Published: May 13th 2012March 20th 2012
Just in case...
Coming from Bariloche, we had to change buses in San Martin de los Andes, Argentina, in order to cross the border and arrive to Pucon. We got fortunate not to get stuck there and were able to snag a pair of the few remaining seats. The 6 hour ride was smooth enough, except for the border crossing which was located at the base of the imposing Lanin Volcano. The process was more strict than we expected. They take their agriculture very seriously; all of our bags were unloaded and scanned, and we had to declare any raw foods. Fortunately they didn´t toss the pizza or stirfry we had made the night prior but they did take a couple delicious Fuji apples. Fruitless, we got back on the bus and continued down a dirt/volcanic ash road for 25 km, during which the view of the volcano was pretty cool, but the dust cloud that filled the inside the bus was not. We passed through the thick dusty road before too long and dropped down through a valley on a paved road, eventually reaching Pucon by 5 pm. The hostel we reserved was conveniently located across from the bus station, but coming from
the great hostel in Bariloche, it had a lot to live up to. The name, El Refugio, should have given itself away to us but it had been recommended to us by an acquaintance. It was small and a bit cramped, and had no insulation in the walls (as we would find out later that night). As we were getting settled, I was in the room unpacking while Chloe was upstairs using the computer. All of a sudden, I heard a series of rapid thumps over my head followed by a brief dialouge between the receptionist and Chloe. -- Reception, ¨Oh my god, are you ok?¨ Chloe, ¨Yeah I think so, no yeah, I´m fine.¨ Reception, ¨You just fell down the stairs, are you sure you´re not hurt?¨ Chloe, ¨No no I´m ok thank you!¨ -- She immediately came to the room and I looked at her quizzically and asked if she really was ok. Somehow she didn´t have more than a couple bruises after rolling down a half flight of stairs and ending up tangled at the landing. We laughed a bit and I told her she had it coming after all the previous incidents where I had caught
her before she hit the ground. She was a bit embarrassed to show her face again to the hostel so we sat for a bit on the bed. Soon there after I had an unbalanced drunk feeling come over me for no reason and Chloe asked me, ¨Do you feel that?¨ Confused, I looked up at the light above the bed and confirmed that it was an earthquake. Chloe thought it was due to the volcano we were directly below but we found out later it was from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake 400 km away in Talca. I thought to myself, ¨Welcome to Chile, land of natural disasters!¨ Uneasy, we left the hostel to pick up groceries and looked up at the volcano while we passed volcano evacuation route signs. No more action passed the remainder of the evening so we were able to cook in the tiny, dirty kitchen and try and get some rest while people drank and played music on the other side of the paper thin wall in the living room.
The next morning we caught a collectivo out to Huerquehue National Park to go hiking. The ranger at the entrance brought the group over
Huerquehue National Park
to a map in order to expain the various routes and time it would take to compete so we could be sure to get back to the entrance before the last collectivo went back to town. This was our first true experience with Chilean Spanish. He talked fast, blended words, and dropped endings to words. I barely understood him; I was only able to connect the dots with the info from the map we were provided with. It reminded me of the crazy Spanish spoken in Granada, España. With no help from the ranger, we started the trek hiking past some small farms before reaching the forest and climbing up some switchbacks. It was nice to hike but we felt it didn´t compare to the hikes we´d accomplished in Bariloche. Regardless, we did see some cool sights along the way. A mirador along the switchbacks allowed us to get a view of the lake by the park entrance with Villarica Volcano in the background. Along the trail we passed several lagoons, and the higher we went, the more Araucaria trees appeared. This was the highlight of the trail; these trees can withstand wildfires and live over 700 years. They look
Huerquehue National Park
prehistoric; the bigger ones have thick armored bark like a stegosaurus and when together, make you feel like you are in the Jurassic Period and will probably see dinosaurs feeding in the lagoons. Definitely a cool new sight on our journey through South America. After we had lunch at one of the Jurassic lagoons we hiked back down and arrived at the entrance an hour before the last bus back. When we got back to town we had some time to relax and cleanup while Chloe debated on climbing the volcano the following morning. It was the reason I wanted to come to Pucon but Chloe was pretty skeptical about climbing the most active volcano in Chile, a country riddled with volcanoes and natural disasters. In the end, she convinced herself whe wanted to do it so we both signed up and went to the tour agency later in the evening to get sized for equipment. Fortunately, almost the entire hostel signed up so we were able to get a sleep without all the ruckus like the night before.
It was a good thing we were able to go to bed at a reasonable hour since we had to
Huerquehue National Park
be up at 4:30am to get to the agency by 5. I packed a quick lunch for us, got our stuff together and headed out the door. Chloe was pretty nervous; she didn´t really sleep since she was thinking of all the things that could go wrong. This feeling was compounded when the guides at the agency couldn´t find a backpack with her name on it with all the provided gear. When it was eventually determined that they hadn´t put one together, they rapidly gave her a bunch of the last remaining raggidy gear. Her backpack had duct tape holding the bottom together, and she didn´t have much time to check that she had everything she needed before the vans were packed up and we drove to the volcano, 15 minutes away. This wasn´t a good start; Chloe wasn´t getting the confidence or reassurance she needed for something way out of her comfort zone. This feeling grew worse when we arrived to the guard house at the base of the volcano and our guide said she had forgot her hiking boots and we had to return to the agency. By the time we drove back to the agency and started
driving up the volcano, the sun was rising and although it was beautiful, I was pissed, and Chloe was questioning if all this was a sign that she shouldn´t climb. I couldn´t believe our guide forgot the most basic piece of equipment for her job. That lack of confidence began spreading onto me. It was common knowledge that not a month prior, two guys in their early 20´s died on Villarica after a storm enveloped the mountain and they lost their way, slipping down the glacier ice into a crevasse. This incident wasn´t fully the guide´s fault, but it definitely made you think twice about how reputable an agency was and how much they just wanted to take your money.
In any case, we arrived to the base of the ski hill and were given a quick briefing by our absent minded guide and took off walking. Before too long, we reached a steep hill where our guide switched with another because a girl had decided it was too tough and wanted to head back. Our new guide Richard (Chilean with an English name), was much better as he had experience, confidence, and was funny. We walked up the
steep volcanic dust and pumice trail at a good clip, reaching the rest of the group waiting at the top of the unfunctional chairlift. After resting for a bit, we continued along with the entire group of 15 at a much slower pace. The trail was similar to what we had began climbing, but had some larger volcanic boulders along the way. At a point along the trail, we passed a lift station that had been destroyed in the 1971 eruption and subsequent pyroclastic flows. After a persistent hour and a half of climbing we reached the next stop, the glacier, where we rested and put on our cramp ons and gaiters. Chloe only had 1 gaiter in her hodgepodge of equipment so Richard gave her a new pair he had as a spare. We received a brief tutorial on the use of the cramp ons and ice axe then began hiking switchbacks up the glacier. Chloe was uncertain if she should have an ice axe as she was liable to take someone out with it rather than stop herself in a fall. After a bit she got the hang of using it as a hiking pole and was more
Begin the climb
Above always is the smoldering summit!
comfortable (as was I with the people in front and behind her). There were a few parts where we had to cross small crevasses but at these points they had ropes set up to help guide you across as well as provide confidence from the long fall below. The weather was clear and barely had a breeze, so even though we were walking on a glacier, we were down to base layers and sweating. We hiked up the glacier for about an hour and a half before reaching dry land again. Once we took off the cramp ons we had another rest for 10 minutes before continuing the hike. The last hour to the top was grueling, along loose pummice switchbacks and up natural steps in big volcanic boulders. At 2800 meters and after 4.5 hours of climbing, Chloe began faltering a bit, unsure if she would make it. I gave her some motivation and stuck with her, as we were so close to the summit. Once again, my motivational words worked and she was estatic upon reaching the top; a major accomplishment for the both of us, but especially for her as she had been hesitant to even attempt
the adventure. Our reward was paramount - 360 degree views of Chile´s volcano ridden landscape as well as a view down the crater to the belly of the beast. Looking down different sides of the volcano you could see the expansive glacier clinging onto the slopes and old paths of pyroclastic flows that spread like a dry delta into the flats of the lake below. With such a perfectly clear day, you could see various volcanoes in the distance, and the smaller forested hills and lakes in the foreground. We ate lunch at the summit while taking in the spectacular views, periodically looking down the crater hoping to see magma spatter up on the steep walls.
We couldn´t stay at the summit for too long though, as the intense nostril-burning sulferic gas was a bit toxic. The guides gathered us up and had us put on all the snow gear provided in the backpacks. We hiked down a different, steeper and looser path for 15 minutes before reaching the glacier. Here, the guides gave us another tutorial on use of the ice axe as a brake, as we were about to slide down the mountain on our rear end.
We had heard about this part and I was excited but Chloe had serious doubts and a fear that she wouldn´t stop and would tumble into a crevasse, never to be seen again. The guides and I laughed at her, as this was the only way down as it had been for many years and nobody on a clear day had ever disappeared! Anyway, this would inflict much less damage on her knees than slipping down the loose rock trail that had led to the top. So with ice axe in hand, we began sliding down the glacier one by one, hiking short distances between the 5 slides created by the 1000s of people before us. The guides noted that the first slide had a part eroded down the the rock so we should be careful in the beginning. I found the slide a bit too exhilarating and quite steep so I forgot about the exposed part. Fortunately Richard was waiting in the slide at this part and yelled for me to slow down and stop. Even with full pressure on the axe brake and feet into the side walls he had to brace himself and help stop me from
tearing my culo open on the jagged volcanic rock. I thanked him then jumped down and continued sliding. Although at first Chloe was as slow as a turtle, not allowing herself to gain momentum she soon learned that it was not as sketchy as she supposed and by going so slow she would get stuck and would have to get up and walk. By the end we both had confidence in the techniques so at the last slide I let her go first and waited until she was close to the bottom. I dropped in and decided to see how fast I could get going. Turns out that ice and plastic make for a fast combo so as I approached the bottom where the glacier ended and the sharp pummice began, I tried slamming the axe down and digging my heels in to slow myself. No such luck, I had too much momentum. At the last second I popped up and started running down the mountain, slowing myself to a halt somehow without falling on my face or back. The rest of the way down was pretty easy and fun as well; soft, deep, and wide dusty paths allowed one
to run down without being too worried about breaking your face on a rock. Once we reached the destroyed lift station we stopped and Chloe caught up. I guess she didn´t have the fun like I did, as she had fallen 3 times in a row and had cut her knee. I took out my first aid kit, cleaned and patched her up, and walked with her until the next loose dust path. I reached the bottom of the ski hill where we had started in an hour and a half, pretty darn quick compared to the 5.5 hour climb. As if someone had read my mind, a guy with a cooler full of sodas and beer was waiting in the shade at the bottom, so I bought a pair of brews and looked up at what we had climbed. Chloe made it down 20 minutes later, just in time so I could share the rest of the refreshing beer with her. We gave each other high fives and packed into the van. Hot, tired, and covered in volcanic dust, the shower at the hostel was a welcome sight. Once we cleaned up and took a load off, we decided
to avoid the minature and packed kitchen and ate out. After dinner we walked half asleep back to the hostel and crashed out after an exhausting but amazing day.
The following day was pretty mellow, and pretty cloudy. We had been very fortunate to have climbed the previous day, not just because of the great views and weather, but since today all guided tours up the volcano had been cancelled. We walked around the small town and stopped at a cafe to have a late breakfast. As we relaxed and sipped on a delicious real coffee (they prefer instant NesCafe in Chile), at noon the volcano warning siren went off, startling both of us. Chloe gaveme a look and said, ¨Oh my god, what do we do?!¨ I looked around and saw that nobody had change their daily routine so I told her not to worry, it was just a test. As it turns out, they test it daily at noon, but I guarantee it freaks out every new tourist in Pucon. Although I took some geology course back in college, I wondered now how well they can predict an eruption and how smart it was to have climbed
a very active volcano. After finishing a a delicious English breakfast and real coffee we continued along, stopping at the black sands of Lago Villarica and reviewing the photos from the previous day while staring out over the lake. In the afternoon we met up at a bar with Ben from Brazil, and Tom and Toni, an English couple we had befriended on the volcano hike. Together, we watched the UEFA 1/4 finals of Barça vs. AC Milan and shared a few pitchers of the Chilean Kautzmann amber ale, which suprisingly reminded me of a quality Alaskan Amber. Although Barça dominated the game, it ended 0-0, making the suspense wait until the return leg at FCB home. We said goodbye to Ben, as he went to rest before attempting the volcano the following day. Chloe and I went to the market and picked up a bottle of wine and some picnic food, as we were planning on going to the thermal baths that night.
Tom and Toni joined along and around 9:30 we took off in a van, driving a half hour in the dark to reach the baths. Upon arrival, we had to walk down a long set
of unwelcome stairs to reach the pools. There were 7 pools of different temperatures, alongside a raging river. For some reason, we were content to stick to the two closest to the bath house, as one was hot and the other was comfortable. It was great to relax in the pools, chat it up with the Brits, and sip on some Carmenere while taking breaks to eat some brie, apple, or chips and salsa. This great relaxing experience was brought to a halt when Chloe realized her toe ring that her Nana had given her had come off in the sandy bottom, dark pool. We searched blindly for a bit before I went to the bath house and asked the attendant to borrow his flashlight. With illumination we searched the area. Chloe spotted it and with Tom´s long reach he snagged it, allowing everyone to laugh and relax again. Unfortunately, it didn´t last long. Somehow, Chloe had lost it again in the same spot. As I trudged over to ask for the flashlight again, Chloe searched like a mole to spot the ring. As I came back with the light, Chloe barked at a German lady entering the pool and
disturbing the water surface, thinking she was me. Upon looking up, she realized her mistake and apologized profusely. I laughed at her and gave her the light to hold. Trying to be the hero, I envisioned Lord of the Rings and grabbed at the sandy bottom where the ring was, thinking I would come up with the ring shining through the black sand. However, all I got was sand and buried the ring even more. I could tell Chloe was pissed but was holding it together for the sake of all the others in the pool. Toni tried to console her, saying it wasn´t meant to be, and at least it wasn´t a diamond ring! She probably wasn´t the first to lose jewelry in the pools but twice in a row?! I felt pretty guilty, enough so I had Chloe hold the light again and dove in, excavating the sand upwards, hoping to expose the shiny ring. With my eyes open and semi drunk from the wine and heat going to my head I persevered and eventually dug up the ring and brought it to the surface. I showed it to Chloe but did not let her touch it. I
took it straight to the bath house and returned the light and deposited the ring in my backpack. I went back to relaxing for a while longer without having to worry about Chloe losing something else before it was time to go. I slept the whole way back then we hit the sack upon arrival to the hostel.
The next morning we had breakfast and got our stuff together before heading next door to the bus terminal where we embarked on an easy journey to the capital, Santiago de Chile!
There are more photos below