Chile, Frostbite, hiking, Pucón, South America, Sudamerica, Uncategorized

A hike of new expectations. Volcán Villarrica, Pucón, Chile.

As it gets colder, I’ve been thinking about a winter I spent in South America.  I was living in Pucón, Chile, teaching conversational English to school kids.

You’re thinking, having me teach “Conversation” is like having Long John Silver demonstrate “Ballet.”

 Actually, we had a good time together, and often talked about music, movies, pop stars, and everyday life in the USA.  The kids were pretty great, as were the teachers and the townspeople – honest, straightforward, and friendly.

But my entire stay in Pucón, every day, I would look up at a mountain looming over my small wooden village.

The “Volcán Villarrica” is the country’s most active volcano, over nine thousand feet tall, erupting as recently as 2015, and forcing an evacuation.  Poisonous gases from the ’74 eruption killed a dozen people in the village.

It’s been carrying on like this for centuries, and the conquistadores recorded events back in the 1500’s.  After I returned home, I read that the indigenous Mapuche called it “The Devil’s House,” but I never heard that while I was there.


Every day it exhaled smoke, and some days, eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I’d look up to see it bellowing out.  At night, I walked under a sky of unfamiliar stars (different from those on my side of the equator), feeling disoriented, and I’d see it, snow-capped year-round, a mass of blueish white against a backdrop of deep black.

I strolled through Pucón’s streets, and down to the lake, down an unlit lane that gave me the creeps, between the baying stray dogs and the croaks of death-bird ibises, and from that pitch-black area, I’d look up to see there was a dim reddish glow above the summit. It looked almost fake, like a movie set, maybe the Paramount Studio’s mountain. But this was real, and that glow was from the lava lake, thousands of feet above the town.



Every day, I would look up to see this menacing-looking mountain.  I often wondered when it would next erupt, but figured the smoking was good, it was letting off some steam, so to speak.

Over coffee, my friend Paul suggested that instead of watching the volcano every day, we might as well climb it.


By Robert Helmlinger – CC BY-SA 3.0,


I was surprised that I hadn’t come up with that idea; I guess I didn’t think it was feasible. I’m not a mountain climber.  I grew up in a town a few hundred feet above sea level, and liked it there.  Pucón was only a couple hundred feet higher.  Perfectly fascinated by looking up at the volcano, it had never occurred to me to climb it, and thus look down from it. I was surprised not only that I had agreed to the climb, but also that despite my fascination, it never even crossed my mind to do so.  I think of myself as being fairly responsible and not at all daring, and yet, without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed to climb an active and smoking volcano. Not surprising, was that my planning and preparation were entirely non-existent. I suppose, had I planned or had any expectation of what it might entail, I wouldn’t have agreed to do it.


So we set out to find which one of the local eco-tourist outfits offered the best deal on volcano hikes.  Then, we set out to climb the beast.

It was an early morning, and as the realization dawned, of what I was about to undertake, I was a bit worried. We were given an obscene amount of gear, all of it strapped to our backpacks and belts that were loaned to us for the hike. We drove up to the basecamp, and from there we were to hike up with a guide. There’s a chairlift that gets you as far as the snow zone, but our group didn’t take it, adding an extra hour to the hike. It was not as easy as I had expected. Foolishly, I figured it would be solid rock, a bit steep in parts but no biggie. It wasn’t. It was like walking on a beach, except uphill, and over bits that would sink deep below our feet or sheer off. Volcanic tufa on top of hard rock. Slowly we zigzagged across the mountain until we reached the ice. That was when we were instructed, to put on the heavy winter coats we were carrying. And then the winds picked up.



As we hiked it became evident that we had a long way to go. Our guide was very nice, but kept us moving, telling us several times we couldn’t stop or we would die when the wind changed, something that had happened to a French family who went without a guide a year or so ago. As we walked, eventually with crampons strapped onto our feet to get a grip on the icy surface of the volcano, I became a bit uneasy.  There was 25% less oxygen than I was used to, and I was getting short of breath. Our pace was at a decent clip; we had to reach the summit in a certain amount of time, for some sort of safety and weather protocol. When we had breaks, we would sit down on the cold surface and feel how our muscles ached all over. Everyone was tired, thirsty, and no one looked like they were enjoying themselves.

There were some pretty spectacular views, but as I looked up, to my dismay, it looked like we had at least another half a mountain to climb, it was hard to gauge until we got higher up. There was a large lip of ice hanging off of the volcano about 3/4 of the way to the top, and from the basecamp it appeared to be the summit. I was less certain I could make it and increasingly unsure I would be able to breathe at the full altitude of 9400 feet. I was already struggling and feeling light-headed and began to imagine passing out and rolling off the mountain to my death.  No one but Paul knew me; my family did not know where I had gone.  The distance between us and the other groups grew wider and wider and soon even our guide was ahead of us a bit, though at last he stopped for us to catch up.




I recall sitting under an icy ledge as the wind picked up. I don’t know how fast it was but everyone was straining against it, and we felt cold through our bodies. As we lay against the ice, on mats that weren’t quite big enough, I began to really panic. What if I didn’t make it all the way up? How was I to get back down? I couldn’t quit. One of the guides was going up the mountain, UPHILL, the entire way, on downhill skis. The amount of strength and stamina humbled me and shamed me into walking more.

Paul, a fellow English teacher from Dublin, was the one who got me through. Just as running is best with someone to help you go farther, so is hiking. I do not think I could have made it had I just gone myself. But Paul encouraged me step after painful step, and got me psyched up enough to continue. It was painful, with my sides cramped up and legs like lead and my head heavy, but we made it to the top. He got me into this mess, but he got me through it.



The view was stunning. Pucón was tiny, as was Villaricca and all the many other villages in the distance. We could see to Argentina, the mountains and volcanoes on the border of the two nations were an incredible sight.



The crater itself was releasing gas and despite the gas mask my eyes were burning and I kept coughing. I wasn’t able to spend more than four minutes looking, as I felt myself feeling more and more sick. So much for that, I thought. Despite the spectacular views, I was underwhelmed, I’d expected reaching the summit to be more rewarding, somehow.







The highlight turned out to be the way down. We used the small round disks we had lugged up there, like heavy-duty versions of the “flying saucers,” when we were sledding as kids.  We strapped it on, and rode down the slope, using our ice picks to slow our descent so we didn’t die, careening along the mountain. My pick was ripped from my hand, so I had to claw my way back up the mountain to retrieve it. Paul couldn’t control his and crashed, banging himself up pretty badly. It was the most painful sledding I had ever experienced, but the ride was exhilarating. We descended about 2000 feet starting at the 8000 foot mark, so the world was literally racing by us and it was quite the thrill. Also the fact that it seemed we could be severely injured, or actually die at any moment, made it more thrilling, even if terrifying.

At that speed, all of my remaining energy was focused on making it down in one piece. It was only after I had made it to the bottom, crampons removed, ice pick stowed away so I’d never have to look at it again, that I began to realize what I had done.

In many ways, the hike was a bust. I was in pain and exhausted. But the experience taught me humility. I think part of that stems from being let down. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I experienced. In fact, I think back, three years later, but my expectations remain unknown even now. The following morning, bruised, stiff, sunburned (the sun is a lot more intense when you’re a mile up a mountain), I looked at the volcano again. This time, my slowly functioning brain registered awe. Before, it seemed unreal. After the hike, it became almost too real. This was a monstrosity of nature, bent on breaking our will, and difficult to climb. I felt less like a champion who bested the mountain, and more a sense of awe. I survived without any preparation and zero thought given towards this venture. I was so confident when I began and then so thoroughly humbled by a natural force much greater than myself. Hardly a stroll in the park.  I also learned that I could test my strength and overcome my previous limits,  and it was all thanks to a combination of the urge to survive mixed with an encouraging friendship.


head in the clouds

I will probably never climb a volcano again, which should not be an issue living in New York or Wisconsin.  But still. It was a heck of a trip and won’t soon be forgotten. Occasionally, when tasked with a “mountain” of work, I return to this moment. Not to feel too cocky, but to be realistic with my expectations of what can be accomplished and how to get the job done.



35 thoughts on “A hike of new expectations. Volcán Villarrica, Pucón, Chile.

    • When I wrote this, I was also thinking about Mt. Washington (in NH) – when you see a road, lodge, or chairlift, I think it fools people into underestimating the climb. Washington is “only” 6300′ but as I’m sure you know, it’s the place with the highest recorded wind speed. People get hurt there every year, despite rescue squads, etc. and the list of fatalities in the Presidential Range is pretty impressive. Glad I went with a guide, and a good friend.

      • That’s good advice. Friends of ours have a vacation house at an elevation of almost 9000 ft. near Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Years ago we drove there straight from Austin, which is at a height of just a few hundred ft., and soon I was suffering enough from the high altitude that the only remedy was to head back down the next morning.

        In 2014, when we next went to northern New Mexico, I made sure to spend several days in Albuquerque, at an elevation of about 5300 ft., and then I was okay at higher altitudes afterwards.

  1. Right. My dad used to live in Lima, Peru, and I think I remember they had to stop for a few days on the way down to town. This is such a wonderful, and wonderfully told, story. My hiking days are behind me and I don’t miss them as much as I thought I would, but I enjoyed going along on this one with you vicariously. Good for you to stick it out all the way to the top! The ride down must have been amazing. So much better than hiking back down and acquiring a whole new set of blisters and aches.
    So how are things up north? Do you have snow yet? We are expecting some any minute, I understand. sigh. Oh well. At least we don’t have a volcano glaring down on us. When I lived in Tacoma, near Seattle, we all used to love to gaze at Mt. Rainier. It wasn’t until later that I learned that it is very much still alive and ready to blow any time. gulp. Like you, it never occurred to me to CLIMB it. I just liked looking at it.

  2. A very enjoyable read on the challenges of Mt. Pucon from the safety of my cozy home at the Arrow Lake! Your teaching assignment at the small village in Chile must have been also a very inspiring experience for you, Robert. Perhaps you will write another post on your teaching position in this rural setting. I assume you have some knowledge of the Spanish language. Have a great day!

    • Thank you, Mr. K. Chile and Chileans are wonderful. I was there with “English Opens Doors,” a program sponsored by the U.N. and the Chilean gov’t, and it’s a terrific idea, supplementing regular English language classes. I helped get some of the older kids ready for a debate (one of the competitions they set up, to encourage interest) and have to say, I felt pretty proud when “my” kids did well. It’s just a great program. And found some good friends among the other volunteers, too,

  3. That sounds pretty intense. We have a couple climbable mountains around here (Hood and St.Helens, technically both active volcanos), but I’ve never but motivated to take them on. Well done!

    • Mt Hood would be another 2,000 ft up, that would definitely need some time to adjust. A friend of mine from home, went to Quito or La Paz, with a program where primary school kids learn English by learning songs, and it took her weeks to stop feeling queasy and dizzy.

  4. J.D. Riso says:

    Wow, what an amazing hike. Tough, but so very memorable. I love hiking but I’m,not sure I would have attempted this one.

    • Thank you, J.D. I think a lot of it, is staying somewhere at a higher altitude for a few days, adjusting, before climbing above the mile mark. I was just enjoying your Bohemian post, and the third-to-last, B&W shot, of some wicked steep stone steps, going up into a cleft in a cliff. Looks pretty strenuous, and what a great atmospheric shot.

      • J.D. Riso says:

        Thanks! THAT was a wicked hike, though short. If you’re ever in Czech Republic and want a quick, quirky adventure, head to Prachovsky Skaly (Prachov Rocks).

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and not only for the details of your quite amazing story. It reminded me of a similar experience in my own life, although mine involved sailing, not climbing. It was this sentence that got me grinning: “Had I planned or had any expectation of what it might entail, I wouldn’t have agreed to do it.” My goodness, do I understand that.

    When I moved from Berkeley to Salt Lake City, it took a couple of days to adjust even there, where I think the altitude’s around 4500 ft, give or take. When I first arrived, I was told in no uncertain terms to take it slow, drink lots of water, and stay away from alcohol. I think it’s a good thing you were young and in good health. A friend who flew from here to Denver, and then proceeded to start checking things-to-do off her list without any thought of rest, or pace, or water, ended up in the hospital after passing out. Granted, she’s not in the best of health and is about my age, but still: I’m glad it worked out so well for you.

    This really resonanted, too: “I also learned that I could test my strength and overcome my previous limits.” That’s what sailing did for me, too — although I didn’t realize it until long after. Hanging on to the end of a spinnaker pole mid-Pacific isn’t a time for reflective thought.

    Apart from volcano-climbing, do you think you’d like to teach overseas again? It sounds like it really was satisfying, and I imagine your students profited from your time with them.

    • Well, I think the kids in Chile learned a little English, and some good rock’n’roll, too, also important!
      I worked in a public school in Milwaukee a few years ago, with the City Year program. They now have an after-school program, I think the hours will work with my job, so planning on volunteering for that, I might even work with some of the same kids.

  6. The denouement of your volcano hike had me on the edge of my seat because while it’s exhilarating and often represents the physically easier part of a climb of this ilk, a snowy glissade is potentially the most hazardous part of the entire trip for an inexperienced mountain traveler (e.g., an all-too common, terribly risky faux pas is wearing crampons for the ride down which has resulted in many a broken leg). I enjoyed your account of this journey, Robert. Now I know that you have a lot of willpower and that’s a nice thing to know about someone. Of course, it occurs to me willpower is complicated and you may be terrible when it comes to brownies, French fries or scorching hot sand. But those are not just the same. Well, not exactly.

    • Thanks, T-Fir, and I enjoyed your comment. Sounds like you, unlike me, actually know a thing or two about mountain climbing. I have erratic spasms of willpower, even conscience sometimes, and can resist even brownies, but I could probably be persuaded to commit most crimes for Singapore noodles. I’m told I actually become deaf when I see them, and I guess it’s true, there’s just a loud rushing sound in my ears until I’ve eaten a lot of them.

  7. This is such an excellent story Robert….the feeling of true awe that you couldn’t have imagined before all that suffering on the mountain, and the real sense of humility – those are so valuable, aren’t they? You tell the story well. It could fit nicely into one of those compendiums of mountaineer stories, with their eternal questions about why people climb. Because it’s there? Well maybe, but think harder: this story answers that question differently, and i think, more profoundly.

  8. Great post and loved your photos, which brought back memories of when I did the climb back in 2011.

    Sadly, as I was too slow a climber and the guide wanted us up and back at the last rest stop by 2pm for the climb down, I didn’t climb the last 500-metres. But, I wasn’t the only one and only a handful of our group went to the top.

    It happened to snow the night before so no one was allowed to use slides, instead, we had to trek all the way back down the volcano.

    What an amazing experience – loved Pucón…

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