Articles tagged with "volcano"
Osorno is famous for looking a bit like Mount Fuji. Its perfect cone looked pretty good across Lago LLanquihue.
Volcán Calbuco had erupted in May. I’d gone to see it, but I’d been out of luck and the weather was bad for two days. I’d gone back to Santiago without seeing anything. Now I was back in Puerto Varas, and it was really upsetting to see how close the volcano was to the town. If I’d had clear skies, I’d have seen epic, epic views of the ash column surging up into the upper atmosphere.
One evening I was at the lake and I’d just set a series of photos going, when I saw a bright light near the summit of the volcano. I thought for a moment that it was lava, but could soon see that it was skiers descending. The mountain was officially closed so I didn’t know who it could be – whether they’d sneaked up there or were volcanologists who’d been to look at the crater, or what. I found out later that it was mountain guides, protesting about the closure of the mountain. They were arguing that it was safe to visit the crater now and that their livelihoods were being ruined. The protest was successful – a few days later, access to the mountain was permitted.
After four years working in Chile, my contract had finished and my work visa was expiring. I had to leave the country to return as a tourist if I wanted to stay longer. I did want to stay longer – the absolute last thing I wanted to do was go back to Europe just at the beginning of winter. So I went on a trip to Argentina. I headed first of all to Pucón, to see Villarrica erupting. It had had a big eruption in March that was over before I even had a chance to jump on a bus and head down, but it was still more active than usual.
We flew back towards Hilo, over the forests where the lava is currently flowing. In the day time it’s not possible to see the glow of the lava, but we could see where the flow fronts were from the steam created as they flow into the forest.
There aren’t many lava lakes in the world – only five or six, and Kilauea has two of them. I saw the second one as we flew over Pu’u O’o crater.
I’d hiked across Kilauea Iki crater a few days earlier and now we flew over it on our way between the caldera and Pu’u O’o.
I drove back to Hilo. On my final morning in Hawaii I took a helicopter flight over the volcano. I got very lucky with the weather – the pilot said it was the kind of day they get once a month. Often when they fly over the caldera they can’t see too much because of clouds and fumes, but today we could see down into the crater to the lava lake.
After acclimatising at Hale Pohaku, I headed back to Mauna Kea early the next morning for the actual climb. The trip to Hale Pohaku had definitely helped – I had felt a little bit out of breath walking around the day before, but I felt fine today and climbed quickly. There were fantastic views of Mauna Loa, with all the old lava flows clearly visible.
I could have spent a month on the Big Island and still not got bored of going up to the crater every night to see the glow of the lava.
I spent a lot of my time around Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting since 1983. The lava lake in the summit crater looked awesome at night, and the Milky Way overhead made the crater’s edge a pretty stunning place to be.
After the conference, I headed straight for the Big Island, and hired a car to travel around there for a week. I wanted to climb Mauna Kea, and I thought a little bit of acclimatisation to altitude would help, so I drove to Hale Pohaku, 2800m above sea level, and spent a couple of hours there.
Volcán Calbuco erupted in April 2015. Spectacular photos began to appear of towering ash columns lit up by lightning and the glow of molten rock. I decided I had to go and see it.
May in the south of Chile is not a time of reliable good weather. But I checked the forecast and the portents were pretty good. A bit of rain followed by sunshine and blue skies was predicted for the two days I had available, so I headed to the Alameda and got a night bus to Puerto Varas.
The morning I arrived was grey and overcast. I walked down to Lago Llanquihue and hung around with spots of drizzle falling. I was just 20 miles from the peak of the volcano, which was, so I supposed, roaring away and pumping ash up into the atmosphere. But in the placid early morning it was impossible to imagine.
While I waited, the sky began to clear a tiny bit. I could see blue sky overhead, just about, through the thick mist. A passer by asked me if I’d come to see the volcano. I said yes, slightly self consciously, thinking that people who live so close to an active volcano might not appreciate gawpers at a time like this. But he didn’t seem to mind my intrusion, and told me there had been amazing views but that all this cloud might actually be caused by the ash from the volcano.
That day, the skies stayed grey. The forecast was for better weather the following day, but the forecast was a lie. I walked out of town, towards the volcanic exclusion zone which was being enforced just a few kilometers away, but saw not even the slightest hint that a major eruption was going on so close by.
I went back to Puerto Varas, and sat in a cafe whiling away the time and occasionally checking to see if the weather was improving. While I was there, idly checking my change after my 17th espresso of the day, I discovered that I’d got one of the famous “CHIIE” 50 peso coins, minted with a misprint in 2008. I’d been looking for one ever since I moved to Chile so I felt slightly happy about that.
But the weather never improved. I had not seen any evidence that there was even a volcano just outside town, let alone that it was erupting. I got a night bus back to Santiago.
It was good weather again at the top, and we relaxed in the sun on the edge of Red Crater, which last erupted in 1926.
White Island was too volcanic for sulphur mining to be viable in the long run. Factory owners probably don’t mind too much if their workers are swept out to sea by pyroclastic flows – workers can be replaced – but if the factory itself keeps getting destroyed, that’s a deal breaker.
There were fumaroles everywhere, steaming and roaring and building up the sulphur deposits that used to be mined on the island.
The island was pretty epic, with lots of geothermal activity in the crater. The volcano had erupted in 2012 and 2013 so it was definitely possible that another eruption was imminent.
We went on a road trip around the North Island, and spent a few days in Rotorua. While we were there we took a trip out to White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano.
The hike up to the top of Marum volcano was a whole different experience to the short walk to Yasur. It involved 1000m of climbing through thick forest, and it took us about three hours to get to the edge of the ash plains. My guide, Solomon, told me about the fastest people he’d ever gone up with, and told me that a German woman was the record holder. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how fast she’d gone, so I guess I didn’t match her time, but three hours was pretty good going anyway. Another hour or so took us to the East Camp, and it was another 45 minutes to the crater’s edge.
It was cold and forbidding up there, and the summit was in thick cloud when we got there. Visibility was just a few metres. Somewhere unseen far below was a lava lake but it was looking like I might not see it. Solomon was pessimistic. In the murk I could see a large collection of tents close to the crater’s edge. They turned out to be a New Zealand documentary crew who had camped there for a couple of weeks to be sure of seeing the lava lake.
We waited in the cold and the rain, and we got lucky. The clouds began to thin out, and I caught a glimpse of deep red down in the crater. Then suddenly, just for a few minutes, the weather cleared completely and I got to see one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. To see molten rock frothing and boiling like tomato soup was something unbelievable.
In the morning I’d had the volcano to myself. In the evening, all the tourists on Tanna converged on the crater’s edge to enjoy the show. About 75 people were on the volcano this evening, and it made for a very different atmosphere. I was glad I’d had the place to myself in the morning. I was also glad that I’d got used to how the volcano is already. The first large explosion triggered brief panic among the tourists, but I was nonchalant. Quickly, everyone got used to it, and later explosions didn’t have the same effect.
Late in the night it began to rain again. I left the roaring volcano behind, and headed back down to the campsite.
After an explosion which showered the area around the crater with lava bombs, the larger ones shattered into pieces when they landed and then rolled back down into the crater.
I headed down from the crater at about 7.15am and I was back at the campsite by 8am. I slept for most of the day, finally shaking off the mystery illness, and in the afternoon I walked back up the path to spend some more time watching the very insides of the Earth spewing out. As night fell, the deep red glow of the lava came out again.
After the heavy rain of the previous night, there was a lot of steam coming from the volcano. During the night it was lit up by the lava below, but after daybreak, the glow was too faint to see. Occasional changes of wind sent the plume towards me, engulfing me in sulphurous fumes.
I wanted to stay all day and it was very hard to leave. By 7am it was already getting hot, and I was running low on water, but I kept on waiting for the next explosion. The strange illness had completely passed, and I could enjoy the activity without worrying about the possibility of falling unconscious into the crater.
I spent three hours on the crater’s edge and I had the place to myself. In the night, the volcano felt incredibly close and huge, as the lava lit up the steam rising from the crater floor. As day came, the glow faded into the light, and after the sun rose, the volcano seemed much tamer. I’d got used to the violence of the large explosions and stopped wondering if I should hare it down when they happened.
I’d started to feel a bit ill on the journey across the island, and whatever it was got suddenly really bad just after we arrived at the campsite. I was shaking and dizzy as I set up my tent, and I felt like death. Lucky my tent only takes 5 minutes to put up otherwise I might not have managed it. I crawled inside and slept. But I was here to see the volcano, and Thomas said he’d drive me up to the crater at 4am so that I could see it in the night time. So I got up at 3.45am, and fortunately the strange illness was passing. I was still not feeling good but was at least capable of standing.
So we drove up to the crater, and then Thomas led the way up the path to the crater’s edge, and around the rim to a good viewpoint. Then he headed back down and left me alone with the volcano.
It was a mind-blowing place to be. The volcano was unbelievably loud, in the silence of the night, and roared constantly. Within a few minutes there was the first large explosion, and it was breathtaking. The earth shook, the crater roared and glowing boulders shot high into the air.
Vanuatu had been high on my list of places to go for a really long time so I was incredibly excited to finally go there. What I wanted to see was volcanic activity, and so after an early flight from New Zealand to Port Vila, I flew on to Tanna, to go and see Yasur volcano.
The flight to Tanna was short, and it was a hot sunny day when I landed. I met Thomas, the owner of the place I’d booked to stay, which was on the other side of the island from the airport, and we set off on the drive there.
While we were on the way, the weather began to turn. It got cloudy and cold, and soon there were spots of rain. After an hour or so, a torrential downpour started. We made slow progress on the terrible road across the island, and eventually night fell. As the weather began to clear, we suddenly we turned off the road, and drove onto the ash plain which surrounds the volcano to take a short cut. In the dark I saw the looming cone of the volcano looking incredibly nearby, with a bright red glow coming from the top.
We arrived at Thomas’s place in the night, and I set up my tent. We were about 45 minutes walk from the crater’s edge of the volcano. The sky glowed red as the clouds reflected the light of the lava, and I could hear the roar of the explosions throughout the quiet night.
We headed to some high altitudes, and took a trip to Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti. I’d been here a few weeks earlier, and at 4000m there had been plenty of snow. We couldn’t drive right to the lagoons, so we had a short hike over the snow to get to a place where we could see them. Today, all that snow had gone. We drove down to Laguna Miñiques, which we hadn’t even been able to hike to before, and then to Miscanti. A lone vicuña was drinking from the lake in the distance.
The rain kept on coming down and it looked like we would go back to Santiago without even having seen the volcano. But on our final morning, as we walked to the bus station, there it was, steaming away under blue skies. It was enough to tempt Martha to stay another day and have a go at climbing it, but the word was that after days of rain it would be way too icy to climb it. So we all headed back to Santiago. Hopefully I’ll be back in Pucón before too long, to climb again and get better eruption footage than I managed to before.
Two weeks after the trip to Mendoza, Amy, Martha and I decided to head out of Santiago for another adventure. This time we went south, to Pucón where we wanted to see if we could see Volcán Villarrica erupting. I’d climbed it twice before, seeing incredible lava fountains on my first trip in 2005, and then getting defeated by ice near the top when I returned in 2011. I was still recovering from back surgery so there would be no climbing for me this time but I was hoping at least to see some lava in the distance.
But this was winter in the south of Chile. That means rain – that means more rain than even a homesick Brit can handle. Blue skies on arrival soon gave way to leaden clouds that spitefully watered us throughout the weekend.
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.
It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.
But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.
At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.
We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.
We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.
Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.
That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.
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.
We took the road towards Bolivia. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towered over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores.
We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything similar happening again.
Then we went on down to Putre. The bus driver said that now we were at just 3,500m again, we could “run, jump, dance and play”. And it was true – I felt much better for the slight descent. We stopped here for some food and I chatted to some of my fellow passengers. Most were Chileans on holiday here from other parts. I spoke to one couple from Santiago, who were interested that I’d come to Chile to work. They’d heard it said many times that Chile had the best skies in the world but they said they’d always wondered if it was actually true. I assured them it was, and said they should check out the skies around La Silla or Paranal some time.
I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.
Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail.
I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts.
The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of steaming water, and soon reached places where snow lay on the ground. Higher and higher the trail went, and eventually I reached the clouds. Cairns marked the route but occasionally I had to wait for a few minutes for a break in the thick fog to show me the way ahead. I slogged across what seemed like a huge snowy plateau, cairn by cairn, and the cloud was so thick that I almost walked into the Hrafntinnusker hut before I saw it.
I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. A small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there were busloads of tourists. I wandered around the huge rocks trying to avoid the crowds.
Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Just a few hours after standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa, I was back in London, getting a night bus home.
I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.
But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain.
In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road to high altitude, and across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited so I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned out in any case that the trails were all closed due to ice.
So I was limited to the upper cable car station only. I breathed the cool thin air, and looked out over the caldera. Far below, a convoy of Hell’s Angels was going along the road.
A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which I mostly disagreed with, but which was nevertheless useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could make sure we covered the points he raised, and avoid a referee asking the same things.
Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio.
Our plan had been to go to Alausí to get the train to Riobamba, via the 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 we only had time to visit the studios of Argentinian artist Ariel Dawi, and the awesomely 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. Baños was evacuated in 1999 after a big eruption, 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.
I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink lots of times already, but despite its supposed stimulant qualities it hadn’t really done much for me. But this time it did. I don’t know what Roy did differently with this brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.
Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we’d come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn’t seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they’d given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.
By now I was feeling less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.
Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising.
At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan and Roy had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.
I was possibly more tired by now than I’d ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I’d eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn’t decide whether I was too tired to eat or too hungry to sleep. In the end I fell fast asleep for an hour, then woke up with such a raging hunger that I literally ran out to find food, and ate two full meals.
That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I’d been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.
I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.
At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.
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, and 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 furious 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.
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.
We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.
Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.
Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.
The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.
As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.
We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.
After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.
When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.