something when we were up in the Machu Picchu. He taught me to connect with the mountain, with the earth, to feel it and become part of it, so that I would get more strenght and energy from that connection. I asked the mountain to help me with that… and I believe it did:).
When we were a bit more than an hour away from the peak I stopped to catch my breath and wait for Boca, who had been held back because she had to swap her crampons with some other guy. One of the guides stopped as well and told us both that the climb was going to get even steeper from there and the mountain was covered in ice, so it was not going to be easy at all. It was as if he was telling us ‘It’s ok, you can stop here, you might not make it to the top’.

I spoke to him in my head: ‘Look my friend, if you think that I’ve just spent the last 4 hours climbing up this mountain to give up now… you don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re going to see that crater today, and that’s a fact!’. Then my mouth opened and these words came out: ‘Don’t worry, it’s ok, we’re going up!’

Interestingly enough, the climb seemed to be getting easier by the hour. ‘Climbers’ high’ might have been? The experience reminded me of the half marathon I ran a bit more than a year ago… The further I ran, the more impossible it seemed to give up.

Our last stop was 20 minutes before reaching the peak. The girl with asthma was somewhere close to me, and one of the guides came over to tell her the gases coming out from the crater were really toxic and they all thought she should not go up. She looked him in the eye and replied without a second’s hesitation: ‘I don’t care. I’m going up there’. He further tried to convince her she shouldn’t go, but to no avail. Seeing her determination gave me even more energy to get up there.

10 minutes later we started to feel the volcano smoke piercing our nostrils, hurting our eyes and throat. ‘5 minutes more’ the guide said. I looked up and thought to myself: ‘It’s a lie, it’s a lie…’. Eventually we did get up there… and were enveloped by the most glorious feeling. It had been one of the most strenuous climbes I had ever been on, and making it to the top was such a great victory! We admired the crater, took some photos, then moved to a place with cleaner air to have another bite. A simple cheese sandwitch had never tasted better than by that volcano crater, after a 5.5hr uphill effort.

The day wasn’t over yet, as we still had to come back down. I wasn’t too worried about that though, as i’ve always loved descending from mountain tops. I hadn’t really done it on snow to this extent before, but I thought, eh, how different can it be? Turns out it was pretty different, because we came down almost 1km sliding… on our butts!

I’ve always been one of those weird kids who not only didn’t like sliding, but was afraid of it. It never really bothered me much, as I had always avoided it before, but this time avoiding it was simply not an option. We wrapped some ‘dipers’ around us and then just put our butts in the snow and let go. The first two portions were really steep, so I made full use of my ice axe. It was so hard to keep straight though, so I was constanly afraid i’d get out of my ‘lane’ and colide with others. After a while I got the hang of it though, and started to enjoy it tremendously! I was actually saddned when we did our last one and wished we could have gone the whole 2800m this way.

We got back to our hostel around 5pm and, after putting our feet up for an hour, we only had enough strenght to cook some pasta (tipical backpacker food) and get under our blankets with our laptops set on ‘movie’ mode. Our bodies were hurting big time and Boca even had to take a pain killer to be able to go to sleep. We talked about how this climb was certainly not for the unfit, and what a waste it would be to go up there and give up half way because your body is just not prepared for it. So if you ever decide to give this experience a chance, do make sure you come up here in a good condition.

We needed time for our clothes to dry and also to fully recover, so we spent the next day indoors, with our laptops, books and cups of tea, cuddled in front of the fire – not as romantic as it sounds though, as it was coming from a gas tank not from a fire place hahaha. Great times nevertheless!

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