The Lonquimay volcano

Never trust a sleeping beauty!

The Lonquimay volcano is a true beauty. Located deep in the Andes, neighboring several other volcanos, surrounded by Araucaria forests, and usually sheeted in an impeccable white cover, it is the kind of mountain that invites climbers. Moreover, it is not overly trampled by other people; although there is a very modest ski lift on the southern flank, it sees few visitors in winter time, and is totally vacant during summer.

This photo, and the following, were taken during two of the five trips I have made there until now. The first trip was in mid winter, with about 10 people from the University mountaineering group. We got it all: Snow, ice, storm, extreme cold, but also some very good photo weather!

The easiest route from the forest, where the road ends, to the summit, can be clearly made out on this picture. Starting from 1400 meter above sea level, it takes the climber straight over the relatively flat snow field in the foreground, towards the narrow strip of exposed rock at the right side. That strip is followed to its end, and then all trust must be placed on the crampons, because the grayish area from the tip of the black strip upwards is solid, slippery ice. After two hours or so walking up the ice field, the sharp ridge leading to the summit from the right is reached. The climb continues through some deep snow, over some ice, and smaller rocky areas, to the summit at 2822 meter.

Here is the beginning of the rocky stretch. It's actually quite an easy walk, only the effort required for walking uphill, and the strong wind, make it a little more exhausting than a trip along the beach.

Note the deep gorge at the left, It runs parallel to the ridge, and ends only very far up the volcano. Down in the second half of this page, we will come back to this gorge, so keep it in mind!

An iced surface illuminated by the full sun is really bright. So much in fact, that the blue sky is too dark to get it into my scanner! At 30 bit resolution, it was either wash out the ice, or blacken the sky. I opted for the latter. On the original slide the sky is a deep, intense blue!

This is the surrounding landscape seen from the upper end of the rocky path. This is already above the average mountaintops!

The bad news was that clouds were coming in. And they did it at a fast pace! These are not just local clouds, but are those that come in front of a major bad-weather front.

For the moment being, we pressed on. Carpe diem. But we took careful note of compass bearings and altimeter readings, just in case. It was well possible that the clouds would soon rob us of all visibility. And this trip happened years before GPS came into the reach of private people, so we had to navigate just by compass, altimeter and feeling.

Tackling the ice field. This one is one single piece of solid ice, covering much of the volcano! Even with an ice ax it's not easy to scrape off a little! It's so solid that the crampons don't press any visible marks into it. But they hold on, as long as the spikes have been properly sharpened! The first time I tried, it was scary to walk just on the tips of the spikes, without so much as scratching the ice. But the crampons held, and soon I was enjoying the very easy walk!

But the weather continued to darken down, as this photo convincingly shows. If I had been on my own, I would have returned way before reaching this place. But I was not the group leader, in fact I was no more than the last appendage to the group, a total greenhorn, carried along only because I had promised to take some good pictures, which were always in high demand!

Return. Halfway up the ice field it became clear that this day was not intended to let us make the summit. We spent an hour sitting on our piolets (have you ever tried that?), waiting for the weather to make up its mind, until it decided to become downright nasty. A howling wind came up. The thermometer was at minus 24 degrees Celsius, and thanks to windchill the perceived temperature was such that several of us had serious trouble keeping any feeling at all in toes and fingers. Not to speak of our noses, which simply froze to stones.

During all of our walking on the ice field, we had to use safety ropes, each one joining three people together. There were some patches of powder snow covering the ice, like shown here. On the ice the crampons hold very well, but when you walk through a snow layer, it can happen that the snow is too thick to let the crampon spikes touch ice. Then you slip, fall, and without a safety rope you slide down several hundred meters, slam into some rock, and make the headline in the newspapers. It's very hard to stop oneself once set in motion on such a surface!

We had several minor mishaps, but always the other people on the rope were able to stop the fallen friend safely. The hardest case is when the one at the top of the rope slips. Then the second one has to resist a strong jerk on the rope, when it comes taut.

I let a lens cap fall down. It started sliding downslope almost in slow motion, but was out of reach before I could grab it. Then it picked up more speed... I never saw it again. Someday in a few thousand years, some archaeologist will find it and wonder what kind of cult object that one is!

Down in camp, we marveled at the little things that a keen eye can always discover in places were ordinary people see just "dirt and snow". Little things like this, for example. What happened here?

Simple: There were several streaks of snow blown by the wind over the dirt slope. Then, a clump of dirt got loose and stated rolling down. As it rolled over snow, the snow stuck to the dirt. As it rolled over dirt, the dirt stuck to the snow. And after rolling over a fair number of such streaks of snow and dirt, a nicely layered wheel built up! Then the wheel had the bad luck to come across a wider stretch of soft snow, where it slowed down, lost balance, and fell. The sun melted the snow that was in contact with the larger clumps of dirt, and then these clumps started sinking in while melting the snow around! After all, dark dirt gets warm in the sun, and white snow doesn't...

Little things, useless to know perhaps, but interesting enough, when bad weather prevents you from making the summit!

In the evening it started to snow again. The wind picked up, and soon we had a real blizzard! It had been a good idea to set up the camp down in the Araucaria forest, or we would have been blown away. Still, we had to kick the snow off the tents every hour. And then, it stopped snowing, and the temperature went down into unexpected range... Our max/min thermometer, which reads and records down to -25 degrees Celsius, pegged! I never learned how cold it really got. I only learned that Lonquimay in winter is a really lousy cold area...

Next morning we got up in the very first light. Not that we planned to do much, in the deep fresh snow, but either we got up, or we would have frozen in place... And then, being awake, up, and very cold, looking into a deep blue sky, the crazy idea was proposed to climb the volcano this day, with fresh snow and all!

Needless to say, it was an extremely exhausting task to climb in the deep powder snow. It was just 20 cm thick down in the forest, but at half the volcano's height the snow was waist-deep. We took turns opening a path through it, but soon I was too exhausted to do this job, and was spared from that duty. Two hours later, only 3 of the 8 people were still able to play snowplower.

And at the 2700 meter level, I simply could not go on. I was totally exhausted. I asked the rest of the group to leave me there, I would try to slowly follow on, or return. But the group leader didn't want to hear any of this. And I got a demonstration of mountain camaraderie that I will never forget: Two of the strongest guys tied themselves to a rope, engaged the rope to my harness, and literally hauled me up the last stretch of the Lonquimay!  Thanks, friends!

Here is a sight of the Lonquimay's extinct crater. It's about the size of a football field, filled with snow. There was a fierce wind up here, so much that it blew powder snow all around, totally robbing the sight downwind of the summit.

I had serious trouble with my camera batteries. Despite being fresh silver oxide cells, they froze, and the camera was dead. I had brought spare batteries in my pocket, but they were frozen too. I held them in my hands, which did not do much good. My hands were totally numb and cold too. Desperately searching a way to thaw the batteries, I finally placed them, well, how should I say that... hmmm, at the warmest place of my body. After a while they were warm enough to allow me to shoot this photo. One photo. Then I had to remove the batteries again, and place them again at that only warm place. And so the game went on.

And 5 photos later, those so very private parts of my body were numb and as frozen as the batteries!

Here is the impressive view south from the Lonquimay's summit. I still feel icy batteries in my briefs when looking at this photo...

The prominent volcano at the right side is the Llaima. The mountain to the left is called Sierra Nevada. Of the three peaks in the background, the rightmost one is the Villarica volcano. In the middle is the long-extinct Quetrupillán volcano, while the leftmost one is the Lanín volcano.

We had to return quite soon, simply because it was too cold up at the summit. Several group members were having serious trouble with freezing hands, and specially feet. All of us had soaked and frozen-over shoes. So, we ran, rolled, swam, and slid down through the deep powder snow, and I can tell you that it was much more funny than climbing up...

Once down in the camp, everyone tried to thaw his feet as best he could, and I tested my camera batteries, which had recovered quite well, by shooting a number of photos like this.

Part Two

It was Christmas 1988. I had finished university, and had been looking for a better job than doing electronic service at home. I was visiting the La Silla Astronomical Observatory, which had offered me a job, and was about to sign a work contract starting January 1st, when incredible news reached me: The reputedly extinct Lonquimay had exploded! Without any warning of any kind, at the southeastern side of the volcano a hole had ripped open, and started a volcanic eruption whose smoke could be detected all the way to southern Africa! People residing in the area had to be evacuated, and nobody knew what was to come!

Needless to say, I asked my future employer to let the contract start on January 14th, as I had more important things to do now! I returned home to Concepción, and tried to put together a group of mountaineers who would go with me to visit our old friend and his rages! But I was in for a big surprise: One of my climbing mates had "no time". Another one had "family duties to perform", even if he was single. A third one said "so what? Uninteresting!". The fourth one preferred to stay at the beach. A fifth could not leave his dog alone. The sixth was concerned that his garden would dry up if he didn't water it for a few days. And so on...!

Of course I didn't believe a word of that. The only truth is that all of my dear climbing mates where scared to... well, you know to what...  by an eruption of this magnitude. They simply chickened out!!!

Now I would have gone alone, no problem, except that I had no car, and all bus traffic into the area had been suspended. After several days I finally found two friends, both radio amateurs, who were willing to go. Emilio, XQ5BIB, and Rodrigo, CE5MCK. Neither of them had a car either, but Emilio had a friend who would go to his ranch, which was reasonably close to the Lonquimay, to see how his cattle was coping, and he had a pickup truck. That man was understanding, and he drove us three right up to where the road was no longer usable because of the thick ash deposits.

We arrived at the site on January 1st, one week after the start of the event. In this little time, the new volcano had already formed a nice cone of 400 meter height above the surrounding terrain! Being born on Christmas, the new volcano had been christened "Navidad".

We were not the only ones visiting the baby volcano. About twenty other people were there, and, believe it or not, a full battalion of military forces! The soldiers had orders to keep people safely away from the new volcano. When the commander had given the order, the wind was blowing from the south, so the plume went north, and the commander sensibly told his troops to keep visitors on the southern side, so they would be safe. Well, the next day the wind switched, and the plume came to the south. If you know military logic, then you know what happened: The soldiers had orders to keep the people south, so they kept the people south... If the wind had switched, that wasn't their problem. And the visitors had to eat the volcanic ash falling out of the smoke plume! It was most impressive to stand under the huge slanting tower of smoke, and feel ash raining on one's head...

But we wanted more than seeing the Navidad volcano from a "safe" distance. We wanted to get close. We talked to the soldiers, asking for permission. It was hopeless. Rodrigo had done his military service just shortly before, but not even he could get us permission to risk our life. The soldiers were heavily armed, and willing to shoot at us if we dared cross the protective barrier! Go figure...

Remember that I mentioned above to keep the Lonquimay's gorge in mind? Well, this feature came to our rescue. We played the obedient children, spent the day under the smoke plume, went to bed (or rather, to sleeping bag) early, got up at 4 am and dashed over the plain, through the military barrier, in the shroud of darkness. Before the first morning light came up, we were inside the gorge, where no soldier could see us. We climbed the Lonquimay to slightly more than half height, then emerged from the gorge, far out of view of any soldier. So far, so good!

We were carrying dust masks, just in case, but there was no need to use them. Here Rodrigo is wearing his just for the photo, during a rest. The entire Lonquimay was covered by ashes from its offspring, but below the ashes there was plenty of snow, of which we melted some in the sun to get drinking water.

From the Lonquimay we slowly descended towards the new volcano. As we came close, the show became ever more impressive. Here you can see a salve of rocks flying out of the crater, while others roll down the cone. Also the smoking front of the lava flow can be seen, deep down in the valley, over much older lava ejected by the Lonquimay a hundred years earlier.

Another salve of stones. Sometimes the crater spew relatively few rocks for several minutes, and then some huge loads came out.

It's interesting to note that by far most rocks fly vertically up. It's logical, after all the entire chimney tends to form in a vertical orientation. Most of the rocks fall right back into the crater, only to be expelled again! Most of the others fall on the very rim of the crater, and as they start rolling down, the archtypical conical volcano takes shape, the steepness of the slopes depending on the average size and rolling ability of the rocks!

But there are a few stones too that don't like verticality. They shoot off in any direction, and as we got closer, we had a few close encounters. These rocks are up to 4 meter long, and red-hot, so it's not a good idea to let one hit you!

We measured the height of the flight paths both by triangulation and by counting the time. The average rock flew to about 250 meter above the crater, while the highest one we saw exceeded 400 meter above the crater! That requires an ejection speed of around 100 meter per second!

Here's a closer view of some airborne rocks. Noteworthy is also the smoke of several different colors. It all depends on how much water vapor, other gases, and ash are coming up.

While living this impressive play of nature, and photographing it, I much missed a cassette recorder. It would have been great to publish a short MP3 file of volcano music! Not having any means of recording sounds, I tried to find the possibly best description of the noise this volcano made. The best way I could find to describe in words how this sounded, is this: A jet airplane at takeoff, mixed with intense thundering. What this description misses, is the intensity of the sound. No jet plane and no thundering ever gets close to this! Think about it while watching these seemingly peaceful, quiet photos!

And more flying rocks! In this bunch were some particularly large ones. We did not have time to accurately measure them, but my guess is around 8 meter for the larger chunks! At any given instant there are at least 20 or 30 tons of rock airborne above the crater!

This photo was taken with a long lens, so the lava front in the valley can be seen. This lava finally reached the forest, and burned several hundred hectares of it. But somehow I feel very serene about this. It is terrible for me to see forests being destroyed by human hand, but when Mother Nature sends lava into a forest, at least She also adds fertilizer. The existing forest burns, but very soon plants start colonizing the lava field. A few hundred years later there is again a dense forest in such a place, and much earlier it looks green already. Humans on the other hand destroy immensely larger amounts of forests - and never let it grow back!

We got closer as the evening came. Of course, we knew that the rocks were hot, but as the sky darkened, the show in front of us exceeded everything we had dreamed of! The entire cone was glowing with incandescent rocks!

A bomb! Quite often it happened that a porous rock came up, that had lots of high-pressure gas stored in its pores. When such a rock comes up, as soon as it leaves the high-pressure environment of the chimney, the internal pressure tears it apart! So the rocks explode right above the crater. During daytime we had to run several times, when such a bomb send fragments whirling all over the area. But as it got dark, such bombs produced a display more beautiful than any human-made fireworks!

And another bomb, slightly later in the night. We just stood there, watching in awe. From time to time I made a photo. I used up all of my film reserves that night. I just couldn't keep the trigger finger still! My biggest fear was doing something really dumb and messing up these pictures. I don't know when I may again have a chance to witness nature's fireworks firsthand.

Fortunately it all went well, even if the long time exposures required at night were a problem. I had a tripod, sure, but the earth didn't stop moving! It was a single continuous earthquake...

Midnight. For a few minutes the previously unceasing smoke came to a halt, and the newborn volcano devoted all its effort to spitting glowing rocks. It gave me the chance to shoot some photos like this.

I went through four rolls of film in just a few hours. I only had four rolls. Film is expensive here, and I had a very limited budget. Never before did I want some more film as dearly as I did here. But still, I'm happy of the photos I shot, and I'm happy to have been there. Few people in this world have ever witnessed anything as great as this.

You can imagine what my mountaineering friends said, when seeing my photos. They regret their not going to this very day.

Part 3: Twelve years later!

One of the good things about getting old is that one can go back to places one has visited a long time ago, and see how they have changed. In January 2001, twelve years and a few days after the birth of the Navidad volcano, I returned to the Lonquimay area, in order to assess the evolution of the process.

Nature looks clean and healthy again. The forest is green down to the floor level, the tree branches broken by the volcanic ash have been overgrown, and the stream carries clean, clear meltwater. The Lonquimay volcano wears its accustomed snow cloth, starting to thin in this early summer time. So inviting did it look, that on first sight I decided to climb it the next day!

The day was a bit cloudy, but not too much so. I was able to reach the 1700 meter level in my 4WD vehicle, even if it took a lot of tricks to come that far up on the very soft ash soil. At this level the snow fields became continuous, so that my trusty Nissan had to stay back and wait for my return.

The snow was ideal for climbing at this time, soft enough not to need crampons, but firm enough so that I didn't sink in very much.

At the 2000 meter level I approached the spot from where I had photographed the Navidad's show twelve years earlier. It was the first time I saw the young volcano from above, after the eruption. It was somewhat flattened, the crater having caved in on all sides.

A bit further up, I met the first clouds. They come and go very fast, when the wind blows like it did this day: At least 120km/h! I did most of the climb in the wind shadow, but any deviation from the correct line brought me into a storm that would just have been impossible to climb against!

These suddenly appearing clouds blew past me as fast as they appeared. 

A lava bomb, fiery greeting coming from the Navidad eruption, rests on the Lonquimay's slope, After twelve years exposed to snow and sun, it has started to crack up. In a few decades it will be just volcanic rubble.

It's interesting to see how high these bombs can fly! This one was found about 400 meters higher than the highest altitude the Navidad's crater ever reached, and at no less than two kilometers distance! Its elongated axis points exactly at the Navidad, a proof that it landed in partly liquid state and assumed its present shape on impact!

The climb continues. This is the famous step of the Lonquimay, visible from hundreds of kilometers away. It formed when the soft volcanic material settled on one side of a vertical crack. That might have happened roughly 100 years ago, after the Lonquimay's last own eruption.

Climbing this volcano, in conditions such as those on this day, is relatively easy up to this point. Only the last stretch requires some rock climbing, but nothing that couldn't be done in sneakers and jeans. The last snow field is pretty steep too, so if you go alone like I did, you don't want to trip, as you would probably slide down a few hundred meters before being able to stop. Other than that, this is a pretty low-risk climb.

Before long, I reached the crater, and for the first time in several climbs, I could actually shoot a few decent photos of it! I wasn't as cold as the other times (but still cold enough!), and while the wind was as fierce as usual, there was no powder snow, so at least the air was clear! 

This is Yours Truly on the Lonquimay's summit, trying not to get blown away! I couldn't stand on the tip... I tried several times, but always was blown away before the camera's self-timer triggered! The Lonquimay loves to defend its pride, and shook me off regardless of how I tried! The wind almost ripped the clothes off my body. I had tied the hat down with a wide, strong strap, and even so the strap hurt!

The summit of the Lonquimay gives a very good view over the Navidad volcano (lower right), and the valley into which many eruptions of the Lonquimay have poured their lava flows. That of the Navidad, recognizable by the darker color, formed a river on top of the Lonquimay's older lava beds.

In a small rock cave next to the summit I found an hermetic plastic container, which held a large amount of summit certificates. It's a long-standing tradition in mountaineering that people leave a notice of their visit. I spent an hour reading the many papers, and photographing a fair amount of them. It wasn't easy to handle many little papers, in this wind! A sudden surge ripped one paper out of my hand. I had to quickly store the others, and then chase the breakaway down the mountain. Fortunately it was caught in a wind rotor, so I recovered it. It would have been really rude to loose a fellow mountaineer's summit certificate!

While of course most of these papers were written in Spanish, I also found some in German, English, French, and even one in Japanese! The one pictured here was special in that it mixes two languages, gives notice of the "discovery" of a lake close to the neighboring Tolhuaca volcano - and fails to mention who was the hero who wrote it!

It's funny how differently people react when they reach a mountaintop and have to write such a note. There are the very professional ones, who bring a printed form and fill it out, with their names, ages, date, time taken for the climb, weather data, and so on. There are others who express their delight at having reached the summit. Others who marvel at the fabulous sight, and still others who file a written complaint about how hard, cold, long or steep it was. Some get poetic, and write several pages of verses, while others find no better way to express their feelings than using power words. Philosophical essays about the meaning of life abound.  Many remember their beloved ones and write full-blown love letters, only to leave them archived in the Lonquimay's hermetic PVC vault, outside the reach of all lazy people in this world. But the most practical one was from the owner of the bar in the town of Malalcahuello, not far from the volcano, inviting anyone who makes the summit, to go down and visit him for a free beer!

I added my own literary production to the collection, re-sealed the container and tried to un-freeze my muscles and get in motion again.

The return happened several hours after the climb, and the snow had become very soft in the summer sun. This is just ideal! It had the perfect consistency to ski down on my shoe soles! I took just a few minutes to slide down the entire snow fields, which had taken several hours in the other direction.

And I landed with my rear in the snow only two times during this trip down! That's a true record, worth of a Guinness mention! :-)

The next day was devoted to the Navidad volcano. On this photo you can see it from the southeast. It is clear how the lava poured over the rim of the crater and flowed down into the valley. But I wanted to find out how such a young crater looks inside. So, up I went...

The closer one gets to the base of the cone, the more lava bombs can be found. Some are already quite eroded, while others look like a shiny piece of steel. This one has a healthy core, but seems to be suffering from psoriasis, shedding skin like crazy!

But lava bombs are starting to share the place with colonists from the vegetal kingdom! Birds do a great job dropping seeds everywhere, while the fresh volcanic material is very fertile and also soaks water like a sponge. As a result, flowering shrubs seem to pop out of the dead rock, and put the touch of color into an otherwise black/brown/reddish landscape.

Climbing the Navidad was a real problem. It isn't very tall at all, but all of its sides consist of very loose, soft, finely divided material, which is heaped up just to the very limit at which it starts to slide down under its own weight. Placing a foot on it means causing rockslide! Each step that brings one 10cm up, takes the effort of a 1m climb on firm ground! Some areas are so loose that it is just impossible to make any headway, forcing the climber to crawl along the slope and find another place to try getting higher. I was close to giving up before finally reaching somewhat coarser and firmer material, close to the crater.

And here it is! The crater of the Navidad, which only 12 years earlier was blowing a huge jet of flame-hot gas and millions of tons of molten rock 400 meters high up in the air! 

The terrain around the crater is very soft, full of small crevices, and many of them are very warm inside. I found five spots where steam was seeping out, which means that the core of this new mountain is still hot, perhaps even liquid, and sends seeping rainwater back up, as steam.

A view down into the crater. The main hole, the one into the devil's kitchen where rock soup is cooked, has caved in and is sealed shut. A much smaller hole has been bored from the bottom of the basin, out through the weakest side, by the meltwater from the snow that collects in the crater and very quickly melts away again, from the heat coming up the mountain. 

There are sulfur salts and other typically volcanic materials everywhere inside the crater. Rocks like these line some of the walls, others are brilliant yellow, green, or reddish. But many cannot be reached without good climbing gear and helpers, since the walls are so steep and loose.

A look from the rim of the crater, down into the valley. From here, the lava river can be seen much better than from anywhere else! The lava flow started right where I was standing when shooting this picture.

This lava stream did reach the forest, burning and covering several hundred Araucaria trees. At the same time, it added millions of tons of fertile material to the valley bed, which will be washed down into the forest, fertilizing it. Nature takes, and nature gives. It's the old dance of life and death.

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