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Field work with Nature Live

2 Posts tagged with the lava tag

Before I tell you about another dramatic day in the field, here's a choice clip of our base town Amecameca. Lest we forget just how interconnected Popocatepetl volcano and this cool little town's residents are.


(This video has no sound)



Today we travel to a station in Tlamacas, 4,000m up, and on the way the subject is raised of Thursday and Friday's 5,000m climbs. 'What do we do if someone fails?' says Chiara. Hugo discusses the severity of symptoms and probability of sickness increasing with numbers. I suddenly feel the opportunity to climb slipping away. But altitude sickness is not something you can take sole responsibility for. If you get sick, the whole team is affected. So it's clear who should stay and who should go.


For now though, we travel together and hit the point in the road where a deep volcanic ash becomes our path forwards. 'We can drive a little further, then we walk' says Hugo. With that, our four wheel drive tries to engage it's four wheels. On our right is a drop of say 20 metres. Our back right wheel decides the latter is the route this car is taking and Hugo's passengers lose all colour in their cheeks. I bail without hesitation and we all attempt to push the car to safety, walking boots slipping ever nearer toward the drop. Purchase achieved, our lungs recover and our nerves unjangle.


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Getting stuck is the pastime of a true geologist.

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Where are we? It's a landscape I've never seen before, never thought existed. 'We're on the moon,' says Dave grinning.


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Ash, more high altitude Sacaton and mounds of alien-looking mosses. A perfect location for a 70's Bowie video.


The conversation stays dark like the volcanic ash we tread as Dave shows me how to grip a walking pole so as not to break my wrists if I fall. I appreciate the technique and continue the hike to the station. My heart is racing but my pace is slow. Hey altitude, nice of you to drop by again.


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Chiara steams ahead on a full recovery. Last one up writes the blog.


We're on the south west side of Popo and as we reach 4,000m Hugo needs to inform Cenapred (National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters) of our wish to collect samples. The monitoring equipment they use will pick up our hammering and - possibly - even our footsteps. Negotiations take place and we continue.


Hugo points out an incredible face of bi-colour lava. 'Look at the layers, says Dave. 'Shows incredible flow.' Hugo, armed with hammer smashes clean samples for everyone. 'It's between 1,300 to 2,000 years old. Two generations of magma, perhaps. 'The excitement is palpable, our dark thoughts are shifted.


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Undeniably beautiful but I wouldn't want to carry a slab at 4,000m.


On our ascent to the station we see some fabulous scoria. One of the major igneous rocks, lightweight and extrusive. I'm sure I see Dave skip. And there were definitely three 'awesomes' as he surveyed the rocks. But we'd not collected any as the ascent seemed our goal. We want some now, especially a large specimen we'd all cooed over.


To get it we need to descend and it's steep, loose and a little scary to Chiara and I. 'As we Italians say, 'If you don't have head, you give leg!' she says which means we have to go back and get it. 'It's FINE. Let's do a scree run,' says Dave nonchalantly. I check my walking pole straps to ensure non-breakage of wrists and we run down the slope after Dave who, arms outsretched and invigorated is shouting, 'Easy!' 


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Altitude-enhanced snack packaging. Never gets old.


I've brought with me a friend's backpack that she took to Everest. Its roomy to say the least. I offer it up for the collection of the big scoria. Proudly I carry what Dave and Chiara were sure would make it into the Museum's collections or possibly a gallery. Ten glorious minutes of hefting it, then I beg Dave to carry it.



Before we head back to the jeep, we survey Friday's climb. The ten hour hike. We've fared very well today, quite elated stomping down from the station. Not even tamales can prepare the team for what's to come.


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"It's so close, let's do it now," says Chiara.

Not my words, Chiara's, as we chat over a drink shortly after the arrival of our eagerly awaited Museum scientists. Seems Hugo (our man in Mexico and fellow scientific collaborator with Chiara and Dave) is a different kind of vulcanologist. His study of volcanic gases provides them with a rounded view of the outcrops we'll be visiting to collect over the next week.



A shakey shot but I was keen not to spook our weary travellers.


Barman Rudolph interrupts politely to tell us of two climbers who 'had trouble' on Popocatepetl two weeks earlier. A confusion of language or had they perished up there? Thankfully, it was a near-miss tale of being sure to inform people of your climb.


We take Chiara and Dave to a superb taco stall. On a blanket of coriander, busy lads fried indistinguishable meats. Tripe's popular but having tried it in the spirit of adventure, I cannot say why. Chiara enquires about our eating habits since arrival, 'No Montezuma's revenge yet?' We confidently shake our heads.' OK' she says, 'only it takes up to a week to kick in.' Momentarily anxious, I order another pair of tacos. We weave past a jumpy pack of dogs on our way back to base. The first collecting site is at sunrise, so it's time for heads down.



Chiara likes to make personal notes as well as scientific on all her field trips. She writes her first thoughts of Popo.


That same winding road and at Paso de Cortes, Chiara smiles and treads toward Popo. We both agree it looks forboding: so large and incredibly steep. The wind is up and it's cold too but the sun is spectacular, catching all the sharp contours of Popo and its neighbouring volcanoes. Hugo arrives and we begin a stone's throw away, clambering down to the first sampling area named Tutti Frutti because of the colouration of it's rocks.



Chiara consults a beautiful colour coded map showing Popo's past lava flows.



Chiara, Hugo and Dave observe the layers of volcanic deposits.


I said I'm hard rock, not soft - Chiara uses a gentler tool of Hugo's for an altogether gentler task.


To my surprise, absolute quiet descends. Collecting what appear to be soft rocks is a very sedate activity. Layers are numbered, samples are hammered lightly or scraped into bags and each one is carefully labelled.


Hugo and Chiara discuss how they collect and the age of this lava flow. Hugo states it happened 14,000 years ago. They visually identify those rock types they recognise and chat about the work of other collectors, recently here to study other aspects of Popo. It's clear Chiara is up to date on all that's written on Popo. If she's going to fully understand it, her own studies are made all the better for her knowing the work of others.



It's like scientific Simply Come Dancing watching Dave and Chiara collect. The sheer coordination.


Three outcrops in and we are on the roadside examining another lava flow. This time the rock is hard and Chiara raises her shiny new hammer. She's less than fond of this one: her favourite's been lost and this has a dreadful 'newness' about it. At 4ft 11 inches, appearances truly deceive as Ms Petrone proceeds to knock seven bells out of the basalt lava.



Be sure to put her on speed dial if you ever need a wall knocked through. It's seems a basic method but I'm told its a trusted one. But why hammer your way through rocks when there are so many of the same type around? 'To get to a fresher surface,' says Dave. Much more fruitful to study.



Beautiful crystals of feldspar (rock forming minerals) glimmer in the freshly exposed lava.


Three o'clock and lunchtime had arrived. I glanced up from the pistachio shells I was considering eating and we drove to Cholula, the town of 365 churches. Had there have been time Hugo suggested we counted them, but lunch was quick and we hopped back into the jeep to visit the last outcrop of the day. And what an outcrop it was.



Chiara and I, dwarfed by the gargantuan 2,000 year old lava flow from Popo.


The sheer height of this lava flow domiated our entire view and was for me, the most striking sight of the day. This is not to say I've become complacent at the sight of Popo but, for the first time, the scale at which the lava from the restless giant had once been hit home. It stood as a reminder of what it was capable of, what Chiara and Dave were hoping to one day shed some light on. Most of all it reflected the destruction it had brought to the people that once lived here.


A few rock samples were broken, bagged and again carefully labelled. Having Dave onhand meant at a glance, the gaps in the Museum's collection could be accurately filled. Hugo too, had sampled throughout the day, so as to duplicate what was collected. Tomorrow our plan was to climb higher and as we juddered violently in the jeep en route back to the hotel, a blinding red sunset appeared.