Excerpt: Surviving Galeras

On January 14, 1993, around 1:40 P.M., I was on the lip of the crater next to José Arlés Zapata, a young Colombian volcanologist. Three tourists, who had hiked up to see what the scientists were doing on the volcano, stood a few feet away. Near them, moving diagonally down the volcano's flank, were two geologists from the United States and one from Ecuador. I was in charge of this foray onto Galeras and just minutes before had asked these scientists to begin walking off the volcano. As a rule, I like to wrap up work on Andean volcanoes by early afternoon, since the heaviest clouds tend to obscure the peaks later in the day.

Igor Menyailov and Nestor García were in the crater, resting after taking their final samples. Geoff Brown, Fernando Cuenca, and Carlos Trujillo were on the crater's western rim, carrying out their last gravity readings. Geoff was too far away to hear me, so I just waved at him, indicating it was time to go.

A rock tumbled off the inside wall of the crater — a common occurrence that at first aroused no concern in me. But a second rock clattered down the crater mouth, then a third, and soon a cascade of stones and boulders rained onto the floor of the volcano. It was an earthquake or an eruption. Either way, we needed to flee.

"Hurry up! Get out!" I shouted in English and Spanish.

The volcano began to shake, and I turned to run down the scree-covered flank. I had made it only a few yards when the air was rent by a sound like a thunderclap or a sonic boom. Immediately afterward I heard a deafening craaack, the sound of the earth's crust snapping. Instinctively, I hunched my shoulders and hiked my backpack over my neck and head. I did not get far.

My fascination with volcanoes, now a quarter century old, taps into something universal and timeless. As they watched fountains of lava spew from Mount Etna in Italy or Popocatépetl in Mexico, the ancients believed they were witnessing a phenomenon linked to the origins of the universe. The flames and magma gushing from a volcano came from a place as mysterious as the heavens above. Small wonder that the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas tossed virgins into the mouth of this beast; it was capable of destroying villages, towns, entire civilizations in an instant. Human sacrifice, they believed, would placate the monster.

To the Greeks, volcanoes were a direct conduit to Hades. The Romans believed the entrance to hell was in the Phlegraean Fields, next to Vesuvius, where gases poured out of hundreds of fumaroles. Vulcan — the Roman god of fire — lived deep inside a mountain on Vulcano, in the Aeolian Islands. There, at his underground forge, he rocked the earth and unleashed eruptions as he made weapons for Apollo, Hercules, and the other gods. The Icelanders, living on an island that was but a mound of volcanoes, believed hell's gateway was the crater of the massive fire mountain Hekla.

Like any grand and destructive spectacle, volcanoes have alternately attracted and terrified humanity through the ages. The difference between ordinary people and volcanologists is that, with us, the appeal far outweighs the terror. Ours is a counterintuitive endeavor. Most people flee from erupting volcanoes. We head straight for them.

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