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Collecting Clues to Solve a Volcanic Mystery

Sangay, at 17,259 feet above sea level, is one of the world's highest active volcanoes. (Photo by Marco Cruz)
Sangay, at 17,259 feet above sea level, is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. (Photo by Marco Cruz)

Sangay volcano is remote, active and reputedly dangerous. Despite the mountain’s deadly history (as recounted in “Sangay Survived: The Story of the Ecuador Volcano Disaster”) and potential for explosive eruptions, this year Sangay volcano was in a mostly restful, benevolent state.

Our expedition (funded by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration) was a success in all respects. Everyone started and finished the expedition in perfect health. The spectacular trek into basecamp, albeit interesting and exciting (particularly for the horses), was seamless and uneventful. All mountain operations were well orchestrated such that we collected more than 60 geologic samples covering a range of lava compositions and ages, including older flows on the mountain’s lower flanks, historic flows from the upper slopes, and young bombs from the summit craters.

Our direct observations of the geological processes operating on Sangay have transformed our ability to interpret pending chemical and isotopic measurements. All told, we are now one step closer to our major goal: to understand the genesis, evolution, and future of Sangay volcano and its relationship to the rest of the volcanoes of the world.

The following narrative, written by expedition member, Laurel Hesse, details some of the trip’s finer moments:

Hiking In : Vamos a la Playa!                                               

December 6-9—After spending the night at the beautiful Estella del Chimborazo Mountain Lodge of Marco and Ximena Cruz, our group set off on a bus ride to Guarguallá Chico, a small farming community at the buffer of Sangay National Park. There we were met by our three Expediciones Andinas mountain guides (Raul Tenemaza Flores, Jaime Vargas Mariño, and German Guambo Lara), along with the rest of our team made up of 18 horses, ten porters, two cooks, and the official mascot of our trip, a mutt named Toby.

Figure 1: Toby. Mascot and spiritual guide. Photo by Hugo Cordova.
Figure 1: Toby, our trip mascot, power napping. (Photo by Hugo Cordova)

The horses, each packed to the maximum with 200 pounds of gear and supplies, got a head start up the trail, and we began a three-day, 23-mile hike to basecamp. Our path carried us up and down a series of mountain ridges with an elevation gain and loss of more than 3,000 feet our first day.

As we transcended from cloud forests into the páramo, Andean grasslands, our trail became steeper and the weather more unpredictable and rain soon transformed our trail into slick shoots of mud. Rubber boots and trekking poles allowed us to navigate this difficult terrain, but the narrow and slippery corridors were difficult for a number of the horses and, after rolling over onto their cargo, two hundred eggs were left scrambled on the trail—”huevos revoltos.

FIGURE 2: Horses on approach to base camp. Photo by Hugo Cordova.
FIGURE 2:  18 horses carried our expedition’s gear during the three-day approach to base camp. (Photo by Hugo Cordova)
Figure 3: Apprentice and mentor. Aspiring guide Brian xxx directs the horses down a steep descent while Ecuadorian mountain guide Raul Tenemaza Flores keeps a watchful eye. Photo by Marco Cruz
Figure 3: Aspiring guide, Brian Caiza Tenemasa (age 14), directs the horses down a steep descent while Ecuadorian mountain guide Raul Tenemaza Flores keeps a watchful eye. (Photo by Marco Cruz)

At the end of each day we were met by beautifully assembled camps, fully equipped with dining and cooking tents and candle lit dinners, details that made us feel at home at high elevation and that speak to the standard of operation that Marco Cruz and his team run.

Our third and final day of hiking brought continued river crossings, further solidifying my appreciation for my new rubber boots. The river systems, including the Rio Upon and Rio Volcan, wind east all the way to the head of the Amazon and delivered us to our final basecamp, referred to as “La Playa”, which rests at the southwest base of Sangay at nearly 12,000 feet. After nine hours of hiking, we settled into what would be our home for the next ten days and crawled into our tents ready to begin our field exploration of volcano whose name means “The Giver.”

Figure 4: Sangay (elevation 17,259 feet above sea level) comes into full view on day 2 of our 3-day trek. Photo by Marco Cruz
Figure 4: Sangay (elevation 17,259 feet above sea level) comes into full view on day two of our three-day trek. (Photo by Marco Cruz)
FIGURE 4:  Base camp below Sangay. Photo by Hugo Cordova.
FIGURE 5: Our base camp below Sangay. (Photo by Hugo Cordova)

Field Work: Sampling “The Giver”                                 

December 10-17—Our first day at La Playa was spent organizing gear and planning our objectives for the field. Using satellite photographs, topographic maps, Vivianna Valverde’s map of surface deposits, and Marco Cruz’s vast historic knowledge of the area, we established which areas were of greatest interest to our study and would provide us with samples of varying geologic compositions and ages.

Surrounded by lava flows, debris flows, large blocks of andesite and in-place and reworked tephra everywhere, the group got down to work and began mapping and sampling. Over the next days, Marco Cruz, Gene Yogodzinski, Jen Garrison, Brandon McElroy, Vivianna Valverde and I pushed progressively further and higher up the valleys dissecting Sangay’s flanks to collect samples of what are ultimately Sangay’s oldest exposed lava flows.

FIGURE 5: Gene Yogodzinski, Jennifer Garrison , and Brandon McElroy sampling along a stream bed. Photo by Laurel Hesse.
FIGURE 6: Gene Yogodzinski, Jennifer Garrison, and Brandon McElroy sampling Sangay’s older flows along a stream bed. (Photo by Laurel Hesse)
Figure 7: Gene Yogodzinski sampling lava on the volcano’s upper flanks.  This lava flow’s original levees remain prominent features indicating its relatively young age (on the order of 100’s of years).  Photo by Marco Cruz.
Figure 7: Gene Yogodzinski sampling lava on the volcano’s upper flanks. This lava flow’s original levees remain prominent features indicating its relatively young age (on the order of hundreds of years). (Photo by Marco Cruz)

To obtain samples from more recent eruptions required scaling the upper slopes of the mountain and risking unpredictable weather and showers of rocks from above. Beginning with a 2am breakfast on our second day at La Playa, the high altitude team (Ken Sims, Chris Reveley, Hugo Cordova, Raul Tenemaza Flores and Jaime Vargas Mariño) set off across rock, mud and ice for the mountain’s summit.

Upon reaching what is usually considered the top of Sangay, the summit crater was unusually quiet and so the team pushed beyond where even our highly experienced Ecuadorian mountain guides had ventured in previous expeditions, all the way to the “cumbre maximo” above 17,000 feet (Raul had previously climbed the mountain 20 times). With a collapsed crater spanning 150 feet wide and an active fumarole venting, Sangay’s true summit is a sight rarely seen and offered the never before obtained samples needed for this study.

Other high altitude ventures by Ken, Chris, Jamie, and Raul included a trip to an active andesite flow to the East, which was brought to a halt by a continuous shower of tumbling blocks from the active vent/lava flow.

Another day, on the higher western flank of the volcano, Ken, Chris, Raul, Jamie, and Brandon were able to collect the 20-year-old flow coming down from the new summit dome, despite clouds of thick fog making it difficult to safely navigate the mountain’s steep slopes while dodging the persistent, unpredictable rock fall from above.

Figure 6: Ken Sims and Chris Reveley on summit of Sangay. Photo by Hugo Cordova.
Figure 8: Ken Sims and Chris Reveley on summit of Sangay. (Photo by Hugo Cordova)
Figure 7: Ken Sims sampling a young volcanic bomb on the summit of Sangay. Photo by Hugo Cordova.
Figure 9: Ken Sims sampling a recent (likely a few days old) volcanic bomb on the summit of Sangay. (Photo by Hugo Cordova)
Figure 10: Raul Tenemaza Flores, Chris Reveley, Ken Sims and Hugo Cordova exploring the lavas from the newest summit dome on Sangay’s western flank (formed ~20 years ago). Photo by Jaime Vargas Mariño
Figure 10: Raul Tenemaza Flores, Chris Reveley, Ken Sims, and Hugo Cordova exploring the lavas from the newest summit dome on Sangay’s western flank (formed about 20 years ago). (Photo by Jaime Vargas Mariño)
Figure 8: Ecudaorian mountain guides Raul Tenemaza Flores, Jaime Vargas Mariño helping sample lavas from the newest summit dome on Sangay’s western flank. Their understanding of the terrain, running fast in crampons at high altitudes to dodge rolling rocks, and knowing ‘when to say when’ kept us from harm on the mountain’s active flanks. Photo by Hugo Cordova.
Figure 11: Ecudaorian mountain guides Raul Tenemaza Flores and Jaime Vargas Mariño helping sample lavas from the newest summit dome on Sangay’s western flank.  Running fast in crampons at high altitudes to dodge rolling rocks, knowing “when to say when” and their understanding of the terrain kept us from harm on the mountain’s active flanks. (Photo by Hugo Cordova)

Farewell to Sangay                                                                

December 18-19—Luckily, everyone returned unscathed from all our daily adventures and with more than 60 samples taken from locations all across Sangay, our time in the field came to a close.

So, after 12 days, we packed up our camp and bid farewell to life at La Playa. Having become fully acclimated over the course of the trip and weighing in a few pounds lighter after days of hiking in the field, our return trek out was condensed into two days.

As we made our way back up and down the familiar mountain ridges we enjoyed our last views of Sangay, including impressive summit eruptions, but pressed on, looking forward to the promise of a hot shower and good night’s sleep back at the Estella del Chimborazo Mountain Lodge. In the end a truly memorable and meaningful trip came to a close with a celebratory dinner full of toasts, speeches, more than a few tears, and even plans for future trips to “The Giver” that has given us so much already.

Figure 9: Marco Cruz and German Guambo Lara looking out over the Cordillera toward Sangay. Marco and his colleagues are highly skilled Ecuadorian guides and quickly became friends and kindred spirits in the mountains. Photo by Laurel Hesse.
Figure 12: Marco Cruz and German Guambo Lara looking out over the Cordillera toward Sangay. Marco and his colleagues are highly skilled Ecuadorian guides and quickly became friends and kindred spirits in the mountains. (Photo by Laurel Hesse)
Figure 13: Ciao Sangay. On the last night of our trek out we were rewarded with a clear view of Sangay and reminded of this volcano’s active nature as we watched several small eruptions from the summits craters. Photo by Marco Cruz.
Figure 13: Ciao Sangay. On the last night of our trek out we were rewarded with a clear view of Sangay and reminded of this volcano’s active nature as we watched several small eruptions from the summits craters. (Photo by Marco Cruz)

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Comments

  1. chelsea kroll
    United States
    March 1, 2015, 9:59 pm

    Dear Mr.Sims and members of the NATGO team,

    In August of 1976, my father, Ron Mace, was killed on Sangay. I read with interest your account, and I hope you see this post and are able to reach back out to me. I have not seen anything as recent as your expedition, and my questions from the years past, may be able to be answered. I do hope you or someone from the team will contact me. Respectfully, Chelsea Mace Kroll

    • Kenneth W W Sims
      March 1, 2015, 10:20 pm

      Chelsea,

      I would be happy to talk with you. Please email me directly (ksims7@uwyo.edu) and I will provide any perspective or context I am able to. I am truly sorry for your loss. I can only imagine how hard it must have been.

      Ken Sims

  2. Jaime Vargas
    Baños- Tungurahua- Ecuador
    February 28, 2015, 12:34 pm

    Congratulations NATGO team great job!

  3. steve wood
    manitou springs
    January 12, 2015, 9:25 am

    so enjoyed the photos and commentary. we climbed sangay in 1988. the trek in was DESPERATE. glad you could collect the data and everyone is in good shape. a beautiful mountain in a beautiful place!