Monday, July 23, 2012

Climbing Volcanoes

Path leading from the summit of Arthur's Seat

We are trying hard to reach the summit in time. But we are late. 350 million years late, to be exact. This volcano stopped breathing before the dinosaurs came to life.

I am in Edinburgh this week, and to my surprise, I found out that there is an interesting hike to the top of an extinct volcano, Arthur's Seat, right in the middle of the city.

Radical Road, a path under the Salisbury Crags

St. Anthony's Chapel

Arthur's Seat is only 250 meters high and roughly 220 meters above the surrounding city streets. It is a nice walk or climb, depending on the chosen route. The easiest route is literally a walk in the park, as this area is a part of the Holyrood Park. Even little children and dogs can make it. Rain, bad visibility, or wrong choice of route can make things far more challenging, however. On our family excursion, hay fever and uneven pavement in the city streets caused more trouble than the hill itself. (By the way, I can warmly recommend the medical system in UK. They have expert doctors and first visits to the emergency room are free of charge.)

Levitation practice in the chapel

Caving near St. Margaret's Loch

A good place to start the trip is on the parking lot near the Scottish Parliament house. Be sure to visit the ruins of the St. Anthony's Chapel near St. Margaret's Loch on your way up or down the mountain. The ruins are very beautiful. Just behind the ruins there is also a small cave; look to your right above the lake.

The last two meters to the summit

Even dogs can make it to the summit

The easy path to the summit goes behind the Salisbury Crags, not under them

In any case, the volcano is cold, no craters can be identified, and there are no lava flows. Still, the rock formations are interesting and the views superb. To have such a mountain right in the city is exceptional.

This experience inspired me to write about some of my earlier adventures in climbing volcanoes, some which have been on more exciting volcanoes.

Mt. Pinatubo

A couple of years ago I took a day off before heading home from a meeting in the Philippines. I wanted to visit a volcano, and Philippines has many to choose from. There are usually a few that are actively spewing lava. (I remember once seeing a news article about the destruction of an eruption in the Philippines and ensuing evacuations on my browser while at the same my mail client displayed an e-mail urging volcano enthusiasts to travel right now to see the same mountain.)

I considered Mt. Mayo, an active and beautiful volcano. However, I ended up choosing a visit on the infamous, but momentarily quiet Mt. Pinatubo instead, as there were access restrictions to reach the summit of Mayo. As everyone knows, Mt. Pinatubo erupted with catastrophic consequences in 1991.

Warming up in the crater

Walking towards the mountain in the middle of ash columns

Crater lake

The trip started from congested Manila. There were plenty of "Jeepneys", unique conversions of Jeeps to public transports. Even if Mt. Pinatubo is only 80 kilometers from Manila, the traffic and road conditions can easily lead to spending three hours just to get to drop-off point. 

Jeepneys in Manila

The mountain is within the area of the Crow Military Reservation. A permission is required and an permit for an overnight stay can be particularly hard to acquire. But I was lucky to get the necessary permits, thanks to the friendly Philippines army folks. Every tourist entering the area has to have two soldiers as security guards. I'm not quite sure what dangers they were protecting us from, but all the soldiers that I met on the trip were very friendly. (Except maybe the ones that bombed the road right in front of us on our return trip, from aircraft. But maybe it was an exercise run, and I think our driver knew to stop right before the bombing was about to happen.)

Air raid in front of us

We used 4x4 vehicles to carry us nearer the mountain within the reservation. The area around Pinatubo is a mixture of hills, rivers, and sand fields. We must have crossed the same river 50 times going towards the mountain. 

Eventually the path became too narrow even for the 4x4 and we had to start walking. There are several paths to get to the crater. We followed the river, which was about a three hour walk. On return trip we we used a shortcut that takes under an hour. The hills around the river consisted mostly of packed sand and ash. This is an entirely new environment and rains can easily cause lahar flows, slides, or even the collapse of parts of the mountain.

The hike with a heavy backpack was tough, but eventually we made it to the crater wall. Beautiful views greeted us. In particular, the colors in the lake and the surrounding walls were magnificent.

Swimming on the cold side of the crater lake

I planned to spend the night in the crater, so I had a tent with me. I also took a swim the crater lake. The water was pleasant, not too cold. But on the other side of the lake there are places were the water is actually boiling. We used a small canoe to explore other parts of the lake, and were hoping not to fall over, as the water can indeed be quite hot.

The water on the shore is boiling. Do not tip over in the canoe here!

The crater seemed to have almost permanent clouds couple of hundred meters on top of the lake level, hiding the highest crater walls. This may be due to the hot steam rising from the lake. It was hard to believe that just 17 years ago this was an inferno. The crater is green, blue and silent. 

Canoeing on the crater lake

On our return trip, there was plenty of excitement in addition to the bombs... we were on the sand plains, probably doing 50 km/h when the vehicle suddenly drops on its side, and I see the back wheel run past us. The wheel has come off! 

We were lucky that this happened in this place, on some of the steep mountain roads or river banks this might have caused the vehicle to turn over. That would have been very bad, as we were sitting in the back of an open truck.

It was surprisingly hard to find the missing wheel, it took several minutes to spot it. On closer investigation, the threading had come off from the bolts. The vehicle was probably used day in and day out on the same route, taking constant beating. 

The wheel has come off!

Only the axle remains

But no problem, our 11-person expedition had two vehicles, so those of us who did not have to stay with the broken car loaded ourselves on the other one and headed back. All seats in this vehicle were taken, someone was even sitting on top of the hood. 

We found the tire!

There are several guides that can take you to Mt. Pinatubo. I used e-Philippines Adventure Travel and I was generally very pleased with their service. Recommended.


It was like a scene from the Lost TV series. I woke up after a boat ride and found myself on tiny tropical island with an overwhelming volcano almost pushing a tiny village to the sea. Smoke was coming out from the mountain. Can this place really exist in Europe?


I was in Stromboli, one of the Aeolian islands off the coast of Sicily. I had flown to Sicily for a couple of days for some volcano fun. Straight after arrival, I drove from the airport to Etna and climbed to the top despite various difficulties (bad visibility, ongoing volcanic action, missing the lift down, being alone in the night on the mountain, etc). Maybe not the wisest climb that I've ever done. But that was just a warm-up for the real goal of the trip, to see the wonderful lava fountains of Stromboli.

Moon, as seen on the descent from Stromboli in the night

Stromboli church

Stromboli is perhaps the destination for the travelers who are interested in volcanoes but not too keen on extreme mountain climbing or going out to unstable environments. Stromboli spews 100-meter lava fountains every couple of minutes, but is still relatively safe and easily reachable.

The inhabited part of the island, as seen from the mountain

To get to Stromboli, you have to use one of the boat lines that runs through the Aeolian islands. I took a boat from Messina, and booked a guide with Magmatrek, the main local climbing company. You can find their offices next to the church. Contacting them over the Internet or via phone in English can be difficult, however.

On the top, with a view of the craters below

A lava fountain

The climb to the summit begins from the tiny village between the mountain and the sea, in the afternoon. You have to climb a vertical kilometer, but other than that, the walk is easy. The idea is to arrive right before sunset, so that you get to see the wonderful colors of the sunset, and then get to see the lava fountains in darkness. The sounds and scenery are exceptional even during the day, but in the night the experience is out of this world.

This is why you need a helmet.
That is not dust on the lens, it is freshly brewed stones flying around.

Sunset from the top of Stromboli

Once the guides tell you that it is time to go down, you will descend the mountain by jumping down on soft ash for about half a kilometer. This can be a lot of fun, but don't count on having any dust-free items on you afterwards. If the sky is clear, the view of the moon on the sea is very beautiful.

Walking up on the ash-covered mountain

More to come

I have more stories on volcano tours. But I'll save them for future articles. Note that there are many skiable volcanoes as well, e.g., Etna, Mt. Ruapehu in New Zealand, Chillan in Chile, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and Mt. Shasta in California. And on my upcoming trip to Argentina I hope to find some more!

Photo credits (c) 2009-2012 by Jari Arkko, Lasse Arkko, and Janne Arkko

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