Why climbing an active volcano on your own in extreme weather conditions is a great idea!

(written partly in hostel La Puerta Verde, Bariloche and at Librobar Borges&Alvarez, El Calafate, Argentina. Mar, 2010)

When the travel agency in Copahue cancelled my trips I came up with expeditions of my own. I arrived on Monday, wanting to climb Volcan Copahue after some great reviews I’d heard on the way. I didn’t waste any time in finding the local travel agency and before I knew it I was sitting on their chair discussing itineraries and wetaher conditions. I arranged another trip for the Wednesday before the young business owners started explaining how climbing up the volcano would be impossible because of the strong winds. I believed them, what can you do? The Wednesday came, I waited for the agency to pick me up and they didn’t come.

I walked down to the office only to find out the trip was postponed until Friday. Coincidentially, so was the volcano ascend. I had to chose or do one trip on my own. Since I needed a car to visit the waterfalls the choice was obvious. I was climbing the volcano on my own. That day I took a walk in the surrounding mountains which revealed a pile of rocks that certainly looked managable. Knowing what I had to do to get to the top, I felt a lot more comfortable.

The morning came and I was off. I packed some food, water (that I later realised wasn’t enough), thermal clothing, a torch, and a lighter. All this in case i got stuck in the mountain. I walked up the hill, along the river, on a glacier, until I found a path that I followed for most of the time. The wind was barely noticable while surrounded by mountains. So far, so good.

Then I reached the last 500m leading up to the crater and that’s where it got challenging. Almost all of it consisted of ash which made it very hard to walk. The lack of any solid stones didn’t help much either. Since I didn’t have a hiking pole I could use for support, pretty soon I was on all fours. Yes, I more or less crawled up to the top. I would take a step forward and slide two steps back. It was like trying to climba huge sand dune. That’s ash for you – a nightmare to walk up, but great for going down. You will see why later.

As I was making my way up I kept thinking how hard it was but then I’also keep repeating to myself ‘Come on! You’ve done harder!’ (referring to the volcano hike in Guatemala). When I finally made it to the top the wind was unbearable. I could hardly stand on my feet, let alone hike. I slowly inched my way along the crater and to a flatter surface. The crater is worth a few words of description before we move on to more disturbing aspects of the hike.

Most volcanoes in Patagonia are not active and their craters are burried under a few hundred meters of glacial ice. Vocan Copahue also boasts its very own glacier but unlike other volcanoes it doesn’t cover the crater. Quite the opposite, the crater is wide open, deepening with every eruption. It also holds a lagoon with bubbling sulphurous water. I later found out that people used to swim from one end to the other when the crater was not as deep. To this day though nobody knows how deep it is.

I marvelled at the view as much as I could while trying to remain on my feet instead of rolling down the crater and what I thought wa boiling hot water (although the water looks boiling hot it is only 20º-30º warm). I spent a while trying to stabilize my tripod in a desperate attempt to document my conquest. I didn’t succeed on more than one ocassion and my camera has the missing bits of plastic to prove it. All the while I had to deal with the suffocating stank of the steaming lagoon. The wind carried the sulphurous steam in every direction and at times the smelly cloud would engulf me completely, stinging my eyes and burning my throat and nose. I tried to block the smell by shutting my eyes while covering my face with the jacket but the smell would still penetrate through the fabric. I guess the jacket is only good for blocking rain.

After I have had enough of the stincky lagoon I decided to make my way to the cumbre or the very top of the mountain which also marked the border with Chile. Exciting! I looked to the right and didn’t see anything remotely looking like a path. Then I saw some footprints going up the dune to my left. It looked managable and I decided to take my chances. I walked up carefully, balancing my steps on the top of the ridge. i reached a steep but relatively firm area and thought it looked like a shortcut. I attempted an ascent and I did reach the middle before I started sliding down. Again lack of stones to hold on to and ashy surface made it impossible to grip. I decided sliding down on a rock on the edge of the crater was not a brilliant idea and I went down looking for a different route. The rocks to my left looked more or less stable so I decided this was the path.

Only after a few meters I lost balance and slipped, landing on my bottom. The ground beneath my feet was crumbling down. I sat there, not daring to breath, looking at the precipis plunging down a meter away from me. ‘Turn around slowly, use your knees for support and try to gran onto a rock above you.’ I thought. I did turn around and I did use my knees but I still slid down. I had no grip whatsoever. I managed to a grab onto a rock and pulled myself up. After a short break I continued with my adventure. Every time I stepped on a rock I remembered my father’s words.
– Always make sure a rock is stable before you grab or step on it – he used to say when I was a little girl. I checked alright! Both the rocksunder my feet as well as those above me were very fragile.

I walked on, slowly realising that I wasn’t hiking anymore. I was rock climbing and I had no safety rope. ‘This can’t be the path’ I thought. ‘I better go back’. I turned around to go back but it didn’t look like there was anything to hold onto. It looked much harder. ‘OK’ I thought ‘maybeI could go further and then go down and go around the peak’. So I kept going. Not for long though. With every step the scenery got worse. The precipis got steeper and the rocks more scarce. ‘I can’t go on, this is too dangerous’ I thought. Hanging onto the edge of the mountain I looked both ways, trying to decide where to go. I didn’t see a way back and the way forward was too dangerous. I felt stuck. I felt helpless. It was scary. ‘OK, remain calm and think’ I told myself. Going forward was a suicide. ‘If I came this was I must be able to go back the same way’ I thought and truned around. The way back was much harder. At some point I reached a very tricky bit where I was literally hanging off the edge. I could hear rocks crashing at the bottom of the precipis but I couldn’t see them. It was that deep. I felt my muscles tensing, my body acing, my knees shaking from the pressure I put on them. ‘Remain calm and focus’ I told myself. Inch by inch I made my way to a safer spot but the struggle wasn’t over. I still had to make my way to the flat area by the crater and the soft ash. The precipis wasn’t there anymore but the hill was still very steep and slippery. I was pretty shaken up and my mood was dampened.

I reached the ash and had a blast running (literally) down the hill. Just like a sand dune your feet sink in the ash providing excellent support. I was down in no time. From there I tried to spot the path but everytime I lost sight of it I took a different turn that took me on a different route. I only found the path a few hundred meters away from the village. Somehow it was very difficult to follow it on the way back. I went through a lot more hills than I wanted to but finally made it back safely. I was tired and still a bit shaken up.

Before I went back to the caravan I went to the travel agency to confirm the trip for the following day. I told them about the hike, they thought I was crazy. Nothing new. I asked about the path to the top. I told them about my experience convinced that where I went couldn’t possibly have been the way. It turned out that it was. I couldn’t believe it. It was too dangerous to do it without a safety rope.

Later I thought about what I’d done and felt proud of myself. I was able to remain calm and get myself out of a sticky situation.

Well done!

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