(Correne Coetzer) They abseiled 450m down to the bottom of the crater of Marum Volcano; the sound and the vibration are something that is hard to describe, says Drew Bristow, “to hear and feel molten rock exploding less than 30m away from you is pretty mind-blowing.”
In 2011 Bristow and his climbing partner, Johno Smith, become the first people to descend to the bottom of Marum Volcano, Ambrym Island, Vanuatu.
It is amazing that it is not hot at all down there, Drew says to ExplorersWeb, “due to the cold air rushing into the crater.” They took tons of climbing gear, of which 2km of rope to get down the crater. “Ascending out one of my ropes became seriously frayed on a rock above me - only about 300m of free air below me to fall!!!”
Drew, a professional tree climber who is heading to South Africa in January 2013 for a tree climbing expedition, shares the volcano experience with ExplorersWeb:
The organizer of the trip was Geoff Mackley; Geoff has been to the volcano about 9 or so times with the intention of getting to the bottom of the crater. He watched a video of Johno and myself tree climbing (both professional tree climbers) and asked us to make the trip.
The idea was to get footage of a human next to the lava lake to show how big it is. Due to the weather being so bad, we only managed to abseil to the very bottom the day before we had to heli-vac out.
The bad weather stopped the cameras really seeing us from the top and we also lost radio comms. Luckily we had our GoPro helmet cams and I had carried a small Lumix compact HD camera with me and so just shot as much footage as I could.
Logistics to Marum Volcano
The island of Ambrym is situated only about 4-5 hrs from New Zealand; so looks like an easy place to get to and indeed it is if you’re not carrying a couple of hundred kilos of climbing gear, 2 kms of rope and drums of AVgas fuel.
We chartered a schooner from Port Vila and spent 2 days sailing through the Pacific Islands - what a way to start such a trip. We saw turtles, flying fish, dolphins and caught big Wahoo in this time.
We then landed at Ranvetlam village on Ambrym Island (the island of black magic) and awaited the helicopter to turn up to transport us and our gear up to Marum volcano.
This turned into a nightmare. By this time the weather was really bad on the volcano, so Phil Cotter (our chopper pilot, RIP*) was engaged to fly as close as possible to the proposed camp and drop gear off. Phil flew as close as humanly possible and unloaded our gear perhaps not more than 800m away from the camp in absolute zero visibility.
It was then that the local guides informed us that there was no way to ascend to camp and that we would have to backtrack and march all of our gear for hours to find the path that would lead us to camp. We decided to spend the night where we were.
This then turned into a flash flood area and a frightful night was spent watching the stream next to camp quickly get higher and higher but luckily it abated before it broke its banks.
The next day was spent in relay carting gear up the mountain. Johno and Lacey were legendary in their ability to keep carrying more and more gear. The ropes were a major issue though as 2km of rope is pretty much impossible to carry.
The chopper was called back (this decision was not taken lightly as the cost was phenomenal) and luckily a window of good weather appeared and Phil was able to pick the ropes up and use crazy skills to deposit the ropes at exactly where we intended to abseil into the crater.
Terrifyingly beautiful ascent
On the descent we had tried to fit rope protectors on the sharp edges but the constant wind kept lifting our ropes, even with our full weight on it, and also rope stretch over 500m of rope makes placing it very hard to do.
The ascent up is a terrifyingly beautiful thing. We had been sponsored by a Swedish company called ActSafe that manufacture powered ascenders that are designed to be used in any conditions. We challenged them too inside a volcano and they took up the challenge.
At the bottom of 450m ropes we clipped the ascenders on and turned them on and slowly started ascending up the rope. Looking behind us was a seething roaring mass of molten rock. I think we spent quite a while just sitting there watching and giving each other high 5's. We then continued the ascent.
Once we were about 300m above the ground I looked up and could see some fluff on my rope where it went over a rock edge; a quick nod to Johno to look up and we both shrugged-shit. We slowed the ascent down to limit any rope movement and came up to the damaged rope.
Slowly it passed through the ascender and was below us. 32 strands of rope were reduced down to roughly 8 internal core strands; but hey, it had held and we were passed it.
To this day I still have that damaged section of rope at home.
Safety and climbing gear
The gear that we had chosen for this climb was pretty much our standard tree climbing gear; it is what we know and we are 100% confident in its capabilities and our abilities.
It may sound silly but tree climbing is astonishingly rough on gear so it is actually suited to this kind of activity. We had done our best to have backups for every system. We used a 500 and 600m main rope and had x2 500m backup ropes for the climb, powered ascenders but also standard ascenders as backup.
Our lowering devices were custom made by AccessGear in New Zealand but we carried backups for these too just in case. The issue with Marum is there realistically is little to no chance of any rescue being available due to its location. It’s up to the climbers to make sure a rescue is not needed.
We always tried to climb next to each other to limit the possibility of rock fall on top of each other. The sides of Marum are made up of very loose rock and our biggest concern was a slight tremor dislodging rock and it falling onto us.
In all honesty though there is not much that can be done about this so you just have to try and be careful.
Constantly active lava lake
Marum is one of only 5 constantly active lava lakes on the planet and this was the first time anyone had descended right to the bottom. How do you know it’s not going to blow whilst you are down there? You don’t really you just have to go for it.
As we were camped on the crater edge for 16 days you get used to the rumbles and the red sky. If it blew whilst we were down there then I think it would just be a slightly quicker final moment.
Spending so long camped on the crater edge is a crazy thing to describe. The wind is constant, the rain never abates and your tent is just perpetually shaking. At night time the whole sky is glowing red and you can crawl to the very edge and peer down at the exploding lake. It looks purely magnificent at night.
One evening, Daniel Lacey (cameraman), Johno and I got to witness the crater with no gases and the lava lake appeared to glow white hot for maybe 20 seconds. This was something none of us had ever heard of and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Marum apparently emits more CO2 than anything else on the planet and so acts like a massive vacuum sucking cold air down its crater walls. Being down inside the crater it feels and sounds like a whirling wind tunnel but there is a lot of O2 so breathing isn’t really an issue – thankfully. We had taken down an O2 bottle just in case the air was hostile but this totally unused.
The bigger issue is the Sulphur Dioxide that is present; this burns your throat and lungs and necessitates the use of gas masks for a lot of the time. The Sulphur also reacts with the constant rain and produces sulphuric acids that corrodes everything and makes your skin itchy - a very unpleasant feeling.
The team had brought along gas monitors for us to check the air during our descent but upon arriving at Marum we found that they were no longer working :(
Clothes and boots
The clothes we wore on the mountain were just normal outdoor clothes. MacPac had supplied us with Event Jackets and Tents as the weather can be absolute hellish on Marum.
During our 16 days camped on top we had constant rain (up to 40mm per hour) and 100kmh+ winds most days. We were confined to the tents for 4-5 days at a time with little or no break in the weather.
I wore Salewa boots for the expedition; this is through wearing them for years tree climbing. I suppose we could get heatproof boots but that point kinda got lost in the ether!
We took with us heatproof jackets and trousers but it really was not hot at all down near the lava lake; in fact the jackets just made us too hot and were cumbersome BUT not having them and needing them is a much worse scenario.
We could stand right on the very edge looking into the exploding lava with no heat at all, but if the wind shifts and does blow superheated gas at you, it’s 1000degrees.
Below is a short video of Drew and Johno’s world first 2011 descent into Marum:
Drew said to ExWeb he would love to go back and take others there as he knows it is very possible to do.
*About the helicopter pilot Drew explains, “Phil Cotter died late last year in a helicopter accident in Vanuatu. I believe he was flying telecommunication equipment through the islands and had catastrophic engine malfunction. I think he had passengers onboard and managed to ditch the heli into the hillside with the passengers on the airside and they survived. He’s one of the craziest pilots id ever met but in a way that inspired total confidence in the hairiest of situations. From reading online heli forums i found an industry that respected Phil for being one of the best.”
Drew Bristow was born and raised in the UK and moved to New Zealand 9 years ago to pursue a career in tree climbing and the laid back NZ lifestyle. As well as being a qualified arborist he also spends a lot of time in the NZ bush climbing big native trees and climbing in competitions. He has been the Auckland champion in 2008 and 2010, Singapore champion in 2010 and qualified to represent NZ at the Asia Pacific championships 2x. 2 trips to Marum volcano seeing him and Johno Smith achieve a world first in descending to the bottom in 2011. In January 2011 Drew is leading an expedition to climb South Africa’s tallest trees.
Johno Smith was born and raised in Auckland New Zealand. He is one of the most adaptive and forward thinking climbers on the planet, says Drew. He was the Auckland champion in 2009 and made 2x trips to Marum volcano seeing him and Drew achieve a world first in descending to the bottom in 2011. Johno teaches tree climbing for an international training company and contract climbs throughout NZ and Australia. HE is also currently building a tree house to live in on a remote island out of Auckland.
Johno, Drew and Zane Wedding (a fellow climber) run a New Zealand climbing company, “Climb Every Thing”.
Here is the tree climbing video that originally got them on the team:
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