Just a few weeks ago, big-mountain skier and mountaineer Chris Davenport skied 15 major volcanoes in 14 days. But while such a feat is reserved for the most elite of athletes, volcanoes are becoming (pardon the pun) a new hot thing to explore for more mainstream adventurers.
Whether it’s a technical ascent up Mt. Rainier (yep, the fifth-highest peak in the U.S. is also the country’s tallest volcano) or a casual stroll to the rim of the sulfur-smoky Volcan Poás in Costa Rica (that's another of the country's volcanoes, Arenal, at the left), exploring volcanoes offers some of the same challenges of hiking and mountain climbing, plus, depending on your location, the extra thrill factor of hot lava and steaming geysers. Not surprisingly, more operators are adding volcano tours to their itineraries, but one that’s been doing it for years is REI Adventures, which offers trips for various skill levels to destinations including southern Italy, Yellowstone National Park, and Nicaragua. I spoke to REI adventure travel program manager Justin Wood for tips on safety, cool volcanic terms, and what it’s really like to walk around in an active volcano.
ST: The obvious question that many people have: Is hiking up an active volcano safe?
JW: Anytime you hike on an active volcano, there is the risk of volcanic activity. The reward, of course, is the beauty, and that’s the tradeoff. On a mountain like Mount Etna that erupts so frequently, we make sure we go up with a certified mountain guide with special training on assessing the danger and how to walk around in the crater. That’s a requirement of the Italian government – you have to travel with somebody who has that training. On an active volcano, it’s really important to travel with a guide who knows what they’re doing.
ST: Of course, the danger also is part of the appeal for adventurous types.
JW: Of course. On the most basic level, volcanoes have fascinated humans from our earliest beginnings. When you climb a volcano, you have a spectacular view, you get a great workout, and you have all this cool geothermal and thermal activity: geysers, thermal pools, lava flow. The bottom line is you’re face-to-face with the Earth’s molten core. And our technology and monitoring systems have improved dramatically, so volcanoes are becoming more approachable.
ST: Tell us about your experience climbing Mt. Etna in Sicily, which as readers may not know is Europe’s highest active volcano at 10,899 feet and one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
JW: I’ve climbed a lot of volcanoes, and my heart was thumping. The crater is surreal. It’s recently active, so you can tell that when you’re walking around, you’re walking on newly formed rock. You know that underneath that crust there’s a really precarious situation going on. It’s a really unique environment.
ST: How does one pack for a volcano hike?
JW: You need a good layered system of clothing, because in mountain environments, the weather can change so fast. Some mountains require very serious technical efforts, and some are just hikes, but in either case, you need a good base layer, insulation, and an outer waterproof layer. If it’s a hiking volcano, trekking poles are really great and can save your knees a lot of wear and tear. And bring a bandanna, as volcanoes can be dusty and sometimes have gases coming from fumaroles. Sunscreen and sunglasses are really important, as sunlight is intense the higher you get. And for footwear, if you don’t have strong ankles, a boot with a high top is important for ankle support, and it keeps things out of your shoes.
ST: Give us some basic volcano terminology.
JW: One really fun word is pyroclastics. That’s all of the fragmented rock material that comes from a volcano: rocks, crystals, ash, all the things that are moving at hundreds of miles an hour when a volcano first erupts. A fumarole is just a vent or an opening where the steam or sulfur and other gases escape from a volcano. They’re really stinky and colorful and cool, but they can burn your eyes, so be careful with those. And a fun thing that you can learn about on a tour is all the different kinds of volcanoes. That adds a lot of interesting context to the experience. Not only does that help you understand the risks, but how the volcano was formed and why it behaves the way it does.
ST: If people want to try a volcano hike without booking a tour, what tips do you have?
JW: Look for a good hiking volcano that doesn’t have a lot of snow or ice, with a good established trail where there will be other hikers. There are a lot of great options out there for people. One is Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona. From the top you can see 360-degree views of the Grand Canyon all the way to Sedona and the Painted Desert.
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