Villarrica (2840m) is a beautiful, cone-shaped, and very active volcano located at the northern end of Chile's Lakes District. The weather was perfect, but the dense sulphur smoke flowing down the normal route, could cause problems.
How to get there
The normal route starts at the ski centre of Villarrica, which unfortunately isn't served by any mode of public transportation. To get there you need your own car, a taxi or be on a guided tour (minibus). A taxi to the ski centre will probably be quite expensive, because the nearest towns, Pukon (20 km) and Villarrica (40 km), are both quite far away.
I visit several travel agencies but none of them will sell me just the transportation part of the tour. Their only offer is the complete package, a full guided tour to the summit. They also tell me that rangers will reject all independent climbers at the entrance of the national park. This is not completely true though. In order to climb Volcan Villarrica without a guide, you must provide credentials that you are a member of some climbing/mountaineering club or institution where your experience in this type of activity is specified.
All the hassles to get there and the considerable risk of being rejected because I don't carry any papers to prove my experience, I decide to sign on to a guided tour with Politur. At about 70 dollars it is pretty good value, and most likely cheaper than a taxi.
Politur's driver picks me up 6:20 a.m at my hostel in Villarrica. The driver also picks up a couple from Wales, before we head towards Pukon. The driver points out the erupting Llaima volcano, and the spectacular river of red-glowing lava can easily be seen in the darkness of the morning. To see such enormeous powers being released, not very far away from our target of the day, scares me a little bit.
We arrive Politur's office in Pukon (25 km) shortly before 7 pm. There we meet up with five other clients and our three local guides. Clothes and equipment for the climb are handed over and tried out. The overall kit list includes: waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, gaiters, mountaineering boots, crampons, ice-axe, hat, helmet, gloves, and rucksack (to carry what we're not wearing). In addition to this we have also brought along our food, water, sunglasses, and camera.
To the ski centre
We start on the 20 km drive up to the ski centre located at approx 1400m. The drive seems to take a long time but the roads are rough and steep. We overtake quite a few other buses crammed with hikers on the way, so I can already see its going to be a well-trodden route.
At the point where the road goes no further we get out of the bus and join the milling throngs of brightly dressed day-trippers all of whom are doing the same climb. We can see the dense smoke of sulphur flowing down the slopes of the volcano. The lead guide tells us that this can be a big issue higher up and in worst case put an end to the entire climb. All of us want to continue though, and we walk over to the lift and pay 5000 pesos each to cheat our way up to 1700m, leaving less than 1200m to the summit.
The ski lift is of the old type, and the chairs don't slow down at pick-up and drop-off. This is a little bit tricky without skis, especially at drop-off where we are forced to run fast to one of the sides.
Ascending the volcano
We hike for 20 minutes before we reach the snow-line. Our guides give us some instructions on using an ice axe, in particular how to arrest a fall on a steep icy slope. As we progress throughout the day they keep adding more information about how to use the different bits of kit that we'll need. I find this a little bit annoying, because I'm not a novice like the other clients. The lead guide quickly observes that I have a completely different pace than the rest of the team, so he tells one of his guides to team up with me and go ahead for the summit. That suits me perfect.
The snow conditions are pretty good, with only little ice here and there. We don't use crampons, instead we cut steps with the axe where it's too icy to get a solid grip with our boots.
As we progress, the view becomes an enormous panoramic vista, the huge blue lake below the mountain is revealed in its entirety and the little towns on its banks start to become harder to discern. We see more distant volcanoes and a range of low snow covered mountains towards the Argentinian border.
A rather steep pitch leads to a small plateau from where we can see the steamy summit of Villarrica. Here we cross over to the glacier, which has only few and small crevasses. A long but less steep trail on the glacier finally leads to a steep and icy gully less than 1 hour from the summit. Here I would normally prefer crampons, but instead we continue the rather time consuming work of cutting steps in the ice. Rocks are constantly falling down the gully. At one occasion I miss to see a falling rock, the size of a football, before it has passed me. With a margin of only a couple of metres, it was a really close call. I am glad to wear a helmet, which should be mandatory on a crowded route like this.....
After the steep gully, we reach the false summit only 20 minutes below the main summit. We take a break before we scramble up the last hill (scree slopes). The top of the volcano is a narrow rim of about 300 metres diameter. Looking down into the crater I can see lots of smoke belching upward so its hard to spot the bottom. The smell of sulphur dioxide gas catches me unexpectedly making me feel like someone has their fingers around my throat. There are lots of loud hissing and roaring noises which make the volcano feel very alive. The rocks are coloured ochre, red, yellow and green making it a colourful place. At the top, piles of snow and the warm rocks are surprisingly close together as they battle for thermal supremacy. I circle the entire crater just to make sure I have been to the highest point of the volcano.
We go slowly and steadily down until we get to the first sliding point. This is where the waterproof trousers and the ice axe really come in handy as we slide back down the mountain on our backsides using the ice axe as a brake. In the steepest part I easily pick up very high speed, and it's even more fun than skiing.
After lots of sliding, some walking, and some combinations of the two, we finally get back down to the car park and the awaiting vehicle. It's time for a cold beer in the outdoor- and party mecca of Pukon.