Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Beyond La Playona to Paradise

by Benjamin Phillips

The efforts of the dome teams, detailed in subsequent posts, were facilitated this trip by a new home base and campsite proximal to Caliente. Thanks to scouting by Jeff and Armando during a brief February reconnaissance, a team set course the morning of Sunday, November 11, for a veritable Paradise, as coined by Armando - a haven with a reliable source of fresh water nestled up against a stable portion of the Santa Maria scarp, and a mere few hundred meters from the base of the dome.

It is an arduous hike, especially when lugging heavy gear, that takes one through several phases and associated micro-environments - an initial ascent on open terrain past locals hauling large bundles of firewood that make one cringe; a short traverse to an overlook called Mirador and the first view of the older domes; the initial steep descent through a thicket of brush known as La Cicuta, overgrown to the point that being tall is a notable disadvantage; further descent of the smoothly polished lava of the Canaleta, where footing is always treacherous; successful arrival at the primary lahar channel of Santiaguito where climbing begins again, this time through a section along the margins of the domes aptly nicknamed the "Khumbu Rockfall"; arrival at La Playona, the moonscape at the foot of Caliente otherwise known as "The Moat," and site to January's seismo-acoustic-tilt stations; and finally the new traverse across two barrancas (drainage channels from Santa Maria) to Paradise. This sequence took the entire group about 8 hours. Not your typical work day.

A couple of highlights before I turn over the text to accounts from other participants. One was what a number of members of the team characterized as their most geophysically active hour ever. During a break in the shelter of one of the bus-sized boulders of La Playona, Caliente was as active as ever with explosions roughly every 20 minutes. One of these was accompanied by a large pyroclastic flow, a first for many of us. At 22:15 UTC (4:15 PM local time), a magnitude 6.5 aftershock to the November 7 M7.4 offshore Guatemala thrust event let loose about 30 km off the coast and rumbled through our rest stop, setting off an amplified barrage of rockfall down the scarp of Santa Maria. This was the largest quake since the primary rupture. Following this flurry of activity, the 45 minute traverse to Paradise, setting up camp, and enjoying a good meal, the team settled in for the night. There we were, camped in a rocky wasteland below the glowing inferno of Caliente, a setting that the non-enlightened might mistake for the other end of the world from paradise. But, this was clearly our own slice of heaven. The idyllic sound of the waterfall behind camp, punctuated by the regular rockfalls down Santa Maria and Caliente, was topped only by the deep roar of yet another eruption. What better to lull one's aching body to sleep!

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