My Volcanic Brush With Death

This is one of ten fun stories from ten years of travelling -  the rest are here.

That's me looking rough and the volcano behind I was hoping to climb

I have a huge bucket list, or as I prefer to call it, my Epic Quest (it sounds less of death and will probably involve more dragons). And one of the things that’s been on there for a long time is to see lava.

All of our trips tend to be focused around nature of some kind, usually that’s animals or diving to see super cool creatures under the waves but one thing that’s evaded us so far is lava.

We’ve seen countless volcanoes now and yet every time we get near them the lava tap turns off. In Costa Rica we travelled hundreds of miles to see ‘guaranteed’ lava and even that didn’t show.

When we got to Guatemala, we saw countless pictures online of a volcano that again promised the goods. However, it only promised them if we spent two days hiking to the top to see them.

Now I hate hiking, I’m not entirely sure why, I don’t mind a good walk but the moment it becomes a ‘hike’ it seems to bring out certain people and a whole bunch of competitiveness. Hikers can be such fun-suckers – too much ‘Oh have you done… X’ – ‘…Oh you really have to do Y, if you haven’t done Y, you just haven’t seen the place.’

This is not my kinda thing at all, I don’t like people at the best of times but fun-suckers are some of my least favourites – anyway…

The steep sided volcano

We really wanted to see lava so we manned up and booked the tour. The brochure listed the trip as ‘moderate’ – which seemed okay. When we arrived at the bottom of the mountain it turned out that moderate meant 8 hours of walking steeply uphill along tiny paths surrounded by thick undergrowth and insane drop offs.

Thankfully, on this tour there was only one other person, a fun and interesting American man who clearly had the idea that moderate meant walking down hill for about 20 minutes and then being driven the rest of the way – if I thought I was struggling with the climb I, then this man was on death’s door.

As we moved higher up the mountain we started to hear booms of distant volcanic promise. The earth was certainly alive.

The heat and humidity raged as we kept on climbing. The sad fact now was that more water was coming out of us than could be taken in by downing water. All of which was making the climb trickier still. That and the fact we had two tiny guides, who were carrying much more stuff than us and appeared to be able to run up the mountain without breaking a sweat.

We climbed on and the path appeared to be shrinking as we ascended higher, up and through the clouds.

After around 5 hours of climbing Alex was walking in front and the narrow muddy path gave way dropping him head over heel 15 feet down the side of the mountain. He landed on his back, narrowly missing a large rock with his head. The guides and I rushed down to his side. He was conscious and we sat him up. Not the best move thinking back, (I’ve taken many first aid courses since), as, the blood rushed from his head, his eyes went backwards exposing the white and he started fitting. 

Walking above the clouds

As you can imagine this is a pretty terrifying sight at any point though when you’re five hours up a mountain the challenge of finding help is magnified.

We poured water on him and had him drink some once the fit stopped and thankfully Alex is as tough as old boots, so he managed to shake off the fall. We patched up the cuts and bruises and sat with a coffee while we decided the next move. (Sadly, Deliveroo hadn’t brought us Starbucks, the guides had brought flasks of massively sweet black stuff).

The mountain, as if to taunt us, increased the intensity of its thunderous explosive bangs. There was lava there for sure, and we would have carried on. However, when Alex had done his Exorcist impression, all the white eyes and shaking had upset the guides and they insisted that we make it back down the mountain that night in case Alex stopped working at some point while still on their watch.

Much to the pleasure of the American who had been dying in the heat, we turned around and started making our back down the mountain. Once more the lava had been so near yet… how does that end again.

We made it off the mountain and rested up for a few days and all was well with the world.

So the challenge to find lava is still on and it looks like the only way we can actually guarantee seeing it is to hike to a place that’s listed as ‘one of the most inhospitable places on earth’ – the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. A place where only camels and fleas can survive according to the guidebook.

Sometimes though, to see the things you really want to see you have to put in the work.


Have you ever taken a huge amount of effort to see something on your bucket list? How did that work out? Contact - Instagram.