Monday, 24 November 2014


N.B. The story could be a little inaccurate because of the lack of communication between us and those with authority. A group of volunteers trapped in a Mexican volcano observatory with little and no spanish is a situation that was never to go smoothly. I apologise if I make the bomberos sound hostile, its just what I felt at the situation. The three bomberos on our first day and the one who offered us a lift were, on the other hand, very lovely!

Before I even stepped on Colima's grounds, I was asked if I wanted to join a field trip the day after I arrived. I had no expectations what this field trip was going to be like, I never did any volcanology field work on an active volcano before, so I waved it off thinking it was going to be a day trip... That was until I found out a sleeping bag was going to be involved (and possibly every piece of clothing I brought over). The other volunteers soon confirmed that the trip they planned was a big one. A night in El Playon (about 2-3 km from the lava dome) followed by another night near the summit of Nevado de Colima (the extinct volcano north of Volcan de Colima). This is probably the most dangerous and highest point I would ever walk.

Dat sharp peak (Nevado de Colima)

Ignoring the signs

We should have seen the signs that we were not meant to be on this trip. Moments after seeing the peak of Nevado for the first time (that peak!) we came across the remnants of a recent landslide. They've come across landslides before which haven't stopped them but this was too big to drive over or dig through. We quickly changed our plans to going straight to Nevado because we didn't have much time til sunset.

Sara, in the pink jacket, for scale.
The second omen was that we weren't initially allowed to stay in Nevado. Nick needed to call the next day so we could have permission but he was in another state for a conference so he didn't know our abrupt change of plans. The sun was setting and it was getting late and really cold (we were 4000 m high up man) so the first group of firemen were kind enough to let us stay the night. They set up the fireplace, which we took full advantage to make smores, and they had a playful big kitten that just didn't seem to like me on the first night.

We named him Alfredo.
The team got straight to work when the firemen gave the thumbs up to stay. The infrared camera and digital SLR was set up to take overnight data. The former used to take thermal data while the SLR was used to record any visible activities like rockfalls. The day after we tried to set up the FLYSPEC, which collects SO2 data, but we didn’t seem to have any luck. That was a real pity because it was the first thing they were trying to teach me how to use. Turns out it really was unfortunate about the flyspec not working for reasons mentioned later. 

SLR, Thermal camera on the wooden board and Toughbook, FlySpec on the ground.

Disaster strikes

We waved the three bomberos adios (they have a changeover around 10 am) and told them we’ll be hella out of there by 1-2pm. You should have seen the happiness in our face as we packed up the truck again, ready to be back in civilisation (I was looking forward to be in the warmth again)… and then it happened. The truck refused to start. I can’t remember how exactly the events unfolded, the horror that we’ll have to stay there another night was so great that my mind still remains clouded. We tried to bump start the car, we tried to push it but our effort remained fruitless. The new set of bomberos tried to help but if I’m being honest, they just made the truck a little bit worse because now it sounded like a old man who was wheezing in his deathbed.

Tom pushing the truck while I was too busy taking photos (sorry!)

Stuck between a feud

And this is when we saw the ugly face of bureaucracy. At first I thought we couldn’t have had this failure in a better place, we were staying with civil protection, surely they’ll help us! They’ll know what to do! Sadly I was just being optimistic at that point. They told us it was Nick’s responsibility to help us, Nick our supervisor who was in a different state for a conference. Nick who we couldn’t call because neither us or they had a phone to call him. Nick who probably didn’t have a clue how bad the situation was. 

The only advantage of being trapped at 4000 m altitude was witnessing this beautiful sunset.

The Struggle

Being stuck at 4000 m altitude with very little to do is not fun. I made the mistake of not sleeping in my sleeping bag on the first night which meant I couldn’t sleep at all because I was shivering so badly. Each day we woke up with a headache (except for Sara who luckily had come prepared with altitude sickness pills) and we became exhausted just by walking to and from the truck. Sure we could collect more data but it was hard for us to pass the day. Thank god the observatory had wifi. 

However, passing the time was the least of our worries. We only packed food for two nights. We were only left with snacks and bread (which were all turning pretty hard). I was surviving on almonds and donuts for the last two days. We weren’t getting hungry because the altitude seemed to have suppressed our appetite but we knew we couldn’t stay a day longer (was it ironic that we watched the hunger games on Wednesday evening?). To make it worse, the bomberos were cooking up omelettes and other cooked food that just felt like they were taunting us. 

Living above the clouds


There was hope when the firemen told us that they could get a mechanic up and he would arrive by the afternoon. We held on to that hope even though it was getting around four but we were crushed when they broke the news he won’t be coming and that he’ll try again tomorrow. To be honest, at that point we felt like we couldn’t trust them. The only time they showed concern for the truck was when they needed to move it out of the way for their car. One of the bomberos invited two of us (Sara and me) to go down with them on the Wednesday swap over but it seemed like a bad idea to split the four of us, so we stayed together (good idea in retrospect which I could explain if someone asks). 

Nick finally came through when he contacted the National Park authority who contacted a tow truck and a mechanic. The only problem was that we needed to escort the tow truck to our truck at the top of Nevado. Now how do we get down?! We could have hiked down but that takes 6 hours, mechanics would refuse to work that late. We asked the bomberos to drive us down so we could bring the tow truck. They said they would double check with their boss but it should be okay (or so we thought he said).  The next day we waited eagerly for the truck to arrive. It was running late, but that didn't worry us because we finally had a solution, we were finally going to go home! Their truck finally came and we ran up to the bomberos asking to hop on.


They bomberos were breaking one bad news after another. They told us they didn't have the authority to give us a lift down. I thought they were the civil protection, that they were there to help us but it seemed like they were doing anything but that. Sara was suppose to leave Colima on Saturday, we didn't have anything more to eat, we couldn't cope with the altitude, we wanted to go home! We became desperate... there was crying and a teensy bit of begging involved, couldn't they let atleast one of us down? 

Lesson learnt: being hysterical can sometimes be the key. Turns out that the bomberos do not know how to handle a crying girl and maybe it's okay to ignore authority sometimes (for some reason the words like permission and Alfredo wasn't being thrown around anymore). They decided to take their big truck down during the swap over and let us jump on the back of their truck so we could hitch a ride with the bomberos down to Guzman. We were finally free. 

The girls were obviously more excited about finally coming home

... But it wasn't over

Nick wasn't impressed that we deserted the truck. We tried to find the mechanic the Park authority contacted as soon as we got down but we were too quick to get back home (after having some trashy chinese food at a supermarket) when our first taxi failed to find it. Tom and I returned to Guzman the next day to find the said mechanic (and we did). Never did I expect to be on a tow truck driving up to a mountain summit in Mexico, but hey I come back with a story to tell. Everything went smoother than expected, I think even the driver was surprised, and we brought the truck back to Colima. 

The rescue mission wasn't without a cost though. While we were busy trying to decipher what the tow truck company was explaining to us in Spanish, we missed an explosion! Volcan de Colima produced a 5km high ash cloud and pyroclastic flows can be seen in the photos. You won't believe how incredibly upset I was to miss such a sight and how guilty the team felt for not being able to collect SO2 data. However, from a volcanologist's point of view, this is an exciting time for field work! We'll be back to investigate the site of damage including from El Playon and...


Volcan de Colima the day before the explosion

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