Thursday, December 28, 2006

Climbing Vulcan Villarrica

We woke up to a beautifully sunny day, cloudless save for an amazing "UFO" of vented gases capping the volcano. Today we were scheduled to go up the mountain with a guide and I was excited! Along with a Brazilian couple, Rodridgo and Daniella, and a native Chilean, Rauol, we met our guide, Joachin, who helped us arrange our rented gear. Outfitted with snow pants, jacket, mountaineering boots, an ice axe, helmet, crampons, and a backpack containing food, water, and extra gear, we felt virtually professional!

The sun rises, highlighting the town, the mountain, and the maze of ever-present power lines.
After being bused to the ski area on its flank, the mountain was still promising us a glorious day culminating in a mystical experience when we climbed to its vapor-shrouded summit! We started out with a short walk uphill from the lodge to a chair lift that would speed us past the first hour's ascent.
What rapidly became evident was that using the lift avoided the first part of the ascent, but not the first hour. As a team of five fussed the diesel-driven lift into action, a large crowd of other climbers amassed. The photo above shows only the first third of the queue!
On reaching the top of the lift, the view back over the area was stunning. Pucon is just visible centrally in the picture, in the valley east of the lake.
Our guide enforced a rather slow but steady pace with regular stops for rest and water. We felt fortunate to be in a smaller group, as we watched the switchback zig-zag of other tours headed up the slope. We were definitely not alone on the mountain!! The larger groups ran to twenty or more, all inching up the mountain single file behind their guide, hoping to summit on the first good day after a week of clouds and rain.

About 2/3rds of the way up, we stopped to eat and lace on our crampons for the steeper, icier sections above. Our guide checked the weather conditions by radio, talked with other guides, and came back to say we'd head up to the next ledge and check again. By this time, a layer of cloud had simply materialized out of nowhere, hiding the summit and extending to shadow our previously-sunny vista.

We headed up, feeling very secure in our crampons. One of our group had opted to stay behind at the lunch stop, and another turned back after the first ten minutes, so we were able to pick up the pace a bit. After another 30 minutes of steady progress, we were beginning to be enveloped in the clouds and noted a gusty wind with light rain. All this seemed quite tame compared to weather we had skied in numerous times, but Joachin, our guide, stopped and said we'd best turn back. He felt that, with the wet, wind, and cold, we should not attempt the summit. I was very disappointed, but not being familiar the mountain or the language, I regretfully turned around with everyone else. I suppose that, without lift poles and tree verges to follow, getting stuck in a white-out on this mountain might not make for as easy a descent as when skiing.

We were pretty sure some of the groups who had started much earlier than us had probably summitted, but we noted all the groups around us also turning around. As unfamiliar hikers began descending in thicker, wetter, snow that clumped around the teeth of crampons, some would lose their footing and (purposefully or not) slide down the mountain. It certainly was an easier descent. The rest of us had to pick our route carefully to avoid the thicker snow, or stop frequently to tap the snow out of the crampons when they began losing their purchase on the mountain. The seated descent was certainly not popular with the guides, who volubly pointed out that sliding with sharp crampons to the fore was simply asking to lacerate a fellow hiker or, worse yet, catch a point, twisting a knee or hip beyond its designed limits. It became increasingly evident to us that the range of hikers was broad, including those with little experience on snow, ice, mountainsides, perhaps even in the out-of-doors. However, the guides did their job, accommodating for the safety of weakest links.

Rodrigo, Case and Jolene at their "summit". I am happily smiling, but masking disappointment!!
Disappointment soon gave way to excitement as we reached a point where our guide allowed us to shed our crampons and glissade down the mountain on our patooties! Under the influence of gravity, our three hour ascent yielded a much faster descent.
Rauol, Joachin, Rodrigo and Daniella pose happily at the bottom of the snowline.

All in all, it was a very safe and fun day, and I felt our guide had most likely done his best to accommodate the scope of experience and ability in our group. The views were amazing, but the one into the crater still teases me. If there is a next time, perhaps we'll rent the few pieces of gear we're missing, hire a private guide, and (for perhaps the same cost) make the true summit!


sue shawler said...

Hi Jolene and Case,
Have just caught up on reading your blogs and reading about the rafting reminded me of when we were rafting in Central Oregon and you and Bill had your spill on the big rapid!!!! We'll have to show Case those pictures someday. It is fun reading about your adventures. Sue Shawler

Case and Jolene said...

Hi Sue,
So great to hear from you! Yes, the memories of flipping out of the raft live on! I've shared the photos with Case. I have many fun memories with you and I'd like Case to meet you and Bill sometime.
Love, Jolene