Villarrica, one of only five volcanoes in the world to contain an active lava lake, is a popular climb in Chile's Lake District.
It normally takes more than four hours to climb Villarrica, but an hour is saved if you take a rickety old ski lift up the lower slopes. The tiny ski chair has no safety bar and I clutch on in terror. Eduardo, sitting next to me, is traveling in Chile and South America for three months.
“My mother thought I was crazy when I told her I was going to climb an active volcano,” he says. As we judder past a rusting pylon that leans alarmingly to one side, I am inclined to agree with mum.
The real hike starts in a bleak terrain of jagged volcanic boulders and loose scree, passing the ruined shell of a futuristic-looking ski station, destroyed during Villarrica’s last major eruption in 1971. Just below the snow line, the first of my fellow trekkers gives up and turns back.
The rest of us don crampons and, for the next two hours, snake our way in zigzags over the treacherously slippery ice fields. The altitude starts to hit me and I have to resort to mental games to distract myself from my gasping breath and aching leg muscles.
At the crater, we collapse in collective exhaustion before taking in the spectacular surroundings. The lava lake lies simmering at the bottom of a deep circular crater but the view around me is no less dramatic. To the north and south, snow-capped mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. It is a savagely beautiful place, with only the whiff of sulfur as a constant reminder of the danger so close at hand.