This past southern summer, one of my goals was to climb a volcano. The original idea was to strap on crampons to reach the crater of Chile’s Volcán Villarrica (pictured above, it's Rukapillán to the indigenous Mapuche), near the resort town of Pucón, but a seismic alert that culminated in a startling eruption on March 3rd postponed that option.
I returned to Pucón late last month – with the volcano still smoking if not quite threatening – but in the interim I had found an alternative. While driving north on the Carretera Austral, I reached the town of Chaitén, recently resettled since a dramatic eruption of its own namesake volcano (pictured above) in May of 2008. The clouds of ash and a subsequent flood had forced its evacuation then.
When I visited the town a year later, the volcano was still smoking, with cars and houses nearly buried beneath the ash, and the southern beech forests of nearby Parque Pumalín – an audacious private conservation project – were nearly denuded (as pictured above). This year, though, a lush green understory of ferns, rhubarb-like nalcas and shrubs (pictured below) surrounded the still pallid tree trunks – a handful of which had resprouted - and the park had opened a trail to the rim of the volcano’s crater.
A misleading sign (pictured below) suggested a three-hour round-trip to the rim and back but, on a hot late-summer day in this usually cool damp climate, it took me twice that - especially given the steep staircases that comprised much of the trail, and the blisters I favored after another hike in Torres del Paine. Statistically, the climb was 600 meters in just 2.2 kilometers, a roughly 27 percent gradient, though it seemed even steeper and longer.
There were quite a few other hikers, several of them Argentines taking advantage of a three-day weekend to cross the border from the city of Esquel. Four Chilean hikers included two women, one of whom was wearing heels – not quite exactly stilettos, but more like high-heeled sneakers that could not have been comfortable, and would have been especially awkward on the descent. They didn’t quite make it to the rim, but their husbands did.
Seemingly designed for NBA forwards, the staircases (it's not I in the photo above) made it exhausting but when I reached the rim (pictured below), at the same time as a couple young French sisters, we could see the smoke seeping from the crater and hear a low rumble. Still barren at the top, it was nevertheless not at the point of expelling large clouds of ash, much less volcanic bombs or lava. Still, in late afternoon, we didn’t tarry in returning.
Given the steepness and loose ash, the descent was trickier than the ascent, but less tiring. At the end of the day, I was glad to have done it, and glad that it was over, and I’m still hoping to tackle Villarrica the next time I’m in Pucón – presuming the threat of another eruption continues to recede.