We were up before dawn and the canine gangs of Pucón. Layered in our warmest clothing, we made our way to the tour office and suited up. Everyone had the same sleepy look, except for a group of excitable Germans who chatted to each other as they tied their shoes. We are not morning people. We do not enjoy starting activities at 6.30 in the morning. John was especially irritable. Why aren't we sleeping? Why are we doing this hike?
I'd heard about Volcán Villarrica when I first started planning our travels in Chile. Thousands of people climb it each year. We'd never done such a hike, but couldn't pass up the chance. After our volcanic encounters in New Zealand, it was time to check out a live one, difficulty be damned. Plenty of people have done this climb and no, at only 2,840 metres (9,317 feet) it's not as tough as a Mt. Everest or Matterhorn. But it was the toughest hike we've ever done. For parts of it, I was terrified and we seriously considered turning back at one point.
In stressful situations I like to think deep thoughts. Here are some life lessons the volcano reminded me of.
The world is not a friendly place
Nothing prepared me for the winds near the top of the volcano. They sprayed flecks of ice across our cheeks, stinging our already sun-battered faces. With only my crampons cementing me to the powdery snow under my feet, I bent my head and knees and wondered why humans think it fitting to climb active volcanoes. Natural disasters remind us (often lately) that we are only little specks of life on this planet, guests of its soil, completely at the mercy of the elements. We all work hard to stay off the streets, feed our families and enjoy a few comforts. The earth is not here to provide for us; we must take care of ourselves.
When things get overwhelming, keep it simple
I was high on the face of a mountain, the wind bearing down on me, trying to pull out my handkerchief to blow my nose. I've had sinus problems since I was a child and the wood-burning fireplaces in town had been wreaking havoc on my respiratory tract for the last few days. I could barely breathe through my nose and the cold air entering my lungs through my mouth was tiring me fast. There was no turning back and no break for another 25 minutes. Looking around me was making me uneasy - we were up so high! As I tried to walk and put my gloves back on I released my grip on one glove just a little bit. The wind took it in an instant, sending it flying over the side of the mountain like a leaf. For me it was a reminder of what could happen to me up there if I didn't keep my head in the game. My legs hurt and I was exhausted. All I could do was focus on the immediate task at hand: putting one foot in front of the other. I looked down and focussed on following the steps of the person in front of me, forgetting everything else and the larger task of getting my tired body up that volcano. Sometimes life seems like its too much to bear. It's at these times that it's most important to remember baby steps. Take it slow, focus on things one day at a time. I reached the top of the mountain and you will too.
There will be assholes
We were almost to the top and feeling very confident. We'd reached a section with protection from the wind and, while we still had a ways to go, our little group was going well. We shared the trek with about 250 other people, our groups converging into little traffic jams from time to time. Behind us we heard a mean, nasty voice shouting, "Let's go! Vamos! VAMOS!!" It was a guide from another tour company, flying up the mountain ahead of his clients. He tried to push by us, poking his ice axe into John's backpack. We expressed our displeasure. He said sarcastically, "Aw, don't cry." We let him pass but the peace had been broken. We felt deflated. Our guide was friendly, patient, encouraging. This other guide was flaunting safety, breaking our spirits, even taunting us. We all encounter these people when we're trying to reach our goals. We want to push back and shove them off the mountain. Better to ignore them, fire back a witty retort and continue on your path.
Hard work will lead to rewards (and usually a lot of fun)
It was gruelling but we made it to the top. We were in a slower group than the rest of our touring compadres but they were there when we reached the top, greeting us with friendly congratulations. Everyone at the top was giddy, shouting off the mountain, smiling, high-fiving, ecstatic. We felt relieved to join them and excited for the views. The crater was there smoking in front of us, inviting us to peer over the crevice. The earth had provided us with the most beautiful clear day in over a week and after enjoying the sights at the top and learning a bit more about the volcano, we were ready to descend. We'd spoken to others about the second part of a mountain climb: getting down. Sometimes the snow isn't soft and safe enough to slide down. Not today. We strapped mats to our backsides and enjoyed the most fun part of the day: sliding down the behemoth. Icy chutes had been prepared for us and once we learned how to brake we were off. I've never been skiing or snowboarding so this was a special treat for me. The trials and tribulations of the day were forgotten as we reaped the rewards for our efforts. Accomplishment is always its own reward but in life you often get extra perks.
Getting there: Various tour companies operate out of Pucón, taking novice and experienced climbers alike to the summit of the volcano. Do yourself a favour and go with a reputable company for safety's sake. The tourism office has a complaints and suggestions book available for review. We went with Politur and loved our guide, David and their excellent equipment. Check for recent reviews when you go. If you're an accredited member of a mountaineering or climbing club, provide documentation to The Chilean Forestry Service (CONAF) in order to receive permission to climb on your own.
For more information about the climb, check out my quick guide on Traveldudes.
Do travel experiences sometimes drive you to analogies? Please share.