The hardest day of my life

The weather was supposed to be iffy, but in the following days it was predicted to get worse. It was going to cost us two days worth of budget, each. We didn’t have the appropriate equipment, but not to worry, they said. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around all that often, so yeah, we signed ourselves up. Let’s climb Villarrica volcano, 2860m high and South America’s most active volcano. Too easy.

A 5.45am alarm always hurts. We congregated at 6am to meet our group, guides and get our boots fitted. It then took about 40 minutes to reach the base of the volcano by minivan. The sun was only just peeking through the clouds and it was freezing outside. One of our guides (Edgar, who was already my favourite) made a joke about putting some extra layers on, which did nothing to calm my nerves as I was already wearing everything I’d brought with me! 

Our group was asked to vote on whether we wanted to proceed with the climb. We couldn’t currently see the summit and there were clouds in every direction. If we turned back now we’d only have to pay for the transportation costs, but as soon as we set foot on the mountain we had to pay the full amount – regardless of whether we summited. The vote was split. Andy voted no: we were here for several more days and would likely get a better opportunity and I voted yes: I just wanted to get it over with! In the end, the group decided to climb. 

We set out at a relatively slow pace. In unfamiliar boots and carrying a bag full of both necessary and emergency equipment, I was glad the pace wasn’t any faster. We stopped every 45 minutes or so, more frequently in the middle and less often at the end. The ascent took about six hours. No kidding. At one particular break Edgar informed us we were almost halfway – I initially dismissed it as some kind of cruel joke. But no… he was serious.

As we climbed my pace evolved into a trudge. The clouds thickened and the wind started to pick up. I had long periods of time where I would sing songs in my head, play games with myself and daydream about getting back to the minivan just to take my mind off the task at hand. There were next to no views to appreciate, just a whole lot of clouds. Each person’s gaze was steadily fixed on the footsteps of the person in front. 

Activities like these are such a mental game. I noted to Andy how remarkable I found it that on one zig I would be feeling on top of the world and then by the zag I would be almost in tears. Morale took another hit when we were told to get our ice picks out and be prepared to use our crampons. As heavy as they were, I’d still prefer to carry them than actually need them. 

Finally, after six hours of pretty gruelling climb, we made it to the summit. The sad thing was that our visibility was so terrible we actually had no way of knowing we were at the summit (except to believe our guides) and there was no hope of seeing the crater. The feeling of relief was immense, the satisfaction overwhelming. These feelings were quickly overshadowed by the severe wind which seemed to be howling in our ears and I couldn’t wait to begin the descent.

The tricky thing about going down is that it’s so easy to get reckless. And in this weather, we just couldn’t afford to make a mistake. It was steep, slippery and zero visibility beyond about six metres. We picked our way down as fast as we could safely manage before we were stopped and told to dive into our backpacks once more. This time we pulled out a big plastic ‘diaper’ and a plastic disc. Now for the fun part.

Sitting on our bums and sliding on these plastic discs down pre-carved chutes was by far the most fun I had all day. It was awesome. Ironically we had to start on the steepest slopes when we were less confident, so it felt pretty easy by the time we got to the comparatively baby slopes at the bottom. It took us so much less time to get down the mountain than it did up – if only it were always this easy!

Having had a few days to recover, I agree with Andy that it might have been less of a traumatic experience if we’d climbed another day. However, the sense of pride I have for achieving those 2860m in the testing conditions that we did is something that I will carry with me for a very long time. Even if there are next to no photos to show for it!

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