Near death again - So what´s new???
11.08.2011 - 16.08.2011 0 °C
Santiago, in the current climate, it can certainly be said, is nothing short of a hot-bed of political tension. With streets awash with armed guards, riot vans, armoured vehicles and police officers, following the recent riots over education and universities, the city resembles a recovering war zone. In certain areas, especially around universities and political buildings, it´s hard to find any wall untouched by banners or graffiti. Far outnumbering the armoured vehicles and police however are the countless protests and rallies on almost every street corner. With no particular demonstation organised, it was simply a mish-mash of every type of political prostest imaginable, the largest of which, surprisingly was not related to the student riots, but was instead a march against the Bank of Chile, whose questionable practices and large profits sparked a mass strike on the day I was in Santiago. Thankfully the march proceeded without violence or issue, and instead became a relatively joyful street party, with flags, banners, horns, whistles, drums, singing, dancing, and even an appearance by a well known Chilean band, outside the main Bank of Chile in the city centre.
In addition to the Bank of Chile march, there were also protests outside commercial buildings, protests and dances demandind the liberation of the "LXS Presxs terrorists" (whoever they are??), the ongoing student protests outside the universities, with speaches, chants and piles of burning rubbish in the streets, and even marches and dances from religious groups calling for love and harmony (a little out of place and outnumbered given the surrounding situation).
As with La Paz and Lima, Santiago is a large and busy city, with the usual large and busy city sights and attractions. Also like La Paz and Lima, apart from the shops, plazas, churches and museums, there´s not a great deal to do, other than make the most of the convenience of being in a large city, with its shopping malls, restaurants, laundry services etc. In addition to the lack of amusements, it also turned out to be an expensive place to stay, with a shared local youth hostal dorm room costing over three times as much as a single, private bathroom, cable TV equiped room in Bolivia or Peru. Given that the only other options I found when arriving late in the evening were hotels which looked at me in confusion when asked the price for a night, followed by the reply "we only do special promotions for 2 or 4 hours". Ah, one of those hotels! I opted instead for the overpriced shared dorm room.
Given the lack of things to do in Santiago, I decided, possibly against better judgement, to continue heading south, booking my onward ticket to the southern lake district town of Pucon. After the complete washout that was La Serena, and the very near washout of Copiapo, both with their distinct lack of winter tourists, I was certainly apprehensive as to what would be on offer in Pucon. This worry was only made worse an hour before departure when I read online that winters in Pucon are generally cold, wet, miserable and windy, with little to do other than pay large amounts of money for skiing or snowboarding trips. Imagine my surprise then when I arrived at dawn the following morning to crystal clear skies, relatively warm temperatures and striking views of the nearby smoldering volcano Villarrica.
Having arrived slightly too late to join a tour ascending the volcano that day, I instead opted to sign up for the following day and despite having had no sleep on the overnight bus from Santiago, still chose to hire a mountain bike and head out into the surrounding countryside. Armed with a very roughly drawn map from the hostal, I decided to follow a dirt trail along the side of the mountains towards a nearby lake and beaches. Unfortunately the map, although marked with distances for certain roads, did not have distances for all of the ones I would be taking, and therefore, the 12km journey I had planned ended up stretching out for 25km.
The main problem with riding 25km up and down mountain roads after an overnight bus trip with no sleep, is the prospect of riding back 25km, up and down mountain roads, still with no sleep and getting more and more tired by the minute. It´s also a good idea to point out for fellow travellers, that if you reach "Black Beach" at Lake Caburgua, and then decide to ride the extremely steep 2km road to "White Beach", you should probably come back the same way you arrived, even if the thought of pushing your bike up any more steep hills seems like a bad idea at the time. I instead chose not to come back along the main road but to try and make it around the lake with my bike, knowing that the shore line would at least be flat, not wanting to contemplate any more hills. This turned out to be a massive mistake, as I rounded the first corner and the landscape quickly changed from stable flat sand to extreme rocky outcroppings. Having come so far already, and with Black Beach in sight in the distance, I continued, forced to carry the bike over my shoulder for much of the way, rock-climbing precariously across the shore. Once again, as with many times on this trip, I received several amazed and confused glances from the locals as I appeared out of nowhere, walking along the beach, with a mountain bike over my shoulder.
The following morning, far too early for my liking, and legs still aching from the 50km bike trip the day before, I headed out in the darkness to the volcano climbing agency. Due to a slight mix up the day before, I almost ended up carrying a snowboard up the steep volcano for the trecherous descent, despite explaining that I´d never snowboarded before. Thankfully this mix up was corrected and my snowboard was promptly replaced with a small plastic tray, kind of like a frisbee with a handle, for the inexperienced traveller´s descent. I was also equipped with a thick woolen hat, hard hat, snow gloves, jacket, waterproof trousers, shoes and ankle protectors. As there was only one other man, a 60 year old Brazilian, booked on the tour from my agency, we were linked up with another tour agency who also only had two people. We left slightly late due to the guides studying the weather conditions and checking the summit of the volcano with a large telescope, all the while giving unreassuring huffs and shakes of the head. Despite their uncertainty, we decided to drive to the base of the volcano in order to check the weather conditions better from there. We were then told that it was unlikely, given the amount of cloud cover, that we would be able to reach the summit, but we were given the option to try (with no refund if we were forced to turn back). All four of us quickly decided that it would be a shame not to attempt it and agreed to the conditions to see how far we could climb.
It became obvious very early on that the Brazilian man from my tour agency was struggling, lagging behind after just 15 minutes of fairly flat walking. I was grateful that I was allowed to stick with the guide and two people from the other agency, especially when after a further 15 minutes we got a radio call from my guide advising that he was heading back down to the base with the Brazilian. The three of us remaining then continued on with our guide, who seemed like a hiking machine, never stopping and never slowing. Despite telling us that we would stop every 40 minutes for a break, we continued on, passing a couple of other groups, for over two hours before our first food and drink break. By this time we had caught up with the front two groups, one comprising three Americans and a guide, the other a young couple with their own private guide. We also aquired a large German Shepherd dog from somewhere, even though no one knew where it had come from or who it belonged to.
During the majority of the climb the sky was cloudy and visibility was almost non-existent. This caused the guides much distress and prompted several more huffs and shakes of the head. Regardless, we continued on. Finally, upon reaching a large ridge, the clouds broke and the sun came shining through, all to the cheers of three remaining groups. Suddenly having a view of the surrounding landscape, and seeing the smoke belching summit for the first time, gave us renewed vigour and we set off, confident in the fact that the weather would clear and that we would undoubtedly reach the top.
It was shortly after this, on the steeper than ever climb towards the summit, that things quickly took a turn for the worse. Almost instantly the wind changed direction and began blasting the clouds up the side of the volcano, reducing the visibility to zero. Struggling to even see the people in front, and not able to make out their tracks in the icy snow ahead, we still continued on for nearly an hour, desperately clinging on to the hope we had all shared earlier when the sun appeared on the ridge. Unfortunately this hope quickly vanished as the wind became ferocious and the snow began to get whipped around us in a complete white-out blizzard.
The young couple and their guide had been lost further back, behind the white curtain of snow, for some time and had possibly made the decision to return far earlier, thus leaving the three of us with our guide and the three Americans with theirs. We decided for safety reasons that both groups should stick together. The guides then quickly came to the decision that it was foolish to continue and that we would not be reaching the summit in such bad weather. We were instructed to stop and put on all out extra layers and waterproof clothing for the descent. At this exact moment, almost as if the volcano was angered at our decision not to continue, the wind picked up intensity once more, the temperature dropped dramatically, and a fine hail of snow began whipping around us in all directions. Unfortunately I was unaware that my waterproof trousers came with a velcro side (to enable you to put them on over large snow boots) so I was forced to remove my gloves and take my shoes off in order to put the trousers on. In this brief five minutes my hands literally froze solid, feeling like lumps of rock at the end of my arms, with no movement or feeling in them whatsoever. I don´t know how long it takes for frostbite to set in, but I can now understand how easily it can happen. Suddenly unable to do anything with my hands, I had to ask for help just getting the gloves back on and fastening all the buckles and straps on my safety equipment. Meanwhile, the dog, who had continued to follow us up the entire time, had moved off to one side and curled into an unmoving, snow covered ball. We all rushed over in alarm, thinking that perhaps it had died, or at the very least that it would not make it much longer in the freezing conditions. Luckily it was still lightly breathing, although still unmoving, and we all took it in turns to curl up next to it to try and give it what little warmth we could offer.
Visibility of the people walking directly ahead
It was then time for our descent and, armed with our plastic boards which were safely tied around our waists, we began shooting down the mountainside, into the blinding white fog before us. It was obvious fairly quickly that going down so fast was not a good idea, as each person immediately lost sight of the person in front, and we all ended up shooting off in different directions. The guide saw what was happening and called us to a halt, however he too had gone too far, and the wrong way, and was now hopelessly lost in the total white out. With loud calls through the howling wind and mist we all managed to regroup and were told by the guide that we would have to head back up the hill until he reached a landmark or area he could recognise. This is when things really started going wrong. With an almost vertical climb, and a panicked guide who was more eager to find out where he was than worry about the people he was with, the group began to get more and more stretched. It wasn´t long before one girl was dangerously lagging behind, swaying and wobbling with every step, unable to keep up with the ridiculous pace of the frightened guide. I was torn, as I could only just see her through the blizzard behind me, and was quickly losing sight of the rest of the group in front of me, and knew that if any of us completely lost sight of the others, with the howling wind swallowing up all sounds and the snow making visibility non-existent, there was possibly little chance of finding one another again. I tried to call out to the group ahead but the extreme cold had numbed my face so much that intelligable speech was impossible, rendering me incapable of making any B, M or P sounds. As the Spanish words for "stop", "wait" and "slow" all have P in them, I was reduced to shouting "Hey" over and over again, hoping that someone would hear me and get the hint. Thankfully they seemed to understand the message and stopped so that we could all regroup. Despite this, the guide continued to leave us in the windswept blizzard while he went off looking for signs of where we were, while we sat alone, huddling close, taking turns to hug the shivering dog, wondering when or if the guide would ever return.
After what seemed an eternity of uphill climbing, reaching icier ground by the minute, the inevitable happened, and while we were once again stretched out, the girl, and a guy helping her at the back, slid on the ice and came to a crumpled heap, leaving me once again in the dilemma of either going back and helping (thus loosing sight of the guide and people in front), running ahead and telling the others what had happened (thus loosing sight of the fallen behind), or staying where I was and keeping an eye on both groups (hoping that nobody was seriously hurt, but not really doing anything to help). In the end I opted for the first choice and went back to see if the fallen were ok, and when I saw that they were just a little bruised and shaken, I rushed forward to keep an eye on where the others had stopped further ahead. It was lucky that I did, as when the two people behind got back up and began climbing again, they started heading off in completely the wrong direction and had to be called back before they disappeared into the whiteness forever. It´s strange how a complete whiteout can play tricks on your mind. With no reference points whatsoever, your brain begins making them up, seeing things when there´s nothing there to see, convincing you there´s a drop or a mound or a ridge when in fact there´s nothing at all, telling you that you´re going up hill, even though your legs are clearly walking downhill, easily getting disorientated and not knowing which way is up, down, left or right. It´s a very peculiar experience, and one that is hard to put into words, and probably harder to understand by anyone who hasn´t been in a similar situation. I also have to say that the howling wind and stinging gritty snow striking my face, was the coldest I have ever been in my life, thinking that my face may very well fall off through cold. In fact it was so cold that ice crystals were forming everywhere, not only covering every item of clothing, but also every exposed part of my face, turning my appearence into that of a true artic explorer. What´s more, despite our extreme exhaustion, we had no available water as every 2lt bottle we owned had already turned into a solid block of ice. Eventually we all made it back together again, for this, the only photo of the entire ordeal, due to my camera being tucked below countless layers of waterproof clothing, and my video camera (from which this was taken) malfunctioning through extreme cold after just one picture. To be fair though, as you read on you will understand why stopping to take photos was the last thing on any of our minds.
It was at this point that the guide finally accepted the fact that he wasn´t going to find the landmarks he had been searching for and that the only sensible option was to head down, wherever that may lead. At first this was a fun experience, as the snow was deep enough to allow us some grip, while being icy enough to allow us to slide (like skiing without skis), even giving us the chance to sit down and skid through the snow on our sides. Not knowing what lay ahead, we always made sure that we let the guide go first, so at the point when he disappeared over a hidden cliff, we would have enough time to stop our sliding and avoid a similar fate. This may sound dramatic, however it was only 10 minutes later that we stopped sliding for a while and suddenly noticed steep cliffs to one side, unimaginably close to where we had just been descending, and unseen by anyone, even the guide. It was also becoming increasingly steep and icy, and we were once again forced to walk in single file, trying desperately to follow the grooves of eachothers footsteps. In the lead was the guide, holding the hand of the girl who was still unsteady on her feet, followed by me, and then the rest of the group. Imagine my horror when a few steps further on I suddenly see the guide slip on the near vertical sheet of ice, dragging the girl down with him, and sliding uncontrollably towards the white nothingness below. Immediately he dug his ice pick into the ground and came to a grinding halt, still holding onto the girl who tried desperately not to move or slip free of his grasp. I watched as he struggled to get a foothold on the solid ice, but a moment later the ice gave way and with incredible speed and a sudden gasp they both disappeared from sight. I´ll never forget the look that passed between the rest of us as we wondered what the hell we were supposed to do now. A couple of moments silence passed as we stared off into the gloom, until finally a disembodied and distant voice rose from the mist below telling us that they were unharmed and that we would have to follow them down as there was no way for them to return. To say we were apprehensive would be a gross understatement, however we had no choice and so lying flat to the ice and digging our ice picks as deeply into the surface as we could, we began gouging our way down the steep, icy incline. It wasn´t long before the ice thickened and the guy in front of me lost his grip on it and disappeared from sight. A moment later my ice pick did exactly the same and I slid uncontrollably after him. Appearing suddenly below me, clinging desperately to the ice, I saw the danger that lay ahead, as he had just managed to stop above a cluster of large jagged rocks and steep drops. Knowing instinctively that if I did not do the same, I would not only slide directly into the rocky outcropping, but would also knock him over the edge as well. Turning, I quickly forced my ice pick into the ice with all the strength I had. The sudden and jolting halt nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket, however I had stopped, just one meter above the cowering guy below me. The problem I now faced was that the sheer ice gave no form of foot hold, so I remained dangling on the end of my ice pick, unable to take it out without falling to my probable death. Thankfully the guy below me had one foot on fairly stable ground and was able to dig his ice pick into the surface above his head, which I could then used as a foothold, giving me the oportunity to wrench my ice pick free and gradually move across, away from the dangerous rocks below. During this entire ordeal, we completely forgot about the other three people about to come plummeting down on top of us and looked up to see them already beginning their descent. Thankfully we managed to call out to them to stop before they hit the icy patch that had perviously claimed the two of us, thus avoiding the entire group crashing down onto the rocky cliffs below. Gradually we all worked our way across, away from the impending danger, only to suddenly start a mini avalanche in which we all got caught up, knocking each other (domino style) down the steep incline, until we all ended up tumbling in a crumpled heap of ice and snow to the waiting guide below.
At this point we thought we had passed the worst of what was to come, only to shortly find out that we hadn´t. If we thought that the steep slope we had just crashed down was bad, it was nothing compared to the funnel shaped slope in front of us, with steep high ridges either side, which began with an almost vertically descent, before disappearing over a sheer drop into the impenetrable mist below. Once again the low visibility meant that we had no idea what lay beyond the drop, or how far down it went. The only thing I can say for certain is that none of us wanted to find out. The guide pointed out that the only way around was to traverse the edge of a steep ridge, where we could then descend the slope the other side, which was only slightly less terrifying. The only problem was, to get around this ridge, we had to get precariously close to the funnel slide (and drop to certain death). It was at this point that the guide confirmed all our fears by stopping us and telling us in no uncertain terms, to go extremely slowly and only step in his footsteps, and not to place one foot outside of them. He mentioned using a rope but quickly changed his mind, probably due to the fact that the fround was so icy that one fallen person would probably result in seven fallen people. Somehow I ended up being the first to follow and it was soon obvious that the grooves he was making with his shoes were not big enough for the rest of us, as with the very first step I took, my foot slipped out of the groove and I fell onto my face, immediately sliding down towards the perilous drop. Instinctively I threw the end of my ice pick into the ice and once again the jolt nearly pulled my arm clean off, so much so that I lost the grip on the top of the ice pick and was left with the terrifying thought that if I don´t hold on to the handle, there will be nothing to stop me falling straight into the void below. All the while, the haunting words of the Lonely Planet guide, which I´d read just moments before beginning the trip, echoed in my mind: "Disreputable outfitters in Pucon have caused accidents resulting in injury and even death". Unbelievably, with thick gloves and numb fingers, I still managed to grip the handle firm enough, and hold my entire weight for long enought, to reach up and get a grip back onto the top of the ice pick. With sheer ice beneath me, there was no way to get a foothold and so it was left to the guide to reach down and help me struggle back up. If this wasn´t bad enough, the girl who was behind me did the exact same thing and was only saved by the guide who grabbed her arm as she fell, and then began yelling at her not to move as we all helped to pull her back up. Images of several films suddenly flashed to mind, as someone walks along a dangerous ridge, takes one wrong step and the ground crumbles beneath them and they fall, only to be saved by a belt buckle or the tips of their fingers, dangling dangerously over a deep and impenetrable chasm.
Once around the ridge I saw the slope we would have to go down and wasn´t in the slightest bit reassured. What made matters worse was the fact that there was not enough room on our side of the ridge for the entire group, and as the guide had to stay at the top to help everyone around the precarious ledge, he told me that I would have to head down the slope first, to make room for the others. My incredulous reply was "Me? Down there? First?". Unfortunately the only other person on my side of the ridge was the girl who´d nearly fallen to her death only moments before, and with a quick glance into her frightened eyes I decided that there was no other choice. Although the slope looked clear of jagged rocks or dangerous drops, the poor visibility meant that I could only see the first 20m of it, and with no idea what lay beyond, or whether I would be able to stop in time if some hidden danger lurked beyond the mist, I had to swallow my fears and face the slide down. Once again lying flat to the ice, with the ice pick firmly imbedded into the ground, gounging yet another deep groove down the mountain side, I flew off down the steep hill. It wasn´t long before I hit thick ice and lost control again, tumbling feet first, at incredible speed, straight into an invisible mound of snow further down the hill, effectively stopping my descent. I looked up just in time to see the girl come hurtling down towards me, also without any way of slowing, and almost in slow motion tried to hold out my hand to her as she sailed on by. Again reminding me of many films, the ends of our gloves barely touching, our arms not quite long enough to reach each other, and with a terrified look in her eyes she flew past me, only to slam into a similar mound of snow further down. This story of uncontrolled descent followed by snowy crash landing was similar for all those who came down after us.
We continued walking for a long time after this in knee high snow, occasionally getting to use our boards when the snow levelled out and the ice became firmer. Once again we were lucky as the guide shouted to us to stop sliding just in time to see that we not only had a dangerous cliff on one side of us, but also a dangerous cliff on the other. Unknowingly, we had been sliding happily on a very narrow ridge of snow, with steep and dangerous drops either side. Carefully (by which I mean a careful start followed by an uncontolled crash landing finish) we descended one of these steep drops, at which point we suddenly began to hear the whirr of distant chairlifts. Renewed with hope that we were approaching civilisation again, we continued out trek though the thick snow. As it turned out, the chairlifts were a lot further away than we had anticipated, and certainly further away than they sounded, however we finally climbed one final ridge, and suddenly before us, in the valley below, the ski resort, with all its happy, unaware skiers and snowboarders, enjoying the blizzarding conditions. Finally, after 4 hours of climbing up the volcano, and 5 hours trying to descend, like a group of eskimo refugees, ice picks slung over our shoulders, hard hats and waterproofs, countless layers of ice encrusted clothing, we trudged through the posh resort of happy skiers, exhausted and oblivious to the many curious stares, towards our waiting vehicle. It was only at this point that the guide finally admitted that in all his years of experience, he has never been so lost or so close to disaster as he was on this trip. When asked his thoughts about the trip, he simply said "let´s just call it a valuable experience".
Our final steps
Although facing the possibility of injury or even death, looking back on the whole experience, I have to admit that it was one of the most incredible of my life. Never have I been so cold, so disorientated, so tired, so near to a near fatal accident, and yet I wouldn´t give up the experience for anything in the world. Despite the group who went the day before showing off their amazing views and crater photos, I wouldn´t have exchanged trips for a moment. It will certainly go down as a major highlight of the trip, if not my life.
P.S. The dog survived and followed us all the way to the car park, where it jumped about happily, seemingly full of life again!