Thursday, December 08, 2005
Climbing Mayon Volcano -- Part II
‘If I slip, that is going to be me!”
As I looked around, I saw that I was on the side of an almost sheer wall of loose gravel and rocks, and as panic began to engulf me I inadvertantly kicked loose a softball-sized rock. I watched with alarm over my shoulder as the rock bounded down the slope below me in huge 40 and 50 foot leaps for hundreds of feet. ‘If I slip, that is going to be me,” I thought. My guides had been the source of the piercing whoop and they were signaling at me frantically to stay put till they could come to me. I wasn’t about to go anywhere so staying put was not a problem. Cautiously, they sidled along the loose wall until they were about 10 feet to my left. My guide told me to work my way carefully toward him. Digging my toes into the soft wall with each sideways step I did as he said until I was next to him, then we all continued in that manner until we were off the face of that perilous cliff. I felt myself sag as I realized how close to buying it I had been. My intensity and inattention had almost got me killed. I wasn’t about to let that happen again! After my close call I made sure I continually looked up for the location of my escorts and I noticed that they were keeping an eye on me as well. I felt bad that I had screwed up and had put all of us in danger; I became determined to do better.
Within another hour or two the footing went from steep-and-loose to steeper-and-smooth. There was no longer any sign of vegetation at that level, and I realized I was walking on what had been molten lava from one of Mayon’s numerous past eruptions, one of which had occurred only three months before. The new concrete-smooth walking surface was slick when wet and the moisture from the clouds that immersed us kept that hardened lava face moist and therefore treacherously slippery. Using our hands to keep our balance became even more crucial.
I knew we were getting close to the top when I began to get whiffs of the sulfurous fumes coming from the fumarole. In my constant glances up and around I finally began to see Mayon’s pinnacle high above me. The wind, the wetness, and the cold made me absolutely miserable, but I could take it knowing that my objective was just ahead, or more appropriately, just above!
Within a few hundred feet from the peak the smooth solidified lava began to develop narrow gullies just wide enough for us to walk inside at armpit depth. These lava-formed channels were just deep enough to keep our arms above the surface allowing us to pull ourselves forward and upwards. These narrow person-sized furrows almost seemed to be designed to allow us to finish our climb in relative comfort and speed. As we approached the summit, the wind seemed to pick up speed until it’s sound drowned out even our thoughts. I paused to open my knapsack to get my camera, but when I opened the case and looked through the aperture I found it completely blurred from the cold and moisture. Disappointed, I put it back in the bag.
The sulfur stink was pervasive. Several times a particularly thick puff of the nasty smelling stuff would envelop us causing me to gag and choke, but we continued upward on the inside of our lava trench. And then, at long last, we were there! I had envisioned myself standing proudly at the top like a conquering hero, but the wind prevented any of that nonsense as it roared through us in gusts of at least 30 or 40 or more miles per hour. All I could manage to do was to sit on the narrow circumference of the crater with my arms wrapped around a boulder to keep from being blown bodily back down the mountain. The cruel and unrelenting wind ripped a mixture of sulfur miasma and cloud mist through us, and it made it impossible to see anything and to hear even less. I couldn’t see down into the crater because of its thick white sulfurous emissions, and the clouds that enveloped us prevented any view of the surrounding landscape. I sat at the top of Mayon for less than half a minute—profoundly cold, wretchedly wet, my inner ears throbbing, my lungs and throat aching from the foul air, and I was ready to get the hell out of there.
I crawled over to the guide who also looked ready to skedaddle, and I yelled at him, “LET’S GO!” He couldn’t hear me so I had to scream it again directly into his ear. He nodded and grinned; I sensed he saw the irony of our having worked so hard to get up there only to leave almost immediately. As we scrambled back down the lava trough I yearned for our journey to be over right then and there, but we had to do the whole thing all over again, only in reverse. I felt dispirited but swallowed my misery with a deep breath and an enormous sigh. It was a LONG way back down.
What Goes Up…
Believe it or not, even though it’s faster, going down a mountain is physically harder and more painful than going up. The primary difficulty of descending a steep mountain, especially when there is no trail, is the lack of secure footing. If you imagine trying to go down a ladder facing away from it, that’s exactly what it is like trying to hike down a steep mountain like Mayon. My guide had warned me to expect to go up on all fours and to come back down on all fives. I had no idea what he meant until we started down. He was right—my first tendency was to slide down the smooth lava slabs on my butt, or my “five,” using my hands to steady and slow my progress.
The wet weather was still upon us as it had been all morning, and the effects of being constantly soaked had caused my hands to become soft and tender. This was not a good thing considering the sharpness and abrasiveness of the volcanic rocks I was forced to use as handholds for hours on end. By the time we had slid and scampered back down to the campsite my fingertips were sliced and bleeding. We stopped for a snack of fresh mango and when the guide handed me a slice, the juice felt like acid on my shredded fingers. The pain was excruciating and even rinsing them in a little drinking water did little to stem the agony. I would have done anything for a pair of sturdy leather work gloves. I made a mental note to never go hiking anywhere again without a pair.
We finally got below the rain cloud enveloping much of the volcano and that ended the constant dampness. We also escaped from the winds so prevalent toward the peak; and blessedly, the temperature became less and less chilly. But along with those good changes I began to notice another physical problem aside from my frayed fingertips, and that was my toes. I had had the same problem, although not as severe, during my descent from Mount Fuji. Going down a steep decline for many hours causes your feet to incessantly press into the toes of your shoes, and by the time I got back down to tree level I could feel that all my toes were blistered and bleeding. When I finally got my shoes off that late that afternoon I found my socks soaked in blood.
I had the chance to see another example of my guides’ amazing climbing skills when we came to an exceptionally steep mountain slope. They stopped at the top of this cliff-like wall and told me that I should go ahead of them. I looked down the side of this near vertical mountain face with uncertainty and asked, “Are you sure we came up this way?” I couldn’t believe I was supposed to go down this near vertical section. It was studded with loose rocks imbedded in sandy cinder material all of which made for horrible footing. The guide told me to take my time and assured me we had indeed come this way during our climb up. I took a deep breath and started down the cliff facing it as if going down a ladder. The wall was at least 60 feet high and I soon understood why they made me go first. The rocks were so unsecured in their setting that almost every step caused stones and gravel to cascade down the cliff face. If the guides had gone ahead of me I would have showered them with the stuff. Very slowly and shakily I made it to the bottom. I huffed in relief and then watched my companions make their way down. These guys were human mountain goats. They came down that nearly perpendicular precipice casually, as if they were walking down a flight of stairs! Hardly a pebble was disturbed as they confidently stepped down from rock to crevice to rock; and the entire time, unlike me, they faced away from the wall without using their hands. I compared my own amateurish and cautious descent down the same gradient and if truth be told there was no comparison. These guys were awesome!
The Journey Ends—Stinkily!
Many hours later I was extremely pleased and relieved when we got back down to the less precipitous bottom areas of Mayon. I was hungry, thirsty, dirty, and ready to get back to the comforts of civilization, which I was reminded of as the old golf course came into view below us through the last of the farmer’s fruit trees. As I limped back through the vestiges of that ruined course I could not believe how utterly drained and weary I was. We still had a long hike to the road, but it was relatively flat and it felt almost effortless to cover the several thousand meters required to get us back to where a vehicle could carry us instead of our tortured feet. In less than an hour we exited the gate to the road and tossed down our packs. I sat on a rock and looked back at the mountain that I had “conquered,” feeling more like it had beaten the stuffing out of ME instead. I struggled back to my feet as a jeepney pulled over to pick us up.
There were already five people in the jeepney and after we hung our packs on hooks outside the back of it we pulled ourselves on. Normally when entering a jeepney, passengers already on board expect newcomers to scoot past them toward the front of the bench seats on both sides of the jeepney bed. This time however, the moment we stepped on board, every person on the jeepney held their noses; and as one, they hurriedly pushed away from us toward the front, giving us the best seats at the back. I really couldn’t figure out what their problem was for I couldn’t smell anything unpleasant. I figured they were overreacting and promptly forgot all about it as my exhaustion turned me into a sluggish lump. I really didn’t care; my brain had turned off.
When my guys dropped me off at the hotel I thanked them with a $20 tip and plodded stiffly to my hotel room. All I wanted was a shower and some food. I kicked my clothes into a corner of the bathroom, and as I tried to turn on the shower I realized my hands were going to be a problem. My fingertips were too tender to handle soap and shampoo, so I asked my wife to wash my hair while I held my tortured paws in front of me well out of the streaming water. Stepping out of the shower I felt like a new man as I toweled off. It was then that I smelled something absolutely repugnant—like a combination of rotten eggs and defecation. “Did the sewer back up?” I asked my wife. She grimaced and pointed at my grimy climbing clothes—looking more like dirty rags—lying in a pile on the floor. It wasn’t just unwashed body odor that had befouled me; from the smell of it, I had obviously absorbed the stench of the mountain’s sulfurous flatulence. No wonder those unfortunate people on the jeepney had cowered from us; I’m surprised they hadn’t retched and gagged at the way we reeked.
So that’s the story of my foray up the Philippine’s exquisite Mount Mayon. It was 20 years ago, yet it doesn’t seem so far in the past, so intense and unforgettable was the experience. I had always intended to try it again someday only better prepared, but it was not to be. My body is no longer capable of such an endeavor. My advice to anyone with bodies still healthy and able is to climb your mountains while you can, for you might not ever get another chance!