So You Want to Climb an Erupting Volcano?

Firstly that’s crazy, just don’t. Here is the closest you can get though.

In the south of Chile just above Patagonia is the town of Pucón, the adventure capital of Chile. With a lake on one site, the Andes behind and a snow capped volcano sitting menacingly above it this already seems like a pretty good location to earn the title. The Trump card for Pucón is that its neighbouring volcano, Villarrica, is one of the most active in Chile and is one of the only volcanoes in the world with a constant lava lake in the crater. As far as volcanoes go it’s fairly stable and because of this it’s possible to do a buns-sculpting climb up to the crater to witness the miracle of nature for yourself.

In the lead up to arriving in Pucón the gods seemed to be conspiring to stop me doing the climb. A few small earthquakes preceded not one but two volcanoes just south of Villarrica having violent eruptions. Villarrica followed suit and started to bubble a lot more than usual (sic: lava and flying rocks raining down on the summit). The climb was closed down for two weeks and re-opened only just before I arrived in town. On top of all this, cue me arriving in town just as the 3000m summit is experiencing winds over 150km/h.

The morning of the climb we wait in the darkness of the hostel common room. During the night the wind has been so intense that the power has been cut, probably by flying cows, and we aren’t really expecting any good news. Half an hour after we are due to leave we get the go ahead from the mountain overlords. The wind is expected to calm down during the day and we are allowed to climb. The fifteen of us pile into the waiting vans and haul ass to try and make up the lost time. Next to me is a very hung over American guy who will struggle with life for the rest of the climb. His name is Daniel and I don’t know it at the time but I will end up traveling with him and his Israeli buddy Liran for the next 2 months.

The van’s wind up the base of the mountain for what seems like forever until we reach the end of the road and unload all of our equipment. It’s actually a pretty difficult climb. We are supplied with helmets, head to toe safety overalls, gas masks, ice axes, crampons and a healthy ‘don’t f@#k around up there’ lecture. We are dropped off at around 1200m to begin the hike at the snow line and from here, in one day, we need to climb the 1800m to the summit. The last few hundred meters of this is using our ice axe to get up a glacier . Finally after all of this we need to get back down again before dark. Keeping in mind while we are at the top the aim is to not fall into the lava.

The wind is screaming and the sun has just broken the horizon as we begin. We’re all using the ice axes as walking sticks to make sure we aren’t blown off the ridge while struggling with how hard it is already. The first part of the climb lasts one and a half hours and is in powder snow. Sometime during our first break the wind fades away to a breeze and we can finally appreciate the view for the first time. Being able to see from the coast on one side to the mountains of Patagonia is pretty special. Add into this the fact were half way up an active volcano and things just seem a bit more profound than normal.

The higher up we go the steeper the slope becomes. We have two more pushes up the mountain before the crater and by the time we are on the third stage we have reached the glacier. Months of wind and snow have created some amazing shapes in the ice. The best way to describe them is the picture below, somewhere between frozen waves and horizontal icicles. By the time we are here everyone is completely exhausted and even in the below zero temperatures I’ve sweated through all of my layers. Using the ice axe for every step now the pace is slow and slippery and the last hour goes by like this; the leg day from hell on ice.

Just below the crater we take shelter while having a snack and wait for our turn at the summit. There can only be one group at a time with a maximum of 5 minutes for each group. This is supposed to minimise the chance of a lot of people being at the top if the volcano decides to have an unexpected explosion. Finally we get the go ahead and scramble over the edge. There have been a lot of good life moments on my travels but there are very few which come close to seeing a volcano bubbling lava just in front of you. Even if there was no lava the view is also insane. We’re all so mesmerised by the situation a full 10 minutes passes before we realise that our guides are yelling at us that it’s time to leave.

An unknown gem about the hike is that when there is enough snow it’s possible to glacade the whole way down the mountain from top to bottom. What takes 5 hours to climb takes 30 minutes of ball-busting fun to reach the bottom. Anyone looking for a good adventure experience while doing a lap of South America needs to put hiking Villarrica on their list, whether it’s showing lava or not.

here is a short video 




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