We walked around to various stores, buying fresh meat, veggies, and bread, asking store owners if they’d ever climbed the volcano or knew anyone that had. All of them seemed to agree that it wasn’t possible to climb it at this time of year and nobody was sure if a trail existed or where it was. A little daunted in spirit, but not having given up, I happened to strike up a conversation with a high-school-aged kid that was drinking beers down by the river. He painted a more optimistic view of our prospects, “Of course its possible to climb it, I did it just last summer and the trail is right over there!” He pointed off into the distance and smiles spread across our faces. We knew that the following day would be our only weather window for quite a while, so we decided to pack all of our bags that evening and try for the summit the following day.
It took us a while to figure out that he wasn’t the park ranger and we told him of our intentions to ski the volcano. Deciphering his Spanish was truly a challenge, but he was concerned about the wind, saying that it would be too strong on top of the volcano. He also kept saying something about the top of the trail, but he was using an adjective I wasn’t familiar with and I couldn’t quite figure it out. The best I could tell, the top of the trail still wasn’t quite ‘ready’ or ‘clean’, and I was figuring that perhaps some trees had fallen across it during the winter months. We eventually parted ways, likely both a bit confused, and we continued up the trail that lead to the ‘park’. Along the way, we passed a lumberjack carrying a big axe on his shoulder and nodded our greetings. I remarked to Jess that it was pretty cool that people could still make a living in this day and age with an axe and their bare hands. A pair of sleek black cattle dogs trotted along at his heels.
After a quarter mile of following the trail to the ‘park’, it became clear that this trail was heading away from the volcano, not towards it. We decided to loop back and ask for some more advice from our mulleted amigo. The two dogs announced our arrival and A.C. popped out of his cottage with the lumberjack fellow we’d passed before and started reiterating that the trail wasn’t ready. I figured that a trail, no matter what condition it was in, would be a piece of cake compared with the bushwhacking I’d done over the course of the last few months and asked if we could give it a shot despite the condition of the trail. They then made us a proposition – they’d lead us a little way up the trail for 25,000 pesos – about $40 USD per person. “To the snow line?” I tried to clarify. No they said, not that far. This didn’t seem like much of a bargain to me – shouldn’t the trail be free, I wondered? I knew 25,000 pesos would be equivalent to several days work for these guys, and I didn’t want to be rude, but I felt like they were fleecing the gringos. “Can’t you just point us in the right direction?” I asked innocently. The lumberjack relented to 10,000 pesos per person and we decided to bite. The conversation, which had been quite formal and strained up until this point suddenly became jovial and friendly. We handed over the cash and we started making our way up the hillside.
The lumberjack led the way, axe over shoulder, Jess and I carrying all of our ski gear in the middle, and old A.C. Slater brought up the rear with a machete and some instrument that looked like a scythe. As we wound our way up through cow pastures and into the woods, I started wondering just what we were getting ourselves into. My spidey sense told me these guys were good guys, but it definitely felt a little dubious being escorted by these armed Chilean guys who were obviously built of tougher stock than we were. I struck up a conversation with the lumberjack, whose Spanish was entirely less accented than his friend’s and it was at this point that we realized that the trail wasn’t in the park, but instead wound up through their private land. He’d lived there his entire life, was of mixed german ancestry, and when he wasn’t lumbering, he served as caretaker for a wealthy Italian guy that had a mansion hidden in the woods.
The trail was going in exactly the right direction, straight up the volcano, and as we ascended the forest got more and more dense, the trail less and less clear. Our ski tips were getting caught on occasional branches and our ski boots clanked around on our backs. There were several junctions where the route wasn’t exactly clear (rather more like a maze, I’d say), but the lumberjack knew exactly where he was going and his dogs obviously had been up the trail before as well. I asked him as much as I could about the rest of the climb and what the trail looked like. Apparently there are fewer side trails further up the hillside. He also mentioned that another woman around the other side of the mountain would guide tourists to the top in the summer for 25,000 pesos and she apparently had some sort of trail as well. What a great bargain we’ve struck, I think to myself – little did I know what kind of sufferfest we’d gotten ourselves into.
After perhaps 45 minutes of uphilling with these guys, we busted through some dense thicket and came upon an old lava flow cutting down through the forest. Parts of it were overgrown with forest, but some parts had been thoroughly scoured by a creek that was all dried up when we arrived. “Perfect,” I think, “We just need to continue following this lava flow, it’ll surely bring us to the top!” Our ‘guides’ said that its only 'perhaps' 2 more hours to snowline up the lava flow and wished us luck, and went back to return to their work down in the pastures. Jess and I shifted around our loads, striped off a layer (as the sun had gotten quite warm by this hour), and started working our way up the lava flow in earnest. No photos exist of the next six hours of my life, but I can assure you the memory of that bushwhack will forever be burned into my memory.
From the point where the guides dropped us off, the trail immediately become much more dense. It was so narrow and un-trafficked that any opening between trees could be the proper route and it took us a while to decide which way we ought to go. The openings that I expected from the stream that wound down the lava flow disappeared in some places and at other times the trail diverges from from the stream for no apparent reason. At some points, the trees above us were so low that we literally had to crawl on our stomachs to shimmy through. It would have been slow going even without skis, boots, and camera gear on our backs, and we were making rather pitiful progress.
Certain parts of the trail turned into loose basalt scree and then all of a sudden the open scree field would turn into a cliff that required a little bit of rock climbing to get around. At one such cliff, Jess started wondering whether she was really game for this adventure or not. I reckoned it was a good spot to stop for lunch and with the benefit of some food in our bellies and plenty of daylight left, she decided to continue up. Our skis continued to be attacked by branches and vines on all sides and we stopped again to redistribute gear a bit which helped our speed and lowered our consternation considerably. The trail was little more than a whisper at this point and in some places it was really more like a low tunnel than anything. It felt like we were ascending through an enormous living game of chutes and ladders, except there were no ladders and we had to climb up the chutes instead of sliding down them.
After another hour or two of climbing, Jess seemed to find some sort of steely resolve that had been buried deep down inside her and stopped questioning the insanity of continuing. While it was definitely a heinous climb, I’ve got some sort of masochistic love for this sort of thicketeering and I felt rather ‘at home’ in these woods. Around 2pm I checked my gps and found that we only had perhaps a half mile of bushwhacking left until we hit snowline. The closer we got to the top, the more the hiking turned into rock climbing, with plenty of awkward mantles (not easy with a couple pairs of skis on your back), and nothing but vines and scrub brush to hold on with. In a few zones, waterfalls totally obscured the path and we were forced to climb up scrubby trees to bypass them. Patches of snow eventually started to show up, hidden in the shadows from the previous week’s storm. Loose, chossy scree rounded out the scene.
The last couple hundred yards were particularly heinous, but snowline was finally in sight, peeking through the shrubbery here and there like a shy girl at a middle school dance. As our boots finally sunk into the long-awaited crunch of snow, Jess looked up at me and the grimaces we’d worn all morning finally gave way to smiles. We’d made it. Snow was familiar. The rest would be easy.
Jess and I traded leads during the boot up and were pleased to find that the snow was stable and soft. At this point, Jess was totally focused and we decided to take the risk of walking back in the dark if it meant getting to stand on top of this nasty rascal of a volcano.
Light was finally fading as we arrived back to the pasture country surrounding the lumberjack’s house. The two cattle dogs broadcasted the presence of two strange creatures emerging from the woods and our two ‘guides’ were immediately hurrying over to us. I’m sure we looked like a couple of absolute lunatics after all the bushwhacking we’d done and they looked us over with wide eyes. After the exceptional amount of time it’d taken, they feared we were hurt or dead and they were really relieved to see that we were unscathed. We mentioned that the trail was a bit rougher than we’d expected (which was met with knowing grins), and they seemed a bit astonished that we’d actually made it to the summit.
We bid them farewell and started trundling our way back down the road towards town. After a couple of miles of star gazing and slow walking, some friendly folks driving in our direction stopped to pick us up in a small sedan (despite the fact that we looked like a couple of dirty yetis) and we packed all of our ski stuff on top of ourselves in the back seat. They were kind enough to drop us directly at the dock and we quickly motored our way back across the fjord.
As I stripped off all my ski gear in the cockpit of the Rascal, I found there was an incredible amount of plant matter, rocks, and volcanic dirt lodged in my hair, my boots, my pack, and my clothes. It felt like the mountain had become a part of me and I’d become a part of the mountain too. Jess and I left a lot of blood, sweat, and tears behind on that volcano and it felt like an incredible accomplishment to be able to finally check it off the list after staring up at it for so many months from the fjords below. Mission accomplished!