It all began when my Great Uncle Bryan told us all about his climb up a volcano.
I remember it well, huddled round the flickering embers of the Chilean brick-built BBQ, settling down to enjoy a traditional meat-fest, or asado, and listening to the hypnotic, gravelling rumble of our favourite Uncle’s tale. An epic adventure, or at least, according to this seasoned storyteller. A magnificent trek through thick snow and ice, to reach the simmering pinnacle and gaze upon the rest of Chile, laid out in a riotous patchwork below.
The volcano in question, Villarrica, we had already seen, the day before, whilst idling an afternoon in sleepy Pucon. It loomed over the seaside town like a vaguely threatening, smouldering sentinel; though at the same time, seemed a little bit unreal, and, dare I say it, unconvincing. Like a cardboard cut-out, pasted hazily on the horizon. In short, this slightly fictitious looking volcano fitted perfectly with the rest of Uncle Bryan’s narration. A little bit difficult to believe in.
It was for this reason, and perhaps also the large quantities of locally produced wine, that convinced me that agreeing to follow in my elderly relative’s footsteps was a good idea. Nay, a great one. With the moonlight casting a soft rosy glow over the neatly trimmed hedges and lapping swimming pool, trekking up a volcano seemed like an excellent notion. A romantic adventure, even.
The next day, the hike was duly booked, and already, the sense of entranced anticipation was dwindling somewhat. In the cold light of day, studying the summit with a more realistic and somewhat bleary eye, it suddenly seemed like a not very good idea at all. Maybe for an action-type, yes. But for a woman who generally thinks a gentle stroll to the local library constitutes a hard work out, not really. But how could I back out now? Uncle Bryan = 63 years old. Myself, not even 30. The humiliation would be too much to endure.
So, before the sun had risen in the sky, the next morning found us at the base of the mighty Villarrica, gazing upwards at the steep, snow-covered slopes with an expression of unconcealed panic. Let me tell you now, it no longer looked like a cardboard cut-out. Instead, it looked like something out of my worst nightmares.
Still, I’m a game old bird really. I have a sense of pride, you know. And the thought of Uncle Bryan’s triumphant white beard jiggling around with amusement was too much to bear. So I got the ice pick ready, wielding it like a Viking in ancient times may have wielded their broadsword, and ploughed it into the ground. It was, in retrospect, a little premature, given that the terrain beneath us was barely even at an incline yet. But it was a significant symbolic gesture, none the less.
Half an hour later, and I was ready to die. Yes, I know this phrase gets bandied about willy-nilly on a fairly regular basis, but actually, in this case, it was true. My poor, weak, unfit heart was going like the clappers and sweat was liberally pouring out of every pore in my measly frame. My fellow travellers, including my husband, were embarrassing me beyond the point of endurance by not only striding ahead of me energetically, but looking as though they hadn’t even got started yet. I looked behind me with deep dread, and realised we’d progressed about ten metres up the track. I looked back up. Endless miles of steep slope lay ahead. I muttered an extremely rude expletive under my breath.
I wish I could say it got better. But it did not. My physical state became more and more decrepit and jaded with every agonising step, my mental state more unhinged. Being one of these people who is blessed / cursed with self-awareness, I was horribly knowledgeable about what a complete prat I must have looked; purple-faced, wheezing like a set of bellows with a hole in them, labouring over every pace as though about to give birth at any moment.
About half way up, I finally collapsed. I sat down, and refused to budge. Yes, it was very reminiscent of a toddler, having a tantrum and plunking themselves down in a childish huff. I was cross. Cross at myself. Cross at other people for being fitter than me. Cross, above all else, at Uncle Bryan.
I never completed that journey. Sigh.