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Expedition to Erta Ale Volcano

Ethiopia - Jan. 2005

Ethiopia

On Jan 14th, I departed on an expedition to the remote Erta Ale volcano. The overland portion of the trip began in Djibouti where we travelled by 4X4 vehicles across the Ethiopian border and into the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable places on Earth. After several days of traveling through this barren desert, we then hiked up the side of the Erta Ale volcano with camels up to the summit caldera. Erta Ale is known for its 2 pit craters which have had active lava lakes in the past. Due to the unstable political situation in the area we travelled with armed security forces.

Erta Ale is a very remote and rarely visited shield volcano. It's Ethiopia's most active volcano and it has been in a state of continuous eruption since 1967. Daytime temperatures are usually above 40 degrees Celsius and the base of the volcano actually lies below sea level and its summit rises up to 613 Meters.

Erta Ale Volcano Descent You Tube

Erta Ale Volcano

Descent Into The Crater

Inside the Crater

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There have been significant changes in the activity at Erta Ale. The level of the lava lake in the south pit crater has risen dramatically. It has overflowed the terrace and risen up to within 20 meters of the top of the crater. The surface of the lava lake has crusted over and large hornitos have towered up out of the surface and reach almost as high as the edge of the crater. These hornitos were glowing brightly and were giving off a lot of sulfur dioxide gas. The north pit crater was also degassing heavily and its fumes would often drift over towards our camp whenever the winds would shift. Jan 27, 2005.

Discovery Channel Canada - Daily Planet show video clips now online:
Segment showing the training for the Ethiopian volcano descent - Jan. 20th, 2005 - Watch The Video
Details from Erta Ale volcano expedition - Feb 10th, 2005 Watch The Video

Getting to Erta Ale was no small feat. After flying to Addis Ababa, we met up with the rest of the expedition members and then we all connected through to Djibouti City. Once there, final preparations wee made and supplies were picked up. We then travelled overland through Djibouti, stopping at Lac Assal and Ardoukoba volcano along the way.

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Loading up the gear in Djibouti City

Our transportation for the day needed a push start.

We created quite a traffic disruption.

A typical traffic hazard in Djibouti.

Lac Assal - Djibouti

Ardoukoba Volcano - Djibouti.

Crossing back into Ethiopia was interesting. At the checkpoint, we all had to surrender our passports to the officials. After waiting a while, we were asked to step into the "office". Well the office was nothing more than a dirt-floored shack with a desk and no lighting. We had to use our own flashlights to help the officer read our documents. After filling out the appropriate paperwork, we were told that everything was in order but instead of stamping our visas, he handed out customer comment cards to each of us first. As you can imagine, all of our comments were very positive and mentioned our border officer as being especially helpful. Only after we had completed the cards, did he then stamp our visas and allow us to proceed. Hmmm…

It was now getting late and we needed a place to sleep. The closest town was Dikioto and we managed to get rooms at the hotel there. Well, perhaps hotel is not the best word to describe the place. It was basically a truck stop along the Ethiopian road that had an open courtyard and 2 rows of hotel rooms. The rooms were constructed of corrugated metal walls with holes big enough that I could reach my entire arm though them into the next room. The door lock was held in place with 2 of the tiniest finishing nails that I'd ever seen and outside each room was a series of cots set up outdoors where many men were sleeping. The whole place had a very creepy feel to it with many people wandering about, shouting and pounding on the doors. The noise was so bad that I had to put earplugs in just to try to get some sleep. The place had electric lights but the bulbs were hanging by exposed wires and the sound of the generator was deafening. The toilet consisted of a field out back behind the building and the whole place was little more than an open sewer. Donkeys and goats roamed freely, even through the restaurant and the entire area looked more like a disaster area than a hotel. That night I slept with my knife under my pillow.

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View outside my "hotel" room.

Playing with some of the local children.

One of the 7 flat tires we got along the way.

Each morning, the trucks were re-loaded.

The next morning, after spending some time playing with some of the local children, we made our way to Logia. Here is where we had to take care of a little business. One of our trucks had a broken gearbox that needed replacing and we had to obtain our first of 2 authorizations to proceed to Erta Ale. Once the permission was secured and the part replaced we drove on deeper into the Danakil Desert and set up camp for the night. I'm amazed at how things just seem to "happen" in Africa. Who knew that in such a tiny, remote place, one could get a gearbox for a Toyota Landcruiser on such short notice? Luck was on our side.

Sleeping outdoors in the middle of nowhere was vast improvement over our previous night's accommodations. Things were looking much better.

That was until it started to rain.

The hottest desert in the world, where we had been promised that we "Wouldn't see a single drop of rain" and now it was pouring down on us. All we could do was wrap ourselves up in woven mats and try to stay dry. Well that didn't work too well since water leaked through at any spot where you were in contact with the mat. In the morning I woke up in a puddle of water, my sleeping bag was soaked and I had no rain gear with me at all. Not good. After packing up camp, we continued on to the salt mining town of Afrera to obtain the next authorization from the Afar people. Along the road to Lac Afrera, we encountered something we did not expect to see on this trip. Flooding. A flash flood had taken over a portion of the desert after the night's rains had funneled down from the mountains. Apparently, the region hadn't seen rain in about 2 years. Of course it shows up as soon as I enter the area.

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Our soggy camp after spending the night in the pouring rain.

Another flat tire. This time in the rain.

Flooded desert the morning after the downpour.

Flash flooding on the way to Afrera.

A family of baboons.

In Afrera, we certainly did attract attention. Locals gathered 'round just to see what we were up to and many of them thought that we were there looking for diamonds. Our lead guide, Baragoita negotiated with the local Afar leader and soon we were on our way. It certainly helps that he is an Afar himself and he speaks about 5 languages. On the way out of town, we stopped in at the local police station and picked up our security personnel of 3 guards armed with Kalashnikov machine guns.

The next leg of the trip involved driving off road over some of the toughest terrain I've ever seen. Because of the rains, we couldn't take the regular ground route to the base of Erta Ale. The ground was too wet and had turned to mud so we took an alternate way. We were literally driving over old lava flows and huge rocks for an entire day. There are no roads here. Our three trucks did need some help though. Some of our guides scouted ahead to find the best paths over the sharp, volcanic rocks. Others gathered rocks to serve as makeshift ramps up onto some of the tougher lava flows, often running ahead in bare feet. I don't know how they were able to run over such sharp terrain in 45C temperatures but the sight was amazing to see.

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The only way to travel. Afar style.

In an area without roads, we had to make our own path.

One of our trucks lost its 4X4 ability but amazingly made it through.

It doesn't get much more "off road" than this.

The mercury soared up to 45C. Of course we had no air conditioning.

It took the better part of a day to clear the old lava flows.

Once we completed the rock portion of the journey, then it was onto the sand dunes of the Danakil Desert. This proved to be even more difficult than the rocks because the ground was still very wet in areas and we got stuck often in the quicksand-like muck. Sometimes 2 vehicles at a time would be stuck and it would take the entire crew to push the trucks out. These Land Cruisers took a real beating out there and I find it amazing that we were able to progress at all considering that we had no shovels, no tow straps, no winches, nothing. The only tool that we used was a length of climbing rope that we brought along with us. The maintenance history of these vehicles was certainly in question and if there had been a breakdown out here, we would've been in deep trouble. It didn't instill much confidence to see that 1 truck had a diesel leak and another was leaking oil and transmission fluid.

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Once on the sand, we ran into problems with the mud

One of the few times when we weren't stuck.

Taking a break from pushing the trucks out of the sand..

Progress was very slow in between rocky sections.

One of the rare dry patches of desert.

After getting stuck about 30 times, we finally packed it in and stopped for the night. We set up camp in the sand, but we were still a long way from Erta Ale. We could see it on the horizon but it seemed a million miles away. The decision was made to get up before dawn the next morning and walk to the volcano. The trucks had no chance of making it and it was our last chance. Our guides were able to flag down some of the nomadic Afar tribesmen and negotiated the delivery of a caravan of camels in the morning. (Actually they're dromedaries but everyone here calls them camels). I found it amazing how here in the desert, one could flag down a camel caravan just like hailing a cab in New York City. I've learned to accept the surreal here and just roll with it. Hey why not?

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The camel caravan shows up.

The only ground transportation to Erta-Ale.

The vocalizations made by the camels were amazing.

One of the Afar nomads - 11 years old and armed with a machine gun.

Loading up the camels.

Business as usual in the Danakil Desert.

In the morning, we packed up and headed out. We carried with us only emergency supplies, water and a small compliment of camera gear. The rest would be brought along on the camels later. The funny thing is that supposedly, the Afar guide who was supposed to lead us to Erta Ale didn't show up because he just got married the day before...To 2 wives! I don't think I would've shown up either!

The hike started off well but the day was clear and it soon became apparent that the heat was going to be a problem today. To get to the summit of Erta Ale we trekked for 25 Kilometers over very difficult terrain, which included loose rock, old lava flows and sand. The only people we saw were in the tiny hut village of Dodom. The Afar living here don't have much contact with the outside world and even less access to medical attention. One old man had a pretty serious gash in his leg and we patched him up as best we could with our meager first aid supplies. His wound was infected quite badly and really needed proper medical attention. The entire town had an eerie feel to it and it was disturbing to see scores of dead goats lying around all over the place. Nobody had even taken the time to remove the carcasses out of the way. I'm not sure if there was some kind of livestock disease there but the smell of decay was very strong.

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The pre-dawn start of the final hike to the volcano.

Sunrise on the trail.

Afar village of Dodom.

Dead goats were strewn everywhere.

I was sure hoping the safety was on.

As we continued on the heat of the day began to take its toll. It was 35C in the shade but there was no shade at all so it felt more like 45C. There are no trees and barely any living plant life present. Brian had become quite weak and dehydrated and was unable to continue up the slope so he had to hold back with one guide and wait for the camel caravan to arrive. The rest of us pushed on.

I was beaten and blistered by the time I reached the top and felt great relief when I looked over and saw the smoking crater. I climbed down into the caldera and made my way over to the edge of the south pit crater to snap a few pictures before it got too dark. The surface of the lava lake had risen up dramatically over the past year. Right now it was only 20 meters from the top of the crater and a crust had formed on top. Poking out of the crust were several lava filed hornitos that glowed brightly and puffed out noxious gas. It didn't seem real but here I was. All that hard work and effort to get here finally paid off.

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My first glimpse of the South Crater.

Glowing hornitos in the South Crater.

Belching out plenty of sulfur dioxide gas.

These lava filled cones lit up the whole area.

At the crater's edge.

The others all eventually made it up to the summit with Brian riding the back of one of the camels. Words can't describe this place.

Because of all the problems caused by the rain, we were about 2 days behind schedule and we didn't know if we would be able to stay here for two nights or only one. The next morning, Derrick and I decided to start setting up for the descent into the pit crater. The problem was if we had to leave later in the day, we wouldn't have time to complete the preparations in time and all our effort would be lost. But if we did stay another night, then we'd have enough time to complete the plan. We went ahead and began setting up and soon found out that yes, we would be able to stay tonight as well. Good news. All plans were continuing forward.

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Dawn at Erta-Ale

Alex near the crater's edge.

Choking fumes drift towards our camp.

Degassing in the North Crater

In the sulfur fields near the North Crater

The main problem with the descent was trying to find a good point to anchor to. The lava flows were so brittle and crumbly that driving spikes into them was out of the question. Baragoita showed up with 2 six foot long Eucalyptus logs (I don't know where they appeared from) and we wedged then in between the lava flows. Perfect. They were extremely sturdy and allowed us the flexibility to maneuver our edge rollers into place so that the rope wouldn't get sliced on the edge of the crater lip. Falling rocks became my main concern and I had to use a hammer to clear away the loose rock around the edge of the drop point. It was so unstable that even the rope touching the side would cause rocks to come tumbling down. Once all the safety lines were secured, I go suited up, checked the radios and microphones & fired up my helmet-mounted camera system. It was time to go over the edge.

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Clearing loose rock at the edge of the descent point.

Derrick setting up the Grip system.

One of our guards taking a shot at the volcano.

The Griptech system that we used was great. It used friction to lower and pulleys to raise me back up. It performed flawlessly and Derrick were able to suspend me in air several times while I cleared out more loose rock on the way down. One problem with the new lava crust in the crater was that we didn't know how thick it was or what was underneath it. As I touched down, I tested the footing and found it to be quite secure. What a great sensation to be standing on a spot of Earth that nobody has ever stood on before, in fact it didn't even exist a year ago. Not knowing what the conditions would be like near the hornitos, I donned the rest of my aluminum heat suit and started exploring the crater floor. There were several tense moments when despite walking as gingerly as possible, I broke through a layer of lava crust. Relieved that the layer underneath was solid I continued right up to the hornitos, which were still glowing even in the sunshine.

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On the way down to the crater floor.

Respirator at the ready if the winds shift.

Falling rocks were a concern.

Touchdown!

Exploring the crusted lava lake surface.

Approaching the active hornitos.

After collecting a sample from the most recent lava flow, I returned to the raise point and the crew hoisted me back up again. Brian and Virginie then took turns descending into the crater.

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The heat suit sometimes made radio communications with the team difficult.

Looking up towards the edge of the pit crater.

Lava visible through one of the windows.

Like being on another planet.

Derrick operating the Grip.

Brian goes over the edge.

Because of the weather delays, we were quite a bit behind schedule and some of the expedition members had to fly out earlier than others so the decision was made to use the satellite phone to call in a helicopter to pick us up the next morning. We hiked down the side of the volcano and waited for the chopper. We could hear it coming but because of the overcast conditions, we weren't able to actually see it. We lit a signal fire and tried waving tarps and anything else we had but it was no use. The helicopter never came down below the clouds. All we could do was listen to the sound of the rotors fade away into the distance as it left us behind. We later found out that the pilot was not that familiar with the area and was afraid to drop too low out of the cloud cover for fear of crashing into the side of a volcano. All we could do was keep hiking. We continued on for about another 12 kilometers until we reached a small Afar hut village. We set up camp here. A couple of our guides went on ahead to where the trucks were left and later that evening, they arrived with all 3 vehicles. It had dried out enough for them to be able to drive to our location. At least now, if the helicopter never came, we could still drive out of here.

The next morning, we again heard the sound of the helicopter but this time we could actually see it below the cloud deck. It was a big, Russian helicopter and today, it had no difficulty finding us. It made a quick fly-by before circling around and setting down at a nearby flat area. The downwash from the rotor blades kicking up a huge cloud of dust. From there it was on to Mekele the back to Addis Ababa.

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A vain attempt to signal the helicopter.

2nd day, successful landing.

Meeting the flight crew.

Saying goodbye to our guides.

 

 


Updates leading up to the trip:

Jan. 14 - Toronto, Ontario
Today I leave for Ethiopia & Djibouti. Updates will be posted whenever possible but they may be scarce until my return.

Jan. 10 - Collingwood, Ontario
Today I was interviewed on the Roger's T.V. live talk show Daytime. I'll also be doing a call in to the show from Ethiopia live via satellite phone from the edge of the volcano.

Daytime Live

Daytime Live


Jan. 03 - Toronto, Ontario
With less than 2 weeks to go before leaving for Africa, I'm down to the last minute preparations. The last of my travel documents are being processed and the equipment needed to descent into the Erta Ale pit crater is being gathered. In addition to Erta Ale, we will also be visiting Ardoukoba volcano in Djibouti and the Dallol region in Ethiopia which has the highest average temperature of any where in the world. Many thanks to Stephen Mayne who is assisting me with gathering research info for the expedition.

Dec. 19 - Toronto, Ontario
Many thanks to Roadpost who will be providing the satellite telephone equipment for this expedition. Because the Erta Ale volcano is so remote, the only way to communicate with the outside world is via satellite. Here is the latest Press Release.

www.roadpost.com


Dec. 17 - Toronto, Ontario
The expedition planning continues and I'm very happy to announce that Brian Fletcher and myself are now going to be joined by Derrick Tessier. Derrick is the trainer for Grip Safety & Rescue Systems and is an expert in confined space and high angle rescue. He will be a great addition to the expedition and I'm glad to have him aboard.

Dec. 09 - Grimsby, Ontario
As part of the training required to tackle the tough terrain at Erta Ale, I joined up with representatives from Griptech, manufacturers of high angle rescue equipment. Together we joined forces with 2 Captains from the Grimsby fire dept. and brought our gear out to a sharp cliff on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment where Brian Fletcher and I practiced vertical ascent and descent techniques. A film crew from Discovery Channel was there to catch the action.

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www.griptechrescue.com