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Published: January 21st 2012
Recently I moved in with a family in picturesque Pucón, which is a village in Chile nestled between green hills that fold down into an expansive lake. This shores of this lake provide both a beach and a harbour on either side of a small point of land which juts into the lake at one end of Pucón. The most dramatic aspect of the landscape though is the perfectly conical volcano that stands on the edge of town, which along with providing ski fields, has also had some serious lava flows in the past. After spending an entire week having my eyes drawn to the snowy slopes of majestic Vulcán Villarrica, I could no longer resist the temptation to climb it and peer into its smoking crater. I signed up with one of the plethora of tour agencies in Pucón, along with an Austrian guy whom I had met at the language school where we were both taking Spanish classes and we steeled ourselves for the 6:30am meeting time the following morning.
I spent the evening gazing from the front window of the house at the white slopes as they altered their shade in response to the setting sun, with a lasting image of pastel pink snow lingering in my mind as I tucked in for an early night.
6:00am – alarm. 6:30am – at the tour agency with bleary eyes, pulling on my hiking boots. 7:00am – crammed into a minibus, awaiting the four late-comers to be handed their equipment and fitted out. 7:15am – dozing with my head banging against the window of the minibus. 7:30am – everyone is asked to alight from the minibus, as we had sustained a puncture in the middle of the national park. Problematic. A few other minibuses drove past, with their passengers looking on with sleepy smiles at our misfortune. Shortly after, two enormous cows strolled up with a local farmer, who attached them to a wooden cart. Not without seriousness, a couple of us asked if this was our new transport to the base of the climb. Fortunately, our three guides managed to discover a spare tyre hidden beneath the rear of the vehicle and after some heavy lifting, we were on our way again.
As the hike starts at the ski fields, there is an option to take a chairlift for the first section, eliminating an hour of hiking. One of the late-comers asked our guides with masculine bravado, “We’re not going on that, are we?” This indicated two things to me: firstly, that he hadn’t been listening earlier when we were told that we had an option to use the chairlift if we wished, but we had to pay 6,000 pesos to do so; secondly, here was someone who was going to try and demonstrate how tough and manly he was throughout the climb. Shortly after, we heard how he and his friend had just finished compulsory military service in their country, further stamping their credentials as men to be regarded with a sense of being impressed just by being around them. Six of us declined the chairlift option and set off up the dry, dusty and rocky ascent to the snowline. Roughly fifteen minutes into this, I could hear some whimpering and remonstrating from behind me. Our guide halted to see what the issue was. “I can’t breathe!’ was what we were all informed was the issue. The fact that he had the breath to make this statement appeared to betray his claim, but I kept my mouth shut. We promptly set off so that we could rest at the planned half-way point. Five minutes later I heard an insistent “Escuchar! ESCUCHAR!” (“Listen! LISTEN!”) being bellowed at the guide. We turned to be told in a petulant tone that his friend couldn’t breathe and he absolutely had to stop. I swiftly set off to let these two tough men deal with the fact that we weren’t going to be spoken to in such a manner. I honestly think that it was the first time in their respective lives that people didn’t praise the ground that they walked upon. They clearly felt that they were of a superior nationality and that we should all bend to their beck and call. Unfortunately, the people of this nation have a reputation for such behaviour in Chile, which I thought was fairly harsh until I experienced it first hand (the recent fires that have wiped out swathes of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine haven’t really helped matters). Judging by the immense difficulty they experienced for the first hour of what was to be a five hour climb, I quickly ascertained that their nation would not stand a chance in the field of battle if this is the physical prowess of those who have just finished their military service. Although, the support they receive from other world powers in this area will no doubt save them.
Hmm, this is turning rather negative, which runs the risk of giving the impression that I didn’t enjoy the day, which is not the case, but the rude, petulant and demonstrative behaviour of these two men had to be seen to be fully appreciated. They constantly went against what they were advised to do and then, after complaining for hours on end that we needed more breaks and to go slower, when we were within five minutes of the crater, they demanded that we go faster! I was incredulous. There was actually a moment when I raised my ice-pick to swing it at one of them when he foolishly sat on the ice whilst we were walking in single file as we zig-zagged up the steep slopes. I write ‘foolishly’ as, just prior to this, we nearly lost one of our group members when she slipped on the ice and slid for a hundred metres or so down the slopes before a couple of guides dashed across and stopped her descent just before a nasty drop that would have left her seriously injured, or worse. Luckily, she only sustained some severe grazes from the abrasive ice, along with some painful looking ice burn. After her numerous wounds were tended to, I marvelled at her composure as she asked for her backpack, searched through it and procured a hairbrush, which she then ran through her hair a number of times. Pain be damned - gotta look good on the slopes!
Okay, back to the positives…it was a postcard day, with flawless blue sky affording a tremendous view of the villages dotted at either end of the lake below, along with more volcanos and lakes in the near distance, with the snow-covered Andes puncturing the skyline in the far distance. It was the first time I had ever ice-hiked, so I enjoyed the novelty of using an ice-pick and couldn’t help myself from posing for a few silly photos with my ice-pick in hand, raised in a psychopathic manner. At the crater, I could hear the magma slosh and belch as the smoke was exhaled into the atmosphere. I had lunch on the crater’s edge, peering over at Argentina as I watched the clouds be released for the day from the forest below.
The real enjoyment began when we commenced our descent, as this was done via a toboggan! It was SOOOOO much fun!!! Growing up in Australia, this was another new experience for me and, much like when going downhill on a skateboard or scooter in my youth, I was reluctant to use any form of braking mechanism. This resulted in a few tumbles when a bump in the snow sent me airborne in a rotating fashion. The final run of the day proved to be my ultimate and inglorious undoing, as I lost vision due to a continual spray of icy chunks and snow. At one point I momentarily saw a large black shape ahead of me, so I tried to veer right and, for once, slow down with the use of my ice pick. Neither tactic was entirely successful and I ended up swiping out the legs of another climber before finding that there was nothing below me but air. I presently felt my hip thud into something fairly hard and immovable. After a second or two, I assessed my surroundings and realised that I had dropped into a small cave! I laughed uproariously for an awfully long time when I realised what had happened, possibly also because I realised that I had been quite lucky. For one, my ice-pick didn’t impale me, but had made it into the cave with me, which proved quite handy when it came time to extricate myself from my predicament. (It took four days for the bruise to make its way to the surface, which gives you an idea of how deep that rock pressed into my hip! I’m still not sleeping on my right side.)
At the base, there was an old fellow selling cold beer from an esky (I very much doubt that he had a liquor licence), so a few of us celebrated the day’s adventures with the first of what would be many beverages before I found the comfort of sleep back in my host-family’s humble abode.
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