My 65 Hour Day
Story and Photography by Bryan Lowry
The reality is that it was a span of 3 days without sleep due to many circumstances.
It all started on October 3rd, 2003 (a Friday) at 3 am when I got up to work on some photos before I went surfing. After a few hours of surfing I went to work and upon returning home my email had a message from a friend to check out the USGS update. It showed the beginnings of what would be a spectacular weekend at the volcano!
The west gap pit area adjacent to Pu'u 0 '0 vent had started to erupt after several years of inactivity. For years this pit was obscured by fumes and rarely seen. After reading the update I began to get all my gear together and load the Jeep for the 2 1/2-hour drive to the trailhead. This took some time, as I was sure not to forget anything. I never know how long I will be out and you' re a long ways from conveniences of any kind.
I arrived at the trailhead about midnight and the sky was clear. This is unusual considering that the first 5 miles of hiking are thru a rainforest and the vent it's self-lies in an area that was once was a rainforest.
The hike thru the forest is brutal to put it mildly. It's never been much of a trail with tree roots, slippery rocks and deep mud is the norm. (In 2003 the trail was barely shoulders width and one had to use a compass to navigate.) It was easy to get turned around. Everything looks the same other then a few old landmarks. You always need to be aware of what direction you came from. Being familiar with the trail, I set a blistering pace and made it thru the forest in 2 hours versus the usual 3 hours.
As I exited the forest and came upon the barren landscape of lava that leads to Pu'u 0 '0 vent, I could see the
bright glow of activity on the west flank of the vent. 45 minutes later I was at the eastern rim of the vent but little was visible due to the thick fumes coming off the north rim. But the spattering of lava could be seen far off to the west as could the loud roaring jet sounds emitting from the area. Getting to that area would prove difficult due to all the steam and fumes flowing from the many cracks in the north flank of the vent. Visibility was near zero.
After finally finding my way I traversed the near vertical North Slope on my way to the area known as The West Gap Pit. As I neared the pit I could see lava flying high into the air and I could also hear the loud jetting roars! When tbe pit came into full view I was astonished with what I saw.
There were two large vents and a 30' tall Homito spattering lava in all directions. It was an amazing sight that I had all to myself. The largest was to my left (East) and it stood nearly 40' tall. On the other side of the 100' diameter filled pit were the smaller vent and the Homito. The east vent would let this deep rumbling sound, as it would shoot lava effortlessly over 100' into the air. The lava bombs would land near the Hornito. The homito was shooting lava horizontally over 100' feet in the direction of the east vent with the sound of a large fIreworks canon. The west vent, which sat next to the Homito, would send lava spraying into the air with a dull thump that resembled the ooh and aw type fIreworks on the Fourth of July.
My vantage point was the only flat spot in the area. It was maybe 10' in diameter and slightly upslope. The escape route would be to retreat up and along the North Slope. The activity was continuous until fIrst light. After sunrise the activity was sporadic as the cones continued to slowly build even higher.
A friend was planning to meet me at the vent around 11 am so, I sat back and watched the show until he arrived.
When he arrived the activity began to pick up and all the vents were spattering continuously. The Homito's top was beginning to shake loose and was ready to blow apart. It would shake and rumble for hours but it just wouldn't blow apart.
Around 1 pm my friend was ready to hike out so he could get thru the forest before dark. I decided to go with him so he could drive home to get his video camera for me to use during the night. Before we started down I used his cell phone to call a friend in the Kona area. I needed him to bring me some slide film. It had to be someone that I knew could endure the forest hike and especially at night. Since he had never been on that hike before, I explained everything they needed to know so they wouldn't get lost. His girlfriend and him. I told them I would meet them at the forest edge to guide them up to the pit area.
It's not an area the inexperienced should be wondering around. Especially at night. The plan was to meet around 9 pm Saturday. I've hiked with my friend many times over the years and I was confident he could find his way.
When my other friend and I arrived at the forest edge an hour later I changed my mind about the video because it would have meant an extra 10 miles of round trip hiking and 6 hours of time away from the action. Plus clouds moved in and this would allow great photos at sunset.
It was 2:30 pm when I started the hour long hike back to the pit area. When I arrived all 3 vents were spattering violently and the Hornito seemed again ready to blow apart. I was running low on fIlm so I had to conserve what I had until my friends arrived later that night. It wasn't easy since so much was happening. Sunset was all I hoped for and darkness brought even more vigorous activity. I fInally shot my last photo and mere seconds later the west Hornito blew apart and sent lava spraying into the air like a giant umbrella. Sometimes it works out like that.
My friends were to arrive at the forest edge around 9 pm, so at 7:30 pm I began my trek back down to the
forest edge. By now I was no longer zipping along and I took my time going there. At 8:40 pm I arrived at the forest edge and I could hear my friends talking in the distance. The air was very still which is unusual for that area. They wouldn't arrive for another 20 minutes because they were still well into the forest. It was extremely clear with no wind at all so I sat back and watched the vent that was 2 miles away. I could hear it clearly.
When they fInally made it out of the forest (with my fIlm) we wasted no time and continued up to the pit area. This portion of the trail is grueling as it crosses all types of lava and of course it was dark. But, I know this route very well and often hike it in zero visibility. It was now 9 pm and I was climbing the vent for the third time! It took an hour and a half to reach the west pit area.
As we traversed the north ridge of Pu'u 0'o vent you could hear the loud rumbles and roars from the pit area. The sky was bright from all the activity and lava was again shooting high into the air. During the hike up I went over all the safety measures with my two friends. This was their fIrst time up there and I wanted to be sure they understood the dangers and that they were always aware of everything going on around them. Basically, follow my lead and do everything I say. I can only imagine what they felt having never experiencing anything like this before.
As the vents came into view I could see the activity was extreme and the ground was shaking violently. All through the visit this constant ground shaking made long exposure shots difficult. I had explained to my friends that at any time the crust of the pit could overturn and send a large flow rushing across the pit towards our viewing area. Only 10 minutes after we arrived it happened! Within minutes the entire surface had been covered and the pits crust inflated three feet. See images below.
I had us on an area a few feet above the pit so the flow would pass by us to the west. And it did just that. You could reach out and touch the lava as it flowed by. This would happen 3 more times during the night. During that time the hornito would blow apart 3 more times and the large east vent to our left would grow very large before it to blew it's top off just before sunrise Sunday morning.
The weather was as good as it gets up there through the night.
At about 5:30 am just before sunrise, the west vent blew apart and sent a fast moving lava flow within feet of us to the west. I was hoping this would wait until sunrise so the colors would be spectacular. No such luck that morning, but I wasn't complaining. I was trying to save my last 3 photos for sunrise.
When first light did arrive, the activity all but ended and the rain moved in fast. It was an easy decision to leave. My friends never would see the surrounding area because the rain and clouds bring the visibility down to zero. I lead the way back down to the forest edge. Along the way one of my friends commented on how nice it will be to see the forest in the daylight. I told them to tell me if they felt the same half an hour into the hike thru the forest.
It was now 9 am Sunday and I was running low on energy. I had four energy bars and a can of Raviolis to eat since Friday night and my pack was still heavy with camera gear and water.
The forest hike is really brutal on the way out. Mentally as Physically. Especially if its sunny. The humidity is a killer. Ten Minutes into the forest my friend takes back her comment about wanting to see the forest in the daylight and is now wanting to get out of there fast. The other friend is setting a very fast pace that I would usually do my self, but 2 hours into the forest I could no longer keep pace and told them to continue on and I would meet them at the vehicles. I was actually falling a sleep as I was hiking. (wish they had 5 Hour Energy back then) I hike alone all the time and never mind if someone hikes faster or slower on their own when they're with me.
When I finally exited the forest I came back to life and caught my 10th wind of the weekend.
Now I had to drive home back to the Kona side of the Island two and a half hours away. I stopped at a local store for some Arizona iced green tea and was on my way.
Not only did I make it with out once feeling tired, I even stopped for groceries. I would have stopped to sleep if I had been at all sleepy. Although, who knows when I would have woken up.
I went to bed at 8 pm Sunday. Ending what I call my 65 hour day.
I awoke eleven hours later having had my best sleep in 10 years!
Five weeks later the West pit gap area would come to life again and I would have a similar type weekend. And more would follow well into 2004.
I wrote this story in an email the next day after work. It was sent to family and close friends. I have hiked to Pu'u O'o dozens of times and stayed for long periods of time but, this is still one of my more memorable adventures. Back then the forest trail was anything but a true trail. I'm quite sure no other person has hiked to Pu'u O'o vent even half as many times as I have. Its not an easy trek. Its a minimum of 15 grueling miles but, with exploring I've easily gone over 20 miles many times. As was the case on this long adventure. The very few that have ever gone with me barely make it back.
I can't stress enough to stay away from this area!! Like I mentioned, its often socked in with thick clouds and fog. Zero visibility is common all the way from the forest to the top of the vent. There are so many things that can and will kill the inexperienced. Not to mention all of the volcanic hazards. I know this area very well. Most importantly I know where not to go and when not to go! I always have all of the needed gear to survive for several days if needed. Don't think "Oh, if he can do it I can too". I have exceptional natural navigational skills that allow me to know where I am at all times no matter what. Call it a natural GPS if you want. I also have a freakish will power that allows me to overcome any physical and mental obstacles. I've had plenty go wrong on adventures over the past 20 years hiking the volcano but, I always make it back on my own.
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