Five days before we were scheduled to climb Nyiragongo volcano in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park, a new vent opened in the outer crater, spewing lava into the air, and creating a cascade of lava (a firefall) into the lava lake in the inner crater. Upon arriving at the Virunga National Park headquarters in Goma, the park staff assure us they have rushed volcanologists up the mountain, and while the United Nations has put all their staff on evacuation alert, Nyiragongo was safe to climb.
Nyiragongo and its neighbor Nyimuragira are said to account for 40% of all volcanic eruptions in Africa, and might be the two most menacing volcanoes in the world. Nyiragongo erupted in 1977 killing thousands of people in the surrounding area, Nyimuragira erupted in 2001, and then Nyiragongo erupted again in 2002, requiring the evacuation of around 300,000 people.
The danger of Nyiragongo results from its proximity to a large population center, and the arsenal of methods it has for killing. Even when it is not erupting, it is releasing carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air, which can pollute water sources, and make the air toxic enough to suffocate people. It is to say, that while we fear its awakening, it is still powerful enough to kill in its sleep.
When it explodes, it does so violently. Its steep slopes (50 degrees at the summit) mean that lava can travel at 100km/hour (about 60 MPH), which is about twice as fast as the fastest human can run, and is thought to be the fastest flowing lava in the world. The city of Goma is about 15 kilometers away, meaning at that speed, lava can reach it in 15 minutes.
Goma sits on the shores of Lake Kivu, and in 2002, the lava flowed right through the city, and into the lake. Lake Kivu holds deadly amounts of methane and carbon dioxide in its depths, making it one of only three lakes in the world subject to limnic eruptions, which occur when these gases are released into the air. Lava flowing into the lake can trigger the release of gases, potentially asphyxiating thousands of people living in the surrounding area. In 1986, dissolved gases in Lake Nyos in Cameroon rose to the surface during the night killing 1,700 people, and Lake Kivu is 2,000 times bigger than Lake Nyos.
The night before our climb both volcanoes light the night sky like an eternal sunset, and the thunderous booms of the eruptions sound like the mountains are being shelled from above. We sit from the safety of our lodge in awe, wondering what the first humans to come upon such a sight must have thought. It was certainly unlike anything either of us had ever seen before.
The hike up Nyiragongo the next day is strenuous. We started at the base at 1,994 meters, and the summit sits at 3,470 meters (11,382 feet), meaning we climbed 1,476 meters (4,841 feet) during the day. The hike starts out in the Virunga jungle, but continues to get steeper during the day, and ends with a final half an hour of scrambling up some volcanic shale to the top.
The reward for your efforts is astounding. Standing on the crater’s edge, you look directly down into a cauldron of frothing lava, bursting and jumping like the spirit of a wild animal. The scarlet red lava pushes through the surface of the hardened black magma in jagged intersecting lines, mimicking the cracked patterns of glaze on an ancient porcelain vase.
The constant explosive motion gives the lava lake the illusion of being alive, and with the lava cascading into it from the second vent, it seems like it could be awakening and growing in strength. For now, the amplified intensity of its explosions magnify its beauty, while our understanding of its battery of deadly weapons means it also increases the sense of adventure of traveling to its peak. Regardless of if the new vent signifies its awakening or merely a yawning, it does mean that now is an exhilarating time to see its restless wonder.
Author’s Note: For those wishing to visit, you can book your trip directly through Virunga National Park.