The Villarica volcano

Among all Chilean volcanos, this may be the one best known to tourists. Its location, overlooking the scenic lake of the same name, and the resort town of Pucón, has tempted many thousands of tourists to climb it and have a peek into its crater. And this is not such a crazy undertaking, since the Villarica is easy and relatively safe to climb. A road leads up to about half height, where a modest ski center is installed. From there, a person in good physical condition can easily climb up and return within a day. If the trip is done in winter, a ski lift can be used to further make things easier, reducing total climb time to just four hours!

If you want to try it, I would like to give just one advice: Do carry a pair of crampons. During most of the year there is a rim of ice around the entire mountain, which is really easy to walk over when using crampons, but next to impossible without them. Many a traveler has returned without reaching the crater, just because of not having crampons!

I have done several trips to the Villarica. I have been up there in good and bad weather, with friends and alone, on flash trips and on longer ones. The Villarica is never the same: Its activity varies a lot, its crater changes shape, and after each eruption, which happen every several years, a lot of new features can be discovered.

Just as I write this (november 2000), I hear from the news that again Old Villarica looks like wanting to erupt, so the authorities are not letting anyone close. What a pity! Erupting volcanos are the most photogenic ones!

This was our base camp, on a trip I did with Claudio and Patricio, ex class mates from school. Local clouds came to greet us, so while I photographed, Claudio got his parka. We had camped at about the 2100 meter level, which placed us at a relatively flat site, that had water, interesting landscape features, and yet was within easy reach of the 2840 meter high summit. The lowest snow field was just up of our tent, now in late summer.

Claudio is shown here cramponing up the ice field on a cloudy day. Such days are not very good for photographing, but surely they are great for climbing! It is cool, not very windy, there is no need to use goggles (but Claudio wears his anyway), and little risk to get a sunburn. These are the days made to explore an area...

Ice fields like this form in summer, when meltwater from the snow above soaks the snow at the lower end of a snow field, and in the night the lower temperatures make that snow-water mix freeze to solid ice. They are very welcome to crampon-equipped climbers, since the crampons hold on very well, allowing to walk as easily as on pavement, but with even less risk to slip! On the other hand, it's next to impossible to walk here without crampons. On this trip we met a group of people who were trying to climb the volcano without any more equipment than sneakers and enthusiasm. So we devised a way to help them: At the narrowest place of the ice field, we cramponed up, then let our crampons slide down the ice, spikes up. Three people of that group would then wear them, walk up, and the the story was repeated until all of them had crossed the ice.

Of course, for larger ice fields this method is not the best...  Not only because of the time involved, and the risk for a crampon to slide down the wrong way, but also because it is not very comfortable to wear crampons over sneakers!

The presence of the smoking crater kept reminding us that this volcano is mightily alive!

Many people wonder what really comes out of a volcano. Well, most of it is simply water vapor. Water is present everywhere, and more so in this zone, which is quite rainy. Rain soaks the soil, water creeps down, contacts hot rocks, boils, and vapor has to escape - via the main crater, fumaroles, or whatever cracks can be found. Often the hot water proper comes up too, forming hot springs and geysers.

But not all is water vapor. The hot water and the vapor carry a host of different chemicals, leached out of the hot rocks. Among them is hydrogen sulfide, well known for its awful smell of rotten eggs. Another is sulfur dioxide, which is particularly nasty as it reacts with the water to form sulfuric acid, corroding everything, including the lungs and eyes of anyone who comes in contact with it. Several iron salts are present too, and probably a lot of other chemicals which I don't even suspect. Basically everything contained in the earth crust, and that can be dissolved by water in any amount, is likely to show up through a volcano!

I wrote that the Villarica is a relatively safe mountain to climb. One reason for it is that there are few snow crevasses. But here we found one, and it was one of the more nasty type, with lots of it disguised by overhanging snow. The old rule applies: Whatever you do, do it carefully. Even relatively safe mountains do have their dangers, and an extra dose of caution is always a good idea.

This is the only crevasse we found on the entire trip, and actually it was the only time in all of my trips to the Villarica that I saw one from close. The east side of the volcano has a lot, easily visible from above, but that side is difficult to climb anyway, and no road comes near, so everyone climbs this volcano from the north.

Other dangers lurking around on some mountains are long ice fields. If you slip, and don't know how to stop yourself, you can slide down until you have picked up so much speed that an encounter with a rock or another obstacle simply flattens you. On the Villarica I have never seen such a possibility, as the ice rim usually is only 50 meter wide or so. If you slip, you might get a scare, but nothing else.

The attentive observer will find a lot of interesting things to look at. A formation like this puzzles many people when they first see it. But the explanation is simple: At this slope and altitude, snow lasts only for the winter, and melts away in summer. But the last eruption of the volcano happened in winter, a few years before my visit. While flowing lava melted away a lot of snow, at other places no hot material touched the snow, so it stayed. But volcanic ashes were deposited everywhere, certainly including snow fields! So, a thick layer of ash insulates the snow below it, and shields it from the sun, thus saving it from melting in summer!

Of course, at some places the snow will melt anyway. A large rock may collect enough sun heat, or a hot spot caused by a fumarole or a hot spring can also melt off a patch of snow. At such holes the snow becomes exposed to the sun, and slowly melts. From time to time chunks break off, and with them ash and some rocks fall down and start rolling. So, downslope of such formations it's better to be watchful of projectiles coming your way!

In any case, for the climber such a field of preserved snow is a welcome reservoir of drinking water! It's really nice to be able to walk around for days, carrying just some lightweight dry food, and getting all necessary water from such hidden snow fields!

This is a place where liquid lava flowed over a snow field. Molten lava and snow are, well, at somewhat differing temperatures, and when they contact each other, violent things can happen. In this case, large quantities of meltwater mixed with the still liquid lava rushing down the volcano, and at several places the solidifying lava formed huge tubes which funneled the water down. Here is a section of such a tube which later broke in. The tube's internal diameter is three to four meter! And there were dozens of such tubes running down the slope in parallel! Nature is a great engineer, and sometimes she works very fast!

This is a close-up view of the internal surface of such a tube. The surface looks and feels metallic. Probably the molten rock crystallizes when contacting water, giving this result. The structure of the material is, like many volcanic substances, highly spongy. So the material is very lightweight too, enough so that I brought a chunk of it back home, without even feeling the weight in my backpack.

For size reference, this picture shows an area about 10 cm wide.

But now let's switch to photos of another trip, done when the weather was better. It had rained cats and dogs, so the volcano was emitting huge amounts of vapor, but the weather on this day was really nice: Neither too hot nor too cold, little wind, cloudless above us, with a thick low cloud cover at about 1200 meter, hiding the lowly world from our view. We were alone with the volcano.

Again Claudio was with us, and is shown here in his single-minded trek straight up across the ice, heading to the summit. Claudio has a way to do this... Once he gets in step, no one and nothing will stop him!

At the summit! The rim of the crater is very brittle, and changes shape according to changing temperatures, water contents, and all those little earthquakes the volcano is causing all the time. Here a team member walks around a narrow, but deep crevasse that had formed around much of the crater.

Walking here requires care. Suddenly a foot can break through a soft place, and that can result in a burn, because very often there is hot mud below. Or you step on a rock, the rock topples over, and a stream of hot steam shoots into your face! The heat is nothing, but rather the problem is that the steam comes laden with sulfuric acid!

Note the nice, closed cloud cover around the mountain. It's always a funny feeling to know that all those people in the lowlands are grumbling over the cloudy, gray day, while we up here have bright sun!

A few meter down from the highest spot, I set up to shoot some pictures of the crater. It was not easy to come close. If the terrain on the outside of the rim was brittle, on the inside it was not much more than sponge and mud! And it was hot, too.

The fumes were a real problem. Most times I could only photograph a misty landscape that could not be recognized as a volcanic crater. I had to wait for rare moments like this, to get anything meaningful on film.

After a while we noticed that the wind was causing a resonance pattern with the smoke. In a cycle lasting several minutes, the smoke would move from one side to the other, and return. It gave me specific moments to look at specific places, and even every so many minutes I had a few seconds to look straight into the crater!

This photo was taken at such a moment. Only for a few seconds did the vapor veil recede, exposing the interesting innards of the Villarica's crater!

The hole is about 100 meter across. About 30 meter down is a rocky platform that obstructs more than half of the chimney. On this platform, a real mini-volcano had formed! It was the most surprising feature I have seen inside a crater!

The rest of the chimney unfortunately was always veiled by the smoke. No matter how I tried it, I could never look deeper down the chimney. Other people who have been here during drier days, with less vapor forming, told me that it was actually possible to see red-hot magma down there. What a pity, I did not see any!

But that mini-volcano intrigued me. I just had to investigate closer. A mad idea formed in my mind. Why not go down and have a look? We had brought along some climbing gear, a long rope, and we were enough people so I would not have to depend on a single helper. So, the plan was made: I would rappel down when the smoke started its retreat, shoot some "official" photos, and then climb out before the smoke returned! A safety rope would remain attached at all times.

So, here is my heroic photo of the mini-volcano inside the Villarica's crater!  It has a diameter of 3 meter or so, is about 1 meter high, and its material seems to be mostly calcareous rock. It has lots of encrustations of different chemicals around it. The yellow stuff is pure sulfur. And the reddish liquid inside the mini-crater is not magma, sorry... It's just humble mud, slowly boiling and bubbling away.

My trip into the volcano was shorter than I intended it to be. For some reason the wind resonance had been upset. Maybe I was the reason... In any case, the smoke came back sooner than expected. It came over me, and in a second my eyes hurt so badly that I had to close them. I started working up the rope, holding my breath, but soon I just had to breathe - and got a lung full of sulfuric acid! Wow, that's nasty, I can tell you! I coughed my soul out, which made things even worse by forcing me to breathe again!

My teammates did the only thing that had to be done now, and pulled me up by the safety rope, like a bag of potatoes. Then they ran, as the toxic cloud was coming over the rim together with me! I ran too, with closed eyes, burning lungs, away, away from here! Then I spent the next half hour coughing, trying to breathe calmly, trying to get my eyes open...  I can tell you, the tear gas police uses to drive away troublemakers is children's play compared to the stuff the Villarica threw at me!

This expedition had several late effects. One was that for the next week I had a bad cough, and even two months later I still smelled sulfur in my breath! I felt like a devil, straight out of hell.  The other effect was on my photo box: All mounts and linkages are made from bright brass. It had stayed bright during several years. But these few minutes in such an atmosphere were enough to tarnish all brass surfaces a deep black! I did not try to polish the brass again. I kept the black coating as a souvenir of the Villarica.

We stayed at the summit until late. They all wanted me to get my breath back before descending. And we talked over my adventure. And then... well... it may sound exaggerated, but it is true: Mother Nature staged such a show for us, that we just couldn't break loose and walk away!

As the sun got low, the cloud layer dissolved, revealing some more clouds that were lying low on the terrain. And these clouds moved, flowed, fell into valleys, climbed out, fell in again, turned, mixed, rose and sank, lit by the ever changing colors of the setting sun, conforming a display of such unbelievable beauty that I cannot do it justice in words.

Please keep in mind that this image is just a poor quality scan of one of the many photos I shot, and that these photos still are no more than a very poor attempt at recording the sheer impossible greatness of the sight. Among the many sunsets I have seen and photographed, this was the one that left the deepest memories in me, memories that will never faint.

We could not shake loose. We stood in awe, watching this. I just kept triggering the shutter, in an impossible attempt to record all the beauty as fast as it was unfolding in front of our eyes. Before I even noticed, I had finished the film, put in the other and last one, and finished it too.

Only when the sun had disappeared, and it was getting dark, did we wake up from this dream. In silence we walked down the slope of the Villarica, still trying to come to terms with what we had just seen. The full moon gave us his generous light, and guided us safely down to base camp. Only there did the first of us find words again. Words of wonder.

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