Climbing the Loneliest Volcano For a Sight Unseen By Modern Humans

Mt. Michael. Photo: Renan Ozturk, National Geographic

When you imagine peering into a volcano's open mouth from above, what image comes to mind? Steaming rocks? An explosion of baking soda and vinegar? How about a lake of bubbling lava? That last one seems like something out of a cartoon, but lava lakes are indeed real features. They're just incredibly rare and, as far as modern science is concerned, nobody has ever actually seen one before (though it's hard to imagine nobody has ever seen a lava lake while hurtling into it, tossed as a sacrifice or as punishment for a crime against the gods). 

When molten lave is exposed to the cool air of a high elevation mountain, it typically cools and forms a lava plug. This is common. Not a thing to write mom about, or to board a boat and sail hundreds of miles through Antarctic hell to reach. But satellites had spotted an active, bubbling lava lake in the crater of Mt. Michael, a volcano on desolate Saunders Island, part of the South Sandwich Islands, 1,000 miles north of Antarctica. 

“If you stand on Saunders Island,” said Emma Nicholson, volcanologist, “your closest other humans are on the International Space Station. That’s the definition of remote.”

So a National Geographic team of volcanologists and mountain guides led by climber/filmer Renan Ozturk sailed to Saunders and stalked Mt. Michael, probing for a window to get to the summit. The island is far too remote for any help from the air; boating in is the most efficient way to get there. That also means the whole island is effectively a no fall zone. Medical help is days and days away. 

“More people have been to the moon than set foot on Saunders Island,” said a researcher with the expedition.

The team rests briefly as they're pelted with rime. Photo: Renan Ozturk, National Geographic

"If you stand on Saunders Island,” said Emma Nicholson, volcanologist, “your closest other humans are on the International Space Station. That’s the definition of remote.”

The island sits near the Furious Fifties, a particularly nasty belt of weather and waves that stirs fear in the hearts of sailors and punishing gales racing up the slopes of ice-shrouded mountains. 

Once the crew arrived, they established a base camp on the mountain's flank and waited for an opportunity to dash for the summit. At only 2,766 feet in elevation, the climb is relatively short, but the weather and conditions make the mountain seem as though it's 27,000 feet. 

The team waited for a window of visibility, and when the skies cooperated, they had a window of only a few hours at most to get to the summit and get a look at the crater. Only problem was, the winds were blowing at 60mph. 

But they went. 

Nicholson got the first look, via a drone piloted close to the lava. It wasn't a bubbling cauldron of lava, but it was, unmistakably, a lake of lava at the surface. And she was the first scientist to see it.

The summit crater. Photo: Renan Ozturk, National Geographic

“Suddenly, we could see this small lava lake right deep down inside the crater,” Nicholson said. “It was certainly not maybe the lava lake that you’d naturally conjure to mind … but it was unmistakably lava close to the surface, feeding the gas plume we were measuring.” 

The team left, data intact, a new window into the world opened a crack. The penguins who live at Mt. Michael look on, silence again restored. 

For more on this story, visit NatGeo.com

Words by Justin Housman

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