A Volcano Taught Me I Need Remedial Potty Training
Peeing all over myself at 10,000 feet
Time To Read: 10 mins | May 14, 2017
You have to understand, most of my favorite hobbies involve not moving. Sitting at bars, eating at bars, sleeping at hopefully not bars – things like that.
So when packing, I usually bring along clothing that support this lifestyle. I travel with the sort of shirts and pants that allow me to look half-decent at a dinner table, as opposed to the gear that would help someone during a 8-hour hike on a freezing volcano.
This means that, on the day I woke up for my 8-hour hike on a freezing volcano, I was about as prepared as Trump was to be President. Everyone else in our 20-strong group had insulated nylon pants, thermal scarves, and layers upon layers of North Face gear. I had khaki pants, a thin blue cotton hoody, and two mismatched ankle socks.
The situation wasn’t as grim as it could have been. Our tour company was providing proper hiking boots and thick windbreakers for everyone, because customers with frostbite don’t write positive Yelp reviews. But even after gearing up properly, I still earned more than a few questioning glances from the more prepared members of the group (read: everyone),
although in hindsight, that may have been because I insisted on strapping my Batman mask to my pack.
A 45-minute bus ride brought us to the base of the Villarica Volcano. It’s the main attraction for Pucon, a city which bills itself as “the adventure capital of Chile.” But while there’s river rafting and horseback riding and, somewhat oddly, about a dozen different paintball fields, the volcano is the star.
The climb is no joke. Everyone’s required to don a one-size-fits-all helmet (which didn’t fit my watermelon head at all) and the ice forces you to wear crampons – inch-long spikes attached to the bottom of your boots, a bit like strap-on cleats. You’re given a legit ice pick and taught how to use it as a brake if you slip and start sliding downhill. Sunglasses are mandatory, since the glare off the snow in the thin atmosphere can damage your eyes.
The guides lead groups single file on a zig-zag course up the volcano, literally carving out steps for everyone with their own picks. There are no trails; this all used to be ski slopes, back before they shut it down after a major eruption 2 years ago. You spend a good bit of the climb under broken down chair lifts, and after a few hours of misery, once your nose is numb and your legs are shaking, you curse the damn chairs for not working anymore.
Knowing how brutal the climb is, the guides give everyone plenty of breaks on the way up and check in with everyone individually. In my case, they’d ask, “You good Batman?”
“Claro,” (Clearly) I’d lie, before taking a swig out of the rum bottle I was sharing with another American guy.
It was that American, actually, who provided me with the highlight of the trip. At one point during a break, he asked a German man how high the volcano’s peak was. Ze German responded, “About 3000 meters.”
My friend, not knowing how to translate the metric system into Freedom Units, frowned and asked me, “What is 3000 meters?”
“Well, it’s one meter more than 2999 meters.”
I’m surprised he didn’t murder me with his ice pick then and there, but after 5 hours, we finally make the peak.
The views alone are worth it. Looking outwards, you’re granted a 360 degree panorama of mountains, lakes, and even clouds sitting thousands of feet below you. And looking into the volcano itself, just for a moment as the wind knocks aside the sulfur clouds, you can see neon red lava bubbling up through the earth’s crust. It’s a real life Mount Doom, with less Gollum.
You’re only allowed to stay on top of the volcano for 5 minutes. We were told this earlier in the day and had reacted strongly – “A 5 hour hike for 5 minutes of reward? Get the fuck out” — but really, with all the fumes, you only want to stay for 2. Just get your selfie and get the hell off of there.
Especially because of what comes next.
Of all the gear in our packs, the pieces that everyone was most excited for were the sleds and diapers. You don’t have to hike off the volcano; for the return trip, you slide down on a combination of thin plastic sheeting and tough canvas shorts that protect your bum.
Now, as exciting as that sounds, you do have to march down a bit first. Like most ski resorts, the top of the volcano was the steepest part, and the guides can’t have a bunch of tourists flying downhill at 80mph for thousands of vertical feet. Although, considering how much bitching we’d done on the way up, they very well may have wanted to watch us plummet to our deaths. But rules are rules, and so before the fun began, there was one last stretch of marching.
I ended up at the very back of the group for the return trip. I’d been chatting with the German guy, and he’d hung towards the rear because he was trying to make it with a girl who’d been dragging ass all day. So maybe an hour later, by the time we were finally reaching the sled zone, our threesome was a good 50 yards behind the rest of the group. And I had to pee.
Remember, we’re legitimately on an old ski run, and not a narrow one. There were no trees or shelter for half a mile in any direction. The volcano’s sides are just a lot of beautiful, wide-open space.
So I marched about twenty meters left (I can’t even think in Freedom Units anymore) and begin to unzip. I quickly realized that I’d hiked the wrong direction – I was facing the wind, which is a problem for weeing menfolk. And simply spinning around wasn’t an option, since that would mean peeing directly at the twenty people in my group.
After re-zipping, I hiked back to our original path, then trudged another 20 meters past that. Remember, I’m in crampons on a steep hill of ice, so this back and forth was slow, exhausting, and gave the German and his would-be boo time to catch up with the group. Everyone is now half a football field downhill, and while they obviously knew what I was doing, they had the good grace to avert their eyes. I think. I hope.
I operated my zipper for the third time in ten minutes, pulled myself out, and started peeing. Or at least I tried to – pull myself out, that is.
I’m still not sure exactly what happened. My fingers were definitely numb from the cold, plus I was wearing thin gloves, so there was virtually no sense of feeling in my hands. Then you have to account for shrinkage – ladies, this is not a myth, our male bits shrivel up significantly in the cold. And on top of all that, my massive windbreaker was blocking my view of little Malcolm, so I couldn’t see what I was doing.
I simply trusted to thirty years experience as a urinator to get me through this trial.
But after one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, I realized my trust was misplaced. Because now I could feel warmth on my right leg.
And not just a little pee, mind you. I’d been holding this in for an entire volcano hike, almost 6 hours, and had been chugging water and sipping rum the entire time. At that bladder capacity, a man shoots urine out at roughly… well, they don’t actually measure ‘rate of fire’ for piss, but it was kinda like that machine gun at the end of the newest Rambo movie. Only grosser.
This means that the entire inner right thigh of my non-waterproof khakis was wet. Really wet, and in plain view of anyone who cared to look. And had I been doing this hike solo, that would have been no one, but there were over 20 humans waiting for me to finish walking down the hill before they could continue their day’s adventure.
But before dealing with that catastrophe, I still had to pee. I paid much more attention on this time around and successfully got through the rest of the process without further embarrassing myself. And fortunately, given the temperature and dryness of the air, I could tell my failure at pottying wouldn’t be obvious for long: the less-heavily saturated parts of my pants, down by my knee, had already dried up.
But unable to delay any longer, I started to shuffle down the hill. Literally. I decided to walk sideways under the pretense of being careful on the ice, but really, I was just hiding the wee-wee evidence by blocking the view with my opposite leg.
I eventually stopped suspiciously far uphill from the closest person, about five yards or so, and started setting up my gear. That meant removing the crampons and stowing them, which bought me more drying time, and also putting the aforementioned diaper around my midsection. Which seemed perfect – by this time, the only area still visibly wet was my crotch, and this clip-on wrap would completely cover my pelvic region from all prying eyes.
Thing is though, because I was so late down the hill, I’d missed the instructions for how to properly put it on. Somehow, I’d managed to strap the fucker on backwards. So as I, finally confident and covered up, walked to join the rest of my group, a guide rushed over and said, “No Batman is wrong,” and reached for my crotch to take the diaper off.
“NO NO NO, PUEDO HACERLO!” (NO NO NO, I CAN DO IT) I screamed at the man. This turned all 20 heads in our group. It was heard by at least two other families farther up the volcano, and it probably caught the attention of a few people in Argentina, too. Meaning there’s now a bunch of people in South America who think I have serious control issues.
Which I’m fine with, since they at least still assume I can control my bladder.
photo: not the volcano in question. this is valle de la luna, just outside san pedro de atacama.