Thursday, February 14, 2008

volcanoes and vertigo ...

I was still slightly wary after last years experience on Mt. Fuji in Japan, so I found myself in two minds when the opportunity to climb another active volcano presented itself.

Here is Mt. Villarrica in all it's 2840m high glory.

Of course I couldn't resist the challenge.

As you can see, the upper reaches are (just like Fuji) covered in snow and ice, so this time I set off fully kitted out with crampons, ice axe and a bag containing a thick Kevlar suit and a strange looking red plastic disk with a saucepan looking handle. More on those items later.

Physically the 950m climb of the upper section to the cone was a relative cinch compared to our recent efforts on the W Trek, but the addition of vertigo inducing exposure and steep icy slopes made it an altogher different sort of challenge as we inched our way to the top over four hours, kicking steps in the snow and ice as we went.

As if that wasn't exciting enough the occasional piece of volcanic rock would come tumbling down the slop at high speed to much blowing of whistles and frenzied cries of "rocka, rocka, rocka !!". So I'd learnt another word in Spanish too.

By the time we reached the crater rim my rented boots had rendered me virtually lame, so I was especially grateful that our guides for the day had come up with a more innovative way of getting back to the car park than simply retracing our steps.

Dressed in the Kevlar suits that we had carried to the top, we retreated to the top of the snow line and tucking the red plastic disk under our bums we launched ourselves down the side of the volcano, using our ice-axes to moderate our speed. Or at least that was the plan.

As some proved more succesful at moderating their speed than others, what actually happened was collisions, wipe outs and general hilarity - but thankfully no serious bodily injuries. It was the longest (and best) sledge ride of my life as we skimmed down the side of the volcano for over an hour to reach our starting point.

The day didn't just provide the opportunity to settle the score after failing to conquer Fuji last year, but the hired equipment also provided the perfect opportunity to settle another more recent "score" with our driver Rhys; Leon Trotsky style.

Not really. We needed him to drive the truck to Santiago later in the week.

As if my poor head for heights hadn't been challenged enough that week I somehow found myself booked onto a trip which took us ziplining high up in the forest canopy. I'll never learn.

The fear kicked in at around 3 metres, as we started climbing to the top of an enormous tree. The state of the ladders and platforms (no barriers) held together by little more than a few rusty nails was more terrifying for me than any of the ziplines. In fact I was actually relieved when the time came to "clip on" and let gravity take over.

I've made a mental note not to sign up for any more vertigo inducing activities soon. And yes, I am as terrified as I look.

The last day of the tour saw us finally reach Santiago after 3 weeks, and we had one final party-to-end-all-parties before heading our separate ways.

Heights, you just can't get away from them can you? After deciding to head back into Argentina for a few days in the wine mecca of Mendoza we set out for the border crossing.

At the top of a 3000m pass high in the Andes. Just my luck.