Raul versus The Volcano: An Adventure on El Chichon

As a child I loved maps and atlases. I’d pour over them loving the changing names, the countries gone (in some cases returned), the simplicity of the colours; the red across the globe, the altering river courses, shipping routes and mountain ranges. It was a short jump into a love of geology; rocks, minerals and most of all volcanoes. Volcanoes were ace.

When I was 12 my little sister knew my love and came running out to tell me, “A mountain in St Helens has erupted!” My knowledge of St Helens was incomplete (I was lucky enough to have never visited) but I knew it was not coddled within a mountain range nor close to any volcanically active areas. How we laughed! Still, the excitement of watching ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ that day was palpable.

Throughout my childhood I never got close to a volcano (or St Helens) but in 1996 I was lucky enough to be working on a project in Mexico, working in Tabasco and Chiapas.

One day in April the stars aligned: We had a day off; we had a vehicle; Chiapas had a volcano; we had Raul.

Our merry band packed into a Dodge Ramcharger. Stopping only for Gatorade and snacks we were of on a perfect sunny day to Chichonal (El Chichon if you’re matey): I was going to a volcano.

The wannabe vulcanologists comprised; Mark and Kevin from our Liverpool office; John, a lecturer from the Bahamas drafted into the project; Raul who worked for the Mexican company who’d contracted us. And me.

Raul knew we couldn't just ruck up and climb the thing: we needed a guide. Stopping at the last house on the road near the volcano’s base we picked her up. She was a sweet Indian girl, all of 15 and getting married the next week. She’d get us to the top, her wee younger brother in tow; who’d probably be taking on the Guide role in years to come.

At the end of the road as we donned our boots and loaded our rucksacks El Chichon looked to me like a big English hill - grassed and uninspiring. Unimposing. This would be easy.

Until 1982 El Chichon had been thought to be dormant - or even extinct. This extinct volcano flung ash kilometres into the stratosphere affecting climate worldwide for months, pyroclastic flows rolled down the hillside, a new 1km wide crater was created and in the 300m deep caldera lay an acid crater lake. Two thousand people were killed.

These explosive volcanoes don’t produce nice quiet lava flows they produce small volumes of lava along with pyroclasts, hot gases and vast quantities of ash. This mountain before us comprised thick deposits of soft ash tens of metres deep. There’s nothing growing on it but grass and when the heavy rains come the water drives deep gullies through it. These can be metres deep and can’t be seen till you’re on top of them. They criss cross the volcano and you’d have to be extremely lucky to find the right one for a route out to a place you can safely climb; that’s why we needed the Guide.

Loaded and ready to go and no sooner that the Dodge’s doors were shut we heard our first scream of the day, followed by a stream of expletives. Kevin had raced on ahead, as he always does in the outdoors, and had managed to walk into the only barbed wire fence for miles. The blood was red and our laughs were long. An auspicious start to our walk up this English hill in Chiapas.

From then on we grouped together as our Guide led us through and around several gullies. The soft grey ash powdering up in dry dust bursts as we dragged our feet through it. We walked a long way up the final gully which tapered away until it disappeared. Near the end a collapsed side to the left wall allowed us to scramble out; another rain storm and a small wall collapse and that route up would be closed. Geology in rapid action.

Once out onto the slopes we could see any number of ways up the innocuous hill. It was clearly going to be hot work though. The sun was all but directly overhead and there was no shade to be had; there were no rocks, trees or shrubs. It would just be a slog. A straightforward walk but a hot one.

With our Guide not needed until we came back down the walk to the top became a race. Everyone at the pace they were comfortable with; pulled by the desire to see the volcano as a volcano, whilst pushed back by the energy sapping sun. I hoped it would be worth it: the early start, the expended energy, Kevin’s bloody thigh.

Kev and Mark got there first. They stood by a rock - an actual rock - looking away from me. When I joined them I could see the reason for their silence; it was gobsmacking. The caldera was deep and so wide and the crater lake a brilliant green. This hole in the mountain was jagged and the faces steep. It wasn't some soft English hill at all, that was a cunning disguise. It was a full on in-your-face volcano. And it was beautiful.

Poor old Raul got up last of all, whilst our young Guides stopped for a drink by the big rock looking like it had taken absolutely no effort of energy and they weren’t interesting in the volcano. How many times had they seen it? They had definitely never taken up so many Englishmen in the midday sun. We were probably more interesting than the view: interesting like a car crash.

Which brings me to the next part.

I was sat by my rucksack sucking back the last of my Orange Gatorade, a happy young man on his first volcano.

Raul screamed, ‘Mark! No.’

I looked around, there was no sign of Mark. Raul who was looking down the crater. I couldn't see anything but grey rock and ash, white rock shining back in the sun and the flat crater floor like a freshly washed beach. Then I saw a face looking up at me. Mark in his grubby T-shirt halfway down the wall heading towards the crater floor.

‘He can’t go down there.’ Raul complained plaintively. ‘I’ll lose my job if anything happens.’

‘Mark, come back.’ shouted Kevin, John and me. ‘Come back.’

Mark continued on. John stood with his hand on his hips. We hadn’t really talked about this trip. We had no maps; we had Gatorade, crisps and fruit. That was it. Now Mark was climbing away from us. Raul was worried. And Raul was a lovely guy.

Surely the plan was to climb to the top of the volcano and then go back. Well we didn't have a plan. And Mark was climbing into a volcano: I may never get the chance again.

‘I’ll go and get him!’ shouted Kevin, John and me.

Raul was no longer worried about Mark. He was now worried about Mark, Kevin, John and Andy. Raul versus the Volcano; as unfair a fight as ever there was.

Now there were four Englishmen clambering into a volcano with a Mexican at the top looking likely to blow his top.

Half way down the rocks were extremely hot and as I stopped to look around I heard thunder in the cauldron of the mountain. The sky was a deep blue. Not a cloud. It was the volcano. Rocks moving and settling. And un-settling! There was the steam rising through rocks, yellow sulphur stains and those bad egg farts the mountain was making. I was IN an active volcano.

I shouted up to Raul. ‘We’ll just go to the bottom of the cliff.’

‘Mark, stop at the bottom! Wait.’

The mountain grumbled.

Mark stopped for a while. Everything would be okay. The band would be back together and we could start up the cliff again. Easy.

But as we clambered we saw Mark move off again. I was audibly angry but secretly thrilled. That lake looked beautiful, it’d be wonderful to stand next to it. However it was getting a wee bit worrying. I’d only a little water left. The heat was unrelenting; the rocks reflected back on us like a 360 degree mirror. We were cooking.

By now Raul was too far away to hear - or had given up on us.

As we reached the bottom we could see Mark hadn't gone that far toward the lake. It was hard to judge scale; how big’s a rock when you’ve only other rocks for scale?

The four of us eventually met up by the lake and took in the majesty of the place together. There were some harsh words for Mark going off solo. But beneath it we were all excited. Mark was finally beginning to feel the heat. And Kevin was definitely suffering. It was time to leave. Unless you’re in a Jules Verne novel the problem with climbing into a volcano, one rapidly discovers, is one has to climb out of a volcano. Climbing up a shear wall, when one is hot, tired and in dire realisation that they haven't brought enough fluids with them… it was to be gruesome.

John was now taking the role of expedition leader - for it had morphed from a stroll up a hill to a “will we get out of here?” expedition.

John’s limbs seemed to unbuckle at will, climbing like a mountain goat. He led the way. Chose the route. Cajoled and guided.

While John had taken on the leadership role poor Kevin had taken on the leaver-ship role. I suspect because he was smaller - although maybe he just hadn't drunk as much fluid - but he had dehydrated badly.

John could see it. Kevin was between us and John held out his hand. “Come on Kev, there’s shade up here. We can stop and have some water.’

‘I can’t go any further. Just leave me.’ said Kev.

I was now properly worried. We were in the middle of nowhere with no means of communication (it was mid 1990s) and no medical supplies. We barely had any water.

Mark had climbed off and was nearing the top. John was hanging back to help. We got up to the rock where John had promised shade. There was none. It was a ruse to get Kev that bit closer to the top. He handed us a bottle of water. “Last of it. Just wet your lips.”

It was warm enough to make tea. And it was beautiful.

Kevin took the bottle from me and shaped to pour it over his head. “Noooo!” John shouted. The echo rang around El Chichon. I just managing to stop him. He eventually had a sip and I passed what remained back to John.

That little bit of rest and the tiniest bit of water seemed to give Kev some resolve and somehow we eventually got out of the frying pan. There was no shade at the top of course. But it was now downhill and gravity would help.

I got to my rucksack and opened the Dos Equis which exploded from the heat, leaving me with a quarter of a bottle of hot beer to share.

It was a miserable walk down in near silence. Everyone blamed everyone else for the woes and possible near disaster of the trip. Even the mountain seemed quiet.

We got down, bathing our feet in a shallow red stream which was wonderfully refreshing. We had water in the Ramcharger as warm but as refreshing as the stream. Soon we were all mates again. Although Raul wouldn’t take us on a trip again. We couldn't blame him.

We were left with wonderful memories, some fab photos and maybe just maybe we were a wee bit wiser. And Kevin learned to look out for random bits of barbed wire that seem to serve no purpose other than to act as a Kevin-Trap.