Friday, 31 October 2008

Touching the volcano: Villarica

Villarica is in the Lake District of Chile; lots of beautiful fishing lakes surrounded by snow capped volcanos and treks through lush wooded forests. It has a very European feel and the hostel we stayed in was run by a Swiss German couple. Claudia and Beat opened the Torre Suisse after touring the world for 2 and a half years on bicycles. Yep, my bum hurts too thinking about it. They really did it the hard way and there is some incredible photo evidence of them around the world posing alongside their bikes. They have been in Villarica now for 12 years. Claudia is quite a character. She tends to shout nicely at you and stomps purposefully around the place like a wound up toy. She prepares homemade yogurt, homemade bread and jam for breakfast. It is the best we have had in South America. They even have a genuine cuckoo clock on the wall. She is lovely, if a little scary. One night we asked her if she would like to join us for some wine. "No, no... thank you!" She barked in clipped English. "If I drink the red wine then I dancing!" I believe it!
Also at the hostel was a retired American guy called Frank who disappears from his home in Ohio to Argentina for about 7 months every year to go fishing. He had a wiley old hermit charm about him. He has spent his life climbing volcanoes and working as a ski instructor. These days he enjoys the simple joys of fishing. When he found out our Scottish roots, he cited Hamish McInnes as a personal hero and one óf the original hard men of ice climbing´, and of the Spey river as the spiritual home of fly fishing.

Dominating the landscape is the active Villarica Volcano. Its height is just under 3000m and it last erupted in 1984. We set out to conquer it. We signed up with a local mountain guide and set off at 7am to begin the journey to the foot of the slope. Our companions were a great couple of girls from New York, a Brazilian couple, a lively young Italian and two Frenchmen humping skis and a snowboard that they intended to descend the volcano on. The rest of us were planning to slide down using a cheaper method; our bums and a plastic tray.

The ascent had actually been cancelled the previous day because of high winds.
But today was still and graced with blue skies. Armed with ice pics and multiple chocolate bars we set off. The Brazilians didn´t last long. After 30mins we never saw them again. One of the guides said it was because there are no volcanoes in Brazil and they never know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. But there no volcanoes in Scotland either, I thought. Climbing up to Edinburgh Castle really isn´t the same thing at all. Oh, dear! It wasn´t long before the French skiers lagged behind too, the weight of their load too much to cope with on the steep, slow ascent to the top.

The rest of us were making good pace and began overtaking other groups on the way. The biggest problem was the sun that reflected off the snow with blinding strength and also made you perspire badly. 3 quarters the way to the top, Kathy started suffering from wobbly legs and then my weaker left arm started grumbling from the strain of putting pressure on the ice pic. But exactly 4 hours from the start of the climb we made it to the top. It was amazing, what a feeling. The whole world was literally at our feet and directly beside us was the grumpy moans, groans and great puffs of sulphur clouds belching from the crater. (It was later that we learnt that our guide holds the record for the quickest ascent to the top, an incredible 1 and a half hours...)

However, the best was still to come. Using only a plastic tray, a cushioned backside and the mysterious force known as gravity we raced our way back down the mountain. What a laugh it was! Kathy and I had about 5 wipouts between us when lost control and flipped over and over through the deep snow until we stopped. During one extra fast section we both lost our ice pics almost similtaneously ( we were using them as a tiller and break) but the canny Italian saved our bacon from the rear by scooping up the ice pics en route and smoothly delivering them to us in one sweeping motion as he continued down the slope. Nice! The next minute, however, he came off the tray and half his body disappeared under the snow line. He was stuck , wedged in to a crevasse, his legs dangling beneath him. It was time for Kathy and I to come to the rescue. We got close and held out our ice pics for him to pull himself up with. After a couple of minutes of tense struggling he was free and back on top of the snow. The top part of the volcano is a glacier. It was lucky that the crevasse was nowhere near as wide as it was deep!

By the time we got to the bottom we were all exhausted, soaken through but completely exhilerated from the experience and on an absolute high.

Back at the hostel, Frank was very complimentary with our achievements. We celebrated with a slap up self-cooked feast of steak, garlic mushrooms, roast tatties and Maipo Valley Chilean red wine. Then we were joined by a Aussie called Trish. Our planned early night quickly evaporated amongst another 2 fine bottles of Chilean red. Eventually we hit the sack. We slept like babies too. Kathy snored but for once I didn´t mind a bit!

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