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November 11, 2004

Pucon--Volcanoes, Rafting, and More

I was happy to have escaped Temuco, and on the 2-hour bus ride I tried mostly unsuccessfully to keep my eyes open to enjoy the view. After all this time--all the deserts and geysers--I saw lakes, and trees, and forest, and green! It was a very welcome change of scenery.

January and February are high season in the Lake District (which Pucon is part of) and Patagonia, but I was worried that things might be getting busier already, and I didn't have a place booked in Pucon, and I also feared it might be expensive. But the first place I went to, Hospedaje Lucia, had a room--with two beds (which I like, so I have space to throw stuff around and end up with a chaotic mess that seems it'll never fit back in my pack) and a very reasonable price. Even though I was exhausted, the next order of business was finding some activities to do here in Pucon, the recreation capital of the Chilean Lake District (it extends into Argentina as well). I booked a trip to climb Volcan Villarrica the next day, and also inquired about rafting trips for that afternoon, but there weren't enough people to fill a trip, they said.

After spending a bunch of time online sorting out accommodations for a New Year's trip to NYC with Mitch, I went back to the agency because I forgot to ask if I'd get my money back if we couldn't climb the volcano for some reason (bad weather, eruption...). While I was there, I overheard that there were now enough people for a rafting trip that afternoon, so I jumped at the chance--then looked at my watch and realized we were leaving in 40 minutes! I rushed back to my room to change and scarf down some food I luckily had left over from my bus ride (so much for the leisurely lunch I was looking forward to...).

I haven't been rafting since my first year in California, I think, and as we drove to the put-in spot on the Rio Trancura I thought back fondly on that day on the American River and of the many summers rafting on the Colorado with groups from church. But when we got to the river, I balked a little, seeing the rapids that we'd encounter right off the bat. We were all a little nervous as we put on our wetsuits (the water's still really cold at this time of year), helmets, and life jackets! But we all had a great time, and wished the trip had been longer. No one fell out of the boat, but everyone got a good soaking at least once, just as it should be. Near the end, we jumped out and floated the last little bit to the spot where we got out (I don't know what you call the opposite of a put-in--a put-out?), and after we changed we were treated to wafer cookies and pisco sours. (When we were on the river, our guide had asked if anyone wanted a pisco sour, and we thought he was kidding, especially since he got out his knife, unfolded it, and used it like a cell phone to "call" the driver and ask him to get the pisco sours ready. We were so happy to discover it wasn't a joke!)

That night I had Mexican food(!)--enchiladas and tacos that weren't half-bad, but mostly tasted like fajitas--with a few people from the rafting trip, then crashed hard in preparation for the volcano trip the next day. I arrived at the office at 7:30 am, as instructed, and ended up waiting 30 minutes for everyone else to show up, which was annoying, but then I learned that Greg and Sonja, from my rafting trip the previous day, had been woken up by their hostel owner (ironically, also the owner of the tour agency) 30 minutes later than promised, so I had to forgive them for arriving late.

It was really, really, windy in town in the morning, so we knew it would be windy up on the mountain as well. And boy did the wind blow--all day, with hardly a moment's relief. Normally, you have the option of taking a chair lift (the climb starts from a ski resort) up the first part of the mountain, which makes the climb 60-90 minutes shorter. But with the strong winds, the lift wasn't running, so we had no choice but to climb from the bottom. The first part was really, really hard--parts were bare ground, with small volcanic rocks and dirt that was hard to walk on, and other parts were slushy, wet snow that slid under my feet and which, combined with the wind, made it very hard to keep my balance. I had only a 2-foot ice axe to help me, my back hurt from leaning forward against the wind, and the boots they provided were also difficult to get used to--they kept my feet dry, but were very stiff around the ankle and seemed to have little in the way of traction--it was like climbing in ski boots!

About 1/3 of the way to the top of the chairlift, the older Spanish guy in our group gave up and turned back, saying he was having trouble breathing. I was also slower than the rest of the group, but determined to continue. I was mainly having problems with the actual climbing, not the breathing. Our guide, Pedro, loaned me his ski poles (he must've read my mind--I had just been wondering why we weren't all provided with these) and stayed back with me so I could follow in the footholds he created. As with some of the other hikes I've done, I was surprised to find myself in the back. I consider myself fairly fit, active, and competent in these things, and I can't figure out why I have so much trouble. Luckily, I always quickly forget my difficulties, so it doesn't stop me for signing up for the next trip!

We stopped for a quick snack break in the shelter where the chair lift ends, then continued our ascent. Thankfully, the next part was much easier--I think the snow was just a little harder, and there was already a bit of an established path, so it was easy to follow the footprints already there. I tried my damnedest to stay with the group, and did pretty well, but started to tire after a while, and Pedro suggested I come to the front, right behind him. I felt bad because it meant slowing down the rest of the group, but there's no denying that it was much easier for me to keep up and not feel like I was falling behind.

There were a few other stops on the way up, but mostly we just climbed, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, making very slow progress. A lot of the time I felt really tired, and wondered why I hadn't given myself a day's rest instead of climbing a volcano just one day after an overnight bus ride and rafting trip! When we stopped for lunch--food tastes so great when you've been working really hard--someone asked Pedro how much further it was to the top. First he said that it was a bad question and he wasn't going to answer it--I kind of agreed, I didn't really want to know how much longer it would take--but then he said it was three more hours, and I hoped he was kidding because I didn't think I had that much energy left.

A little while later we crossed a little bit of a ridge and could finally see the top, swirling in clouds and smoke. Another group was nearing the top, and they looked so far away. Pedro said it was another hour and 40 minutes, which I estimated would sap every last ounce of energy I had remaining. The wind increased more and more as we climbed, and at times it would throw me off balance. I thought that Pedro would tell us we would have to turn back at any moment, but we continued on and finally made it to the top. We'd had really amazing views on the way up, of Lago Villarrica, the towns of Pucon and Villarrica, other lakes, volcanoes, and the Andes in the distance--but at the top we were in the clouds and couldn't see much of anything! The wind was fierce at the summit, and we didn't get too close to the crater for fear we'd get blown right in. But the wind moved the clouds and smoke over the area very quickly, so there were brief periods where it would clear before it got really obscured again. We were surprised at how big the crater was--I'd estimate a couple stories deep, and about as big across as a football field--and we kept hoping for a glimpse of the lava at the bottom. At one point it really started to clear and we actually got a little bit of sun, and Pedro motioned for us all to climb a little further up the side of the crater to try to see all the way to the bottom, but the clouds came back in before we could get the right angle.

We only spent about 20 minutes at the top before we had to start our descent. We were all so tired, and were happy we didn't have to climb down the way we'd climbed up. Instead, we slid down the mountain, on our butts! The pants they gave us to wear had rubber pads on the butt, and I guess that's supposed to help you slide (it certainly didn't keep us dry or warm!). There are some tracks already kind of worn into the snow, so it was easier to follow those. Pedro showed us how to hold the ice axe kind of over your shoulder and into the snow to help control the speed, and I had to go first on the first part! It was really scary, but also really fun. There were stretches of about 100 yards where you'd be able to slide, but then there'd be a flat part and we'd have to get up and walk to the next slide area. Some of them were really steep at the top, and on a few I was really scared--I'd get going too fast, or I'd have my ice axe too deep in the snow and I thought my shoulder would be pulled out of its socket!

We had to walk the last stretch from the top of the chair lift back to the van, and I was miserable. The tops of the super-stiff boots were digging into my shins, and going downhill was incredibly painful--not to mention the soft, deep, slippery snow in which it was almost impossible to keep my balance--I fell about five times, I think--but I was already so wet and cold, it hardly mattered! I stopped near the bottom to take one last look and picture at where we had been--it was hard to believe we'd really made it all the way to the top. Then I hobbled back to the van, and collapsed for the ride back to town!

Posted by Amy on November 11, 2004 03:56 PM
Category: Chile

You've never been one up an opportunity...but this time, I guess you made it by the "seat of your Pants"!

It sounds exhausting and in those conditions. How is the recuperation going?

Posted by: Dad on November 12, 2004 08:15 PM

I think it's called a "take-out" point, but I'm definitely going to call it a put-out from now on.

I'm glad I joined you for the IT and not the Volcano adventure! It sounds like a fun have vicariously!


Posted by: Jessica on November 20, 2004 10:16 AM

Hi there

I was checking for hospedajes in Pucon and I came upon your interesting adventure. I too climbed that volcano 10 years ago and I'm going again in december, I go to Chile several times a year and I mainly stay in vina del mar, I have very fond memories of Pucon.
Enjoy Chile, if you get a chance dont miss visiting Valparaiso, the city of my birth.

Posted by: paul on November 23, 2004 08:56 PM
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