This past Saturday was by far the most memorable part of my journey thus far. I am proud to say that I attempted and succeeded in something that I have never done before – I climbed a volcano. And not just any volcano – Volcán Villarrica is the most active volcano in Chile. I was pushed mentally, physically, and emotionally in a way that I haven’t felt in a really long time.
I am not a seasoned hiker – I’ve hiked only a handful of times in my entire life. The most challenging hike I had done prior was climb the steep mountain of Huayna Picchu, which offers an incredible view of Machu Picchu down below. Typical of how I do things, I decided to jump right in; not only would this be the longest hike I’ve ever done, but it would also be in entirely different conditions. It would be a proper ice and snow climb, complete with ice picks, waterproof gear, cramp-ons, and sturdy waterproof hiking boots fit for a climb of Mount Everest.
Volcán Villarrica is 2,847 meters (9,340 feet) high. It is active, having recently erupted in March of this year. The volcano has recently been deemed safe
to hike only 3 weeks ago, so we arrived at the perfect time. We were so fortunate to have had a beautiful, clear day on the day of the hike. It was warm, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. Often these hikes are cancelled due to even the slightest chance of poor weather, but for the day of my hike we were quite lucky to have had a perfect day.
We started hiking at 8:15am, and 1,447 meters (4,747 feet) and 6 hours later, I reached the summit. On my way up I felt a roller coaster of emotions. From the very start the nerves in my gut were acting out, and on the drive to the base of the volcano I could feel anxiety take hold of me. But I vowed to reach the top and to not give up, no matter what it took. At one point on the way up I felt scared, unable to look down as I feared the steep slopes on the way back. We were told we would be sliding down the mountain with a little makeshift plastic sled that we carried in our backpacks. This sounded fun in theory, and we were told it is the best part of the hike to slide all the way down. But, looking below as I climbed, the downward slopes looked terrifying. One minute I was afraid of heights, the next I was giddy with excitement about sledding downwards. I kept thinking I wasn’t going to reach the top, that I would give up on the first ridge where so many people turned around and descended, but then when I got to the ridge all I wanted to do was keep going. We had about six breaks before reaching the top, and there were times where I wanted to skip the breaks and keep going. I would tell myself that I was going to slip and fall any second as we created fresh steps in the wet snow. Five minutes later, I felt a sudden sense of ease and with each step I felt more energy and strength. I thought, how easy is this! This hike will be over in no time, and it’s not half as bad as some of the other things I’ve done. One of the thoughts that came to mind was my PADI scuba diving training in Koh Tao, Thailand, where I had to learn how to take off my mask in the water at 17 meters deep. I remembered how mentally challenging it was to be able to work through that, and I realized this climb was perfectly do-able. During this climb I wasn’t as physically challenged as I thought I would be – my legs never gave way and although my heart was pumping at an extraordinary rate, I wasn’t breathless. The hike was tiring in that it was very long (the way down took 2 hours, making our way off the mountain by 3:50pm) and required a lot of mental strength.
The climb was a test in my ability to support other hikers. It is not a solo trek – there was a group of 12 of us, with 4 guides. Three people went back down with one guide after reaching the ridge, so most of the journey was with 9 of us and three guides. It’s an incredible challenge to make sure everyone is able to keep the pace of the guide, and to be sure that if someone falls behind that they can be motivated to keep going. Hiking can be individual sport, but in the case of a challenging ice climb of an active volcano, working as a group is as motivating as it is essential. One of the girls in our group had a bad knee, and she told me she didn’t think she would make it to the top from the very beginning. But one of our guides was with her the entire time at the end of the line, gently pushing her to keep going. We all made an effort to make sure she was okay and motivated. She reached the top, and I felt so much in awe in the strength of the human body.
At first I thought only crazy people climbed a volcano and actually paid money to do it, but after having done it I realized that we as humans crave pushing our bodies. Our mind is so powerful in controlling our bodies and our perceptions of what is “difficult” and “crazy” and what is “safe” and “easy.” World-class climbers and adventure seekers are not off the deep end, they are merely testing the limits of their bodies. Which, after having hiked for 5 hours the day before at a Huerquehue National Park, only proved to me that despite the enormous physical challenge, our bodies can indeed keep up and keep moving. If I, a city girl who grew up soaking up the sun on the beach as my only outdoor pastime, can find a way to push myself in this way, then so can anyone. It’s truly amazing how we can push through; with a shot of adrenaline and a clear and purposeful intention in your mind, we can do anything.
Any bad day at work, any challenges with friends and family relationships, any small hitches in health – none of these seem as big of a deal to me now. I came out of the hike stronger, and just a little bit addicted – I never thought that a beach bum would even consider hiking as a pleasurable activity, but now I have a glimpse of why people hike around the world for their entire life. This is definitely not the end of hiking for me – if anything it has just begun, and I can’t wait to take on more challenging treks.