Life lessons at the top of an active volcano

When planning my trip to The Lakes District, a scenic place known for its snow-capped volcanoes — I knew it wouldn’t be complete without hiking one of those giants. So, that’s exactly what Nora and I decided to do. Moving to Chile and traveling through South America is supposed to be an adventure, right? We planned our entire 10-day vacation around hiking Volcán Villarrica, and even had to change our plans mid-route to account for unexpected bad weather. On the last day of our trip, we made it back to Pucón in time for the best weather we had seen all week. Instead of spending the only warm, cloudless day tanning by the lake, I bundled up in snow gear and headed off to reach the summit of an active glacier-topped volcano. The hike requires boots with crampons and an ice pick, takes four hours and is straight uphill. Now that’s crazy!

 

A snapshot of Volcán Villarrica: Light smoke streaks the sky as it escapes the snowy peak of a sturdy purple base. A bold beauty, Volcán Villarrica seems calm from a distance, but a closer look tells another story. The volcano is harsh and unrelenting as people stomp up its hillside. A million footprints etch an icy path, scarring Villarrica’s natural form. Perhaps that’s the reason she’s so unforgiving. Step, step, step: each move proves harder than the last, a futile feeling in moving toward a peak that seems to stay just out of reach. A checkpoint merely marks the start of more difficult terrain. Villarrica gives no hints or shortcuts, and instead mocks its trespassers who fumble over rocks and through sludgy snow. Finally, miraculously at the peak and the rough journey is clear: Volcán Villarrica was shielding her secret, one saved only for those who passed the test of not giving up. An unbelievable view, relief, pride — it’s all at the top, what feels like the top of the world.

Volcán Villarrica

The story of my climb: I had been anxious for this hike in the weeks leading up to our trip. I knew the four-hour uphill ascent in the snow would not be an easy one for me, someone who is admittedly out of shape and not a huge fan of physical activity. Regardless, I wanted to experience the adventure of hiking an active volcano and I knew any hardship would likely be worth it in the end.

My heart was pounding as I prepared to start the trek, and not because I was afraid of getting hurt. I was afraid of failure. Terrified, actually. Things have generally come easy for me, and when they don’t, the hardest part about those things is admitting that they’re not easy. If I set out to do something, I always finish it. I told myself reaching the top of this volcano would be no different. But despite the positive self-pep talk, the sound of my heart slamming against my chest was the only thing I could hear as I took my first steps on Volcán Villarrica. Ba dum dum dum ba dum dum. Thud, thud.

The sun rising over the lake as we prepared to start our climb.

Ready to go! We took the ski lift up the first quarter mile. Not at all cheating, once you realize how hard the rest of the hike is.

As expected, I started to lag behind our group within minutes. I started at the front of the pack, eventually sliding in line behind the entire dozen within the first half-hour of the hike. As the group continued to make way to the first checkpoint, I took an early break of my own and one of the guides stayed behind with me.

He told me “slow and steady” is key, but that stopping every seven steps isn’t exactly the steady pattern he had in mind. I kept it up anyway — step step ice pick-slam “Why did I want” step step ice pick-slam “to do this?” step step ice pick-slam “wahh” step … 30-second pit stop … step step ice pick-slam “This sucks and is” step step ice-pick slam“arguably the worst”  step step ice-pick slam “day of my life”  step — and an hour and a half later I somehow made it to the halfway point, only about 20 minutes behind the rest.

Each step was more exhausting than the last as the trail just got steeper and my body grew more tired. So as proud as I was that I managed to make it halfway, I knew I couldn’t stop there and I reassured my now-personal tour guide that I was ready to continue after our quick lunch break. Despite my desire to continue, I was also mentally honest with myself that I might be physically unable to make it to the summit.

A glimpse at how steep this bad boy is from the halfway point. Photo by Nora Westcott

Halfway and still smiling!

After lunch, we started up the snow-capped peak. Trudging through the icy sludge was even more difficult than navigating the loose gravel, and it felt as if some other force lifted my legs for me because I was completely out of energy. About 45 minutes through the snow, dragging my feet at an average six-step-break pattern, and I reached the next check point. Only another 45 minutes to go. My whole body was slightly trembling, a mix of pure exhaustion and shock I had made it that far.

I was leaning against a dry rocky patch of the hillside when my guide told me to take some pictures because this spot would be as far as I’d go. He said rocks were falling and I was too tired to move quickly enough out of the way. I initially accepted his order. I continued to sip some water as I pondered the situation: nearly three hours of hiking uphill in the snow, only to stop 45 minutes from the top of the volcano’s crater. “Nope, my story is not going to end this way,” I thought.

I walked over to my guide and pleaded for him to let me continue. He refused, giving the same stock answer about safety. I went back to my spot on the rocks. Five minutes later, I begged some more. We went round and round in this fashion for about 30 minutes.

Then, he told me our group was 45 minutes ahead of us and couldn’t wait for me. I was done being polite: “We wouldn’t be so far behind if you had let me keep going. I was ready to keep moving 30 minutes ago!” He shrugged his shoulders. I stared him down. “There are hundreds of other people still hiking to the top; our group can wait,” I said. “The weather is perfect and I’ve heard that hardly happens up here.”

It was then, he cut me to the core: “You can’t do it. You’ll never make it to the top. It’s the steepest part … you can’t.”

A look down, about 45 minutes from the top.

Well, no one tells me I can’t. No one. So, that’s exactly what I told him: “You don’t even know me. Who do you think you are, telling me ‘I can’t?’ No one tells me I can’t do something except me, and I’m not giving up. You said it takes 45 minutes to reach the crater from here. I’ll do it in 30. I’m going to the top, are you?”

He stared back at me, silent at first — probably a tad shocked — then he let out a big sigh and stepped in front of me to lead the way.

Everyone says the last part is the hardest, but for me it was the easiest stretch of the entire hike. Adrenaline furiously pumped through my veins and I walked in a whole new pattern to the tune of this: stomp stomp ice pick-slam “(expletive) you” stomp stomp ice-pick slam “(expletive)” stomp stomp ice-pick slam “who the (expletive) are you?” stomp stomp ice pick-slam“I’ll show you who ‘can’t.'” I didn’t take a single break, passing others who did. I, in fact, made it to the peak in 30 minutes.

Cliché feet picture of my boots. But hey, when it’s your poor tired feet that get you to the top of a volcano, cliché feet pictures are totally acceptable.

I took a big step over the top of the edge, took a few more steps to get a safe distance from the ridge and turned around to look out.

And then I cried.

The view was overwhelmingly spectacular. I was exhausted. I was relieved. But more than anything, I was proud. A flood of emotion sent a single silent stream of tears to wet the dirt on my cheeks. I hate crying and rarely do, but I reached the top of Volcán Villarrica, one of the single hardest things I’ve ever accomplished — and I was proud.

My mom gave me a silver compass necklace the week before I moved to Chile. It’s inscribed: “There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going,” and I wear it every day. Climbing this volcano was a very literal expression of that, and it reminded me how true that statement really is.

From the top, I could see at least four lakes, several mountain ranges and two other volcanoes.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was incredible.

The view.

Another angle of the view.

Another angle of the view: mountain ranges. I think it’s the flat ones in about the middle that are called the Sierra Nevadas. Who knew I’d find a little piece of home so far away?

After taking in the moment, I walked to the smoking crater. The sulfuric gas smelled strong and burned my throat a bit as I inched closer, but I moved in a little closer anyway. Lava spit up through the smoke to astonished “oohs and ahhhs” from the crowd.

Worldwide, Volcán Villarrica is one of five active volcanoes that has a lava lake in its crater. It’s rare that anyone gets a glimpse of the orange fire, though. The tour company had explained the level of lava is usually only visible every three months, and we wouldn’t see any on our hike. Another nearby volcano in the same chain had recently erupted, causing Villarrica’s lava lake to sink pretty low. I guess it was a day for beating odds, though, and the lava continued to shoot up with loud crackles and pops.

Hard to tell in the photo, but that orange streak in the bottom right of the smoke is lava!

In case you think I’m just a good story teller, here’s the proof I actually made it to the top. :)

Success.

I scanned the summit for my friend Nora with little hope of spotting her among the 300 or so other people. Then, out of nowhere, I heard her calling for me and turned to see her running toward me with open arms for a congratulatory hug. The next thing out of her mouth: “So you know, this is not my idea of fun.” Haha. The hike was even difficult for Nora, someone who plays tackle rugby and puts working out on her list of favorite pastimes. Good to know what we won’t be doing on our next trip together.

At the top!

The way down was a scary challenge for a whole new set of reasons. We suited up in our snow gear and rapidly slid down the glacier. Fun: yes. However, the only thing keeping us from flying off the mountain’s ledges was our own strength. And that, my friend, is terrifying. Whipping through the windy path, I dug my ice pick down with all my might hoping it was enough to keep me from tumbling into the vast abyss staring me square in the eye. Perhaps that is supposed to be part of the thrill.

Once off the glacier, it was another hour hike to finally reach the end. As my adrenaline started to wear off, I began to feel my boots grinding against my legs. The amount of pain it was causing told me my muscles wouldn’t be the only thing hurting in the days to come. Sure enough, removing my boots exposed raw and bloody skin circling each of my lower calves.

It took four days for the soreness in my thighs to subside, six days for the swelling in my ankles to disappear and weeks for the skin around my calves to grow back. I have six seemingly-permanent scars (if you’re only counting the physical ones ;) )

Truth be told, in the United States, an activity like this would never be advertised as “easy and for beginners with no experience,” let alone not require waivers or have accompanying medics. They do things a bit different in South America, I guess! But … I somehow made it to the top and back down again alive. With that being such a big accomplishment, especially the “alive” part, I suppose it makes all those logistics just seem like silly semantics.

Here’s a look at my victory meal: a juicy hamburger topped with fresh tomato, onion and avocado, french fries and a cold beer. Mmmm!

Victory meal.

As I mentioned before, climbing Volcán Villarrica is the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Although I wouldn’t do it again, it was worth it — war wounds and all.

It taught me that my body is capable of a lot more than I expected, and that my mind can carry me through physical challenges. It reminded me of the rewards that come from taking risks, but that those rewards never come without hard work and struggles. It proved that success isn’t always easy, but not giving up is half the battle. … And it showed me that I really need to start working out.

—JDF