It was 6.30am, the sun was rising and the beacons dotted around Pucón shone green.
This small town in the foothills of the Andes in southern Chile is under constant threat from Villarrica, one of the country’s most active volcanoes. The red-amber-green volcano lights are a warning system to locals. Turn red and the town’s inhabitants run for high ground, a drill practiced twice a year.
The green light gave us the signal to climb the snow-covered volcano, despite the smoke belching out of the top. It was safe – to a point. The previous night there was an unusually heavy snowfall that our guide, Joaquin, warned would make the ascent difficult. “Today isn’t going to be easy. We may have to turn back before we reach the summit,” he said.
With snow boots, crampons and ice picks we began our climb with a burst of excited energy. The novelty of climbing an active volcano, the contrast between the cloudless blue sky and the snow reflecting the morning sun, and the stunning views of the Andes spurred us on.
But Joaquin warned that the depth of the snow – up to 2 metres – meant that we needed to be disciplined and climb with a slow metronomical rhythm. We soon understood why. The gradient steepened. We waved goodbye to a group of climbers who had had enough and turned back, exhausted from the effort of the deep snow.
We pressed on. The rhythm of the climb was hypnotic. Chatter about the surroundings petered out, replaced by private tunes rattling around our heads matched to the rhythm of our boots scrunching in the snow.
We were jolted out of this trance as we reached the final section of the climb: a 45-degree push to the summit. On all fours and jabbing with the ice pick we crawled up the dizzying slope, breathing deeply the thin oxygen mixed with carbon and sulphur dioxide coming from the volcano in five-minute bursts.
Then we reached the 2,847m summit. We had arrived. Our breathlessness replaced by exhilaration, a double treat of arresting views of the Andes’ spine to our left and the deep foreboding 200m-diameter crater to our right.
The cold air and the toxic gases meant that we could spend just ten minutes at the summit. Joaquin summoned us for another pep talk. As I was climbing the 45-degree slope I had fretted about how we would get down; now I would learn how. Joaquin produced what look liked a plastic tea tray and showed me how to clip it to my trousers; we were to slide down the volcano. What had taken us more than five hours to climb took us just over an hour to descend. And we were off – whoosh – as we slid down the side of this extraordinary tectonic marvel.