When I turned 21, I celebrated by climbing an active volcano in Chile. This is not a humble brag. I was out of my element, a foreign student profoundly homesick and scared of heights. A friend at the apartment complex where I lived convinced me we needed to get out of Santiago and go on vacation. As an impressionable kid, I said, "Sure. Sign me up."
I did not equate climbing a 9,000-foot-high volcano with rest and relaxation, however. My rigorous climbing preparation up to that point included drinking gin and tonics in dancehalls and an occasional jog around my neighborhood while chased by feral dogs. I was fit in the way that most 21-year-olds are fit: by youth and accident. But when my travel friend suggested we climb a volcano, again, I didn't think twice and simply said yes.
We boarded a van at our hostel that would deliver us and 10 other tourists to Villarrica. We were instructed, while signing up for the tour, to bring comfortable shoes and chocolate bars. There was a current of nervous energy in the van as people talked in the early hours, but the chatter turned silent when we approached the base of the volcano. The boulder field where we exited the van was dotted with rocks the size of small cars, and our guides told us this would be the easy part, before we hit the sheer snow and ice packs closer to the summit.
The guides taught us how to attach crampons to our shoes and promised us frequent breaks to eat our chocolate while we adjusted to the altitude. I took none of this as a warning sign that our ascent was perhaps intended for people who were more practiced in the art of alpining. I reassured myself that no one would willingly put paying strangers in physical danger despite watching James Cameron's Titanic several times as a teenager.
So I ate my chocolate and said nothing when the guides stopped the tour group to lash us all together with climbing ropes. The tourists and I took each step, on a 45-degree pitch, along narrow trails broken through the snow. I suddenly realized that if one of us slipped, we would all go skittering down the volcano together.
We were about a thousand feet from the sulfurous rim when the clouds cleared and the line stopped ostensibly for us to take a moment to appreciate the view. I didn't trust myself to look up from my shoelaces. For as long as I could remember I feared heights, detesting that feeling of my stomach dropping out of my body on a roller coaster, or if I'm being honest, a steep incline while driving in a car. Humans don't have wings so why would we want to willingly leave the Earth?
I kept my eyes firmly on the ground when next to my foot I saw a small bird on its side, encased in ice like Han Solo in carbonite. The shock of seeing this perfectly preserved bird in such a barren place compelled me to look up to the sky for evidence of more birds, which is how I tricked myself into taking in the expanse of land around the volcano, a panorama of blue lakes and lush green trees. I was stunned by its beauty and instantly my fear of heights melted away. Fear doesn't kill a person, it turns out. I learned near the summit of Villarrica that fear is an emotion one sometimes has to pay for the price of newfound perspective. ♦
Aileen Keown Vaux is an essayist and poet whose chapbook Consolation Prize was published by Scablands Books in 2018.