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Vagabond Tales: Dodging Toxic Gases And Peering Into The Center Of The Earth
"You see that smoke?" asked Andreas. "Tell me if you see the smoke."
Gazing towards the thin patch of smoke emanating from the icy summit, our group of volcano-climbers nodded in silent agreement.
"That smoke is very important," he continued, his rapid-fire speech laced with a strangely casual lilt.
"Why?" inquired a British climber, his attention focused on cleaning his fingernails with the tip of his shiny new ice axe.
"Why?" scoffed Andreas. "I tell you why. Because that smoke will kill you. Right now the wind is ok, so we climb."
"But what if the wind switches towards our direction?" chimed in a spunky, yet suddenly concerned Australian girl.
"Then you go to the ground, dig a hole in the snow with your axe, place your nose and mouth in the hole, and then you breathe into the snow. When the smoke passes, we climb."
With that Andreas popped his water bottle into his backpack and continued forging his way up the mountainside, our intrepid and no-nonsense guide for climbing active Volcán Villarica on the outskirts of Pucón, Chile.
The trail up Villarica, however, isn't exactly for the faint of heart. Carving our way up the mountain with the spiky tips of our rented crampons, the azure and shimmering lakes, which comprise the Lake District, gradually begin to fade in size beneath us.
"Over there," points out Andreas, using the tip of his ski pole to gesture towards the horizon, "is the volcano Lanín. Beyond that, Argentina."
A stiff wind whips up some loose snow and swirls in my face as I peer down the spine of the Andes. Considering this is the side of an active volcano, the overall hike thus far has been remarkably and unexpectedly cold. There's something about a lava lake that's covered in ice that just seems to defy some laws of nature.
Moving further up the flank of the mountain the weight of my pack gets heavier at about the same rate that the air gets thinner. Luckily, I'm no longer carrying a snowboard on my back as my wife opted to ride back down from about 3/4 of the way up the mountain due to a pestering pain in her hip. Sure, she was going to miss out on peering into the crater, but I'm venturing a guess that she's warmer and breathing easier than most of us up on the mountain are.
With only a hundred vertical feet to climb to the summit, the cheeky Brit is leaning heavily on his ice axe while the spunky Australian removes her gloves to blow on her fingers. Just above them, Andreas slowly chews on a granola bar and jokingly tells the Brit to man-up. This is the sixth day in a row that Andreas has climbed the mountain, the weathered red of his eyes revealing a tiredness his fit body easily conceals.
Behind all of them a plume of smoke rises steadily to the sky, the slightest rumble of the Earth evident beneath our frozen feet. Though the mountain hasn't experienced a major eruption since 1971, the threat of it waking up is a very real possibility. Should that moment be in the next thirty minutes, no amount of digging holes in the snow would do anything to save us.
"You ready?" Andreas impatiently inquires of the Brit. "We go the top."
And just like that, with another ten minutes of pushing through the relentless wind, our haggard troupe of volcano climbers stands atop the mighty Villarica.
Something, however, is noticeably absent – the lava lake. Where on Earth is the lava lake?
Anticipating our question Andreas jumps into action.
"The lake level is very low right now. You cannot see. Do not go inside the crater. You go in there you die."
With no more explanation Andreas excuses himself to take a high-altitude bathroom break, leaving the rest of us to gaze into the steaming abyss and wonder if the hole really goes down into the center of the Earth.
Furthermore, although you might not expect it, attempting to NOT walk into a venting abyss is not an easy thing to do. Like Frodo Baggins holding his ring, the open gap in the mountain speaks to you in demonic whispers and entices you into its depths.
"Come closer, now closer, just one more step ... "
Despite everything in your senses telling you to not walk a step further, the open caldera gives the illusion that just a few feet further will give you a view into the center of the Earth. You don't know why, but you can't, stop, inching, closer.
"Yes, yes, bring me the precious ... "
My foot loses traction on a patch of ice and sends a scree slope of pebbles shuttling down into the steaming abyss. In the profound silence at the top of the mountain it's possible to hear the rocks as they bounce their way into the darkness. Softer, softer, until the sound finally fades away.
I grip my ice axe and watch shapes dance in the rising smoke. Then, as quickly as it vanished, reality once again returns to the moment. What am I doing here? Why are you standing on the edge of an active volcano? Why are you trying to climb inside? Why aren't you down at your hostel eating a parilla of freshly grilled steak and sipping on bottles of Chilean red wine?
Taking one last look into the magnetic abyss, and another to peer south towards the horizon and Patagonia, I tighten the earflaps of my alpaca wool beanie and step back from the brink of the ledge.
There are more adventures waiting at the bottom of the mountain anyway, and while the view from this perch is nearly impossible to beat, the summit of this volcano is admittedly short on wine.
Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the "Vagabond Tales" over here.