Capturing a Volcano’s Sights and Sounds from Above: Part II

In late 2016, KÜHL outfitted Zach Voss and Matthew Wordell for their trip to South America. In this two-part series, Zach and Matthew share their incredible experience capturing aerial imagery of four volcanoes as part of a Boise State volcanology research project. If you missed it, read Part I.


Matthew: Our expedition took us to Ecuador and Chile and two different volcanoes within each country, a total of four volcanoes. In Ecuador, we traveled to Tungurahua and El Reventador. In Chile, we traveled to Villarrica and Llaima. Access to these volcanoes varied drastically, from a winding cobblestone road leading right to the trail head, to hacking our way through muddy jungles, to scaling thousands of feet of snow pack with climbing helmets and mountain axes.

Describe the different landscapes of each volcano:

Every volcano we explored was incredibly unique, and it’s impossible to describe them all. As the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words. When it comes to volcanoes, a single picture is probably worth 10 times that. Each environment we traveled to was beautiful in its own way.

Flying down snow field from Villarrica Volcano. Pictured in KÜHL Skull Cap

Tungurahua

Our first stop was in Baños, a small Ecuadorian town in the shadow of the monstrous Tungurahua volcano. Situated in the rugged mountain region of Ecuador, where roads are steep and paths are steeper, Tungurahua stands like a giant on the horizon. We only had a single day to explore the flanks of Tungurahua, retrieve and deploy sensors, and do some light drone flying, so I can’t speak to the true intensity of all it has to offer. But when stacked against the three environments that lay ahead of us, our time at Tungurahua was by far the tamest.

My favorite experience in Baños was the evening after our hike. We set our sights on a high ridge parallel to the volcano, a perfect vantage point to fly the drone and shoot photos. With Jeff at the wheel of our spritely 4×4 truck; Zach, myself, and Hugo (a former student of Jeff’s and employed volcanologist in Ecuador) in the bed of the truck; and limited time before the sun fell behind the horizon, we tore up what might possibly be the steepest cobbled road on earth, riddled with hairpin turns, dips, drops, and buckled sections. Holding on to the roll bars for dear life, we whooped and hollered, charging Jeff onward. The cool evening Ecuadorian wind whipped through our hair and plastered smiles to our faces that we’d be feeling in our cheeks for days to come.

Zach standing in back of truck, Tungurahua in the distance

El Reventador

Our time in Baños was short lived, and before we even had a chance to get comfortable at the observatory, we had to pack our bags for the long drive into the Amazon Rain Forest. We staged our gear in a hotel about 30 minutes from the trail head to El Reventador, ate a hot meal, passed out, and left the next morning for what would inevitably be the most dynamic and extraordinary portion of our time in Ecuador.

The excursion began on what only a madman would call a trail head. Truthfully it was hardly a small break in the lush overgrown jungle, cutting away from the side of a bustling mountain highway. The trail wasted no time in punishing us: each step forward meant a 2-3 foot elevation gain. After three hours of slogging through mud pits and the overgrown trail, we emerged inside an ancient caldera and the home of El Reventador.

The punishing approach to El Reventador

As described in Part I, the lava fields we hiked through to reach the base of Reventador were brutal. But all the suffering was worth it at the end of the night. Returning from a long day of hiking, we were able to change into dry clothes, cook dinner, kick back against a makeshift log bench, and watch the fireworks for hours. Volcanoes are entirely different beasts at night.

El Reventador lights up the night sky

For me, this was one of the most astonishing and humbling moments of my life: to bear witness, even if for just a small moment in time, to the endless inner processes of our earth as they shook the ground and lit up the sky.

After three days in the field at Reventador, it was time pack our gear and race down the mountain and head to the airport for our flight to Chile and our next volcano, Villarrica

Villarricca

After nearly 24 hours of straight travel – hiking out of the Amazon, driving to the airport, flying from Quito to Santiago to Temuco, driving from Temuco to Pucon, and finally setting our stuff down only to meet local friends for late lunch – we were exhausted but unbelievably excited about the prospects of hiking into the caldera of an active volcano. We took a day to recover and prepare ourselves mentally and physically before the journey to summit Villarrica.

The climb began at 5 a.m. on a Monday morning, before the sun rose so the snow pack would be hard underfoot, increasing the efficiency of the hike. As we zigzagged our way up the steep flanks of the volcano, excitement grew among us. Each false summit drove more adrenaline into our veins as the prospect of looking straight into the vent of a volcano came closer with each step.

After what seemed like forever, the long awaited moment of the trip finally came: the impact was as overwhelming as Zach and I had expected.

The magnitude of Villarrica’s inner workings have a dizzying effect on the mind. The sheer size and depth of the caldera are enough to cause vertigo, and steep, knife edge ridges recede violently into a roiling pit of molten lava.

After recovering from the initial awe, we strapped on our gas masks and descended inside the crater. From inside, we were able to stare straight down the vent. Mesmerized by the iridescent glow inside the vent, we all paused for a moment of silence, paying our individual respects to this fantastic event.

 

As we knelt above the lava lake, bracing ourselves against the fierce winds, the ground rumbling beneath us, there were moments when Villarrica would hurl enormous streams of magma over 100 feet into the air. There’s an uncontrollable reaction humans to have explosions, massive rock slides, or giant ocean waves mangling a ship. It’s something like: “OooooOOoooOOHHHHHH!!! SHIIII**********!!!!”

The same could be said of lava issuing forth from the vent of a volcano straight at your face.

Llaima

After 5 days in Pucon, we switched gears and began work with Dr. Brittany Brand at Llaima. Our home base was in a small town called Melipeuco where men adorned in beautiful alpaca ponchos and wide brimmed felted hats still ride donkeys and horses. Our time at Llaima focused on studying outcrops and lava flows at the base of the volcano versus entering the volcano itself.

 

While this may not sound as riveting, the environment surrounding Llaima volcano is straight out of a Lord of the Rings novel. Zach and I spent about a week at Llaima, driving through expansive lava fields and thick forests, flying the drone to capture detailed renderings of massive outcrops, and hiking through landscapes that reminded us of the mountains back home in Idaho.

Lush scenery surrounding Llaima Volcano

Gear Check

Zach: The wool Skar shirt was my go-to. Comfortable material and incredibly durable. On long hiking days, it was difficult to tell what conditions we’d encounter. On the lower, sunny slopes, the shirt offered great UV protection and wicking to keep me cool. As we climbed higher and the temperature dropped, it was the perfect base layer under the Jetstream Jacket or Spyfire Hoody. All three layer remarkably well for a comfortable range of motion while getting maximum warmth and protection.

Zach concentrates on his next shot. Pictured in KÜHL Skar Shirt

The Spyfire Hoody is one of my favorite pieces of clothing I own. In the field, the shelter offered from this jacket was exceptional, and the fit is amazing too. A few weeks after returning from the expedition, I visited NYC and felt right at home in my Spyfire amongst the fashionable commuters of the L Train. I kept my Metro card in the shoulder pocket, and I can’t say enough how handy it was to have a slim, secure, exterior pocket.

Matthew: The KÜHL Racr X Full Zip jacket played a big role in staying comfortable during long days in the field. The majority of these environments demanded lightweight, versatile, and breathable gear that could dry fast but also provide warmth when the hike was over. From Reventador to Villarrica, each environment worked tirelessly to destroy whatever clothes we wore. For example: I started the trip with a new pair of wool gloves, and by the end of the second week they were fingerless. It was great to have a beefy, full-zip wool layer that could take a beating and survive long days with a pack strapped to my back.

Kühl Editor

At KÜHL, the passion remains to get outdoors and have fun. Our Born in the Mountains contributors share their love for the mountain culture with their stories, reflections and photographs.