Revisited: Adventures in volcano climbing

I’ve never been much of an adventurer, especially when it comes to the outdoors. I’ve never ridden the rapids, never climbed a rock face, never snow-boarded nor hiked the back country nor parachuted out of an airplane.

I’ve participated in the artificial adventure of a ropes course that was required as part of a corporate development initiative a while back. We rappelled down a deserted fire tower with about a dozen safety ropes attached, walked across a rickety bridge and bonded with coworkers while trying to hoist them over a 6-foot wall. The most I remember getting out of this exercise was a great idea I had for getting out of future similar exercises: I’d cut through the bottom of my sneakers and “accidentally” blow out the soles right after the introductory trust fall.

So when I had the opportunity during a 2006 business excursion to the Philippines to go on an outing with my fellow trainers to a volcano, I obviously shuddered at the chance. This was in the midst of a five-week visit to this most unlucky of former U.S. protectorates, and I thought long and hard about ways I could avoid the daytrip.

This was, after all, a nation that attracted trouble even more than it did American companies looking for a low-cost English-speaking labor force. The week before I arrived they had a killer typhoon, and two more passed nearby during my stay. Earthquakes were a regular occurrence, as were Islamic insurgencies, oppressive regimes, random bombings, floods and the occasional occupation by Imperial Japanese forces. Just sitting in my hotel room felt quite adventurous enough, thank you, especially with the regular appearance at my twentieth-floor window of dangling glass cleaners who more than once I mistook for jet-packing terrorists.

Still, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I had committed to breaking out of my skin and trying new things (the breakout was later diagnosed as only mild dermatitis, not the leprosy I feared). I had already taken a wonderful Sunday drive with a half-dozen friends to a beautiful beach at Subic Bay that was marred only by the fact that the vehicle we ordered was designed to hold six Filipino-sized passengers, not the six chunky Americans who got way too intimate during the two-hour drive. I was considering a weekend hop over to Hong Kong and had even learned to ride the Manila commuter rail, with its quaint concepts of safety and air-conditioning.

I decided I would be brave and join the volcano trip. We were to go by van about 35 miles outside of Manila to the Taal volcano, located in the middle of Lake Taal, near the village of Taal, in the district of Taal. (Obviously, the volcano was the biggest tourist attraction in the area.) While we were assured that the mountain was long-dormant, I was fairly certain that the citizens of Pompeii were once told pretty much the same thing, except in Latin. We would hire a boatman on the shore of the lake, motor about a mile across to the volcanic island in the middle, then hike a trail of moderate difficulty to the summit. It would be about an hour-long trek along a clearly marked path, and there were horses available for rental if we thought we couldn’t make it on foot.

This did little to reassure me as I’ve had a deathly fear of horses since I was nearly the victim of a fatal pony mauling when I was a child. I guess it wasn’t so much of a mauling as it was a too-bumpy ride around an enclosed track, but to a seven-year-old it was scary enough. Despite generally positive feelings I’ve had toward fictional horses I’ve subsequently encountered – Mister Ed, Quick Draw McGraw, Black Beauty, Sarah Jessica Parker – I retain to this day an aversion to these profile-challenged animals. Riding one to the top, and possibly over, the rim of a volcano was not something I was comfortable with.

When we arrived on the island, we were greeted by locals whose only source of income was badgering hikers into buying their locally produced trinkets — mostly canned Coca-Cola — or renting their horses. The animals were as pathetic as you might expect in poor rural Asia: hollow-eyed, low-slung and smelling something like sulfur, which I later learned they’d picked up from the volcano. So much for the dormancy claim. Only the oldest member of our group was interested in renting one (I assume it was a rental arrangement, though he may have actually bought the pitiful creature and simply disposed of him in the magma above). The rest of us insisted on walking, I because of my phobia and the rest because they were young and strong and cheap. We had to continue this insistence virtually the entire way up the trail as the horse peddlers followed close behind us, stubbornly affirming the value of the wretched beasts who made their own case by breathing heavily on us.

The trail was not too steeply inclined and actually quite passable, except for lots of dust, some serious heat, and deep ruts caused by runoff (rain they insisted, lava I suspected). You could pause to rest every now and then and enjoy a great view of the lake. The summit was also constantly in view, so you had a pretty good idea of how much longer you’d be trekking. Soon I was in the final ascent. The horses had finally fallen back, a whiff of cool air appeared, and at last I was beginning to believe this would be worthwhile after all.

At the top was a narrow area of wooden platforms and benches overlooking the caldera. A crude lean-to housed several merchants who were offering drinks to the parched climbers. I stupidly selected the canned Coke over the fresh chilled coconut milk served right in the nut after it had been laid open with a machete. Inside the volcano was a clear blue lake with a tiny island in the middle. The slopes leading down to this interior lake were covered with vegetation only occasionally broken by fumaroles, though they might’ve been huddles of smokers. We were told this was the only place on the planet where there was an island inside a lake (the caldera) inside an island (the volcano) inside a lake (Lake Taal) inside an island (Luzon, the main Philippine island). It’s a singular distinction that never occurred to me even existed, but if it had, I’d be impressed.

After about an hour of picture-taking and exploring this small summit area, we pretty much had the idea and were ready to come down. True adventurers know that the descent is sometimes the hardest part of the climb, so naturally we had no idea what to expect. I stumbled several times in the slippery dust, but the incline was such that my butt didn’t have that far to fall. My young companions became alarmed when they saw me go down, imagining I guess the broken hip or pelvis that is so rampant among what they thought was my age group.

We knew we were about at the bottom when the fearsome stallions reappeared. I was almost glad to see them, considering that they signaled the end of our adventure. Fortunately, their owners were no longer interested in us, since we weren’t about to take a pony ride back across the lake. After being snorted on a few more times as we inched past, my last equine encounter of the day was with the two sawhorses holding up a narrow plank that served as the dock leading to the boat that would get us the hell out of that wondrous adventure.


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One Response to “Revisited: Adventures in volcano climbing”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    You left out Camilla Parker-Bowles. Oh no, I didn’t say that did I? That was mean. And I gave up mean for Lent. Oh what the hell, that was last February.

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