19 April 2016
The article is in the Washington Post’s Travel section and is entitled, “In Guatemala, a treacherous hike to one of the world’s most active volcanoes”. That title pretty much covers why I’m so upset – and conflicted – about the author of the piece is writing about. Anyone who knows me knows that I love volcanoes, and I want other people to find them as fascinating and enthralling as I do. Seeing one erupt in person is a heart-stopping and unforgettable experience, and I don’t want to deny that to anyone.
I can’t stress enough that the Santiaguito hikes, conducted in this manner, ARE NOT SAFE. When I did field work at Santiaguito, my group took strict precautions to avoid dangerous areas of the domes. We did not camp on the domes. We did not climb on to the Caliente dome. We certainly did not go anywhere within range of the ballistics or the ash (which can be extremely bad if you inhale it, and at the very least will screw up your camera equipment). We did not climb the domes at times when eruptions were more frequent or more violent, and we did not linger anywhere even remotely unsafe for longer than absolutely necessary. We stayed out of the wash between the bottom of the trail and the domes because there are frequent lahars (mudflows) in the area that could easily kill someone.
Volcanology is no stranger to ‘volcano tourism’ ending badly; in the infamous 1993 eruption at Galeras, several local visitors were killed alongside the volcanologists. (Note: Don’t read beyond the abstract of that paper if you’re squeamish – there are no photos of the victims, but the descriptions are graphic.) Even given the precautions that the scientists took, they found themselves in a deadly situation when the dome erupted. Just because the same thing hasn’t happened yet at Santiaguito doesn’t mean that it won’t. Santiaguito has killed people before, in a dome collapse in 1929 that may have killed thousands of people. But that’s out of living memory, and in the last few decades the eruptions at the domes have seemed fairly regular and predictable.
This is dangerously deceptive. As we’ve seen recently, Santiaguito is perfectly capable of producing larger and much more dangerous eruptions without much warning. In fact, just today it experienced one that inundated the summit of the dome with pyroclastic flows that would have killed anyone present. The monitoring system at the volcano is limited, and even if there were a way to get warnings to people in the area – and there is not on the short timescales that would be necessary to protect these kinds of hikers – there would be no way to rescue them.
My field group accepted this risk as part of doing our work, and made sure that people knew where we were going to be and when, but had a larger eruption occurred and caught these hikers by surprise, they would have been trapped. Cell phones do work in the area, but they didn’t even have one with them. They didn’t have a first aid kit. They didn’t even have enough water. This kind of behavior is extremely irresponsible and foolhardy, given that any attempted rescue would probably have to come from the already-overworked Santiaguito Observatory (OVSAN) employees (if at all). Any mountaineer or hiker should know that the first rule of dangerous situations is not to put yourself in one in the first place, since you’re going to be endangering anyone who tries to help you as well.
The author very correctly gave the reason why guides continue to lead these dangerous trips – for money. Her guide described his previous low-paying job in a tire factory; having hired porters to help bring supplies along for my field work, I completely understand the appeal of earning several times a day’s wages – sometimes weeks’ worth – for a single guided hike. At the time I was able to pay our porters out of my own graduate student pocket without hardship. And I don’t doubt that the guides who work for these companies are smart, capable people who enjoy their work and want to provide a good experience for their clients.
The last thing I want is to destroy the livelihood of the guides. That said, some of the responsibility rests on their customers as well. Climbing to the top of Santa Maria (the adjacent volcano) or simply to the Mirador overlook are much less dangerous options for seeing eruptions, ones that are offered by all the guide companies in question. Both are excellent vantage points, and come without the danger of pyroclastic flows, lahars, and ballistics. Not only are they safer for the hiker, they also protect the guides. What happens to their families if they’re killed on a trip? By going on a less dangerous version of this hike, tourists can make a responsible choice that helps keep everyone safe. I don’t want to flat-out condemn the author, who probably only knew what her guide told her, but she was clearly aware that there were safety issues along the way (and also made a rookie mistake in not taking adequate water, one of the most basic things you learn while hiking). Instincts are there for a reason, and she should have listened to hers.
If you’re tempted by the experience in the Washington Post article, I implore you, please don’t go on the dome hike. Go to the overlooks instead, and take precautions when you do – let people know where and when you’re going, take enough food and water and a first aid kit, and consider investing in an in-country cell phone just in case. Don’t put yourself and a guide in danger because you want to play ‘volcano cowboy’.
Don’t take the risks that this author took.