Climbing Volcan Villarica


Our main purpose for being in Pucón is to learn enough Spanish in three weeks of intensive study to be able to wander around South America for the remaining nine months and be able to communicate to some extent with the locals. However, that is not the main purpose of this website, so that part of our adventure will be covered fairly briefly. Suffice to say that Pucón is a pretty tourist town, situated on the shores of Lago Villarica and beneath the wisps of smoke that emanate from the perfect cone of the volcano of the same name. In the summer it is a hive of tourist activity and we were glad to be here at the end of the tourist season when life runs at a much less hectic and much more pleasant pace. Esconced in our small, comfortable but architecturally interesting cabana (los hermanos Bodgy clearly have a franchise in Chile), we started our lessons at the Centro de Idiomas y Cultura with Karin, our enthusiastic, humorous and very good teacher for several hours per day of one on two instruction - the shock set in fairly quickly. Play was over and work had started.

Volcan Villarica reflected in the lake
of the same name

Pucón in the light of a full moon

View over Pucon from the Monasterio

Black-necked swans on Lago Villarica

Not really flowers - just coloured wood shavings

Ascenso de Volcan Villarica

Pucón is one if the main centres for adventure sports in Chile and top of the list is the ascent of 2847m Volcan Villarica. There are not many places in the world where you can peer down the crater of an active volcano, so, despite the fact that we would certainly not be alone, we had to do it. With the promise of a change in the weather, we swapped our Spanish lessons around to take advantage of one of the few clear sunny days that remained. Many companies guide people up the volcano; we picked RumboSur, a good choice as we ended up with four friendly companions from Israel and Spain, plus Rodrigo, our cheerful and informative mountain guide.

Volcan Villarica (2847m) in the late afternoon sun

Skiers' chairlift on the lower slopes of Villarica

All systems go for the volcano!

When the equipment was handed out, we realised this was going to be a bit more than a stroll up a long slope; helmets, crampons, ice-axes, heavy duty parkas and overpants were put on or stowed in backpacks and off we went. Strictly, the walk starts at the base of the ski-field on the volcano, at a height of 1480m. When we arrived there would have been about 100 people milling about in various groups up to 20 in size with guides organising gear and walkers. To be honest a slight wave of depression rolled over us at the thought of being just two of such a large crowd, but we all shared a common aim, so the feeling sooned passed.

All dressed up and ready to go

A small group of climbers heading up the lower slopes

Views to the north and distant Volcan Llaima

Like most others our group made short work of the first 400m of the climb, by catching the ski-field chairlift. We then set off in single file behind Rodrigo, climbing steeply up the loose rock and gravel of the barren and eroded lava slopes. The different groups spread out like a series of processionary caterpillars following each other up the well-worn path that led up the slope. As we climbed, the views back over Pucón and Lago Villarica and beyond became more and more expansive.

Lookng back down toward Pucón

The landscape to the north of the volcano

At 2240m, we took our first break just below the glacier at a site known as The Pinguinera; the guides had named it so, as the sight of so many climbers milling around during their break reminded them of a penguin colony - it was a good description. Rodrigo tested the snow on the glacier - it was softening in the strong morning sun and he decided that crampons would not be needed. However, this was ice-axe country and, after some lessons on their use, we started the next stage of the ascent - a climb of over 500m across the Rucapillan Glacier on the northern face of the volcano.

The "penguin colony" at the base of the glacier

The well-equipped volcano climber

A set of long zig-zags brought us 100m higher onto the flat area of Piedra Blanca, from where we could look down on the cloud-covered flatlands stretching below us to the east and see the distant outline of 3125m Volcan Llaima to the north. Below us the old laval flows streamed out like frozen grey rivers from the base of the volcano. Ahead, high up across the glacier, the gently smoking summit of Villarica beckoned us on.

Start of the climb up the Rucapillan Glacier

View from the Piedra Blanca across to the cloud-covered plains
of the west

A procession of climbers heads up the glacier toward the
summit of Villarica

Meandering rivers of solidified lava fanning out from the base

Crevices in the glacier

The 3125m peak of Volcan Llaima over 100km to the north

Looking back down to Piedra Negra and
distant Lago Villarica


Another 100m higher up, the snow was still frozen and Rodrigo said that it was time for the crampons. Another pitch, a short break for a bite to eat, and then a series of very short and very steep zigzags alongside a ridge of hardened lava brought us out to the top of the glacier, less than 100m below the summit.

Removing our crampons, we picked our way across the rough and twisted surface of black basalt. Flecks of pyrites embedded in the basalt glinted golden in the sunlight.

A thin line of climbers heading up the
Rucapillan Glacier

The final pitch across the high laval scree to
the rim of the volcano

Enjoying the view from the rim of Volcan Villarica

We crossed the last rocky lip and emerged onto the broad rim of the volcano - ahead lay the enormous pit of the crater, the walls coloured reddish, black and sulphur yellow, while misty clouds of sulphurous steam drifted out from the depths below.

As we wandered around the crater, steam also emerged from small vents on the rim on either side of us. At one point, you could look down into the pit of the crater and see the lake of red-hot lava far below and hear the odd rumbles as gases burgled through the molten rock.

At the top - Rodrigo, Nello and a climber with a crooked hat

The strange colours of the crater glacier

The steaming crater of Volcan Villarica

View westward to 3776m Volcan Lanin

A slight windshift caused the cloud to blow over us - my, how quickly a nice dose of sulphurous fumes can clean out the nose and eyes. We all retreated fairly smartly. I looked down again and saw a red circle below appear and disappear briefly - was it just smoke drifting above the lava lake or did the devil just wink at me? I think that the fumes were getting to me. We could only stay on top for an hour, but what a fascinating hour it was - with the surreal landscape inside the crater and the magnificent views from the top. To the east, the solitary cone of 3776m Volcan Lanin dominated the skyline above Pichillancahue Glacier.

It was time to descend. When we reached the top of the glacier, we soon realised why we had been given overpants with reinforced seats - we were not going to walk down the glacier again, rather slide on our backsides for 500m down a snow-chute using our ice-picks as a brake. There were three long sections of this chute, some gently on the surface, others down a virtual bob-sled run through a series of curves and dips cut deeply into the snow. It was an adrenalin-pumping descent that the fair Nello completed with a perfect double summersault and pike (sorry, make that pick, as in ice-pick). At least now we knew why they gave us helmets!

Final view backwards up to the smoking cone

Our backsides thawed out again and suffering only a few bruises, we continued on our descent down the loose lava scree in high spirits and with a strong sense of having relived one's childhood (or was it an adrenalin overdose?). Reaching the top of the chairlift, we pushed on, slide-stepping down a long slope of loose volcanic gravel to rapidly reach the base another 400m below.

Start of the decent from the crater

The only way to descend a glacier!

A fast descent down the loose gravel slope

It was not a difficult climb, but with almost 1000m of ascent and 1400m of descent it was a tiring day. We greatly enjoyed the beer that Rodrigo had waiting for us on our return to Pucón. You may not be alone on the mountain, but this is one experience worth sharing. If you want to go in a big group with matching outfits and helmets, there are several to choose from; if you want to be in a small group with a guide who laughs and sings as well as knows the mountain, and offers you a beer at the end of the day - go with Rodrigo.

For us, it is back to the Spanish lessons!