At the volcano

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

At the volcano

From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.

It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.

I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.

One last volcano

Jan 27, 2006 in South America 2005

One last volcano

Our plan had been to go to Alausí to get the train to Riobamba, via the famous Nariz del Diablo switchbacks. But time was now so short, and the train schedules so inconvenient, that we had to skip this. We headed instead to Cuenca, where the main interest for us was a place that did really good coffee, an interesting visit to the studios of Argentinian artist Ariel Dawi, and the fabulously named German-owned pub, WunderBar. After Cuenca, our target was Baños but we had to spend a night in Ambato on the way after thick fog delayed our bus by a few hours.

The reason we’d come to Baños was to see if we could see the eruptions of Tungurahua. This towering volcano, just a few kilometres outside the town, began erupting in 1999 after 80 years of dormancy. The first eruptions led to the evacuation of Baños and other nearby villages, but when activity stabilised, the people returned, and the town now thrives on the tourism generated by the volcano, and the geothermal pools which give the town its name. The pools were a good place to spend a couple of hours while a cool drizzle fell. In the evening, we took a trip up to a nearby viewpoint, which we’d been told has good views of the volcano. But we spend most of the time in thick cloud, unable to see even the lights of Baños below us, let alone the glow of lava from above. We met some locals there who were going to a club later on, and they invited us to join them. We had a fun night out at Club Leprechaun, which the locals pronounced ‘lepre-chown’

The next day the weather seemed to be changing for the better. We went for a walk in the hills behind town and saw a spectacular rainbow arc over the valley. With the sun threatening to break through, we decided to hike back up to the mirador and see if we could see the volcano. We had a chat on the way to a friendly guy called Carmelo, who had lived in Europe for a few years. He told us about the evacuation of Baños, and said that people moved back not because activity was really declining but just because they couldn’t stay away from their livelihoods indefinitely.

Once we reached the mirador we found ourselves in thick cloud. Everything was wet and we couldn’t see more than ten feet. But I had a feeling we might have some luck, and so we hung around. Occasional breaks in the mist gave us hope, even though the few other people who came to see what they could see had left pretty quickly. Gradually, it seemed to us that we could see more of the mountain, and eventually we were sure we could see the summit. What looked like black smoke appeared to be billowing from the top, but it was hard to tell whether it was rain cloud or volcanic ash. But a few minutes more and there was no doubt – we could clearly see the volcano, and it was clearly erupting. For me it was quite impressive, but Dave had never seen an erupting volcano before and felt that he hadn’t really seen the full show.

Sadly we couldn’t hang around. I had two days left in South America, and so that night we got a late bus to Quito. After almost four months and eight thousand miles on the road, I was almost at my final destination. Ever since Christmas in Bolivia I’d been feeling like the trip was almost over, and now that it really was I could hardly believe it.

Close to the heat

Dec 01, 2005 in South America 2005

Close to the heat

Pucón is a popular place to go in Chile, with all sorts of adventure sports happening in the surrounding areas. For me, the big draw was Volcán Villarrica, a perfect Fuji-like snow-capped conical mountain to the south of town, which has an active lava lake in its crater. I wanted to climb it, and get closer to lava than I’d managed on previous trips to active volcanoes in Sicily and Central America. I’d seen lava fountains at Etna, watched glowing house-sized boulders tumble down the mountain side at Arenal in Costa Rica, and listened to the roar of Volcán Santamaría as I camped on its summit in Guatemala, but here I had the opportunity to stand on the rim of an active crater.

Disturbingly, I was woken on my first morning in Pucón by wailing air-raid sirens. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked out of my window half expecting to see a cataclysmic volcanic eruption underway, but Villarrica was just gently steaming and the sirens stopped as soon as they had begun. They went off several times during my stay, and I never worked out what they signified. Around town there were various signs detailing the procedure should any volcanic emergency occur, but they didn’t mention air-raid sirens at all.

At 7am the following morning I was in the offices of a climbing company, kitting myself up along with two Germans and four Spanish women, getting ready for the climb to the top of the 2,850m mountain. I’d watched an amazing sunrise over the volcano, and the weather looked like it was perfect for climbing. By 9am we were at a ski station at the edge of the snowline, getting on our crampons and setting off for the top. Wearing heavy rigid boots suitable for ice climbing made the going slow at first, but I soon got used to them and wanted to up the pace a bit. Unfortunately the Spanish women proved to be appallingly unfit, and although we had two guides with our group of seven and could have split up, our guides kept us all together at the slow pace. I got more and more frustrated, to the point where I started talking to the Germans in German to slag off the Spanish women. The three of us agreed that they shouldn’t have been allowed to climb, and united in our anger we trudged on up the ever-steepening slopes.

I could see clouds coming in from the east, but we continued at our interminably slow pace. The Germans taught me useful insults and we cursed our way up. By 2pm we had only a few tens of metres to go, but had to wait while one of the Spanish women overcame terrible laziness to motivate herself to carry on. At about 2.30pm we finally made it to the crater’s edge, at the same time as the clouds, and for a few minutes I was speechless with rage as visibility was reduced to zero. Luckily it was patchy cloud and soon after the summit was uncovered, revealing a small patch of glowing lava, steaming away. Soon a small explosion sent lava spattering around inside the crater, and then a much larger explosion hurled glowing chunks to some height above the crater rim. We could feel the heat strongly, and despite my annoyance with the Spaniards I was enjoying this.

We walked a little way around the crater to a better viewpoint, and I took as many photos and videos as I could. Unfortunately the cold meant that my digital camera batteries ran out ridiculously quickly and I only managed to catch one small explosion on video. Then suddenly the earth shook and the lava lake fountained out a huge spray of molten rock, which covered the area we’d been standing just a few minutes before, and sent some other climbers running for cover. “We’d better get out of here”, said the guide. Having climbed for five hours I’d wanted to spend a little bit more than 20 minutes at the top, and I told him I’d wait until I’d seen one more explosion, and would catch them up. The Spaniards set off down, I saw one more good explosion and felt the tremendous heat from the molten rock, before reluctantly heading down.

I was still in a bit of a bad mood, but when I realised that our plan for descending a mile and a half back to the snowline was to sit down and slide I got a lot happier. The slopes were so steep that we quickly built up tremendous speed, and I had to use my ice axe to stop myself from sliding out of control. Although I feared that it would result in me picking up fragments of optics and electronics at the bottom of the mountain, I decided to take some footage of the descent, and managed not to drop the camera. Barely 45 minutes later we were back down at the snowline, and even though the Spanish women even managed to be really slow at sliding down icy slopes, we returned to Pucón pretty pleased with the day. I spent the evening watching the mountain top glowing red in the distance from the shores of the lake at the edge of town.

The next day I realised that despite my best efforts with sun block, I’d missed a bit. The sunlight reflecting off the ice had burned my septum, and it was astonishingly painful. I spent the day moisturising intensively and trying not to breathe through my nose. I was aching from the climb despite its slow pace, and spent most of the day relaxing by the lake. But I had to move on, and at 5pm I headed for Temuco, to catch the overnight train from there to Santiago.

Crazy exploding volcanoes

Sep 20, 2000 in Central America 2000

Crazy exploding volcanoes

We had met two Germans, Colom and Sylvia, down by the falls. Colom had a pickup truck, and when we saw that the volcano was visible, he said he would drive out towards it after nightfall, and invited us along. We gladly accepted.

When darkness fell, a distinct orange glow could be seen over the volcano, and when Colom called around with his truck, we leapt keenly aboard. It was a spectacular drive out along the road past the volcano, with the wind in our hair, fireflies flashing around, and the volcano glowing high in the sky. However, as we watched, the clouds began to lower, and the volcano disappeared from view. Soon it was pelting down with rain. We sat inside the cab of the pickup until it had eased off, and then drove on.

It was not long before the top of the volcano emerged again, and we decided to stop and watch it. All the rivers which run off the volcano are heated by the magma, and several places along the road here channel streams into pools. We stopped at one of these and sat in the thermal waters, watching the truly awesome sight of the volcano erupting.

Eventually we had to leave. We stopped at a café by the roadside for a bite to eat and watched the volcano from there, but now we were round the other side from the eruptions, and all we could see was the glow. It had been an amazing sight, and we hoped we would see it again.

The next day, we planned to hike back along the road, and make our way to a viewpoint we had seen signposted the day before. We were going to watch the eruptions from there as the sun set. We bought food and drink and were all set to go, when suddenly Moh was afflicted by what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in these parts. We had to give the walk a miss, but later on when it was dark, the eruptions could be seen again, so we went for a walk around town, and took some photos.

Much later, I learned a painful lesson from the photo here. Someone asked me if they could publish it in a book. I was very excited by this and agreed. Sadly, the person concerned never paid me as promised, and also lost the slide. So, all I have now is the poor-quality highly compressed JPEG from a budget scanner that you see above. Ah well – I’ll just have to go back to Arenal some time.