On September 4, 2006, I went on the most amazing hike of my life! This hike goes through 4.2 miles of rainforest in an area that gets 200 inches of rain per year, and we got no rain and clear skies. After the forest clears and meets the lava, it’s another mile up the eastern side of the hill to the edge of the crater. Since this was all relatively new and unstable lava flow, any step we took could have caused us to fall through a crack. So we all stepped carefully up the hill. Our guide let us know we were all risking our lives even climbing up the cone, let alone climbing into it. The 11 of us decided to take our chances. I would not have done this hike without a guide who worked with volcanologists actively monitoring the volcano. People regularly get lost and have to be helicoptered out of the forest here.

It is important to understand that I did this hike before the trail was officially closed. You can’t do the same hike now, and you can’t even see the floor in the crater because it collapsed more than once since my hike, including a massive collapse in March, 2011. The area around the cone is extremely dangerous and there is an entirely new vent east of Pu’u O’o, and as of March, 2011, another near the Napau crater. I’d love to see it, but by air is the only safe and legal way.

As we climbed into the crater, we all had to cross a sizable steaming crack. The crater floor itself felt even more precarious. There were lava bombs, Pele’s tears, and Pele’s hair everywhere, indicating that lava does periodically erupt from the vent we were approaching, and could have landed on any one of us. After two geology grad students with respirators got close and determined the gasses didn’t pose an immediate risk, we all went up to the edge of the East Pond Vent while huge sulfur clouds emanated continuously. We were extremely lucky that it was clear and the trade winds were blowing the sulfur clouds away from us. Although I did get a brief blast that burned my eyes and caused me to cough for a while.

As we peered into the vent, we could see and hear a lava lake churning below us, with waves smashing up against the inside wall of the crater. The edges of the vent had a fine layer of lava looked like carpet. We all stood on a ledge that collapses and rebuilds occasionally, and in our final minutes, one side of the crater began erupting, sending lava 10-15 feet up, but still 30-40 feet below us. We decided our luck had lasted long enough and headed out!

Hike to the Pu’u O’o vent