November 01, 2013

The barefoot volcano ascent. Mt Benbow, Ambrym.

We were now in uncharted territory for me. Climbing canyons and lava flows are one thing, clambering up mountain sides with nothing to grab onto (oh how I missed those tree roots) and on a slippery ash based surface is another. I had walked up mountain sides with scree before, but scree is made up of small rocks and gives your feet more grip than the tiny particles of ash. We were climbing on the crater of the Mt Benbow volcano in Ambrym. The scenery was bleak, volcanic acid rain had removed all vegetation, and it was 15C colder than the beginning of the trail.

'Trail' would be too kind a word, there is no well worn path. My guide Bae just climbed instinctively, knowing from experience the best way to go. To climb without a guide would be madness in Ambrym.

I was struck with that awful panic feeling, with butterflies in the stomach as I crouched, pushing my back almost to a horizontal position, placing each foot carefully one in front of the other as we did some serious climbing. One slip would mean serious injury. The winds felt gale force, and the torrential rain was returning, which all added to my instability. The grip on my Aussie Blundstone boots gave me some confidence, until I saw that  Bae had taken off his old flip flops, stuffed them in his bag, and was climbing over this surface barefoot. He was also traveling at twice my speed.

There was a strange feeling of emptiness. There was no animal or visible insect life. It was just black ash on rock, with a lingering smell of sulphur. In this huge caldera we were the only people climbing. It was not peak season, when maybe 5 people or more a day might attempt the climb.

We found a flat bit of ground at nightfall, and while putting up our tents Bae suddenly cried out with joy. He had a found a fresh lava bomb (a piece of lava that has solidified in the shape of a tear as it was flung out of the volcano). I was told these were extremely useful for black magic ceremonies. As happy as I was for him, I was more concerned about one or more of these landing on my tent in the night…

Far Flung Travel Tips

* For  an excellent guide, contact Bae Willpen from Meltugon Village on 5413026

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