After the sobering experience of passing through Santa Lucia and the devastation caused by a massive mudslide, arriving in Chaiten was equally thought provoking. Ten years ago next month, the ‘mountain’ behind this small town erupted, making itself known as a volcano, much to the surprise of local residents and the Chilean government. Fair enough though, they estimate the previous eruption was 9000 years ago… .
All 4000 residents were promptly evacuated – including by force as many did not wish to leave. Their properties and animals were left to fend for themselves. There was looting. The whole town was covered in deep layers of ash, a la Pompei. While the lava did not wipe out the town, the ash was devastating and the government tried to relocate the community to a safer place, a few KM away.
Residents refused, and after a standoff, they won, with the government eventually re-connecting water and other services.
For us, despite being aware of the human tragedy, the main attraction was the possibility to climb to (almost) the top of the volcano, and get up close with the smoking, smouldering, beast.
I won’t lie. The climb nearly killed me, and I was in significant pain for days afterwards. I am not fit and have so many bits and bobs that don’t work properly, if I were a car I’d be scrapped.
However, I am determined, and when reading all the warnings about ‘high level of fitness required’ and ‘level of difficulty: difficult’ I blithely assumed that, you know, mind over matter and all that … I’d be fine. I did tell Lauren there was no guarantees we’d make it etc etc – but in my head, it was a challenge and I would not be turning back unless it was actually dangerous.
It was a beautiful day, and I’d been watching the weather forecast for a couple of days to make sure we’d be there on the right day – for days before and after rain was forecast. We had a bag full of ‘trail food’ and water, as well as jumpers and waterproofs because despite the sunshine, this was still Patagonia.
The walk started off gentle enough – winding through gently sloping forest, crossing a river, before suddenly just going, straight up. And up. And up. And up.
At times, there were little ladders.
It was very eerie walking through forests of dead trees – its long enough ago that the vegetation underfoot is once again lush and springy, and some new young trees have started to grow, but there are still hundreds of dead trees, still standing upright but totally dead. The obviously weren’t in the direct flow of the lava but I guess died from the gas/ash ….
The worst part of the climb was that while at the bottom we had been able to see the smoking summit ahead of us, we were now just climbing and climbing through thick forest, with absolutely no view or ability to gauge how close we were getting (or not). We stopped for 10 minutes every 30 minutes, for water and a break. Lauren was of course fine, and for a while I was even enjoying the challenge. The last third though was a killer – at one point I was doing 50 steps, then stopping to take a breath, then another 50, then stopping.
Don’t get me wrong, other, fitter, younger people overtook us, although even they were struggling – but it was my fitness rather than the climb that was the problem… and Lauren often ran on ahead then scrambled about on the rocks picking up chunks of lava or examining bugs and flowers.
About ten minutes from the summit, we met a guy coming down who told me how close we were, and that spurred me on to one final effort, legs shaking, until the full volcano was visible in all its terrible glory.
The ‘new’ crater was 200m higher than the old summit, having been built up by the lava.
We spent about an hour up there, enjoying the magnificent views of mountains, lake and sea, as well as the two big lumps of the volcano, one with lots of smoke coming out of the top, the other with delicate tendrils of wispy smoke occasionally emerging from its sides and floating upwards. It was stunning.
Going down was almost as hellish as going up, but with the promise of some mint tea and chocolate at the end.
It was worth it, even though my legs barely functioned for 2 days afterwards. And Lauren found some big chunks of lava, which added to the already not-insubstantial weight of our backpacks…