Trekking Up a Live Volcano in Ethiopia

WALL STREET JOURNAL, December 9, 2013


DREW TOLD ME HE WAS LIGHTHEADED, looking down in that focused way people do when they're about to faint. We were standing at the base of a volcano in northeastern Ethiopia —one that we were supposed to summit, then sleep beside. But it seemed that my travel companion just might pass out first.

I handed my pal a bottle of water, one of hundreds stashed in our jeeps. Our five-car convoy had been idling at the base of Erta Ale for more than an hour, waiting for the sun to set so we could trek in the darkness, when temperatures in the legendarily hot Danakil Desert settle to a simmer.

Our journey began in Mekele, a quiet city on the brink of Ethiopia's low-lying desert and the starting point for local adventure expeditions. There were 15 people in our group. I'd read my share of warnings about the Danakil—midday temperatures that swelled past 120 degrees, stinging winds, fierce tribes that treated outsiders as enemies—but the first thing to actually frighten me were the hardy travelers I met in Mekele.

An Irish carpenter who seemed to specialize in visiting punishing places flipped through a fat passport to reveal his Timbuktu stamp. An ironworker from New Jersey nodded—he had the same mark. Two of the women in our group, both Israeli army veterans, had nearly drowned whitewater rafting the Blue Nile, and showed us the scars to prove it. I was headed into a desert to visit an active volcano with a band of extreme adventurers. What was ahead?

A plunge, for starters. To reach our first campsite, a dusty hamlet called Hamed Ela, we had to zigzag down the mountains until we were well below sea level. Once ocean floor, the Danakil Desert still wears a salt residue, which is harvested and hauled out on camels and mules, tiny load by tiny load. As our vehicles carved down the cliff sides, we glimpsed the caravans from afar, stretched out like long garlands against the rosy horizon. They camped out at Hamed Ela, too, it turned out, and we heard donkeys braying all through the balmy night.

By car, the journey from Hamed Ela to the base of Erta Ale volcano can take five hours. It can also take an entire day, depending on wind and sand conditions, and the final stretch—right through a field of lava—is the most grueling. Our guides, a shy team of Ethiopians in their 20s and 30s, wouldn't hazard a guess at the length of our trip. They were understated docents, letting the desert's ever-changing face surprise us: the field where baby camels grazed, the steep silhouette of a cone volcano, the sweeping expanse of pebbled dunes.

I knew we must be nearing Erta Ale, though, when we hung a right into a field of dark black rock. The approach to the volcano, which boasts one of the world's only continuously active lava lakes, a magma pool that has been roiling since about 1906, deserves a superlative of its own: worst road on Earth.

We were bounced and jostled as the cars pushed over gnarls of dried magma. "We could walk faster than this," Drew protested, his knee slapping the car door. But it became clear why we weren't walking when someone rolled down a window to free a fly and the heat rushed in.

We finally arrived at Bolom, a series of straw huts where volcano hikers linger until the sun vanishes around six o'clock. After chugging water, my travel mate was no longer dizzy from dehydration, and insisted on making the trek. It was a harrowing climb—not because Erta Ale is steep; in fact, it's a moderate hike. But after dark, our flashlights did little to light up the craggy trail. I hadn't brought my own lantern, and did my best to keep up with other peoples' flashlight beams, braced for a tumble on the rocky path.

After three hours of half-blind hiking, the sudden, orange glow of the lava lake halted everyone. We stood overlooking the crater, dumbstruck. The molten lake looked to be a quarter-mile down. Our guides began disappearing over what I realized was a steep ledge. I watched them climb backward; it became clear that we were supposed to follow, feet first.

We descended into a basin that crunched noisily underfoot. Belches of sulfur gas rose around us, stinging deep inside our noses. As we proceeded, the crunching under our feet grew louder, until I heard the rock break beneath someone's weight. I froze, imagining searing magma chambers right below my shoes, but we were simply cracking through upper layers of hardened lava. We trudged noisily onward, with the glow in the distance our constant beacon.

There's a bone-deep terror that sets in as you step toward an active volcano. The air was so hot it was hard to keep my eyes open. But I also felt drawn to the heart of the volcano, as though my legs were beyond my control.

You can only see Erta Ale's churning lava lake by walking up to its edge and looking straight down. Most of the lake was congealed, covered with a coal-gray film. Bright seams of magma split the surface, swallowing patches of cooled rock in seconds. It looked like a scene out of hell, but sounded more familiar: like waves hitting a shoreline, just with more force and frequency.

We stood at the rim of lake, our noses buried in Bedouin scarves, and swore in awe. The guides kept saying it was time to go, and we kept taking two steps then stopping, shuffling but unwilling to leave. It's hard, it turns out, to turn away from a vortex of liquid lava. Our consolation was camping right above the crater that night, with a mesmerizing view of the orange lake.

Back down at Bolom the next morning, nobody fussed about the heat or the flies, or even moaned about the imminent drive back across the lava fields. We'd forgotten about the obstacle course that leads to Erta Ale. There are places that do more than reward discomfort. With a single vista, they wipe its memory right out.


THE LOWDOWN: Climbing Erta Ale, Ethiopia

Getting There: Danakil Desert tour companies are based in Mekele, an hour-long flight from Addis Ababa via Ethiopian Airlines. Many outfitters can book your plane tickets to Mekele (about $80 one way, pricier online) and arrange for a pickup from the airport.

Staying There: In Mekele, the Atse Yohanes Hotel is a comfortable option, with simple rooms, satellite television and a restaurant (from $11 a night, 251-34-440-67-60). Tour companies provide camping equipment as well as food for Danakil treks.

Staying Safe: After a group of tourists was kidnapped and killed in early 2012, the Ethiopian government increased security in the Danakil Desert. Still, make sure your tour operator provides armed escorts for all portions of the journey, including to Erta Ale's summit.

Visiting the Volcano: The Ethiopian government requires that all visitors travel with organized tours. Danakil treks are offered November through January (when conditions are the mildest). Packages range from about $600 to $3,000 for four to seven days. We used Ethiopia Travel and Tours, which offers four-day trips from about $700 a person (

What to Pack: To protect against sulfur inhalation, bring something as simple as a scarf or as elaborate as a gas mask. A flashlight or headlamp is also important. Most tour companies supply bedding for overnights in Hamed Ela and bottled water for the duration of the trip.


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