The first active volcano you never forget

The first active volcano you never forget

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Apr 7, 2009
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Summer

As I got the friendly nickname of “volcano man” here on SP, it came to me today the idea of show a trip report on a active volcano climb, and why not the very first one I did? So this is it: Lascar volcano climb!

Lascar volcano summit. 5.592m
Lascar volcano summit. Simbad on the back.

As usual, I was at my dream city San Pedro de Atacama (I plan to live there some day…) looking for the high Andean mountains and good food. At the second day in town I summited Toco, which is a volcano but not shaped as one and not active. For the third day I booked with my friend Christian to climb Lascar volcano, which is the most active volcano in northern Chile area. Lascar has a small eruption every day and people that climb it constantly like guides say that its crater (inside) changes every day.

So yes, this is a active badass volcano with an easy ascent, but potentially danger since people never know exactly when it’s gonna be the next big one. Well there is a short story about the last big one that happened in 2006 and kept erupting until 2007. Just one day before the big one on 2006 Christian had a few clients to climb, and they couldn’t decide between Toco and Lascar, at dinner time they dropped by Christian’s office and said “okay, let’s go to Toco since the view to Licancabur and Juriques is so great like you said”. So next morning they did Toco and while they were standing at Toco’s summit, Lascar erupted big time. I don’t know if the story is true but it is possible since Christian and his guides take people year round to Toco and Lascar, at least 4 times every week. If they had chosen Lascar, they could get killed that morning.

A little bit about Lascar by Wikipedia: Lascar is located in the altiplano of the Antofagasta Region of northern Chile, east of the Salar de Atacama, immediately west of the Aguas Calientes volcano, and to the northeast of Laguna Lejía. Other volcanoes in the area include Acamarachi, which is dormant or possibly extinct, and Chiliques, which has developed a new hot spot in its summit crater beginning in 2002 after a period of at least 10,000 years in dormancy. The andesitic-to-dacitic stratovolcano contains six overlapping summit craters. Prominent lava flows descend its northwest flanks. The largest eruption of Lascar took place about 26.500 years ago, and following the eruption of the Tumbres scoria flow about 9.000 years ago, activity shifted back to the eastern edifice, where three overlapping craters were formed. Frequent small-to-moderate explosive eruptions have been recorded from Lascar in historical time since the mid-19th century, along with periodic larger eruptions that produced ash and tephra fall up to hundreds of kilometres away from the volcano. The largest eruption of Lascar in recent history took place in 1993, producing pyroclastic flows as far as 8.5 km (5 mi) northwest of the summit and ash fall in Buenos Aires, Argentina,[1] more than 1,600 km (994 mi) to the southeast. The latest series of eruptions began on 18 April 2006 and were continuing as of 2007.

Based on volcano monitoring that happens 24/7, they can “predict” with at least 48 hours in advance the next great explosion, well, that and visual observation. Volcanoes give us several signals of a coming eruption such as new fumaroles that pop up out of the blue, the very ground grows bigger in just one night, small earthquakes. All that indicates a upcoming eruption. So, with all that info at hand we can say that today, to ascend a highly active volcano like Lascar is relatively safe. That’s why Christian guides people to its summit.

Curious about an active volcano and what it would look like from its top, I booked with him and next morning he picked me up at my hostel by 3am. From San Pedro it is quite a long drive to its base on Laguna Lejia, about 3 – 3.5 hours. It was just me, him, and a girl from Finland if I recall. Just the three of us.


Chilliques volcano
Chiliques volcano.

When we got to Laguna Lejia I saw that unbeliavabely fantastic view, surrounded by like seven or eight volcanoes, all of them higher than 5.500m, incredible place. Laguna Lejia serves as the perfect mirror spot for photographer’s most dirty dreams, and it was half frozen since the temperature was -5°C by the time we got there. Looking at Lascar the best view is the cone shaped volcano at his right Aguas Calientes (AKA Simbad), that rises all the way up until 5.924 masl. Lascar itself is not a beautiful mountain, no Sir. But it is the most active volcano of northern Chile! A must do for me. At the same spot, the other best view is Chiliques volcano behind me, this one rises to 5.778 m high. Considered extinct until 2002 when some hot spots showed up on thermic images by sat control, now he is considered dormant to active, since there is Lava flows very close to the surface moving around.

Great mirror view
Outer space view. Another world...Laguna Lejia.

We took a breakfast which for me was only a hot coca tea (I love that tea!) and got back to the car. This is an strategy by Christian. He always take his clients to the climbs like that, a small stop close to the objective, some hot drink and snacks before the hike/ climbs. This way he can observe people to altitude sickness signals and keep going or abort the climb right there. Of course, it’s not perfect, but he said to me that doing that, he is forced to cancel at least a couple climbs every month because some people just can’t take altitude, and this small break makes them suffer the consequences there, when it’s easier to get on the car and get back to smaller altitude at San Pedro.

Anyway, the girl never said a word and me, well, I never say nothing, always ready hehehe. “Huston, we have a GO for ignition!”. Back inside the car, freezing like three little rats, Christian drove us up to the starting point at 4.700m already at the base of the volcano, pretty high.
As soon as we got ready we start walking up. Lascar is an easy ascent even with the altitude issue, well at least for me. Some people can’t get to Chacaltaya’s summit on Bolivia (by car you get to 5.300m at Club Andino and walk up to the summit at 5.395m in half an hour tops. When I did it I stoped the taxi at 4700m close to the hidden lagoons and started from there) and get to hospital half dead every week. It depends on the person.

Slopes of Lascar with Simbad at short distance
Slopes of Lascar, Simbad at short distance.

The only problem with this part is the lose volcanic dirt. The area is so dry that lips get hurt, the skin inches quite a bit and also the throat hurts constantly in need of liquids. But this is the beginning, after that part (for a couple hours) you reach a less steep section for a smooth walk up on a few bigger rocks, less dirt too. But then the smell of sulfur comes and the whole thing gets worse. By the crater the smell is so strong that you get headaches so painful you fell like your head’s going to explode. Most of people vomit here.

This is the turning back point to 80% of Christian’s clients. Most of people gets here, take a look inside the crater that is huge, deep and noisy with constant gases noises and hundreds of fumaroles and yellow spots messing around, turn back and go home. Only mountaineers keep going up to the summit.

By this time he asked us if we were okay to the summit. Of course I was okay and ready to rock n roll, the girl was kinda numb, talking nonsense but with a nice smile, she said yes. So, let’s move up people!

After some 20 minutes more or half an hour we were at the true summit of Lascar where a cairn with a stick awaits. Wind was incredible, so strong we hardly could stand up. I guess it was something around 70 or 80km/h. I had to separate my legs so I don’t fall off inside the crater. That’s when Christian did the summit shot for me using my old camera, Canon D430.

Actually he did six or seven ones to be sure one was okay (good idea!). We hugged and the girl said she wasn’t okay anymore. I guess she came back to reality because of the wind and all volcanic noises and woke up finally!
We started descend immediately so she could get better, Christian ahead of us, I was on the middle and she came in last, way to slow. I saw a perfect moment and took the following shot, the one I like the most of the climb. Christian running down like a maniac (I forgot, weather was going bad!) by the crater side. I am behind the camera and the girl behind me.

Right wall of the crater

After a while we had to stop and wait for the girl, she wasn’t very good but not really bad, she was back to the “numb state”. At 5000m high she reached us and we went down a little big slowly so she could keep up. Some time later she got kinda better. When we got to the car everybody was happy and she was happy too, but with a huuuuge headache.

The drive back to San Pedro was endless, it took us four hours and it felt like 20 days. I was dying to tell Lilianne I summited Lascar, the most active volcano of northern Chile, but the road took like forever to end.
When we got there I was dirty with a bleeding nose (dry places make my nose bleed 24 hours a day), smelly, but too happy to bother with such things. Stopped at the internet café and send her an e-mail telling the news, she was happy for me of course. After that I updated my blog with a few photos and went to the hostel, where I got some macaroni and cheese from some friends, got myself a hot shower and after that sleep for 10 hours to next morning.

For me, it was a magic experience, my first active volcano, with a good altitude deal (5.592 m high/ 18.346ft). It was my second 5000m summit ever (the first one was Toco two days before that) in a good time, great city, great desert and outer space view!

It is just a question of time about the next eruption on Lascar. Volcanologists know it will happen, let’s wait for a bit…

So people can understand why Lascar has the title of “most active of northern Chile”, here’s a list of modern registered eruptions: 2006-07, 2005, 2002, 2000, 1994-95, 1994, 1993-94, 1993, 1991-92, 1990, 1990, 1987-89, 1986, 1984, 1974, 1972, 1969, 1959-68, 1954, 1951-52, 1940, 1933, 1902, 1898, 1883-85, 1875, 1858, 1854, 1853, 1848.

Lascar never sleeps!


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