Wednesday, December 22, 2004

River Deep, Mountain High

The adventure sports capital of Chile is, without a doubt, Pucon, some 500 miles to the south of Santiago. Sitting in the middle of verdant, rolling countryside, on a large lake and with the ever-present Villarica volcano keeping watch over the town, smoking to keep itself occupied. For many the volcano is the main attraction as it is one of the few in the world to have a permanent lava lake, which contrasts with the permanent snowcap around the summit. Climbing the beast was too tempting to resist and so I signed up for a tour the other day.

We were kitted out head to toe in climbing gear, including mountaineering boots, gaiters, an ice axe, heavy duty trousers and jacket and crampons, and then headed off to the base of the mountain. There was a chairlift that could take you up the first 400m, but I decided not to take it because I thought $5 really was far too excessive, and so I had to trudge up along with a handful of other misers, and it was no mean feat as mountaineering boots are fantastic for walking up snowy slopes, but are absolute hell for scree and rocks because the sole is completely rigid. Once we reached the snow the going was much easier, but there was still over 1000m of mountain to climb, trudging Indian file through well-worn tracks in the snow, zig-zagging up the mountainside (I was quite surprised that there was still that much snow on the slopes). After 4hrs we finally got to the caldera and were greeted with lungfuls of noxious gas that billows out of the caldera, but through the billowing smoke we could also see the lava spurting up in irregular bursts from the pool at the heart of the mountain. We couldn't stay at the top for long though due to the smoke and the piercing wind, so we headed down after about 15mins ... and that was the best part of the whole excursion. Whereas climbing was a slog, the descent was ridiculously easy as we spent most of the time sliding down through the snow on our arses. Definitely the highlight, even though by the end my bum was soaking and numb from the cold! and at least now I can say that I've looked into an active volcano.

Other activities in the area include cycling, hiking, lounging in thermal springs, rafting and hydrospeeding. A few days ago if you had mentioned hydrospeed to me my probable response would have been "huh?". In fact hydrospeed is a sports activity where participants don wetsuits, flippers and a helmet and plunge headfirst through white water rapids clinging on to a polystyrene board reminiscent of those you're given when you first learn to swim. I don't know what crazy individual first came up with the idea, but I'd like to shake him (or her) by the hand, as it is definitely one of the best adrenaline rushes you can get, especially when you get submerged by oncoming waves and buffeted around like a little doll. So if any of you get the chance to try this exciting new activity jump at the opportunity, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Otherwise I'd like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas (especially to those that I have not managed to send a Christmas e-mail to), I hope you all gorge yourselves on food and wine and yet remain free of indigestion and hangovers.

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