May 03 2017

Chaitén: Up the Volcano


This southern summer, though I was on a working trip rather than a Patagonia vacation, one of my goals was to climb a volcano. My original idea was to strap on crampons to reach the crater of Chile’s Volcán Villarrica (Rukapillán to the indigenous Mapuche), near the resort town of Pucón, but a seismic alert that culminated in a startling eruption on March 3rd postponed that option.

I returned to Pucón a short while ago – with the volcano still smoking if not quite threatening – but in the interim I had found another option. While driving north on the Carretera Austral in Chile, I reached the town of Chaitén, recently resettled since a dramatic eruption of its own namesake volcano in May of 2008. The clouds of ash and a subsequent flood had forced its evacuation then.

When I visited the town a year later, the volcano was still smoking, with cars and houses nearly buried beneath the ash, and the southern beech forests of nearby Parque Pumalín – an audacious private conservation project – were nearly denuded.  This year, though, a lush green understory of ferns, rhubarb-like nalcas and shrubs surrounded the still pallid tree trunks – a handful of which had recovered – and the park had opened a trail to the rim of the volcano’s crater.

Volcán Chaiten

A misleading sign suggested a three-hour round-trip to the rim and back but, on a hot late-summer day in this usually cool damp climate, it took me twice that – especially given the steep staircases that comprised much of the trail, and the blisters I favored after another hike in Torres del Paine. Statistically, the climb was 600 meters in just 2.2 kilometers, a roughly 27 percent gradient, though it seemed even steeper and longer.

There were quite a few other hikers, several of them Argentines taking advantage of a three-day weekend to cross the border from the city of Esquel. When I reached the rim, at the same time as a couple young French sisters, we could see the smoke seeping from the crater and hear a low rumble.

Given the steepness and loose ash, the descent was trickier than the ascent, but less tiring. At the end of the day, I was glad to have done it, and glad that it was over, and I’m still hoping to tackle Villarrica the next time I’m in Pucón – presuming the threat of another eruption continues to recede.

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