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Volcanic ascents: cautionary tales from Villarrica 6 January 2010

Posted by admin in Chile, natural hazards, Villarrica.
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Villarrica volcano, Chile, 2 January 2010 (copyright Roberto Alarcon, POVI)

Villarrica volcano in Chile, one of the country’s most active volcanoes, is popular among walkers and climbers, who come to the Parque Nacional Villarrica to enjoy the beautiful scenery and (when Villarrica’s activity allows) the challenge of ascending the 2,847-metre volcano’s slopes. But a volcano does not have to be erupting to be dangerous, and Villarrica certainly has its dangers.

On Saturday 2 January a snow avalanche struck a party of tourists who were climbing to the summit crater, leaving one Brazilian tourist seriously injured and a number of his companions slightly hurt. The avalanche, reportedly 100 metres in width, occurred in good weather conditions and took the party (and their mountain guide) completely by surprise. This is the first time such an avalance, apparently caused by unstable snow cover slipping on the underlying ice, has caused problems at Villarrica. In response, the park authorities closed the slopes to tourists pending a detailed survey of snow and ice conditions on the volcano.

The picture above (copyright Roberto Alarcón N.), kindly submitted by Werner Keller of Proyecto Observación Volcán Villarrica (POVI), shows Villarrica on 2 January 2010 following the avalanche referred to above and two further avalanches; the scars are clearly visible in the snow. The avalanche struck the tour party at around 2000 metres a.s.l., having descended about 600 metres, accumulating loose volcanic debris on the way. The front of the avalanche lobe was 2-3 metres deep. More information can be found at the POVI website.

These latest events make an article published by the Spanish newspaper ABC at the end of December particularly timely. ‘Los israelíes y el volcán Villarrica’ is subtitled ‘the volcano holds within dozens of tragic stories’. Villarrica is the centre of ‘a real tourist bonanza’, says the article, ‘visited annually by thousands of climbers who long to conquer it’, but many are ill-prepared for the ascent: ‘”People have lost respect for the volcano,” says one of the guides who accompany the kids on their route to the summit. “They come without the things they need. They think it’s a game, then get us out to rescue them.”‘

Villarrica is a particularly popular climb among young Israelis preparing for service in the Israel Defence Forces. As one of the guides explains, ‘they mostly come without experience and with insufficient equipment. They think it is the desert and are not properly equipped’. Some have even died on Villarrica, which is why climbers heading for the summit pass a memorial to two Israelis killed while climbing the volcano in April 1987. The climbers keep coming, however, including many Israelis, put off neither by the grim memorial nor by the fact that if they do get into trouble they will be liable for the costs incurred in rescuing them.

Los israelíes y el volcán VillarricaABC, 28 December 2009
Exclusivo: Turista brasileño afectado por alud en Volcán Villarica se encuentra en buenas condiciones – Radio Bío-Bío, 3 January 2010
Suspenden ascensos al volcán Villarrica tras deslizamiento de hielo el sábado pasadoEl Austral, 5 January 2010
Amplían en 24 horas prohibición de ascender a volcán VillarricaLa Tercera, 3 January 2010

Global Volcanism Program: Villarrica – summary information for Villarrica (1507-12=)
Volcán Villarrica – information from the Observatorio Volcanológico de los Andes del Sur
SERNAGEOMIN – Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería, Chile (Spanish)
Proyecto Observación Visual Volcán Villarrica – Villarrica Visual Observation Project

The Volcanism Blog


1. Melissa Lowman - 9 January 2010

I agree…. Villarrica is a b*tch of a volcano to assent. I attempted it having NO (ZERO, Nada, Zilch) mountaineering skills or experience and thought it would be a good idea in early Feb 2008. While Llaima was erupting, and got some excellent photos of some ash belches from 2000m on Villarrica. I was suffering from a traveler’s cough and upper chest infection. Traveling with 4 graduate students from the US. The 2 boys did finish the 2800-something m to the summit and myself and another female traveler made it just beyond 2000m before coughing up blood and vomiting. Our hiking group had boots that were heavy and too large, crampons which few of us had ever used before, heavy backpacks, headlamps (we started at 4am in pitch blackness) and ice axes which we were ill prepared to use. We hiked past the ski lifts 2 feet up and sliding 1 foot down the entire way in the volcanic ash slopes. It was an amazing adventure and torture all in one. The volcano fumed at the top, puff puff puff its gas emmision that we had eyed from 20-30 miles away all week in local towns in the region.

At 2000 m looking down over the town of Pucon and the shadow of the valley below the cloudline I felt completely insane for wanting this experience. Thinking one wrong step on these steep slopes, not really knowing what I was doing, and the only thing to save me was the ice axe in my hand from sliding to my death in the event I tripped or slipped…. because our guides had informed us if we used our crampons (while sliding down the mountain) we could crack our spines and die instantly…

Never made it to the summit of that damn volcano/mountain. Thinking to myself that someday, someday I will attempt it again, after more training and more studying. But reading today what happened with the avalanche and the tourists, I’m really not surprised. We do stupid things in foreign countries because we feel invincible. Until life comes crashing down before us.

My best wishes to the victims of Villarica. My gratitude to the volcano that makes me enjoy the minor hills and valleys I live in all the much greater!!

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