As I tried to regain my breath, I spent a few moments admiring each waft of smoke billowing out of the crater. They mostly took the form of zigzags. None of your boring clumpy plumes here.
“Don’t go any closer,” said our guide Miguel, adjusting his scarf to better cover his nose. “if the wind picks up and you get some of that gas in your face, you might pass out.”
Miguel turned to take a swig of water. I inched a step forward and went up on tiptoes. Just to see if I could get a glimpse of the lava that would be bubbling down there like hot chocolate in a saucepan.
“Two thousand eight hundred and sixty metres,” said Miguel. “Used to be two thousand eight hundred and seventy but we lost a bit in the last eruption.”
I nodded respectfully as I traced my eyes over the rough underside of the crater. Flecks of rock a few yards away that no being will have ever touched. My toes twitched nervously under my feet, squishing the snow as I realised there was only the same thin plate of ground separating us from the dark fiery chasm below.
This was the kind of volcano you’d see in a fairy tale. While Patagonia might mean vast barren expanses on the whole, this northernmost area of the giant region on the Chilean side was a lush ensemble of colours – with pristine green valleys, gushing blue rivers and a generous smattering of silent turquoise lakes.
The snowy smoky peak just completely dominated the little tourist town below. I loved its angular shape – just like the traffic cone I had a blurry memory of taking home a few nights before the graduation – or like a particularly pert breast. I knew from the moment I arrived bleary eyed at dawn on the bus from Santiago I had to conquer it. Thankfully there were well signposted tourist agencies at every corner waiting for you to hire a guide to take you up.
I turned around to take in the countless Andean peaks around the horizon and peer beneath the clouds for the rolling hills of the region at the foot of the volcano. It must have been around here that Clara’s husband owned the Tres Marias estate in The House of the Spirits. The tattered book I had rescued from being discarded upside down in the ‘used books – please take’ bucket at a hostel in Santiago was excellent at illustrating the shadows of this long and pleasant land – the contours of the darker details of its history you couldn’t see from the window of the bus. Perhaps Isabel Allende had been around here before describing the fields and streams where Esteban Trueba raped the peasant women at night. That this character remained T the head of the family with no punishment for his crimes had shocked me at first, made me a little more afraid to be so far from home even. Brutal realism, you could call it. How could the novel have been all sweetness and light, after all, when the writer had just seen a thriving democracy and respect for human dignity shatter underneath the feet of these polite people?
“Ooh, perfect profile pic spot,” said Tim, “get your phone out, love.”
Ed sighed. “Stop calling me ‘love’! And don’t forget your damn phone next time we travel somewhere.”
The two were loose acquaintances of mine from university who I had discovered on Facebook were happening to travel to Chile at the same time. Having first resolved to travel alone, but fearful of loneliness, I had contacted them and spent five days around Santiago awaiting their arrival so we could travel together. They had just shuffled up to the peak after pausing a little lower down to sip whisky from a hip flask.
“I’d like to apologise for my friend,” said Tim to Miguel, “he’s awfully afraid of male to male affection. Presumably some repressed homosexuality. It’s very funny really.”
“Piss off!” said Ed, “do you want your photo on this here volcano or not?”
“Alright, pipe down,” said Tim, “give me the phone when you finish though.”
“Huh?” said Ed, “I’m down to 17% battery, it better be something important you need it for.”
“It’s after 10 in the UK isn’t it? I want to check who won The Apprentice.”
“Oh good call – I hope it isn’t that mean bitch!”
“What? You really want that chubby one who looks like Toadie off Neighbours to win?”
“Toadie off Neighbours? Oh, jeez, that’s a good one.”
Miguel’s feet twitched a little, as he presumably wondered what the hell the two were on about. I sensed a little disappointment in his eyes that their minds were lost elsewhere, rather than appreciating the might of this volcano.
I smiled but made no attempt to join in the conversation. I was already tiring of their chat. They seemed to be so absorbed in their own banter they could get swallowed up by it and not even notice they’d been eaten by their own humour.
The pair exchanged the black phone, which really stood out due to the contrast with the thick white blanket of snow.
I preferred to focus again on the wafts of smoke. I thought about the story of the eruption in the 1970s I’d read at the hostel. The sky turning pitch black at noon. Rocks raining down on the town and burning holes in the ground. What a weird relationship the volcano had with the town below. With its imposing peak it seemed to watch over and protect it. They knew down there it could also lash out at any moment and wreak havoc. Then it would leave bountiful deposits of fertile ground like an apologetic lover bearing flowers.
I realised within a couple of seconds I could dash to the edge of the crater and jump in. I’d never felt the slightest depressed, let alone suicidal, which helped me to plot this idea in my head without worrying I would actually be capable of it. I presumed I would end up getting scalded in a pit of lava, which had to be extremely painful, but then again most deaths are painful one way or another. It would produce endless attention, which was an immensely valuable commodity among my peer group of fresh graduates preparing to make their mark on the world – some with their elbows out jostling, and others like me with the feeling of inching along some screechy airport travelator towards an as yet unknown office career. I had applied for a few internships at London legal firms, simply because my closest friend on my English course had done the same. When nothing came out of that, I topped up my savings with my bar job and headed off to Chile.
It would be so easy to dive into the crater. My parents wouldn’t be best pleased, for sure. You could see the headlines now. ‘Recent graduate of respectable university takes suicidal plunge into Patagonian volcano’. Complete with my graduation photo. Plus an interview with Amanda, my parent’s next door neighbour saying: “He was a polite young man who just kept himself to himself really. There was nothing at all to indicate he would be capable of jumping head first into a volcano. We’re stunned.”
Tim turned to me, finally recognising my presence. “You feeling the altitude, mate?” he asked.
“A little,” I said, touching the top of the hood I’d pulled over my head to protect from the cold.
“We’ve still got some whisky if you fancy a swig?”
“No thanks,” I said. I peered down at the never-ending icy slope under my feet. It had become steep enough close to the crater for Miguel to tie a rope down for us to cling onto. It wasn’t going to be a stroll on the way down. I remembered my father’s advice, deployed loosely on numerous occasions on family walks – “respect nature and nature will find a way to look after you.”
“It’s much worse at Kilimanjaro,” said Tim, “some serious shit there.”
“Sorry?” I said, having heard him fine but not appreciating the tangent he had just embarked on.
“You see people stretchered down wailing their hearts out as you’re heading to the summit. It’s loads bigger than this one though. About 6000 metres or something. I’ll get Ed to Google it – how do you call this volcano again?”
Miguel was twisting the thermos cup back onto his flask and decided not to answer. Although his native land was blessed with enough giant peaks for his lifetime, he would have loved to have the resources to visit Kilimanjaro and didn’t like the casual way Tim spoke about an experience he was fortunate to have.
“Do you reckon if I shout loud enough, them folk in the town will hear us from here?” asked Ed, who was sat on his backpack. You could hear the potent combination of the hip flask and the altitude stirring within Ed, a guy who can be best summed up by his becoming an honorary member of the rugby team at uni, despite making no effort to play the sport, purely so he could join in their drinking games on socials.
“Uufff!” said Tim, energised. “That’s a tough one – see that group down there at the foot of the volcano?”
“Oh, right down there?”
“Yeah – shout your lungs out and see if they turn around.”
Ed paused, then shouted “Yabadabadoo!!!!” in full voice.
Tim pulled a grunted smirk, covered his mouth and broke into a howling laugh. He covered his face in his hands.
“Did they turn round?” he asked when he had finally composed himself.
“Nah,” said his friend.
“I wonder how you say Yabadabado in Spanish. That could work.”
It was Ed’s turn to lose his composure now. He arched his hand over his nose and eyes as he let off an uncontrollable chuckle.
“You google it!” he said, tossing the phone in the snow halfway to his friend.
I didn’t even spend a split second envisaging the idea in my head. There was no need to. It just seemed the natural thing to do – as if the sky or even the volcano had whispered it to me. I strolled over to the phone, picked it up, dusted off the snow and lobbed it underhand up to the opening of the crater and away, swooshing down into the void.
“Oi! What the hell!?” said an enraged Ed, leaping up. “My Samsung S7!”
I grimaced, waiting to hear a satisfying distant plop when the phone hit the lava. The sound never came.
The way down wasn’t so tricky in the end, even if I immediately had to dodge a furious volley of snowballs. I knew exactly where the bus station was. And I learned, after all, that a wilderness like Patagonia is best appreciated on your own.