There are a few things that I wish the tour operators, my 6-year old Lonely Planet, and random strangers or the internet had told me before sauntering up Volcan Villarica last week. Granted, I was extremely lucky to talk to some great people in my hostel that gave me some good advice, but frankly, this information needs to be in print somewhere. So here you go - as a virgin mountaineer, these are the top 7 things I wish I´d known before strapping on a helmet and picking up an ice axe:
- Don´t even think about climbing Villarrica if you have so much as a slight fear of heights. I have never been afraid of heights, but the sheer grade of the mountain at many points gave me a bit of a start. I willed myself not to look down unless I was sitting. And even then, it could be a little dizzying.
- You don´t need previous mountaineering experience, but you do have to be in good shape to make the climb. This is no stroll on a wooded path. The hills are not alive with the sound of music, and kittens are not up there pooping rainbows. This is a steep, sometimes treacherous climb on snow and ice, and it takes 6 hours just to get to the summit. So if you think 6 hours on a stairmaster will kill you, then so will this volcano.
- Don´t believe travel guides that say the climb isn´t technical. If you´re an experienced mountaineer, then yeah, it probably isn´t technical for you. But for someone like me that didn´t see more than a dusting of snow until high school and runs and bikes on flat ground back on the east coast, an excursion requiring crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet IS technical. Or maybe I´m just a gargantuan chicken. I´m ok with that.
- Take twice as much water as your tour operator tells you to. All the operator websites I looked at prior to the climb said to bring 1.5 liters of water. That´s crap. Bring at least 3. I drank 2.5 liters during the climb and STILL got a headache from not drinking enough fluids. Drink some every time you sit down, whether you feel thirsty or not.
- You will not need to drop trou to relieve yourself. It´s a non-issue because you won´t drink enough water (see above). Trust me.
- Bring high SPF sunscreen with you, and reapply every time you sit down. I was fortunate enough to receive this advice from a great group of guys in my hostel the day before my climb. A couple of them reapplied sunscreen 5-7 times and still ended up with red faces. I would never have thought I would have needed to put on sunscreen that often. I got lucky and ended up with nothing more than a pink-ish nose.
- Research your tour operators ahead of time. I did this before I left the US simply because I´m anal, but not all tour operators operate equally. I found Paredon Expeditions online, and they have set an amazing standard of safety, service, and satisfaction. While I wasn´t able to climb with them in the end (they didn´t have the minimum number of people needed to make the climb that day), the effort they put into helping me find a operator to climb with simply floored me. I would climb Villarrica again just to go with Paredon because I was so impressed. They´re also more expensive, but your life is on the line, and I think that´s worth an extra $30, don´t you?