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Descent Into Nyiragongo Volcano

Eastern Congo - Jan 28 - Feb 18 2016
In January/February I returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa to revisit the Nyiragongo volcano. In 2006 I was here and spent several nights camped at the summit, but the goal of this new expedition was to make it to very bottom, to descend the 500 meters straight down to the edge of the world's largest lava lake.
 
Nyiragongo is frequently referred to as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The nearby city of Goma is home to almost a million people and the volcano has a history of pouring rivers of lava into the city every few decades.
 
This was one of the most difficult expeditions I've ever been on from a logistics point of view. We had helicopter assistance from the United Nations peace keepers that are stationed there, but it ended up being very difficult to get to the summit. (See the daily logs at the bottom of the page for the play by play of the drama as it unfolded).
 
In addition to the problems from politics, security, flights, security, visas and missing equipment, the descent itself was difficult. I was one of the team members that was able to reach the bottom, but not everyone on the team did.
 
Huge thanks to Geoff Mackley, Bradley Ambrose, Chris Horsely, Mark Robinson, Mahinda & everyone else at the Goma Volcano Observatory, the United Nations pilots & ground crew in Goma, Dries Coetzee, the Japanese team, and everyone at Lac Kivu Lodge.

Nyiragongo Volcano Video - YouTube

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Flying in a United Nations helicopter over the city of Goma in eastern Congo
The view over Lake Kivu from the hotel in Goma.
Looking down into the crater of Nyiragongo volcano from the summit.

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The lava lake inside Nyiragongo is the largest in the world, about 200 meters in diameter, about the width of 2 football fields.
The surface of the lava lake bubbles up and the cools into thick plates that get recycled into the depths.
The hypnotic movement of the lava lake is something to behold. It took on an appearance of miniature tectonic plates moving across the surface.

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The goal of the expedition was to get down to the bottom of the crater, as close to the lava lake as possible. The crater is massive.. 1.3 km wide and 500 meters deep.
Lava bubbles and splashes up against the edges of the lava lake pit.
Our home at the summit, 11,390 feet above sea level in the cold, windy, gassy environment.

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At night, the glow from the lava lit up the sky.
The crater would frequently fill with sulfur dioxide gas, making visibility and breathing difficult.
In 1977 and 2002, lava flows from Nyiragongo poured into the nearby city of Goma, splitting the city with a river of molten rock.

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The lava from Nyiragongo is some of the fastest moving in the world. When it flows down the mountainside, it can do so at up to 60 km/h.
Glowing cracks in the crusted surface.
The Virunga national Park is home to 2 active volcanoes. Nyiragongo, and nearby Nyamuragira, which sometimes also contains a lake of lava.

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Bradley Ambrose rappelling down inside the crater.
Violent motion and lava fountains.
Brad, at the edge of the lava lake.

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Mark Robinson resting at the lower ledge, deep inside the crater.
Large fountains of lava erupting from the middle of the lava lake.
It is hard to get a sense of scale looking into the volcano. Keep in mind that this is 200 meters wide.

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Here I am, standing at the very edge, as close as humanly possible to the gigantic lake of lava.
In my heat suit, mere steps from the edge.
Volcano selfie, at the very edge of the largest lava lake in the world!

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My view, standing at the edge, looking straight down into the lava. The heat was outrageous, and I was worried about melting my camera.
The view from the edge, looking out across the surface of the lava.
Standing at the edge, staring into the abyss.
 
 
 
Feb. 15 2016 - The Congo volcano expedition is winding down. Many thanks to the people who made this possible: Geoff Mackley, Bradley Ambrose, Chris Horsley, Mark Robinson, Mahinda & the entire team at the Goma Volcano Observatory, The Lac Kivu Lodge, Dries our "can get anything guy", the Japanese crew and the United Nations team in Goma... The list goes on. This was a monumental undertaking, and although it was mostly successful, not everyone made it to the bottom, for a variety of reasons.

Expeditions like this are difficult, and the teamwork, preparation, planning and improvisation shown by all has been inspiring. Thanks so much.

Feb. 11 2016 - Made it to the bottom of the volcano today. More details to come. Team is OK

Feb. 07 2016 - First half of volcano ropes are rigged. Summit of Nyiragongo is a difficult place for a base camp, but we're making it work.
 
Freezing cold at night up here & the crater is proving to be very daunting. Very deep and difficult to rig ropes. All we need is more time!!!

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Feb. 06 2016 - Made it to volcano summit. 6 hour hike to 11,390ft. Team is tired but OK. Extreme winds collapsed my tent. Fixed now.

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Feb. 05 2016 - Screw it, we're walking. We can't take any more UN delays.

Feb. 04 2016 Part 2 - A few factoids about the Democratic Republic of Congo & Goma:

- The DRC has the highest UN peacekeeping force
Strength: 23,438 total, including:
Uniformed personnel: 19,452
Troops: 17,793
Military observers: 481
Police: 1,178
Civilian personnel: 3,565
International civilians: 840
Local civilians: 2,725
UN Volunteers: 421

The currency here is the Congolese Franc, however, U.S dollars are accepted everywhere... EXCEPT if they are even slightly damages, ripped or creased. Only crisp, fresh bills are taken. Every other is rejected. This is due to rampant counterfeiting. The Francs however, are ripped, filthy, and almost unreadable, and nobody cares at all.

Feb. 04 2016 - Some interesting turn of events here. we were told by the UN that it was impossible to land on Nyiragongo volcano, period, despite the fact that we've met several people who have done it plus we've seen pictures of helicopters up there. Our new, local badass friend made some calls to some very high ranking officials and suddenly, we're booked to go back up today in a smaller, Oryx helicopter.... Hmmm...

The bulk of the gear is being sent up with porters right now. Let's see if the fourth attempt is the magic one.
 
What else could possibly go wrong?....

This morning we sent the bulk of our equipment up Nyiragongo with about 35 porters. Meanwhile, we returned to the United Nations base for the 4th day in a row, hoping to finally get our chopper flight.
The U.N. had sent out an Oryx helicopter recon team earlier in the day to scout the summit for us, but it was determined that it was too steep, and that it was impossible to land. By this point, we've flip-flopped back and forth between possible and impossible more times than I can remember. I was whisked away to the command center to meet with the Jordanian duty officer and the 2 South African pilots who did the recon flight. According to them, the summit is impossible to fly to. Ugh.

So, what's our next step? Tomorrow morning, we're planning on going back (5th time is the charm) and we've identified a secondary, but much less ideal landing zone. It will require a lot of leg work after we land, but that's OK. We'll arrange even more porters to meet us at the landing zone to help with the very last of the gear and by mid-day tomorrow, we should be at the summit, with everything and everyone we need to pull off the mission.

We've all been shaking our heads.

From a team health point of view, Mark is feeling much better, but Chris and I have started to get sick. I'm not TOO bad, but I hope my stomach doesn't get worse.

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Feb. 03 2016 - More bad news... We loaded everything back up for the third day in a row, and went back to the United Nations air base... Again. This time we were going to try to get to the summit of Nyiragongo volcano with a smaller helicopter, but then there was confusion as to whether they could fly up there at all. We were told that it was not possible and that they had never landed up there before.... We've been getting mixed messages about what is possible and what isn't. Nobody seems to know what the f*ck is going on!

We're several days behind schedule now and are getting desperate. We're got some good connections here and we're looking at other options, but it looks like we'll probably have to go up on foot. Not the end of the world, it'll just require dozens and dozens of porters to carry everything up.
We had to leave Mark behind this morning because he was even more ill than yesterday. Boy was he surprised when we walked back in this afternoon. BTW, he's feeling a bit better.
 
For those of you who have been following the trials and tribulations of our current Congolese volcano expedition, we have not given up. Our persistence is what gets us through all the difficulties. When you feel like there's nothing you can do, there's always SOMETHING you can do. Small steps add up and we're going to make it.

Spirits are still high and despite the tremendous stress of near-deportation, bad weather, confusion with the United Nations chopper pilots, a member falling sick and too many other problems to list, we have not given up. It's not about how many times you get knocked down, it's about how many times, you get back up again.

Thank you for all your comments and emotional support. I've been trying to post about this in real time as much as I can so that people can understand what goes on behind the scenes, the stuff you never see on TV.

Feb. 02 2016 - Here we go... Trying again.
 
Murphy's law strikes again... We had good weather this morning and we went through the whole process of loading up the 1000kg or so of equipment, water and food into the helicopter. We managed to get up there, but the pilot couldn't find a place to land. We know that people have taken helicopters up there before, but part of the problem was that we were in a very large MI8 chopper. The landing area was apparently too small. We had to abort.... again! Second day in a row.

So frustrating. We have now changed the plan for the 12,000th time. We'll be sending 300 kg of water up with porters to lighten the load and we'll try again tomorrow. The U.N. people assure me that there is a crew with experience who can do it. They've been really helpful, and we're tremendously grateful. I'm cautiously optimistic, but the terrain up there is incredibly steep.

In other news, Mark is not feeling well, so he's spending the rest of afternoon resting and hydrating.

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Feb. 01 2016 - Our pile of gear and the guard towers at our hotel. Yes, you read that right... Our hotel has guard towers.
 
Unbelievable! We spent the morning at the United Nations peacekeeping compound and actually got on to our helicopter.... Unfortunately, the drama of the previous day's has been eclipsed with even bigger drama. I was tasked with helping the Russian pilots find a landing spot at the volcano summit but the visibility was terrible. At one point, I was in the cockpit and we were flying between two ridges when the visibility dropped to zero in the clouds. It was frightening to lose sight of the ground. I was fully expecting to witness us crashing into the side of the volcano. The pilot and I decided to abort the flight.
Our two tons of freight and the entire team has reconvened at the airport and we will try again tomorrow. I don't think I could write a drama this wild!
 
Some good news! Our equipment that's been missing in Ethiopia has finally arrived. I'll take every small victory I can get.

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Jan. 31 2016 - More drama... 15 cases of freight that was supposed to be here already is still missing. Our helicopter flight to the volcano summit is tomorrow morning. The team is going to have to split up. Some will stay behind and wait for the gear, then trek up with lots of porters.
 
Ever meet a guy who was so intimidating, that within seconds of meeting him, even though he only spoke very softly, it was very clear that he had likely killed many people? We met that guy today. Luckily, he's on our side.
 
Fever pitch at Nyiragongo Expedition command center in Goma as the sun sets on our last night in town, with freight still spread all over Africa its still chaos but coming together.
 
The latest... We are going to get up early and catch the U.N. helicopter to the summit of the volcano, taking with us what supplies we already have. The rest will be carried up by an army of porters in a couple of days, when they eventually arrive from Ethiopia. I'm surprised we've made it this far, considering all the obstacles we've encountered. The entire team agrees that this has been the most difficult, stressful and frustrating expedition any of us have done... And we still haven't even seen a glimpse of the volcano yet.

Meanwhile, we're also scrambling to prepare for some other projects that come up soon after this one is over. Sometimes I have to think 2 or 3 expeditions in advance, while out in the field on the current one. It adds another layer of complexity onto an already complex situation.
 
6 AM here in Congo. Thunderstorms last night have cleared out and the weather looks good for our chopper flight to Nyiragongo summit. Holy cow, we might actually make it!

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Jan. 30 2016 - Update: Insanity continues. We finally made it to Goma in The Congo... Entry visa problems continued, 3/5 of the team were in the process of being deported back to Ethiopia! A 5000 Euro bribe was suggested, and a standoff ensued. They were on the tarmac with the plane waiting to be forced back on, while the rest of us scrambled to try and get help. Moments before getting on the plane, the governor called and suddenly, we were OK. Other complications followed, but we're here. A day and a half late, and without all our freight yet. What a morning!!
 
More insanity. After the debacle at the airport, we tried to go into town to get some supplies, but there was a soccer match and Congo beat Rwanda. At that instant, the city erupted in chaotic celebration. Thousands of people filling the streets, cheering, fighting, standing on the roof of moving vehicles. There was just no way that we could get anything accomplished. All the shops closed, and city descended into mayhem around us. Stay tuned for more...

My ride for the day here in Goma. I'm not sure if the sign in the window means that we don't have guns inside, or that guns are prohibited... Whatever.

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Jan. 29 2016 - Huge problems right off the bat. A typo on my entry visa + the others are having visa issues + another one of us lost his luggage claim tags We're stuck in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia because our flight to the Congo is canceled due to a mechanical problem. Now we have to try to sort out the ripple effect caused by the delay, AND we get to try this all again tomorrow. All of this is after a 13 hour flight and no sleep since Wednesday night. Ah, the glamour!!
 
Spending the night in Ethiopia. Cameras have been confiscated by the airport authorities and we have not slept yet. We will be heading back to the airport at 5AM to try this again.

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