Tungurahua (from Quichua tunguri: throat, rahua: fire, "Throat of Fire") is an active stratovolcano located in the Cordillera Central of Ecuador.
I climbed Tungurahua by myself on March 28-29-30, 2006 successfully reaching her explosive crater at 4:16pm on March 29.
Mama Tung's current eruptive cycle began in October 1999. She measured 5016 meters (16,456 feet) at the time of my ascent. She has since grown, with new estimates ranging from 5023-5029 meters.
The following story is taken from my journal.
Day 1: March 27 Baños
Purchased $30 groceries, $5 helmet from a hardware store, my gear and supplies are packed, put two bags of personal items into hostal storage.
Day 2: March 28 Refugio
6:15am: exit Baños hostel (1800 meters) and begin trek up to Refugio through the mists, carrying 3-4 days of food and 6 liters of water with me.
11:16am: arrive at Refugio (3800 meters). This is a great place to stay, much better than I thought it would be. I have the place to myself. ... The plant life around here is spectacular.
12:02pm: lunch. I have six hours to contemplate a climb to the crater (5016 meters). Can see the seismic shack above.
12:58pm: I am going to attempt a climb.
2:39pm: The weather is not clearing. I get the rare cloud break but given the time I am thinking of aborting. Everything points to the crater being very close. The ridges to my right and left converging at a point not far up. ... Lots of rock projectiles smashed into the sand. ... At 2:02pm I heard a substantial explosion -- sounded like it was directly above me. (Later estimated I reached approx 4600 meters)
3:01pm: I am aborting the climb. I have 2-3 days to retry. Time to descend.
3:23pm: Heavy clouds. Seismic shack (approx 4000 meters). Holy %#@&!! That was a massive explosion!! Though I see no evidence of landslides above me it sounded like rocks cascading down both sides of the ridge I just descended. I have buried myself in a small crevice in case rocks start raining.
5:09pm: Refugio. Wind and rain too much to observe the weather and volcano further.
5:47pm: It has stopped raining. This is absolutely incredible. I have a gorgeous mountain-valley sweep before me -- and behind me are ash cloud eruptions! ... There are moments in life you stand in awe of existence. This is one of them.
6:35pm: The top of the volcano is now cloud free and it is constantly erupting ash clouds. I am standing here in complete disbelief I was up there, so close yet did not know due to the thick cloud cover and strong winds. I could not see or hear any of it! Being able to study the volcano like this is a fantastic bonus. I now know exactly where the crater is in relation to my path up.
8:00pm: Day's review. My goal was to reach the Refugio today. I accomplished a lot more than I expected to.
To start: that I climbed 2000 meters with several days of food & water in 5 hours is excellent time. That I went up an additional 800 meters soon after surprises even me.
I was able to (1) map the route up, (2) grade its difficulty, (3) establish a timeline, (4) note eruption patterns, (5) observe the weather, and (6) test my physical stamina.
The rock markers were extremely helpful as I climbed in heavy cloud cover. There were many lingering moments in thick clouds wondering if I should abort the climb. Not having a clue where the crater is made it too risky to continue.
Now familiar with the terrain I think on a clear day I can reduce my climb time substantially. I think I can do the peak in 2 hours.
Day 3: March 29 Crater
6:25am: I am buried in clouds, rain.
10:16am: rain has slowed. Still no sign of clouds easing. If I have a mission today it is to rest, get used to 3800 meters, rehydrate sufficiently, and eat plenty.
1:37pm: seeing evidence of another late afternoon clearing. I am readying for a climb should suitable conditions arise. Heading to the seismic shack above.
7:10pm: I lost my pen at the seismic station. The last five hours have been the most intense of my South American journey by far.
True to pattern the weather began clearing in the afternoon. At 2:10pm I made the call to begin ascent. With not a single muscle ache after yesterday's attempt, physically and mentally sharp, up I went.
By 3:06pm I arrived at the same rocks as yesterday, kept on going. My greatest concern at this height being rock-bombs from crater explosions. I kept hugging 'rock spines' as I ascended, to take shelter in should I be suddenly bombarded. Occasionally a cloud would move in and reduce visibility to a minimum -- a few meters.
Skirting several rock spines there came a point where I had to move into the open, to switchback the steep mud incline. Knowing less time around an active crater is better, I fiercely pushed myself in the attempt to reduce time and exposure to potential injury.
And then it happened.
Picture this if you can. Approximately 3:30pm, 4850 meters, climbing a steep incline of mud, heavy cloud surrounding me, the volcano unleashed itself in fury ... multiple explosions deafened me. I could see absolutely nothing.
I dug my fingers into the mud for I thought the trembling volcano might cause me to lose my balance and tumble down the side. I curled into the tightest ball possible to minimize body exposure to rock-bombs. I felt every single explosion. All I could do was hang on.
The clouds let up and I caught sight of rocks flying through the air. As the clouds moved on, with sight restored, I resumed climbing while the ash cloud soared and the explosions eased.
Increasingly familiar with the volcano's activity, with that grand-daddy of an explosion past I knew I had an hour before the next one hit.
Continuing up I had to fight with myself to push on, like the climb of San Cristobal in Nicaragua. It was getting very steep. But I beat the fear down. Who goes to 4900 meters and not 5016?! Certainly not me. The little stacked rock markers (guardians) had long disappeared by this time, leaving me on my own to devise the route up.
3:41pm, came to what I suspected was the final ridge-run to the crater rim. The one side of the ridge was a steep drop. I huddled into some rocks while a cold wind and cloud moved over me, erasing visibility. It lasted for some time and I wondered if I had been suckered into coming this high only to be lost in clouds, rain and wind.
Thankfully the cloud passed and I decided to make a break for the crater rim, conscious that I would be totally exposed for the duration. Closing in on 5000 meters I took baby steps in shifting sand and gulped for air.
It was 4:16 pm when I stepped over the ridge and onto the crater shelf. First thing I noted was rock-bombs strewn everywhere. The crater hole was some 30 meters to my right. I observed evidence of fewer rock-bombs at the back of the crater so I ran across the shelf as fast as I could.
Upon arrival I found large sand trenches, noticably devoid of bomb pits. I gratefully took shelter among them. From here I began snapping pictures of the surrounding crater walls, the crater interior, ash clouds, pictures of myself, full blue sky sweeps with Volcan Cotopaxi (5897 meters) to the north. I went nuts. Including two movies of 3:32 and 6:43 minutes in duration.
At times I backed away from the crater rim for safety, not wanting to get a rock in the face or chest.
Yes, at times I wondered if I had finally done myself in. Like when this massive swirling ash cloud blocked out the sun, rising hundreds of meters over my head (4:22 to 4:25pm, movie). Or when another series of explosions started, throwing rocks high into the air (4:51 to 4:53 pm, pictures). But I continued filming and photographing through it all.
At 5:03 pm I put the tripod away, checked to make sure I had my gear, ran like hell across the crater shelf, found the lone stick to mark my place of descent, took one last look, last pictures, and down I went, in leaps and bounds, skiing my sand switchbacks in reverse.
After the intense activity of the volcano's crater returning to lower altitudes -- terrain that had intimidated me only hours before -- was a breeze! I marvelled at that -- smiling, laughing, yelling. I celebrated so much on the way down that I had to remind myself I was still within rock-bomb range for the first 15 minutes.
During descent I further documented the day, snapping self-portraits with ash clouds erupting behind me, full mountain / cloud sweeps, including Volcan Chimborazo (6310 meters, Ecuador's highest peak).
I lingered as long as possible in the remaining light of the day, happy to have exceeded my expectations. I am in the Refugio now, writing madly for 1 hour and 10 minutes to get this on paper before the intensity of it recedes.
Day 4: March 30 Descent
8:32am: packing. wind is minimal so crater explosions are well heard. I am having a hard time leaving. Final parting photos taken. As I have lots of time, the weather is warm, no wind or rain, I'm not in a rush to leave.
10:17am: depart Refugio.
12:48pm: Pondoa school yard (2600 meters). Leisurely descending, literally smelling the flowers as I do.
6:43pm: Baños hotel; 1800 meters. Sat in a farmer's field for two hours viewing the ash eruptions of the volcano. I look at the pics and replay the movies. Unreal.
Video & Photo Links
Tungurahua spits an ash cloud in my face (video): Tungurahua Ash Cloud
A 7 minute photo-video story of my climb of Tungurahua: Chasing The Dragon: Tungurahua
79 photos: Facebook Photo Album