Monday, December 19, 2005

Going up the volcano


Hitting Pucon after 11 hours of uncomfortable ride, we went starving to savore ourselves with delicious pizza and a good night sleep at The Monkey Puzzle. In the following days we met with Maya and Barak, good friends of mine from Israel, and approached the active cone shaped Villarica volcano, the local most famous attraction. It was bloody wet...

One monkey, One Pizza and One chill-out met in Pucon...
The bus from Valparaiso got into the station some 45 minutes before our connection ride to Pucon, a small mountain town 1000 km south of Santiago, which we decided to run all the way south to it. After eating some yugourt and sandwiches, we boarded the bus to Pucon with the rest of the travelers and locals that headed also south. We knew we have a long ride infront of us, but we didnt thought it would be SO bad, with no food served, a movie in Spanish (Mr.&Mrs. Smith, a nice movie...) and worst of worst, not too much comofrtable seats and room for the legs... In contrast, the scenery on our way south was amzaing with the snow capped Andes on our left and many green fields on our right, with superb weather and strong sun.
On the bus we met with an American couple, Mike and Orsola (I think...). Mike was just a month ago in Israel, visiting relatives and seeing most of the country, so he identified us quite quickly and we talked with them part of the journey. I have noticed another Israeli girl on board, but only when we stopped somewhere we actually talked with her. Miri, 26, traveles alone, meeting ppl on the way from here to there and boarded the bus at Talca, some half of the distance between Santiago and Pucon. She asked us if we have a name of a hostel and we told her we have but not reserved any place. She asked if she can join us and we said no problem.
Hitting Pucon, Miri and the American couple joined me and Lee to find an hostel. I went to call Brad, the owner of The Monkey Puzzle, a place I got tipped by Scott, the American guy I met in Santiago. On the other side Brad told me that he has only 4 vacant places available and that he will help find a place for the fifth person. We waited maybe 5 minutes till Brad, a red-head South African guy came looking for us and after talking with him we loaded our stuff on his Toyota Trooper Jeep. He drove through town while his little black dog was standing on his knees with its head and forelegs poping out of the window, sniffing and checking out the scene at that early evening hour.
Brad lives in a little two-floors cabin with his Chilean charming wife, and quickly we saw that there were only two dormitory beds and one double size bed in another room. Miri took it well and was off with Brad to find an alternative place to put her head down for the night. Me and Lee were hungry as hell, so after checking out the email (and getting an email from Maya and Barak that they are in Pucon and gonna climb the Villarica the next day) we went to have a great and delicious Pizza (if quite expensive…) on the main street of little Pucon and got back to our hostel. There Brad told us about a guide he knows that can arrange a small group to climb the Volcano on Monday and we could join the American couple we met on the bus. Cool! Before we went to sleep, Brad’s wife saw that Lee played on an African small drum, and asked her if she knows her way with the drum. Lee told her that she has a Jumbay in Israel, and quickly Lee found her self committed to play on Brad’s Birthday the next day night (I laughed at her that no matter where she comes she plays the drums as part of a local attraction). Lee told me that unlike the Bombo she played in Sayta ranch (see October chapters), playing a Jumbay-like drum is more difficult and she would need some serious warm up before she could actually squeeze some nice tempos out of the instrument.
Morning came and surprisingly I have saw that Maya is online on the net and we met the two that morning in an internet point on the main street as they saw my email and decided to wait for us one more day to do the Villarica together. While we talked and I bridged the gap between Lee and my two old friends from Israel, we found ourselves sitting on the black shores of Lago Villarica with the sun shines brightly and warmly and the fabulous cone shaped Villarica gives a Swiss feel to the place. As Lee, Maya and Barak said, Pucon reminds them of Interlaken in Switzerland, with the green thorn trees, the wood cabins and the snowy mountains in the far distance.
Maya and Barak came to South America pursuing a dream to see the continent, and timing could not be better: Maya finished her Masters in Biology and Barak just quit his job several months earlier.
Time passed quickly and we went to buy some groceries only to return to the lago (only in another part of town) and talked more over simple sandwiches. It was so good to meet with old friends after so much time traveling part time with strangers or people you get to know from start or on the move.
On our way back to our hostel we enlisted ourselves to the tour that Maya and Barak were enlisted too and went to do some arrangements before the climb (films, films and more films…). On our through town we passed without wanting through Gideon office, an Israeli that arranges a lot of attractions in the area and as a consequence a local bottle neck of Israeli meeting point. And who I see sitting on a bench, looking miserable? Ravid! Stopping to talk with her, I found out that she got 40 degrees fever (!) and she was feeling bad, very bad…It took maybe five minutes till Sivan got out of the office and literally jumped all over of me, hugging me and screaming “CHENUSHI!!!!” so loud that even the volcano was shaken a bit…All the Israelis were looking at us with astonishment as I crackled the request to breath couple of oxygen molecules while Sivan chocked the life out of my lungs… Efrat heard her from within the office and came to join the warm hug. They just came back from the Caratera Austral (“Nice views, company not so nice, lots of arguments” the girls told me) and where chilling out before heading down south to San Martin de Los Andes and then to Bariloche, both are on Argentinean soil. While I was talking with them I met with the three Israelis me and Lee saw in Santiago on the day we left and also more Israelis I met in Peru and on my journeys through north Argentina. Amazingly, everyone got to little Pucon and sometime I thought I am walking in a little Gallilean town…
We were in a tight schedule as we told Maya and Barak that we gonna meet them later so we said goodbye and went on our way to meet with Maya and Barak. We went to buy some groceries for the next day climb and we walked back to the lake shores to talk a bit (at that point Lee was tired and went straight back to the hostel to catch some sleep before the next day).
Coming back to the hostel I saw that the party was getting organized at the front yard, next to our room’s window and I saw already the amount of noise we gonna have that night from talking and music. Lee told me that Miri was there to tell Brad’s Happy Birthday and suggested we gonna move with her in the next door hostel as she had two spare beds. The only problem is that we gonna have to pay for another night (on top what we pay Brad) and she suggested that we might explain him the extremely problematic circumstances with the climb the next day and his party next door and maybe he could dismiss us from paying that night (high season time when many tourists looking for shelter and he doesn’t have any more beds). At first I was no so happy with this offer as I felt it is a bit unaccustomed to ask such a thing, but on the other hand I knew that there was reason behind our request. And so, we walked and talked with him and he agreed without the slightest protest. We were so happy we went to buy him a bottle of wine for his kindness and understanding, and then went quickly to fetch our stuff and move to the next hostel to have night sleep. The funny thing that I was passing through the commotion of the party (with Sivan taking in a lot of the attention, and hugging me every time I passed by…). Finally, after putting my ear plugs I got a decent sleep till morning came.

Slowly climbing up…
Waking up was a tough one that morning (at 6 am) and from the lower bunk I could Lee cracking something about her soar throat. She told me it hurts but not too bad and we hoped she didn’t got a nasty infection in her throat. As Miri was also arranging for her own climb through another agency, she managed to snap the furiouty out of Lee in one stupid sentence. Calling from the next room she blurted: “Oh, come on, go and climb the damn volcano and stop with the excuses!” eye-browing this remark and looking at Lee in surprise I could detect her furious gaze like two bursting volcano. There was a long pause and Miri poped her head into the room and asked what’s wrong but that was one too many for Lee and bearly hold herself from knocking the girl down. She explained her that unlike a lot of Israeli travelers, she doesn’t do things to impress anyone but only to satisfy her joy and pleasure of making trips. I got out of the room, leaving the two alone and when finally Miri went to the agency Lee told me she was so close to slap her for her behavior. I reassured her that we are not gonna see her, though I knew that South America is too small for Israelis, no matter how little people we are.
We got to the agency to find sleepy Maya and Barak waiting outside in the cool air and quickly we got organized with snow and ice equipment for this approach.
Even though Villarica is “only” 2848 meters ASL, it is heavily snowed from already the first 1/3 of the mountain slope, making this ascend a slow and ardorous climb to the top. Technically, it is a walk in the park, as the slope is clean and curves nicely without the need to use crampons, Ice axes or rops. The catch in the Villarica climb is only the pace – walk slowly and you would get there with a smile on your face and a good tan. Run up and you are guaranteed to pass-out half way up (unless you are in great fit).
In the office there were another two Israelis – Liran and Adi, two male-female friends that after hearing them for 5 minutes got the picture of what to expect…well, I didn’t even realized HOW much I underestimated them and their behavior (in a bad sense that is…).
As we got dressed with nylon pants and examined the equipment, the agency guy told us that if it is possible, we should use our own booths as they are more comfortable than the plastic booths used for snow and ice climbing. Lucky for most of us, our booths were adequate and only Adi needed to change booths. Now, I knew about plastic booths from Huayna Potosi Mountain in Bolivia and how “comfy” they feel so I was quite happy I didn’t need to actually wear those inquisition booths, but Adi didn’t and would know it so good that I don’t think she would ever forget it.
Sunday morning, and it was election day in Chile, so before we could ride to the mountain our mountain guide headed to the nearby to put in the note (Hurray Democracy!!) before we headed toward the white king that puffed his white smoke in a thin and short trail. The scenery was awesome as we passed through the forest underneath the mountain and saw the river bed of the last eruption (1984) Lava passing down the mountain slope. As this mountain has a “eruption cycle” of 15 years more or less, we were not too happy to be in the statistic high risk chart…Finally, after half an hour (and stopping for a five minute peeing in the CONAF office) we came finally to the lifts, the first “base” of the climb. Usually, the life are used to hop climbers to the second lift base (saving a hour and half of climb) and from there start the climb. “Lucky” for us, Election Day meant that nobody was at the sight (apart from the CONAF guy) so we had to climb that part. How lovely…(You have to bear in mind the idea we had about climbing this volcano after hearing so many stories about groups approaching it and breaking up half way up out of exhaustion…so, every meter that we didn’t have to climb counted!).
Going out of the mini van we took out the backpacks, long ice axes and our sleepy bodies to see the lovely sight from the base of the Villarica – an astonishing vista with green everywhere and the grand Villarica lake sparkling in the early morning sun. The snow that spiled from the mountain bounced the sun smack into our faces and we all quickly spread a nice layer of sun scream (our guide was white all the way up – just to think about the amount of sun scream he spread….).
The guide pointed at Adi and told her that she is the front man, thus, she will be the one who dictates the pace of the whole group (the one good thing that made our trip a walk in the park). He could not choose a better candidate, as she made only five steps toward the sloping dark brown ground when I first heard her complain on her foot and how difficult it is to walk. Poor girl, I don’t understand why she didn’t stop there and changed her shoes (she had them in the van) but fact is, she climb that 6 and half hours (!) with shoes so unfit that they have ripped the flesh, blood and shit out of her foot.
Many groups went up that day and as we walked slowly we quickly were one of the last groups to climb up. From the first ten minutes, Liron, a macho blabber who thinks he is superman or something of the sort (typically Israeli), tried to encourage the guide to walk faster but I followed by saying there is no rush – we have all day! And indeed, we walked with a good slow pace, though we had to stop many times as Adi was suffering silently and stopping to relief her sore feet (something I really appreciated as I knew that I would have whined out loud all the way up). At a certain point Liron talked with an American from another faster group and shared with him his thoughts about “how slow the group advance” and at that, Maya, without hesitating too much stated that he is more than welcomed to join the other group. Liron murmured something unimportant and that was the end of his protests toward the group pace but not the end of his protests toward suffering Adi. Talking harshly and sometime with vulgar tone he literally abused her and demanding that she would walk faster on top of her pains. The fact that he walked outside the single file we were told to walk accordingly only added to the already set picture I had of him: a complete Idiot. You can already imagine that if I write about these two persons it is because their behaviors were SO dominant the whole climb.
The walk up most of the time was easy, when the first part walking to the second lift base was mostly on soil and only the last part was through snow. Even so, the many foot paths that were left by other climbers made the snow stiff and the climb was very easy, or as Lee told me at a certain point “easy as climbing stairs”. We stopped for 10 minutes at that second base for food and drink and then continue walking in a single file and with our ice axes in our hands to prevent gliding or falling down. As this was the easiest climb I have ever done in this trip, I had more time and felt better to enjoy the great landscape that spread underneath us, when forests, lakes, hills and mountains served as the “main dish” of this vista. Far away to the north, beyond the low clouds we could see clearly the Llaima volcano and the rest of the snowy Andes range. The weather was great and most of the time we walked with a thin shirt as there was almost no wind.
As we continued on walking very slowly I suddenly felt that my feet toes I starting to get cold and hurt as my boots water resistance probably failed after walking through so much snow and got the socks wet (I can not really be sure about that because when I finally took off the shoes at the end of this excursion all my legs were wet…).
The tricky part of almost every climb to the top is the feeling that you are closer to the top than you actually are, and the Villarica approach was not different in this aspect. When we were feeling that here, we gonna finally come to the top and to the end of the climb (after 6 hours already!) we saw that the actual peak, which white smoke rose from it, is another 30 minutes from us. Poor Adi she was ready to throw it all and sits there but the guide took her by his hand and pulled as all the way up, while the wind started to build and made the climb both colder and harder. In parallel, the last part was steeper and the air got thinner (close to 2800 meters ASL) and I could feel that it was hard to breath.
When we finally approached the last ascend, we saw one of the group skiing or snowboarding the way down in a marvel and we all stop the climb to take pictures and enjoy the sight. The ones that know their way with these sports wished they had gone with couple of skates or a snowboard (though the climb would have been much more difficult). We also saw the more conventional way to go down – on the ass! Only, we saw so many tumble down that we felt that we might want to go down the safer way, i.e., on our feet. At one instance I suggested that I would stop there and take the group pictures when they slide down and Lee asked me half laughing “Ha, you smart ass, you don’t want to slide down so you make up an excuse to stop there, don’t you?! Maybe we can switch and I will take the photos!” Well, that was not my intention, but I laughed at her thought in any case. You have to remember that several days before going up the volcano we heard several stories about people that went down sliding and managed to get their Ice axe stuck into their bodies (stomach, groin and the like!) so we were quite worried about this part of the trip.
Reaching the top, happy and smiling, we walked on the already feet-trenched snow that covered the rim of the volcano mouth, while the roar of the lava and smoke down underneath us making “whoosh” sounds as they met with the cold air. We stopped there to enjoy the panaromic view, to walk to one side of the volcano mouth in order to see some lava eruptions (which we didn’t as the volcano was tranquil that day – maybe it was also occupied with the Election day…) and to rest a bit before the REAL fun part – going down!

…and then sliding down!!!
The guide showed us the appropriate way to slide and to hold the ice axe so on the one hand it would be safe and on the other it will serve as a simple brake. We were not to happy about that, and even asked if we can attach the Ice axe to our backpacks but the guide told us it is imperative to use the axe in order to maintain a reasonable speed and not to over speed and loose control going down.
Approaching the first descent, I agreed to be the first to “test” the already formed sliding path that many asses and backs formed in the past two hours. I sat down on the ice, tightening my legs together and holding the Ice axe with both hands at my left. I didn’t need to push my self to much in order to start sliding and gaining speed, Yahooing almost all the way, as I slide, my ass get colder from the freezing snow and get bumps from the humps of snow that were formed on the way, and snow flakes fly all over me that I almost didn’t see where the hell I was sliding to. IT WAS SO MUCH FUN!! And it was only the start! The rest of the gang went down and managed to snap their pictures going down. When everyone were down, our guide led us to the next slide path, while poor Adi suffers even more now that she was sinking knee deep in soft and virgin snow, and the guide had to pull her. The next slide was a fast and long one, so we did it in two parties: the girls with the guide and the three of us alone. It was so fast and such a fun! All the way down I kept a five meter or so distance from Barak that was the head man and at a certain point his water bottle freed itself from the backpack side pocket and started to slide also between the two of us till at one point it stopped and crashed into it and bounced it further into the sliding path until we all got down to the stopping point. Getting up and looking behind me, I could see the peak above me, and the whole length of the slide – WOW! A real long one. The guide, Maya and Lee were in the distance while Adi was sitting to relieve her feet so we started to walk toward the rest of the group. Reaching them we sat together talking and waiting some 20 minutes for Liron and Adi to come, as Adi walked VERY slowly down the soft snow. From there we slide down more, than walked on the soft snow (falling down into the snow many times as it was not stable to walk into such soft snow) till the next slide path and sliding down. At a certain point, close to the second lift base we found it easier and faster to walk-stumble down then to slide it. Quickly we found ourselves back at the vehicle, wet as hell (walking we could hear and feel the squashing of the water out of our socks) and as we took off our boots Ice crumbs were falling out of the totally wet shoes. Out pant were also wet, of course, and we realized what a mistake we have done not taking some exchange clothing, especially socks. We managed to get dry a bit on the way back to Pucon in the mini-van and take a shower when we reached our hostel. Taking a shower we felt the sun that shone on us (I got really red in the face).
We met later on with Maya and Barak at a local restaurant before they are leaving to Bariloche the next day while we planned to do some arrangements and buying the bus ticket to the next bus to Bariloche so we could do with them the 7 lake tour. More to come…

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