Saturday, 21 February 2009

Easily the stupidest thing I've ever done!

On arrival back in Santiago, I left straight away. I would be back for a day or two before flying to Sydney, so wanted to head south to Pucon, so I got another overnight bus, this time for 11 hours. By the time the bus arrived I could barely move my legs; Chilean buses are ok but not as good as Argentinian ones.

Headed straight for my hostel but although I was in the right place, I couldn't find the entrance, so had to carry my stuff back to the main street to go on the internet to get directions. This was a pain as it was already pretty hot even at 9am and certainly too hot to be carrying big backpacks around. And sure enough when I found the entrance I had walked straight past it earlier. Muppetry strikes again.

Didn't do too much the rest of the day except organise a couple of trips, have an afternoon sleep and chill around the hostel. The hostel was great, it was more like a posh house than a hostel. Big garden with pool, big rooms, proper mattresses, and the plushest bathroom I've ever seen in a hostel, very good.

Next day I was up before 6 to climb up Villarica, an active volcano near Pucon. We had crampons but never needed to use them as the climbing boots we were given gripped the snow fine. Took about 4 hours to get to the top, and it was a pretty gentle climb with very few steep bits unlike Cotopaxi. And the altitude wasn't a problem as it was only 2,840m high.

Had lunch at the top and wandered around the volcano crater. There was a steady plume of smoke coming out which when you stood in the wrong place you could really smell the sulphur, which made my throat sting a bit. We were lucky it was a clear day though as the views were really good; Pucon is in the Chilean lake district and you could see lots of mountains and lakes.

By far the best bit was getting down though, because you slide down on your bum! We wore these bizarre things round our bums and also had a plastic tray type thing for some runs. There were lots of grooves in the snow already kind of like mini toboggan runs where people had already slid down. But as with driving a car I had two big problems: steering and braking!
Admittedly braking was no fun, much better to go fast, but steering and staying in the grooves was harder, possibly due to lack of braking. I managed to perform an audacious overtaking manoeuvre on the first run, going 'off piste', overtaking and then back on, and all complete luck! On other runs whenever I came to a bend I tended to end up going straight on despite my best efforts to turn. While this was fun, a couple of times I needed to roll onto my front and adopt the emergency stop position using the ice axe. It also hurts when you fly over a bump, get some air then land. But great fun.

When we were almost back at the bottom, we looked back up and there was loads of smoke coming out the volcano, way more than when we were at the top. Not a real eruption, but it was a few moments of excitement nonetheless!

Met up with Nikki, my Patagonia tour leader, that evening for a drink or two, which was good. The full tour was Santiago to Ushuaia and back again, doing six back to back in the season, and the northbound tour that had started when we finished in Ushuaia happened to be in Pucon at the same time I was.

Although I could possibly have waited until Oz, that would be no fun, so decided to risk another haircut – you never know, something could get lost in lack of translation and it all get shaved off. Not $1.50 like Quito, but 3,000 Chilean peso's is about 3 pounds 50 so still wasn't bad. But nothing went wrong, and Edith did a fine job, and I had another smart numero dos.

What I did later that day easily ranks as one of the dumbest things I've ever done. I had seen adverts and the odd picture for hydrospeeding in some of the tour agencies, and not ever having heard of it much less done it I thought that was reason enough to do it - always up for trying new activities after all. It was clear from the pictures that you're in the water with some kind of polystyrene float, but that was all I knew. The true stupidity of this only became clear when it was almost too late.

As I'm standing there putting on a set of knee pads, three (yes three) wet suits, a wet suit jacket, a crash helmet and some flippers, the penny dropped (something that should have happened much earlier, like before I booked it for example): we were going to go face first down a white water rafting course. I don't mind rafting, but I'm not its biggest fan and can take it or leave it. Getting stuck under water (a la Kris's near death experience in New Zealand) didn't appeal much, nor did the idea of falling out and getting bashed into rocks, but here I was about to go down a rafting course without the raft and with little more than a few layers of wet suit between me and pain. I wasn't filled with confidence either by the fact that there were lots of tears in the wet suits. I wasn't about to ask what caused this, but was guessing rocks. The guide's wet suits were so torn it looked like he'd been in a fight...and lost. I was seriously starting to think that I'd definitely gone and done it this time.

Something else that emphasises how insane this is, it completely contradicts the logic of what you do when you fall out of a raft: you lie on your back and go down feet first in case you find rocks. With hydrospeeding you go down on your front face first. Clever.

We had a quick demo in some still shallow water, where we were shown how to unflip if we turned over. This was difficult enough in water that wasn't moving, so decided I was properly screwed if I tipped in rapids. It would definitely be the end. Decided I would really have to not tip. Was bricking it by this point.

When we set off it didn't take long to whack some rocks pretty hard with my legs, and land on a rock with my balls, which for the avoidance of doubt, hurt. A lot. And this was before the proper rapids. The guide soon announced that the rapids were about to start, and they were grade 3! I have only ever rafted on grade 3/4! Significant steering would be required to avoid hitting big rocks and going through the dangerous bits of the rapids, and this was pretty hard work with just flippers against grade 3 rapids; your arms are inside the polystyrene thing and are used just for balance mostly. Course, to know which way to steer required seeing the guide up front pointing which direction to go, not easy when you have loads of water crashing into your face constantly.

Having successfully negotiated a couple of these, we were then told we needed to kick hard as there was a small hole we could get sucked down. I didn't quite catch what we should do if we did get sucked down, or how far it went, but decided the best plan was to kick hard and not end up in it.

Somehow though I managed to get down the full course which was 13km long with nothing but minor cuts and bruises. Of the five of us who started, only three of us made it to the end. Its not that they weren't seen again, but they didn't fancy it and rode the rest of the way in the rafts that were going down the same course with us. At times it felt like I was being dragged along the river bed as it was quite shallow in parts, but it was quite fun when I wasn't crashing into rocks, and getting thrown up in the air by the rapids was pretty exciting. Rafting is definitely for wusses!

So believe it or not I would recommend doing this! Just like crawling through the mine in Bolivia, there is nothing quite like scaring yourself half to death! I did vow afterwards to never do it again, but that would be grossly underestimating my own stupidity, so I think it is more a Steve Redgrave style "never", so if anyone ever sees me go near a hydrospeeding foam thing, you have my permission to shoot me.

That night in the hostel a few of us chipped to buy some meat etc and had a really good barbecue, and drank in the garden until late. Welcome relaxation after the excitement of hydrospeeding.

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