Verdant rolling hills are charming and good-looking. Colossal vertiginous mountain ranges are majestic by their sheer magnitude but my funky biscuit in my world of geographical pointy wonders are mighty steaming volcanoes.
Dotted along the major fault lines of the world they’re a direct scorching pipeline to a world of fiery magma on which our beloved planet has been painstakingly built. They’re as temperamental as a schizophrenic suicide bomber and make entire cities cower in fear as they rumble the earth onto which they’re built.
Sometimes these ticking time bombs suffer from some pretty bad press (Pompeii really didn’t help their cause one bit) but if you can put your fear of potential ash clouds, toxic gases and vaporising lava flows aside for a few hours they’re actually a mind-blowingly great place to go trekking or trail running!
I can hear you screaming out “but why on earth would I want to do this?” Well, in the famous words of George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest “because it’s there”.
Whether you’re a trekker, trail or sky runner reaching the top of a volcano is definitely worth it and many of the active volcanoes around the world are very safe to climb.
If you love the idea of taking on a serious physical challenge in one of the world’s most volatile environments here are a few tips and tricks to keep you safe and sound on the edge of one of Vulcan’s vents.
CHOOSE YOUR VOLCANO CAREFULLY
Ok, you’ve decided to take on one of nature’s true beasts. Check with the locals, government websites and anyone else who’s in the know for current conditions on the volcano, where to avoid and any off-limit areas.
Things can change pretty quickly – I chose to run up Mount Etna in mid November and two weeks later this happened. It could have been an entirely different and dangerous experience!
Volcanoes hit the headlines when they’re spouting flames and fury but most of the time they’re safe, incredible places to explore. While some of these summits are easy to reach, the dangers posed by climbing an active volcano aren’t for the feint-hearted. Here are some of the most accessible and active sites on the planet:
WHAT GEAR DO I NEED?
If you’re a seasoned trekker or trail runner you’ve probably got some of the gear needed reach the summit, if not it’s worth a little investment to keep safe, protected from the elements and, on the right track.
As with any high altitude adventure, the weather can change very quickly so it’s better to take a little extra gear, rather than get caught short.
1. Base Layers
Running is a sure fire way to generate loads of heat so I always wear shorts whether it’s the middle of Queensland’s intense summer heat, raining or snowing. But if you’re up high on a mountain and stop for a rest, the resulting wind-chill can really cut through any clothing that’s not properly wind-proofed.
One way around this is by ‘layering’ – adding additional layers of clothing close to the skin to reduce the effects of wind-chill and add extra insulation.
Using compression gear or base layers made from merino wool or man-made materials are the perfect solution; they’re ultra-lightweight, wick sweat away from the body and don’t hold onto stinky smells either.
2. Windproof Jacket
Lightweight, Gore-Tex, Windstopper, waterproof, Hydroshell, Argentium, FlashDry, wicking…the list goes on! With a plethora of brands, materials and technology-inspired names available on the market it can be a seriously confusing task choosing which one’s best for you.
Considering it’s probably the single most important item of clothing any trekker or trail runner can invest in, it’s worth paying a little more for a good quality jacket.
Personally, I use a Berghaus Vapour Storm Shell Gore-Tex which is ultra-lightweight, packs into it’s own pocket, is extremely breathable and cuts out even the coldest wind. Perfect when you’re stood at the summit admiring the incline you just raced up!
3. Trail Shoes
With a vast range of shoe manufacturers and models to choose from it’s very much a personal choice as to which you brand you choose to grace the soles of your athletic feet.
Inov8, Salomon and North Face all produce a range of great shoes tailored to differing global tastes and conditions. From the mud claws favoured in European fell-running, to off-road sand and rock shoes preferred in the southern hemisphere.
For me, switching to Hoka One One and their range of maximalist soles was a huge step forward (no pun intended) for my trail running. Before I used them I found that after a marathon or ultra, my ankles and knees would swell up as they struggled to repair. But since changing, the extra cushioning they offer means my joints are protected to such an extent, I feel good to go again the next day.
They’re incredible for fast downhill descents and protect the heel from protruding stones. They really feel put a little extra spring in every step, which is crucial for long, tiring days on the trail.
4. Hat, gloves and buff
Whether you’re a tough guy or not, taking a woolly hat and gloves to the top of a big mountain can be the difference between comfort and cold. A buff isn’t crucial, but wearing one when the wind is blasting sideways sleet and hail in your face provides that extra level of protection.
You’re probably thinking this is an obvious one…who doesn’t run in socks hey!? But wearing a pair made by a reputable brand can make a huge difference on long days when you’re feet are wet from repeated dunking or excessive sweating.
If you choose the right ones you’ll reduce the chance of developing day-ending blisters. My sock of choice is definitely Injinji, with their glove-like fingers, which all but eliminate the chance of blisters caused by excessive toe rubbing.
6. Hydration Backpack
The decision of what to carry in your backpack is often a payoff between running light (with just enough emergency gear should shit go down) or carry masses of food, water, spare clothing, gadgets etc and being over prepared.
When you’re looking to buy the perfect day-pack consider a number of key features that you’ll find essential out on the trail:
- Lightweight, wicking material with breathable mesh back to keep pack close and reduce contact sweat
- Internal hydration system with easy fill/stow and easy to reach bite valve (Osprey have a magnetic system which I love)
- Chest, hip and shoulder tensioning straps to reduce pack movement. Ideally, tensioned with one hand, with no loose, flailing ends.
- Internal rain cover so your warm, dry emergency gear doesn’t get wet
- Easy access stash pockets on the hip belt provide easy access for on-the-move essentials like gels, camera, or GPS.
Personally, I err on the side of caution and take a little too much gear rather than get caught short and usually carry a 13 litre pack for a full day on a mountain, or a 7 litre for a morning hill session.
7. Navigation tools – map, compass, GPS
Being prepared for whatever the weather or mountain can throw it you is essential. Make sure you know a rough route in advance and have it recorded on a paper map, GPS or smartphone app like Maps.me (one that uses GPS rather than a GSM signal for location).
If you take a phone or GPS, make sure you know how to use it in advance and ensure you have fully charged batteries (or carry spares) before you leave.
And as a fall-back, take a conventional compass with you. It’s easy to become disorientated when the clouds roll in.
8. Weather forecast
Worth checking the day before and the morning of departure as things can easily change overnight. Twitter and Instagram are a good source of up-to-date information where you can check out other people’s recent photos to see what the weather is like and if there’s snow at the top.
9. Mobile Phone
Protecting your expensive smartphone is a must – it could be your lifeline out of the mire should things go wrong. Don’t bother with an expensive case, simply wrap it in a sealable sandwich bag or small dry bag.
10. First Aid Kit
Keep it small and simple. A compression bandage to wrap a rolled ankle, Compede or plasters for any awkward blisters and a survival blanket or bag if you have to spend time sheltering should the weather take a turn for the worst.
11. Head torch
If the sun goes down whilst you’re out on your volcanic adventure having a headtorch could be the difference between getting home or not. My Black Diamond Spot is powerful, compact and will last all night.
In these modern times of selfish selfies who doesn’t want a photo of themselves at the summit, hanging over the crater or at the precise moment when ‘Said Volcano’ erupts for the first time in a thousand years! Like you’d make it down anyway. Here my choice is a GoPro 4 Black edition all the way as it’ll take every knock you can throw at it.
Whether you use it to buy a warming cup of tea mid-climb, a bar of chocolate on the way home or to catch a cab when you’ve rolled an ankle, having some spare cash is the last on the list!
EXPERT TECHNIQUES FOR RUNNING UP HILLS
There is no perfect way to run up a volcano. Some people take huge strides, others pigeon steps. Some lean forwards, others back. Whichever method feels right for you is the one to follow and perfect.
Here are a few of my, and the world’s top ultra runners thoughts on how they tackle the up and downs of mountain running:
- Fill your fuel tank – we’ve heard it before – breakfast is the most important meal of the day – and rightly so! Smash a bowl of large-flake porridge (instant oats are highly processed) with a few nuts and a banana before you set off and you’ll have the energy you need for the first few hours of your ascent.
- Replace what you use – when it’s hot you notice the sweat dripping off your nose, but in colder climes and when you’re nearing the summit it’s easy to forget your loosing fluid at a rate of knots. Make sure you’re gulping down at least a couple of mouthfuls of water every 5 minutes.
- Energy gels – tiny, little bursts of funky goodness! Personally, I only use them as a last resort usually relying on natural, high-energy foods to get me through a long run. But if you think you’ll need a quick shot of energy to get you up the final few hundred metres chuck a few in your food bag…just remember to have your water ready – some taste repulsively sweet and have the consistency of….just yuk.
- Take a friend – if you run with someone else you can guarantee better conversation, better and safer decisions when your head and body are tired and you’ll have better photos of yourself at the top too.
- Prepare yourself – apply Vaseline to all the bits that can chaff – toes, heels, insoles, inner thighs and gents, even the Crown Jewels!
- Start out early – getting safely back to the car park, camp or hotel at the end of the day is one of the most important things. I usually leave 30 minutes before sunrise, when there’s usually just enough light in the dawn sky to see the trail ahead.
- Stay on track – follow established paths and/or markers where possible. Whilst it’s great to be a trailblazer by forging your own path to the top, it’s more environmentally friendly, a lot safer and much quicker to stick to an established track.
ON THE WAY UP…
- “Take it steady and be patient and positive on the climb. I find mental strategy is as important as the physical one for mountains. I always think of uphills as a chance to let your inner cheerleaders out! I think it was Richard Askwith who says: “Uphill is not your friend. Take small steps and wait for the top to arrive” – Anna McNuff
- “Run up using small footsteps and keeping your body linear to get full breaths in, it’s key to pushing faster! You have to find out when walking is actually faster then running” – Lucy Bartholomew
- Use your arms – push off your thighs when you run out of steam and things get really tough. Your upper body will have a lot more strength and it’ll give your legs the break they need.
- “If you get a chance to stop and look – DO IT! The best bit about running up hills is the views! Otherwise you might as well be on a treadmill in the gym with the incline set to: HELL ON EARTH” – Anna McNuff
AT THE TOP…
- Stay safe – remember you’re at the top of a volcano. Don’t lean into the crater too far, get caught in a swirl of nauseous gases or touch that flowing red stuff…that’s lava and it’s bloody hot!
- Stop and take it all in – “if you’re lucky enough to have a break in the clouds, the views around will be spectacular. Going up is hard work for the heart but when you get to the top your heart understands why you do this” – Lucy Bartholomew
- Feast on whatever you can – now is the time to refuel ready for the sprint back down. You’ve used a few thousand calories getting here so celebrate with something sweet and bad for you – a can of Coke or jelly snakes usually hit the mark!
- Watch the weather – it’s worth checking out the horizon and any surrounding valleys just in case Mother Nature has a nasty surprise up her sleeve for you. Make a conscious safe decision on whether your proposed route down still looks viable.
- Tell someone you made it – especially important if you’re by yourself. If there’s signal, send a quick SMS to your nearest and dearest to update them on your progress.
- Prepare your body – treat and cover any blisters, reapply the Vaseline to any hot-spots and make sure your laces are tighter than on the way up – you don’t need unnecessary movement hindering your descent.
ON THE WAY DOWN…
- Stabilise – use your arms as a counter balance on steep descents by swinging them backwards to help slow and stabilise your body.
- Slide – scree slopes are an incredibly fun way of sliding/racing down a mountain. Make sure you keep your body low, knees bent and use your hands as stabilisers as you fly past mere mortals carefully picking their way down complete with poles in hand!
- Relax – “find that fine line between relaxation and tension in your legs – too relaxed and you’re out of control, too stiff and you waste energy. Float down, enjoy the challenges that the rocks beneath your feet throw up and enjoy!” – Anna McNuff
- Enjoy – “running down is like dancing and falling. It’s about relaxing and tipping forward to free yourself and fly” – Lucy Bartholomew
TRAINING TIPS TO MAKE IT A LITTLE EASIER
- Incorporate stair running religiously in your training – stair training is by far the best form of training for hill running without running hills! – Kyle Williams
- Marathon runners don’t much like them, but it’s hills that define us as trail runners – dirty, muddy, bloody great hills – so you have to learn to love them somehow. It’s not that hard though – the top of these hills is where the best views live – Pat Kinsella
- There comes a point on most mountains where you will be forced to stop running and walk. One of the best ways to increase your training in a low-impact way is to incorporate rucking (hiking) with a loaded backpack – Kyle Williams
This blog is by no means an open invitation to run up any volcano, anywhere in the world at any time. Use your common sense, check out the news and talk to locals about the chance of an eruption. Once you’re there if you see spewing ash clouds, red/orange flowing lava and people running, turnaround and run as fast possible in the opposite direction and come back another day.
With thanks to:
Anna McNuff – Adventurer, speaker and mischief-maker. Anna recently ran the length of New Zealand….that’s a bloody long way!
Lucy Bartholomew – Inspiration, Salomon Ambassador, 2014 Junior World Champion – Skyrunning World Championships
Pat Kinsella – Adventure writer, trail runner and one of the world-record setting Global Adventurers – Aussie 8 and New Zealand 9
Kyle Williams – Adventurer and trail runner. Recently broke the world record for the fastest ascent of the tallest mountain in each state in Australia
Mount Etna erupting at night: Marco Restivo/Demotix/Corbis
Energy Gels: Competitor.com
Open volcanic vent: Catersnews.com
Runners in the mist: Tarawera Trail Marathon