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Hikers have to wear gas masks when they get close enough to peer into the crater of the active Villarica volcano in Chile. (Erik Olsen/
Into the Inferno
Smelling the Brimstone From a Chilean Volcano

By Erik Olsen

“You are all having many luckies,” said Pancho, our black-bearded Chilean guide, whose English left something to be desired.

    “Not only is the volcano with much life today, but I are taking you to the top.”
     Pancho seemed remarkably self-assured, but I wasn’t so confident as we stood at the base of the Villarica volcano in south-central Chile. A crisp, bone-dry wind rippled up from the valley below. The smoky cone of the volcano towered overhead. I asked myself what I was doing climbing a live volcano.
     I had just arrived from an even smoggier-than-usual Los Angeles, and a few days in Chile’s famous Lake Region seemed like the perfect antidote to the drudgery of urban life. The area abounds in unspoiled, mirror-surfaced lakes, temperate forests, rivers for rafting, and of course, the ever-present volcano that looms over the city of Pucón.

Gas Mask Included
I signed up to climb the volcano through a touring company called Sol y Nieve Adventures. The company gave me boots, snow pants, gloves, an ice ax, crampons, and a vintage gas mask. I asked Pancho what the gas mask was for, and he explained that the crater at the top of the volcano emits a sulphurous gas that “is much poison” — and he illustrated by putting both hands around his neck and gagging.
The volcano has erupted 61 times during recorded history and is considered to be one of the most active — and dangerous — in South America. ( Magellan Geographix)

There were 11 of us in the group, ranging in age from 25 to 55, a culturally diverse crowd from Germany, Chile, Japan, Argentina, the United States and Sweden. We met at 7 a.m. at the outfitter, arranged our gear, and chatted excitedly about the full day of hiking ahead. The climb itself would take eight hours, up and down, and we’d have an hour for lunch near the top.
     The Villarica volcano is the centerpiece of Villarica National Park, a 150,000-acre reserve administered by Chile’s National Tourism Board. The volcano has erupted 61 times during recorded history and is considered by vulcanologists to be one of the most active — and dangerous — in South America. In 1971, a deadly eruption opened a mile-wide gash in the mountain and coughed up more than 30 million cubic yards of lava. The city of Pucón might have gone the way of Pompeii had not the lava been diverted down the River Challupén, blazing a path of destruction along the way.
     After a bumpy half-hour van ride over a dirt road, we arrived at the base of the volcano. From where we stood, I could see the numerous lava “runs” where the molten rock had poured down from the crater during the last big eruption, in 1984. There were green plants sprouting from the porous stone, but the lava still looked quite fresh.
     The initial stretch from the base was a fairly simple trek along a steep trail of pulverized lava and stone. We stopped for lunch on a ledge with a breathtaking view. The early morning clouds had burned away, and the entire expanse of the valley was open to us. We could see Pucón directly below, the resort town of Villarica across the shimmering lake, and far off in the distance, the Villarica volcano’s twin, Llaima, rose far above the valley floor in a sweeping cone.

Into the Crater
After another hour and a half of steep climbing, I stood on the volcano’s rim, breathing heavily and staring with amazement down into the crater. The edges dropped in gradually, like a soup bowl about half a mile in diameter. There was a deep hole in the center with clouds of yellow smoke billowing from inside. The crater floor looked like a moonscape, caked with yellow dust and devoid of life. We strapped on our masks and dropped in toward the inner rim.
     The air was thick with strong volcanic gas that stung my eyes and burned my nostrils, despite the mask. My mouth tasted as if I’d just gargled with gunpowder. A few moments later, I was standing on the edge of the inner crater, gazing down at a roiling pool of bright orange lava less than 50 yards below. About the size of a swimming pool, it boiled and rumbled, splashing fiery arcs of lava 10 feet and higher into the air. Waves of heat blasted my face with each gurgle and belch from the guts of the Earth.
     Members of the group began to feel dizzy from the fumes, and Pancho led them away quickly for fresh air. That left me standing alone on the crater’s edge, gazing in. I picked up a yellow stone, hurled it into the pool, and watched it disappear in a flicker of flame. There was a tug at my elbow, and I turned to face Pancho, a big smile emerging from his bushy beard.
     “Vamanos, eh?” he said, beseeching me to rejoin the group. “Is very dangerous. You must be careful. People have fallen in.”
     At around 5 p.m., we started back. But rather than retrace the slow, trudging progress of our ascent, we found a much better way down. At the snow line, we gathered along the slope, sat on our jackets, and slid down, our enthusiastic hoots echoing over the valley. We arrived at the van in the early evening, pumped up that we’d caught a glimpse of the center of the Earth.

Getting There

Chile’s Lake Region lies about 400 miles south of Santiago, beginning at the industrial city of Temuco, and continuing for about 250 miles to the city of Puerto Montt, which forms the border between the Lake Region and the beginning of Patagonia. To reach Pucón, I took an overnight train from the Estacion Central in Santiago to Temuco, and then had a three-hour bus ride into town.
     My climb was booked with Sol y Nieve Adventures, at the corner of O’Higgins and Lincoyan in Pucón. Call 011-56-45-441-070 or e-mail for more information. The climb cost about $50 for gear, food and guide. February and March, the end of Chile’s summer, are good times to go climbing.
     There are at least eight hotels in Pucón and many smaller lodging options. I stayed the night at the Hospedaje Villena, where the friendly Senora Irma Villena greeted me and showed me to a clean, spartan room on the second floor for around $15. At the fanciest hotel in the city, the Gran Hotel Pucón, rooms start at $87.
     Lan Chilean Airlines, American and United fly to Santiago via Miami. American also flies from Dallas. Air fares from U.S. destinations start at around $750 roundtrip.
Getting There

Adventure Adviser: Beyond the Paine Circuit
Adventure Adviser: Hiking Tours in South America