How to climb a South American volcano

There is something magical about volcanoes. In the mind’s eye, their ice-frosted peaks rise perfect and cylindrical, topped with cotton-wool wisps of white smoke like the mystical mountains of fairy tales.

There is something magical about volcanoes. In the mind’s eye, their ice-frosted peaks rise perfect and cylindrical, topped with cotton-wool wisps of white smoke like the mystical mountains of fairy tales.

They embody an awe-inspiring power; even when they are dormant we imagine them cloaked with mantles of fiery lava, cannoning rocks and spewing mushrooming clouds of ash. And climbing a volcano holds a special satisfaction: when you arrive at the top, you can not only marvel at the bird’s eye view all around, but also at the chilling view inside the mountain.

The young geology of the Andes – the mountain range that runs along the western coast of South America – is pocked with snow-capped volcanic cones. While many are breathtakingly high, several have the gradually inclined slopes of the imagined volcano, offering non-technical routes to aspiring volcano-baggers. Although these high-altitude mountains should not be taken lightly – summiting them demands the proper equipment, acclimatisation and usually a professional guide – anyone who is physically fit and mentally tough can climb them.

El Misti, Peru – 5,822m
This is the classic first-time volcano-bagger’s peak. Just outside the city of Arequipa in southern Peru, El Misti rears high above its parched surroundings as a perfect volcanic cone. This is still an active volcano – it last erupted in 1985. Contract a guide in Arequipa to transport you by 4x4 to the base of the mountain, from where it is a two-day hike to the top, with an airy camp at 4,500m on the mountain’s gravel-strewn slopes. From here, set off in the dark to summit before midday, then it is a fast, sliding descent down chutes of fine ash and scree. El Misti is best climbed between July and November when there is the least amount of snow and the views are clearest. There is no permanent ice cap, making this a straightforward trek on rock and shifting volcanic ash, though an ice axe and crampons may be needed in a snowy season. Near the summit is a sulphurous yellow crater with bubbling mud and volcanic fumaroles hissing gas.

Ampato, Peru – 6,248m
Situated in remote, dry country 100km northwest of Arequipa, dormant Ampato is perhaps best known as the last resting place of the Ice Maiden, the Inca child whose mummified body was discovered by archaeologists near the volcano’s peak in 1995. Most Ampato summiteers make it to the peak in three or four days round trip from Arequipa, camping at 5,000m and 5,500m to aid acclimatisation. Both the altitude and the terrain make this climb a little more complicated than El Misti; there is some glacier travel and some scrambling to the summit ridge, so contracting a guide is advisable: Pablo Tour has an excellent reputation. Trek highlights include camping in the empty desert dryness (you will need to carry extra water on parts of this route) and the incredible views of the surrounding plains and the Cordillera Ampato – the Ampato mountain range which is a sub-range of the Andes . This includes the active volcano Sabancaya (5,976m), which may be fuming gently as you climb.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador ­– 5,897m
Although this volcano lies close to the equator, Cotopaxi’s imposing height puts this mountain’s head in the clouds often enough to give it a permanent cap of ice and snow. In fact, this is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes: its last major eruption was in 1903, and seismic activity on the mountain was noted as recently as 2002. The centrepiece of the beautiful, alpine Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, the volcano is one of the most climbed in Latin America; most get to the summit and back in a two-day trip. A gravel road goes to 4,600m, and a cold, cramped night is spent at the refugio (mountain hut) at 4,800m. Bring earplugs (it can be noisy sleeping amongst all the other trekkers) and a down sleeping bag and jacket as temperatures plummet once the sun sets. The summit day begins in headlamp light at 1 am, when a line of trekkers kicks crampon spikes into the crunchy snow and trudge slowly to the peak, hoping to summit at dawn. Outfitters in Quito, about 75km south of Cotopaxi, offer all manner of Cotopaxi climbs, often combined with mountain biking, horse riding and hiking or camping in the park. But the best place to stay, acclimatise, arrange your climb and enjoy the wonderful Ecuadorian estancia (ranch) ambience is Hacienda El Porvenir, set in the sparse, high country just outside the park.

Chimborazo, Ecuador – 6,267m
This volcano is wilder, bigger, remoter, colder and windier than Cotopaxi. In fact, because of its location just one degree south of the equator where the Earth’s crust is thickest, Chimborazo is the world’s highest mountain if measured from the planet’s centre – taller, by this measure, than Everest. Located in southwestern Ecuador, 30km southeast of the city of Riobamba, dormant Chimborazo rises out of the high altitude grassland known as puna, where sheep and wild vicuñas graze – though glaciers shroud the mountain’s peak. The summit takes two to three days round trip from the Whymper Refuge – a simple lodge where you can spend the night at 5,000m. However, climbs are often disrupted by bad weather, and waiting for a weather window can take many days. Chimborazo is a more technical climb than Cotopaxi, but several companies, including Mountain Madness, offer guided treks as well as mountaineering training, making its peak an exhilarating, but attainable challenge, even to mountain novices.

Parinacota, Bolivia/Chile border – 6,348m
Straddling the border between Sajama National Park in Bolivia and Lauca National Park in Chile, this mountain is one of two photogenic volcano “twins”, known as Los Cerros de Payachata. Though Parinacota has not been active in its recent history, it is still considered potentially active, rather than dormant. With slopes inclined at a consistent 35 degrees, Parinacota’s flanks offer routes on rock, snow and ice, which require crampons and an ice axe but do not demand much technical mountain ability. One unpredictable feature of Parinacota is the snow formation known as penitentes, thin, icy spires that can grow several metres tall and can make progress difficult, or even impossible by blocking the usual climbing routes. Reputable guides can advise of current conditions on the mountain and can arrange the logistics of getting you to the summit. Both the Bolivian capital of La Paz, 300km to the north, or Arica on the Chilean coast, 180km to the west, are possible starting points for a Parinacota climb. La Paz is possibly the better option because it is located at an altitude of 3,650m, so that you can start your altitude acclimatisation here. The rewards of this three-day up-and-back climb are the incredible views over the dry altiplano and a thrilling peek into the ice-crusted craters of these volcano twins.

Villarica, Chile – 2,847 m
This volcano does not offer the rarefied, high altitude challenge of those listed above, but it is one of the most active in the Andes, so chances are you may see plumes of volcanic gasses and even some lava. Though this mountain is not significantly lofty, at 39 degrees south of the equator it is sufficiently cold to support 40sqkm of glacier. Villarica, and the eponymous national park that surrounds it, are close enough to the town of Pucón that trekkers can make it to the summit and back in one day, meaning you can stay somewhere luxurious like the beautiful lakeside spa Aldea Naukana, before and after your assault on the volcano. In winter (May to November) the slopes of Villarica become a ski resort with excellent off-piste touring on the volcano’s flanks. Guides like Sur Expediciones in Pucón, and also your hosts at Aldea Naukana, offer winter skiing and summer trekking to the summit of the Villarica, volcanic activity permitting.

Ojos del Salado, Chile/Argentina border – 6,893m
This is the monster: the highest volcano on Earth, rising out of the grey moonscape of the Atacama Desert. Volcanic activity on Ojos del Salado has been as recent as 1994 – and sulphuric acid fumes still sometimes waft around its peaks. The mountain can be climbed from either country. From Copiapó on the Chilean side, it is possible, in theory – conditions permitting, and if the vehicle you contract can handle it – to travel by 4x4 as high as 5,800m. In 2007, a Chilean expedition on the mountain reached the highest altitude ever attained by motorised vehicle: 6,688m. From the Argentine side, 4x4 access and guided treks can be arranged with locals in the village of Fiambalá or pre-booked with a commercial mountain guiding company such as Aymará Expeditions in Mendoza. Though the route up is mostly a walk – and to avoid altitude sickness, most trekkers do make a slow, walking ascent, rather than using a vehicle to cover distance on the mountain itself – a hands-and-feet scramble near the summit might stymie you unless you have a head for heights. Towering penitentes can also sometimes block the route. Above all, be prepared for wind, sun and nights of bone-chilling cold. This is raw, awesome nature – perhaps the most extreme high-altitude experience attainable for non-mountaineering mortals.

BBC Travel | By Gabi Mocatta

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