The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Climbing An Erupting Volcano

By Jochen Arms © 1987

Issue: August, 1987

EDITOR'S NOTE... The following story is off the beaten path of stories seen in The Mountain Laurel. It was submitted by a writer in Guatemala. As we enjoy our beautiful green cool peaceful mountains in the Blue Ridge, we sometimes take them for granted. As you read this story about another range of mountains, take time to think about the contrast. Take time also to remember all the people who made their home in the mountains near the volcano in this story, but can no longer live in their peaceful mountain home.

On Wednesday, January 21, 1987 at 3:20 p.m. the normally "tourist – traveled", and peaceful volcano of Pacaya in central Guatemala, erupted with a forceful explosion sending rocks, clouds and ash into the air as far as the capital city of Guatemala, 45 miles away.

As a German citizen and a volcanologist, I was invited to join the "Guatemalan Ministry of Volcanology," and with their team, was among the first to arrive in the village of San Francisco, at the base of the volcano.

There, in front of a white church I saw pieces of bluish–black slag, evidence of very hot, molten material. There, also, I saw villagers gathered in prayer, and under whatever shelter was available, trying to ignore the explosions that were occurring at 15 second intervals. Echoing through the surrounding high mountains, the sound was that of a hundred steel factories in simultaneous operation.

Our team climbed a steep path to the summit, through dense tropical forests above the lake of Calderas. Higher, the pieces of slag were larger. At the higher altitudes we found pieces of stone gleaming like white marble. Despite the awesome spectacle above us, the forest around us was serene; birds sang in the lush tropical trees that were hung with orchids. Ahead, we could hear the ominous roar of the volcano!

Higher, we saw more and more slag and hot lava that had hit the ground, burning grass, bushes and trees.

Vultures were hovering in the air or sitting in the trees around us, for there were many cadavers of horses and cows on the ground to feed on. Some of the trees were still burning, others lay on the ground, barked and torn to pieces. The valley and the hills around us looked like a black desert, no green, no twigs, no branches, no sign of life.

Then, we saw the crater, a huge chasm, and in the middle of two cone–shaped volcano peaks of Pacaya and McKinsey. The site was that of the surface of the moon.

The lower peak sent red lava and stones more than 100 feet in the air. Thunder followed and the echo resounded in the mountains. Stones flew sizzling through the air like projectiles. They hit the slope in a cloud of dust and rolled with a roaring noise in the abyss. On one side, lava was pouring down the slope in a steady stream.

The platform from where we observed the crater revealed a small marble plate. This was all that was left of a 10 foot monument and green park where tourist had camped at night. Francisco Peralta, the guardian of the electricity plant in the next valley, told us that he started running, when he heard the explosion. Big stones hit the ground only a few yards around him. He got burned. He was deaf and blind and ran for his life.

We put the safety helmets on and descended into the crater. One slope of the McKinsey volcano looked fairly safe. Here we started our dangerous climb. We crawled forward on the warm slippery sand. Would the volcano explode again? Would a stone hit us? Faster and faster we climbed the steep slope. Once we almost decided to return when a stone hit the ground to our left. But it was like a fever. We had to make it. And we made it. We stood on the summit and the heat wave hit us. The air was glimmering and blurred the view of the volcanoes in the background. Below us, we saw the open mouth of the volcano Pacaya. And then it sent huge masses of red lava in the air and we ran back down the slope. Five seconds we had stayed on the summit of McKinsey. We took pictures of the new crater, 80 feet wide that had opened after the blast.

We thought that there was little danger of a new explosion as the material that had blocked the magma, deep down in the earth, was obviously blown away. The new crater seemed to permit all the lava and all the gasses to leave. We shared the opinion of the Canadian geologist, Michael Eisner, that the explosion was positive. It had released the energies that provoke earthquakes, like the one that hit Guatemala in 1976, killing more than 10,000 people. We thought the activity would soon decrease and allow the Pacaya to be a "tourist–volcano" again.

But on January 25, at 6:15, at sunset, the Pacaya erupted more forceful than ever in his history: a column of black smoke, five miles high, was seen from the capital. Lava streamed over the summits, also there where we had stood. All the surrounding villages were evacuated. Two men died of heart–attacks. The once peaceful volcano Pacaya and the green valleys around it were, for this generation of man, lost.