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By Donovan WebsterPhotographs by Carsten Peter

A daredevil photographer leads a team of adventurers into an active volcano in the South Pacific.

The volcano's summit is a dead zone, a cindered plain swirling with poisonous chlorine and sulfur gases, its air further thickened by nonstop siftings of new volcanic ash. No life can survive this environment for long.  On the ash plain’s edge, always threatening to make the island an above ground hell, sit two active vents, Marum and Benbow, constantly shaking the earth and spewing globs of molten rock into the air. Yet across the black soil of the plain come all nine of us, a team of explorers, photographers, a film crew, a volcanologist, and me.  We have hacked through dense jungles on this island called Ambrym, one of some 80 islands making up the South Pacific Nation of Vanuatu and entered this inhospitable landscape to camp and explore for two weeks. We’ve tightroped up miles of eroded, inches-wide (centimeters-wide) ridgeline—with deep canyons plummeting hundreds of feet (hundreds of meters) on either side—to totter at the lip of the volcanic pit of Benbow.  The pit’s malevolent red eye—obscured by gases and a balcony ledge of new volcanic rock—sits just a few hundred feet (some one hundred meters) below.

“OK, your turn,” Chris Heinlein shouts above the volcano’s roar.

A sinewy and friendly German engineer, Heinlein hands me the expedition’s climbing rope, which leads down, inside the volcano.  Clipping the rope into a rappelling device on my belt—which helps control my descent—I step into the air above the pit.

A dozen feet (3.7 meters) of rope slips between my gloved fingers.  I lower myself into the volcano.  Acidic gas bites my nose and eyes. The sulfur dioxide is mixing with the day’s spitting drizzle, creating a sulfuric-acid rain so strong it will eat the metal frames of my eyeglasses within days, turning them to crumbly rust. The breathing of Benbow’s pit is deafening, like up-close jet engines mixed with a cosmic belch. Each new breath from the volcano heaves the air so violently my ears pop in the changing pressure—then the temperature momentarily soars. Somewhere not too far below, red-hot, pumpkin-size globs of ejected lava are flying through the air.

I let more rope slip. With each slide deeper inside, I can only wonder: Why would anyone do this? And what drives the guy on the rope below me—the German photographer and longtime volcano obsessive Carsten Peter—to do it again and again?

We have come to see Ambrym’s volcano close up and to witness the lava lakes in these paired pits, which fulminate constantly but rarely erupt.  Yet suspended hundreds of feet (hundreds of meters) above lava up to 2200˚F (1200˚C) that reaches toward the center of the Earth, I’m also discovering there’s more. It is stupefyingly beautiful. The enormous noise. The deep, orangy red light from spattering lava. And those dark and brittle strands called Pele’s hair: Filaments of lava that follow large blobs out of the pit, they cool quickly in the updraft and create six-inch-long (15-centimter-long), glassy threads that drift on the wind. It is like nowhere else on Earth.

Our first night on Ambrym we make camp in a beachside town called Port-Vato at the base of the 4,167-foot-high (1,270-meter-high) volcano.  Shortly after sunrise the next morning, at the start of a demanding hike up the side of the volcano—walking a dry riverbed through thick jungle —I try to extract Peter’s reasons for coming. As we crunch along the floor of black volcanic cinders, scrambling over shiny cliffs of cold lava that become waterfalls in the rainy season, Peter, 41, is grinning with excitement. Overhead dark silhouettes of large bats called flying foxes crease the morning sky like pterodactyls.

 “I was 15 years old and on vacation in Italy with my parents. They took me to see Mount Etna,” he says. “As soon as I saw it, I was drawn to the crater’s edge. I was fascinated. My parents went back to the tour bus. They honked the horn for me to come—but I couldn’t leave. I edged closer, seeing the smoke inside, imagining the boiling magma below. At that moment I became infected.”

Since then Peter has traveled the world ex¬amining volcanoes. His trips have taken him to Iceland, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Hawaii, and beyond. “And of course,” he says, “I have been back to Etna, my home volcano, many times.”

Using single-rope descending and climbing techniques developed by cave explorers and adapted for volcanoes, Peter has been dropping into volcanoes now for nearly a decade. “The size and power of a volcano is like nothing else on Earth,” he says. “You think you understand the Earth and its geology, but once you look down into a volcanic crater and see what’s there, well, you realize you will never completely understand. It is that powerful.  That big.” He grins. “You’ll find out what I mean, I think.”

After a five-hour walk uphill I get my first glimpse of that power as the expedition emerges from the steep, heavily vegetated sides of the volcano’s cone and onto the caldera. In the course of a few hundred yards (a few hundred meters) the trail flattens out, and the palm trees and eight-foot-tall (2.4-meter-tall) cane grasses that lushly lined the trail behind us become gnarled and dead, their life force snuffed by a world of swirling gas clouds and acid rain.

This is Ambrym’s ash plain. Seven miles (11 kilometers) across, it’s a severely eroded ash-and-lava cap hundreds of feet (hundreds of meters) thick. Across the plain Benbow and Marum jut almost a thousand feet into the sky.

To protect ourselves from the harsh environment, our team quickly establishes a base camp near the caldera’s edge. Shielded behind a low bluff separating the caldera from the jungle, the camp stretches through a grove of palms and tree-size ferns, the black soil dotted with purple orchids bobbing on long green stalks. For the remainder of this first afternoon we set up tents and create acid-rain-tight storage areas. The camp is a paradise perched on the edge of disaster. As night falls, we eat chicken soup fortified with cellophane noodles and plan tomorrow’s exploration, the volcano rumbling regularly in the background as we talk.

After dinner we follow Carsten Peter to the edge of the ash plain and watch the vents light the gas clouds, wreathing each peak in ghostly red glows. “Look there,” Peter says, pointing to a third red cauldron halfway up Marum’s side. “That must be Niri Taten. Tomorrow we’ll start there.”

All night long the rumbling keeps awakening us. Just a few miles (a few kilometers) away lava boils and the Earth roars while each of us—lying quietly in a flimsy tent—anxiously dreams of those swirling red clouds. Tomorrow night at this time, I resolve as I drift off to sleep once again, one thing is certain: It will have been a day like none I’ve ever had.

In the morning, shortly after a sunrise breakfast, we strike out toward Niri Taten, several miles uphill. As we follow dry and eroded riverbeds toward the volcanic cones, a gentle rain falls.

“What does Niri Taten mean?” I ask our local guide, Jimmy.

“Niri Taten is a small pig,” he replies. “A small mad pig. A crazy pig. A small pig that causes trouble to men.”

Haraldur Sigurdsson, one of the world’s premier volcanologists, walks alongside me in the dry riverbed, examining sheer cliff faces. He points out strata of tephra, a mixture of volcanic material.  By examining these layers, volcanologists can tell a volcano’s level of activity.  Larger and coarser tephra far from a volcanic pit means a more powerful volcano, since heavier matter is thrown farther as more explosive energy is supplied.

It’s true. The closer we hike to the craters, the more the character of the riverbed beneath our feet changes from silty black grit to charcoal-size stones—not unlike old-time furnace clinkers. “Each volcano has its own chemical fingerprint,” Sigurdsson says. “Each volcano’s mineral and elemental content is different because of the nature of the volcano itself: its rock and the shape of its vent. It helps volcanologists a lot in their study.

“Like the Tambora eruption of 1815 in Indonesia,” Sigurdsson says. “We’ve found Tambora ash by its particular chemical signature almost everywhere on Earth. One of that magnitude happens about every thousand years.” The Tambora explosion is said to have given off so much ash and sulfur dioxide—both of which blocked and reflected sunlight—that 1816 was a “year without a summer” across much of the world. There was crop-killing frost throughout the summer in New England. In northern Europe harvests were a disaster.

Suddenly, from two miles (three kilometers) upwind behind us, Benbow gives a huge belch. We turn to look back. “Uh-oh,” Sigurdsson says. “Ashfall on the way.” Instead of the usual bluish white clouds of steam and gas, the plume issuing from the cone is heavy and black, trailing earthward in a dark curtain. Slowly it drifts our way on the wind. Five minutes later the ash fall finds us, covering our rucksacks, clothing, faces, boots, and ponchos with a sandy grit the color of wet cocoa mix.

Under the ashfall we climb Marum, pressing forward through the dead volcanic soil for another hour. Each step takes us closer to Niri Taten, a crater that tunnels straight down into the basaltic rock like a massive, steaming worm burrow 200 yards (180 meters) across. As we approach, a rising wind and thick clouds of chlorine gas force us to pause and pull on safety helmets and industrial-style gas masks that cover our noses and mouths. Without them, between the flying bits of stone and grit carried on the 50-mile-an-hour (80-kilometer-an-hour) winds and the thick clouds of gas roaring upward from the vent, time spent near the pit’s lip would be painfully dangerous if not impossible.

Even with these protections the howling wind and gas often force us to shut our eyes and suspend breathing until the heaviest gas clouds pass.  We lean against the high winds, brace at the crater’s edge, and look inside.

Five hundred feet (150 meters) below, the vent’s opening is obscured by rocky ledges. But if we can’t see the lava itself, there is a consolation. Every inch of rocky surface inside the vent’s cone is painted with color.  Sunshine yellow sulfur coats some of the crater’s sheer rock faces. Iron washes other sections of rock with flaming orange. Pastel green deposits of manganese glaze rock nearest the vent, like a carpet of immortal moss. Other patches of stone have been bleached white by chlorine and fluorine gases pouring from the vent.

Besides the wind and dangerous concentration of gases, the edges of Niri Taten are too crumbly to allow safe descent. Anyone climbing down a rope inside the crater could be dislodging loose boulders, some the size of cars,that could crash on anyone below. Carsten Peter pulls out his camera and long lens whose coating immediately becomes corroded in the noxious air. The howling gusts twice knock expedition members to the ground.

After an hour it’s decided that we should examine the Marum crater itself. “We can get two volcanoes in one day!” Carsten Peter says with glee. Our helmeted heads tucked down, we continue breathing scuba-diver slow into our masks for maximum benefit, and we push on. The walk to Marum’s opening isn’t far, but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in danger.  No matter which route you choose, you have to traverse the mountain’s steep slopes, many of which are gouged with deep, unclimbable erosion gullies. We decide to cross where the gullies are smallest: along Niri Taten’s knife-edged lip, within a foot (0.3 meters) of a sheer drop into the crater.

We step gingerly where the slope looks most reliable, but our footing remains dangerously slick. The slope’s top layer is crumbly tephra, sometimes as big as charcoal briquettes. Making things more difficult, we’ve moved downwind of Niri Taten. All around us clouds of sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and fluorine gases swirl so thick they sometimes obscure our vision and force us to stop and bury our gas-masked faces inside our arms for extra protection.

It’s a slog. Minutes stretch into an hour

Every step could be our last. Finally we reach the summit of the crater’s edge and begin down its other side. Protected by the lip behind us, the environment changes. Sunshine blankets the tilting black ash, and the cold gales calm into balmy breezes.

Two expedition members, Franck Tessier and Irène Margaritis, hustle downslope with me toward Marum. As we approach its lip, the 39-year-old Tessier—a genial and easygoing French biologist with impressive rope and rock-climbing skills honed by years of adventures like this one—rips off his gas mask and begins to hoot with pleasure.

I know why. Ahead of us Marum’s volcanic pit stretches as open and clear as a visionary’s painting. In the pit, three step-down ledges—each deeper and wider than the one uphill of it—are marbled with layers of black ash and pale, bleached basaltic andesite. The layers of lava inside the vent form as a crust over a cooling lava lake that gets blown out like a massive champagne cork when volcanic activity resumes. Small wall vents called fumaroles—created where heated groundwater and escaping volcanic gas reach the surface—let off steady plumes of steam. Inside Marum’s crater it looks as if the world is being born.

And there, in the bottom of the third and largest pit —some 1,200 feet (366 meters) below—sits the lava lake. Its fury pushes lava through three skylight holes in a roof that partly covers the lake like a canopy. Bright orange-and-red spatters fly unpredictably from the circular opening of the largest skylight, a hole perhaps 50 yards (46 meters) across.

Lava is three times as dense as water. Despite its up to 2200˚F (1200˚C) heat, lava moves, burbles, and flies through the air with the consistency of syrup. Every few minutes huge molten blobs seem to soar in slow motion. A second or two later a noise from beneath the earth —a rumbling booooom—fills the pit and rolls across the sculpted ash plain beyond. It’s mesmerizing: lava sloshing back and forth, bubbles emerging and popping like a thick stew. As we survey Marum’s lip and crater, I can’t take my eyes off the lava. Suddenly I understand Peter’s obsession. As evening cloaks the pit’s deepest recesses in shade, the lava lake and explosive bubbles glow more seductively. The spatterings glisten like enormous, otherworldly fireworks as they sail through the shadowed air.

Dangling inside Benbow’s crater the following afternoon, I have time to reflect. This morning we followed the narrow ridge to Benbow’s pit—which was firm enough to climb down. We fixed our rope, ate lunch in a spitting acid rain, and began our descent into the volcano.

Now, on the rope below me, Carsten Peter works his way deeper inside the crater. I let more rope slide through my hands, easing myself deeper as well.

With each drop the air shakes more violently; the clouds of poison gas grow thicker.

Waves of pressurized air rumble past me.

Grasping the rope tightly, I halt my descent at the edge of an overhung cliff and stare deeper inside. The lava lake waits below, ejecting orange bombs and smaller drops. Then, in a heartbeat, a wall of thick clouds blows between me and the pit, enveloping everything around me in a world of gray. In the shuddering air and disorienting noise, gravity, direction, and time seem to fade away. There is only the volcano, its existence a direct result of two tectonic plates colliding below me. Benbow roars again. The earth shakes.
In this moment I know I’ve gotten close enough to the fire at the center of the Earth. At that same second the clouds part and Benbow reappears. Fumaroles smoke, and steam swirls from the pit’s walls. The Technicolor wash swarms around me like a kaleidoscope.  Below, Carsten Peter hits the end of the rope just above Benbow’s explosive vent. He pulls a camera from his bag and lifts it to his eye.

Torrential rains will frustrate another attempt to explore Benbow. Then dissension breaks out among some of the expedition’s porters who helped carry gear up the volcano’s steep cone, and it becomes clear that the team will have to leave Ambrym as soon as possible. In a last-ditch, 18-hour marathon, team members drop 1,200 feet (366 meters) into Marum and photograph its lava lake nonstop. They emerge from the crater and find a fractious camp. Jimmy cannot persuade the disgruntled porters to bend, and the tension escalates. With a satchel full of photographs, a few of which are printed here, Carsten Peter finally agrees to abandon the volcano—even as he vows to return.

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Signs of trouble started early in the expedition when porters threatened to strike. What should explorers do when the people they hire to help turn on them? Who holds responsibility when such a situation breaks down? Weigh in with your thoughts.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Among the string of volcanoes that make up the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Ambrym is one of the most unusual—and the most spectacular—because of its lava lakes. Fed by a reservoir of molten rock miles inside the Earth, the fiery lakes lie at the bottom of deep craters that pock an old caldera. Toxic gases constantly bubble to the surface of the lava, causing it to roil and sputter.

Normally the lava would rise in the craters and perhaps even spill into the caldera. It might also solidify and seal the whole system until enough pressure built up beneath it for an explosion. But it isn’t doing that. Why? “The island has a crack across it,” says Haraldur Sigurdsson, a volcanologist from the University of Rhode Island who joined Carsten Peter’s expedition. “I think that’s where the magma is going. It’s leaking out the ends of the crack underwater, and just the gases are coming out at the top.”

Cascades Volcano Observatory
At the Cascades Volcano Observatory website you can learn more about volcanoes, view maps and photos, find a volcano to visit near you, and view live “VolcanoCams” from around the world.

U.S. Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program
The site features a photo-glossary of volcanic terms, information about the types and effects of volcano hazards, and an explanation of how volcanoes are monitored.

Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program
Read volcanic activity reports of scientists and explorers who have visited Ambrym at the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program website.

Volcano World
Check up on current volcanic activity, find out what happened in volcano history, and learn about volcanoes from around the globe at Volcano World.


Ollier, Cliff. Volcanoes. Basil Blackwood Ltd. 1988, p. 155-7.

Sigurdsson, Haraldur, ed. Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. Academic Press, 2000.

Sigurdsson, Haraldur. Melting the Earth. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Vanuatu. Lonely Planet Publications, 1999.


Changing Earth: Forces That Create, Forces That Destroy. National Geographic Video, 1999.

Born of Fire. National Geographic Video, 1998.

Daniels, Patricia. “Earth.” National Geographic Video, 1998.

Stager, Curt and Chris Johns. “Africa’s Great Rift.” National Geographic, May 1990, 2-41.

Matthews, Samual W. and Robert F. Sisson. “Disaster in Paradise: Devastated Land and Homeless People.” National Geographic, 1963, 447-458.


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