The Villarrica Volcano, the most active volcano in Chile, was known to the Mapuche Indians who inhabited the surrounding area as Rucapillán, or the Devil’s Lair.  As you’ll see below, this description was right on point.
volcano1
A couple of days before we arrived in Pucón (a small town in the lake district of Chile), I read our guidebook and discovered that many of the visitors to the area attempt to climb the Villarrica Volcano, a smouldering peak located just a few miles from the town’s center.  The guidebook described the full-day climb as very steep and difficult, but not overly technical; it stated that a short, but important mountaineering course with a local guide would be required the day before the climb.  As we were arriving late Saturday afternoon and our only full day in Pucón would be Easter Sunday (we were signed up for half-day Spanish lessons on each of the remaining days), I had assumed that a summit of the volcano would be impossible during our visit.  While I was a little distraught by the fact the climb would not be available to us, I was relieved that we would have a valid excuse if asked why we didn’t attempt the summit.
volcano4
On our way to dinner, we stopped at an adventure travel company, Aguaventura, and asked what activities were available the remainder of the week.  In addition to rafting and horseback riding, we were told by Vincente, the French owner, that we could climb the volcano the next day.  His description of the climb, as we later found out, was full of lies – we would ride a chair lift half-way up the volcano, have a rather simple three-hour climb to the top and casually walk down the mountain.  When I asked if there was any technical training we needed or if we needed to sign a liability waiver, he simply said no.  Shanna and I took his bait–hook, line and sinker.  We told Vincente that we would think about it and let him know within an hour.  Five minutes later, we were back in the office trying on our gear for the next day’s climb.
volcano5
Shortly after 7am the next morning, we were in a van with 20 other poor souls headed to the volcano’s base. Once we arrived, one of the guides told us without emotion or regret that the chair lift was broken, so we would have to climb the entire length of the volcano (a total vertical ascent of around 5,000 feet) – adding a few hours (yep, a few HOURS) to the day’s climb.  I looked down at the ice axe that had been provided to me and then looked directly at the guide, impure thoughts filling my head.  A few seconds later, I calmed down and we were on our way.

The first 2.5 hours of the climb went directly up the peak, with the trail mostly composed of sand, dirt and rocks.  After a short break, the guides instructed us to retrieve our ice axes and put crampons on our hiking boots as we were about to start climbing up the glacier.  Expecting a lengthy tutorial on the proper way to use the ax and crampons and the safest way to climb the glacier, I was dumbfounded when we started the ice climb after a cursory safety overview in broken English.  The only tidbit I really understood was – “don’t use the ices ax and crampons the wrong way, since you’ll probably fall down the volcano and die.”  Thanks for that.
volcano2
After about 45 minutes of climbing the glacier, we approached a large rocky area where groups from another travel company had rested.  I had spotted this little oasis several minutes before and was giving myself a pep-talk, knowing that if I just made it to that area I would be able to rest for awhile and catch my breath.  I cannot fully describe my heartbreak when our guide walked straight past the area, turned around to us and said – only 45 more minutes until the next break.  Once again, I became obsessed with the various macabre uses of the ice ax.

During the next 45 minutes, my attempts to divert my mind from the nightmare at hand by focusing on positive thoughts (the day my friend Scott and I went on a barbecue crawl, tasting beef brisket at four different restaurants in Lockhart, Texas; riding zip-lines in the jungles of Nicaragua with my friend Mike) were futile; my mind could not escape the hell that was Villarrica Volcano.  As we finally reached the end of the glacier area and our final resting place before we attempted the summit, I realized that we had somehow been placed in the fast group; the remainder of our group was about 30 minutes behind us.  What a cruel trick!  Why on earth would I be chosen for the fast group?  I looked at the slim and short members of this elite group, with their well-worn hiking boots, fancy waterproof jackets and cocky, this-is-easy smiles, wishing years of pain on them and their future children.

volcano3
The last part of the climb was brutal, with the practically vertical “path” consisting of sharp, loose rocks.  As I slipped every few minutes and watched as I started mini-avalanches down the side of the volcano, our fast-group guide kept saying “only 10 more minutes.”  While I understood the motivational reasoning behind our guide’s lies, I wasn’t falling for his Jedi-mind tricks; I knew it was more like 30 more minutes.  I searched my brain for legal theories on which I could sue the guide and ensure that he never attempted to dupe another climber again.

By the grace of God, we made it to the top and practically collapsed on a rock near the smoking crater of the volcano.  Realizing that we had conquered the volcano after six hours of climbing, there was a period of great rejoicing and pride. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived as I realized we still had a three-hour climb down the volcano!  This prospect hadn’t even crossed my mind; I think I had assumed that a helicopter would magically appear and whisk us down the mountain to a cozy room with a fireplace, apple cider and a jacuzzi.  While I prepared myself mentally for the upcoming death march, I took a few minutes to take in the landscape.  It was spectacular – clear blue skies providing us an uninterrupted view of the surrounding valley and distant mountains.

I remember very little of our descent, other than the thirty minutes we spent sliding down the mountain using our rear-ends as a bobsled – a reckless, yet exhilarating way to descend the icy section of the volcano.  Nine hours after our departure, we arrived at the bottom exhausted and sore.  We later found out that several of the climbers didn’t make it to the top and at least a couple had to go to the hospital to treat injuries from the climb, a fact that should have produced sympathy for those involved but regrettably and maniacally provided me with deep satisfaction.  Derek and Shanna 1, Villarrica Volcano 0.