Melipeuco, Chile | January 9, 2015 | 8:25pm
I step onto the down elevator at the Temuco airport, and before I reach the bottom, I spot a familiar face and relief washes over me. After a five hour delay in Miami, a missed connection in Santiago, and several hours of speaking broken, sleep-deprived Spanish -
"You made it," Jonathan says, grinning broadly and clapping me on the back. "Welcome to Chile!"
I smile at him. Jonathan Lees is the chair of the Geological Sciences department at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he looks like it. His eyes twinkle behind thin frameless glasses. He's wearing a button-down water resistant shirt and matching shorts, a hat, hiking boots and a large backpack. He looks like he's about to set out on an expedition - and he is.
Jonathan introduces me to the two men with him - Dennis, a middle-aged computer scientist from Michigan, and Armando, a professional mountaineer from Guatemala.
We collect my bags and pile into a silver pickup truck flecked with mud. As we drive away from the airport, the landscape is not entirely foreign to me - I lived in Chile for six moths during my senior year of college, and spent most weekends traveling to different parts of the country. One of those weekends included mountain biking and white water rafting outside the small touristy town of Pucón, about 60 miles from here.
"Over there is Villarrica," says Armando, pointing to a white-capped mountain in the distance - one of the most active volcanoes in South America.
I remember snapping photos of Villarrica from the main drag of Pucón. But this time I'm not visiting the lakes and volcano district as a tourist - I'm here for work. My job just sent me to South America to document a research expedition on a volcano for 10 days. I still can't believe it.
Villarrica is not our volcano for this expedition however. We're driving towards Llaima, another one of the most active volcanoes in this part of the world. It last erupted in 2009. Jonathan is hoping it will have some activity while his equipment is installed on it. I'll be taking photos, filming, and writing about the process.
As we get closer to Llaima, the volcano looms larger and larger. It looks much bigger than the images I found on Google. Armando is talking about how steep it is at the top. He talks about summiting volcanoes in Ecuador and Guatemala and Colombia. I start to feel nervous. But I go backpacking with some regularity, I've run a marathon. I'm in good shape.
"Have you ever hiked a volcano before?" Armando asks.
"No," I say, gazing up at the snow-covered peak, thinking about how much I hate the cold. "But I'm sure I can handle it."
We arrive in Melipeuco around 7pm, with the sun still high in the sky. It won't go down until after 10pm. I breathe in the crisp mountain air and feel the bundle of nerves in my stomach dance around excitedly.
Two more pickup trucks, pelican cases, boxes, wires, and laptops are crammed into the small yard of the hostel where the team is camped out. Jonathan introduces me to everyone. Altogether, there are about 18 of us, ranging in ages from 20 to 65, but only two other women. After greeting everyone, I accept Jonathan's invitation to go to dinner.
At dinner, I meet Jeff - the team leader from Boise State. Even though this is Jonathan's expedition, Jeff acts as though he's running things. The owner of the hostel, a very sweet woman, refers to him as "el jefe" (the boss). He's talking about the ten mile run he did this afternoon, after hiking on the volcano all morning. He speaks fluent Spanish to order dinner, then dives into telling us about the massive hikes he and his kids do every summer.
Rather abruptly, his focus shifts to me. "What kind of mountaineering experience do you have?" His eyes bore into me. I tell him about hiking in North Carolina.
"So I take if you don't have an ice axe."
I can tell he's sizing me up.
"No, I don't."
"Have you ever put on a pair of crampons?"
No, I haven't.
I look at Jonathan. This is bullshit. He would not have flown me down here if I couldn't handle the conditions. Jonathan shrugs. He's worked with Jeff for 20 years, and he's accustomed - even amused - by his bad cop routine with the newbies on expeditions. Tomorrow morning, Jonathan will tell me all this over breakfast. For now, I am frustrated by my inability to prove I can handle it.
I need to get on that damn volcano.