Five climbers died Tuesday climbing an active volcano in the Philippines, following an unexpected eruption that spewed out massive rocks.
We talked to seasoned adventurer and National Geographic contributor Mark Jenkins about the allure and danger of scaling volcanoes.
So there are obvious risks associated with climbing volcanoes.
Well there's molten lava isn't there? I mean there are risks that don't occur on any other type of mountain.
We were with local guides in Virunga National Park [in the Congo] and they showed us a couple of places where the trail used to go and it no longer goes there because the earth has collapsed and there's just a big hole. And so if you were just tromping along not paying any attention on the trail, you'd walk right off the edge. You've got sections of the mountain where previous lava flows have hollowed it out and so there's just this big pit—it's a pitfall.
I understand why people will take risks. Looking down into a crater and seeing the bowels of the earth bubbling up is extraordinary. There's nothing like it on the planet. It's more fascinating and more beautiful than the view from the summit of Mount Everest. (Related: Read about Jenkins' Everest climb as part of National Geographic's Field Test: On Everest)
The molten lava is like the blood of the planet. It's what's circulating underneath the earth everywhere, it's what causes the movement of tectonic plates and to see that, in these little tiny places on the planet, bubble up to the surface is to really see inside earth.
So, is it foolhardy? No. Do you need to be careful? Yes. Do you need to have knowledge? Absolutely.
How do you prepare yourself for climbing a volcano, taking these risks into account?
You need to have studied your volcanology. You need to know the mountain. You should have asked locals. Locals always know so much about the region, so anytime that I'm near a volcano or climbing a volcano, I get local guides to tell me what I should do.
You also need to know the science. Has this volcano erupted recently? What are its primary lava flows? Which direction do they usually go? What's the geologic makeup of the mountain, so you can have an idea?
Just to run up some volcano without any knowledge of what you're looking at, why you're looking at it, how it's formed, what's the geology, what's the geography, I think you're diminishing your own experience. Take the time to learn something before you go.
And then finally, this applies to all mountaineering: you need to be incredibly surefooted. You need to be a mountain goat. And if you are unsure on your feet, as a person, do not climb volcanoes. You need to be nimble and capable and quick and if you can't be, then this is the wrong thing. Do golf.
How widespread is volcano climbing? Is it a popular venture?
No, I don't think so. Certainly dormant volcanoes, which are just kind of like hills like we've got all throughout Central America, I think that's relatively popular. But climbing volcanoes that are active, that are moving, I think it's kind of a rare group of people [for whom] that's their goal.
Do you think the reason people climb active volcanoes has to do with the danger aspect?
Some of them.
There's nothing wrong with danger—it just has to be calculated. Calculated risk versus foolhardy risk, and that is to know how far you can push it, to have a fairly clear idea of what could happen. Play out your options: if this happens, what do we do, if this happens, what do we do.
And to always be willing to turn around. Live for another day. There's another volcano somewhere, you want to see that one, too. (See video:Scientists Descend into Lava Lake in Eastern Africa)
Talk about the similarities between climbing volcanoes and climbing mountains.
Volcanoes sometimes have more unpredictability than a mountain. I mean, a mountain you have landslides, rock falls, glaciers, ice falls; you could have avalanches. Those things are typically uncommon for a volcano because it's so warm. But you've got other things—you could have eruptions; you could have flows that you need to dodge.
Certainly climbing a volcano is generally hiking. It's not that often that you're doing technical climbing. Sometimes getting down into an old crater you're using technical climbing. But more often than not, most volcano climbers are hiking; they're not technically climbing up a volcano. So in that sense, there's a huge difference.
In terms of preparation, physically, to be capable of moving quickly uphill and downhill, to be surefooted, and then to have done your homework about the geography you're moving through, those are exactly the same.
Have you climbed a live volcano? Share your experience by commenting below.