You are climbing the ice capped Volcan Villarrica in Chile; This is an exhilarating expedition. As you stand on the crater’s rim you can peer into the heart of this menacing volcano; an active lava lake venting clouds of sulfur.

Unbounded views of the Chile Lake District and distant volcanoes on the horizon is your reward for climbing to the summit. On the way back down you will be sliding down the slopes on toboggans (sleds) for the ultimate adrenalin fueled activity. This is the ultimate in adventure tourism and the highlight of any trip to South America and Chile.

Sunset over Villarrica Volcano
The night before the climb; Sunset over Villarrica Volcano

Volcan Villarrica Climb

Dependent on your tour operator, you will generally meet the day before for a kit-out with all the gear and a briefing for the climb. All the kit required is provided for my tour, this includes; rucksack, boots, crampons, ice axe, helmet, jacket & trousers, gaiters, and the harness for the tobogganing;

You will need to bring your own warm clothes: hiking socks, warm fleece, woolly hat, sun screen and a good pair of sunglasses (it’s very bright up there). I would highly recommend investing in some good quality travel clothing; check out my gear tips here (coming soon!).

The best time of year to climb Villarrica is from late October into November. The weather is not too hot and the upper level chair lift is open making it an easier climb. Also there is still enough snow for you to be able to sled down the slopes. In the summer you can’t sled because the snow has melted too much. 

Claudio Retamal, UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide

Setting out to the Ski Lift

You will have an early start around 6am and your tour operator will bus you into Parque Nacional Villarrica, to the Ski area where the ski lifts at Ski Pucon go part way up the mountain slopes. There are 2 lifts here: The lower ski lift and the upper climbing lift. During the ski season (winter) only the lower ski lift is in operation. During the climbing season (summer) only the climbing lift is available. Both lifts are never operated together, it’s one of the other.

So if you climb in the winter then your climb will be longer (from the top of the lower ski lift). Therefore in the summer the climb is shorter and consequently easier, because the upper climbing lift will take you to a higher start point.

Some operators will make the chair lift mandatory, others will give you the choice. My advice would be to take the chair lift (CH$6,000). It saves a lot of time and energy which is better spent enjoying the climb at the higher levels.

Villarrica Volcano Ski Lift
Villarrica Volcano Ski Lift

The ski lift is an enjoyable ride, this was my first time on a ski lift actually, since then I’ve taken up skiing. The purists will probably cry foul by not completing a ‘full’ climb of the volcano, but we are here on vacation! The Ski Pucon chair lift station provides the last bathroom stop. There are no bathrooms further up, no trees to hide behind either!

Not a walk in the park!

A word about the climb; this is no walk in the park! But you certainly don’t have to be a super fit mountaineer to achieve this, just a reasonable level of fitness and bucket loads of determination.

Be honest with yourself, if you’re unfit then you’re unsafe and at risk of injury. Don’t feel pressured by a group mentality if you are not as fit as your friends. Its not a fun activity if you don’t want to do it!

Claudio Retamal, UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide

Villarrica Volcano Ski Lift
Villarrica Volcano Ski Lift

At the high elevation of the ski lifts you notice the lack of trees where the snow line starts . As you first step onto the soil you begin to appreciate this is an active volcano stood before you. The earth is bare, rusted and rocky; from another world perhaps? And it really is, from deep inside the Earth, the rocky materials ejected from previous eruptions as recent as 1964, 1971 and 2015.

At this point we put on our crampons and the guides show us how to use them. There is a safety briefing and techniques to employ should you find yourself tumbling uncontrollably down the slopes!

The Climb

Once your group sets a good pace it becomes fairly easy work. You zigzag across the slopes of Volcan Villarrica in order to progress higher. Refreshment breaks on the way up provide opportunity to marvel at the lofty panormaic views.

Villarrica Volcano Climb
Lines of climbers ascending Villarrica Volcano

I find myself frequently turning backwards to the views rather than fixate on the climber in front of me. Some of the steeper gradients are actually easier as a natural staircase of steps is carved out by the many footsteps of adventurers before you.

Looking up the slopes you will see the many groups of climbers in front. These pictures remind me of the sort of photos you see on Mt Everest expedition climbs.

During the 2015 eruption, the government closed all activities on the volcano for 10 months. We already limited our groups to 12 persons but after the eruption climbing permits have been limited to 15 agencies in Pucon, who can only take a maximum of 12 per group size.

In the busy season you need to book your climb early with an agency, because of the limited number of spaces available. It’s not good enough to just arrive in Pucon now and expect to be able to book onto a climb, despite what the guide books say. This summer we were completely sold out.

Claudio Retamal, UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide

In my rucksack I took lots of water and a large selection of snacks; nuts, chocolates and energy bars.

A line of climbers ascending Volcan Villarrica
A line of climbers ascending Volcan Villarrica

Volcan Villarrica Summit & Crater

As you approach the summit you will smell the crater before you see it! Volcan Villarrica is an active volcano and this is your first reminder. Thick clouds of acrid sulfur (smells like rotten eggs) and other volcanic gases continually belch out from the crater. If the activity picks up too much or a large cloud  heads in your direction then the tour leaders will evacuate you from the summit.

Volcan Villarrica Chile crater at summit
Volcan Villarrica crater: With the GoPro wide angle camera you can squeeze in the entire crater into one photo.

Volcan Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile and classified as a “Stratovolcano” which means that it is made from many layers (strata). These layers of strata come from previous eruption material. A stratovolcano is visually characterized by its steep slopes.

It is also one of the few stratovolcanoes in the world to have an active lava lake within the crater, so if you are lucky you might get to see pools of red hot lava!

The most recent eruption of Volcan Villarrica was in March 2015 when several thousand people had to be evacuated from nearby towns. The 2015 eruption made global news when during the night large fountains of lava were seen erupting from the crater.

“Since the 2015 Eruption, access to the volcano is so much more controlled by the government. Any sign of activity or lava fountains and the volcano is shut. Previously, we would go on climbs and stand on the edge of the crater with a full lava lake bubbling up!”

Claudio Retamal, UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide

At an elevation of 9,300ft

Arriving at the summit is the culmination of hours of hard work, digging in deep, and accepting those aches and pains in your legs. Take big deep breaths and enjoy the view. Let those gulps of clean fresh air fill your lungs, because when the wind changes you’ll be reaching to cover your face from the volcanic fumes. This is a breathtaking endeavor, quite literally!

pucon-chile-villarrica-volcano-climb-Llaima
Views from Villarrica: Volcan Llaima on the horizon

On a clear day the views are phenomenal and if you are lucky you might get a condor fly over. Enjoy the whole experience. Even if you don’t manage to reach the top the views only half way up are still outstanding!

Claudio Retamal, UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide

Don’t forget to get your camera out and start taking photos. All of the photos in this article came from my Cameras; I’ve only every used point-and-shoot cameras which I find the most practical solution; it’s a long way up this volcano to be lugging heavy camera gear. I also use the GoPro which is great at wide angle pictures and hero action shots!

Villarrica Volcano Summit Crater
Villarrica Volcano Summit Crater

Peering over the edge of the crater you can see it’s a long way down to the lava lake; it’s not somewhere you want to be accidentally falling into so tread carefully around the edge!

It’s here you get the best view of the glacier that you’ve just been climbing up for the last four hours. Encrusted along the craters edge are the deposits of snow interspersed with volcanic rock, which forms the Pichillanahue-Turbio glacier.

What goes up, must come down!

This is the exhilarating part of the day, when you slide back down the Villarrica’s slopes. It really is sliding down on small plastic sledges (toboggans) attached to your harness. Each season small ‘tubes’ are carved out of the ice by the many other visitors, a bit like a toboggan run. The opportunity to slide down only exists during late October and into November (Spring). The snow is melting too much by the summer.

The guides demonstrate the technique, and having never skied at this point, I had to self learn the dynamics of human bodies flying down a mountain side!

Preparing to Slide down Villarrica Volcano on Sledge
Preparing to Slide down Villarrica Volcano on Sledge

Sitting on your bottom, with a small plastic sledge wedged between you and the ice, lean back and off you go. You are taught how to use the ice axe as a brake for slowing down; yes that’s right they want you to hold an ice axe out, an implement which could cause severe impalement!

I found it a struggle at first, many times sliding down completely out of control. The saving grace is the slopes are fairly undulating, you get a steep bit followed by a shallow section which helps you slow down and regain control.

Sliding down Villarica Volcano
Sliding down Villarica Volcano

Eventually I sussed it out; lean back to go fast, lean forwards to slow down. It seemed un-intuitive, surely leaning forwards would cause my weight to shift more in the downhill direction. But it works by moving your center of gravity; lean forwards (sitting up) and the weight concentrates in a smaller area through your bottom which generates more friction and helps decelerate.

Sliding down Villarica Volcano
Sliding down Villarica Volcano taken with GoPro

The walk back down

There are quite a few sections which will require walking down. When you arrive back down at the ski lift you can look upto the summit in the knowledge you conquered that mountain today!

My expedition to the summit of Volcan Villarrica is one of my best highlights from travelling across South America. It’s not something that requires any prior training or knowledge, just a good level of fitness and lots of enthusiasm.

View up to Villarrica Volcano
View up to Villarrica Volcano

Now its time to head Back to Pucon and a well earned reward of beef steak and bottle of Malbec wine! For the adventurous activities alone, Pucon is a top choice for places to visit in Chile.

View of Villarrica Volcano from Pucon High Street
View of Villarrica Volcano from Pucon High Street

Service on the mountain is just as important as the service at the agency.

Claudio Retamal, UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide

I originally climbed Volcan Villarraci in November 2012 and since the 2015 Eruption happened I wanted to find out if anything had changed. So I got in contact with Claudio Retamal and Suzi Wortman  of Summit Chile who organised this trip which I paid for. Claudio is a UIAGM Certified Mountain Guide and NOLS Instructor. Even though at the time this was one of the most expensive tour agencies to go with I have nothing but praise for their expertise, professional guides and overall organisation.

5 tips Claudio and Suzi would give someone wanting to climb Volcan Villarrica:

  1. Fitness
    Prepare yourself by doing some 3 to 4 hour steep hikes. Be honest with yourself, if you’re unfit then you’re unsafe and at risk of injury. Don’t succumb to a group mentality if you are not as fit as your friends. Its not a fun activity if you don’t want to do it!
  2. Packing
    Socks! Bring a good pair of hiking socks. We provide the boots. Use a good layering system. No cotton, only synthetic materials and a good fleece. In winter bring thermals. Consider bringing some good snacks like cereal bars as we don’t have great ones here in Chile!
  3. Who to book with?
    When choosing your agency to book with, ask them lots of questions. Do their guides speak English?  Book with a reputable agency, ask around. Book early to avoid disappointment!
  4. Prepare the night before
    Eat sensible foods and do not stay out late partying or drinking alcohol because this will negatively impact your performance and enjoyment.
  5. Safety
    At the briefing the day before, its important to take seriously all the instructions like not drinking alcohol. Listen to the Guides and pay attention. Generally the accidents which do occur are because people are being too risky and dangerous on the slide back down.

What’s your South America or Chile highlight? Have you made another volcano climb somewhere in the world? I want hear from you! Leave me a comment below or connect with me on social media.

Sore legs and feet? Time to put your feet up in one of the many Hot Springs and natural Jacuzzi around Pucon.

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