Ice axe cradled in my right arm pit, I bear down with all my might on the handle, barreling down the ice chute at mach speed, exhilaration teetering on danger, a hair away from executing the rescue maneuver, a James Bond flip mid-slide to slow myself down, velocity theoretically screeching to a halt once body is thrown over axe, pick breaking stride in snow.
Instead, I ride, ride, ride this last tunnel down, third out of a dozen, pile of volcanic glass certain to guarantee a quick halt if the e-brake fails.
This is awesome, an amazing culmination to the five-hour march up snow and volcanic scree, one step up and five back in this ash, treacherous ground, and right now, I cannot believe we undo the uphill in a mere two hours, half of it at the speed of fun.
We begin our walk at 7:30, a full hour after a group meeting at headquarters where Turismo Florencia outfits us all with mountaineering boots–oh, the horror! A prison for my feet!–pants, jacket, bib, sled, pack, crampons, and more and sends us on our merry way to Volcan Villaricca 30 minutes up.
Sunrise is pretty, silhouettes of volcanoes strange and unique on the horizon, and our guides Viciento and Rodrigo lead the way up the moon rock slope, pace slow but durable, sure to get us uphill, or we hope. Quickly, the group parses itself out, most people breathless, and Graham and I exchange high eyebrows of doubt: At this rate, we may never summit.
Viciento, tall, young, conscientious, is an excellent guide, gently prodding our about-to-collapse comrades for five more minutes, just five more minutes, always working towards a break instead of conceding to the mind’s trick of exhaustion, momentum carrying them upslope.
Rodrigo, however, sniffles his way to being the slowest girl’s chaperone, her poor cardio betraying fit physique, ready to throw in her crampons hot out of the starting gate, and it seems this guide would much prefer being anywhere other than here.
Or, flirting, quick to pass a hand here, touch there, kick some snow my way as we speed alongside.
Two hours and a brown bag lunch later, the crampons come out. Woo-hoo, I’m a total newbie, excited for the challenge, though, admittedly, a hair anxious for our initial ascent, for between the duck-walking, ice-axe crutch, and peril downhill, I am a little bit unsteady, preferring to ignore the pitch and just put one foot in front of the other.
Which, we do, for three more hours, our crew extraordinarily slow, a second lunch break followed by coffee break followed by afternoon tea, Graham and I’s fresh faces prompting one of our new friends, Gabriela from Germany, to inquire if this was just like a walk in the park for Graham, she and another German dude and Miriam and Myrkem from The Netherlands swimming in puddles of sweat, unable to assess their own need to shed layers, always asking Viciento if the onion skin of base layer, thermal, sweatshirt, fleece, jacket, outerwear, hat, gloves is appropriate.
The answer, dear friends, is no. For the love of god, disrobe and peel off the polar before it melts in your skin!
Finally, crampon walking comes to an end, my legs tired from lugging heavy shoes on spider soles, akin to walking a mountain uphill with ski boots, and we near the summit, sun high at 2 PM, a full hour past our expected time. Iridescent rock dots the trail to the top, beautiful, heat-created shimmer, nests of pyrite.
We are here!
How exciting, and per Graham, whoever knew climbing a ginormous cone just to see big hole in the ground could prove so riveting, but, oh, it most definitely is, Volcan Villaricca striking in its color and ambiance, field of snow hanging in its ledge, threatening to creep into, oh, yes, Dr. Evil–hot magma.
Around us, volcano after volcano punctuate the cirque, Lanin the biggest on the horizon, indicator of Argentina’s proximity to where we find ourselves now, and we pose with the landmark in the background.
Viciento takes us around the crater, a measly path surely not meant for wide circulation, for at times, we have the choice of straight down … and, straight down, either into dried lava tunnels and snow fields or into a hole primed for eruption, due for an uproar any year now.
I catch a whiff of volcano, and damn, that puppy is rank, its toxic gas asphyxiating with nary a plume of smoke, me literally unable to inhale, exhale, anyhale while in its grasp. No wonder sometimes the summit closes, for even with gas mask, this is a dangerous beast, the likes of taking an ammonia and bleach bath, head swimming in noxious poison crossbones.
A few girls commemorate their volcano top excursion with a Playmate spread, and the rest of us choose clothing preferred options, a bit less interested in capturing shots of ourselves versus the vista, the girls’ guide exasperating in español that todos los photos son de ellas, blind to the scenery if for anything other than making a killer backdrop for their Facebook shares, jealousy intended.
The volcano closes at 4:30, and given our crew’s pace, it’s high time we fly back down, decked out in butt guards and butt sleds. Viciento instructs us to store our crampons, “spices” together, in our packs, the tongue twister so natural and just plain cute, Graham smiling at me that the Chilean men’s English accents are damn “adorable”–and I quote–these burly dudes from “Poo-kon,” syllables tight, elocution crisp.
Now, Rodrigo and Viciento negotiate our way down, bickering over which snow field to whizz down, which snake path to take, and, well, we don’t care, we just want a shot at sliding down a volcano, Luis from Spain as stoked as we are.
Down we go, piggies in a row, guides releasing us one by one as we glissade down faster on our behinds than on our feet, and halfway down, the snow stops, so all we have left is to moon bounce our way to the bottom on plush pillows of dust, a knee-saver.
And, like clockwork, at the start of sunset, we are back in the bus for the drive into town, happily spent, well worth our $80.