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Fire and ice

At a hiker's feet, mesmerizing voids - one into the Earth's core, the other from a great height

Top: Lava hits the Pacific Ocean from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii; skiers on a frozen swath of Gemmi Pass in Switzerland.
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Staff / November 9, 2008

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When I embarked on the story of walking volcanic fire and Alpine ice, I didn't know that Mark Twain could have been my ghostwriter. In 1866, Twain went to Hawaii and wrote about his travels to Volcanoes National Park. On a visit to the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island, he observed:

"The floor of the abyss was magnificently illuminated; beyond these limits the mists hung down their gauzy curtains and cast a deceptive gloom over all that made the twinkling fires in the remote corners of the crater seem countless leagues removed - made them seem like the campfires of a great army far away . . . over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire!

"It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it - imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire!" ("Roughing It," 1872.)

Twelve years after walking the fire, Twain came to the ice. He traveled to the Swiss Alps, where his journey included a summer traverse of what is considered one of the mountain range's most spectacular passes, the six-mile-long Gemmi Pass. Starting at 6,351 feet, high above the small village of Kandersteg, and slowly rising to 7,700 feet, far above the town of Leukerbad, it follows an ancient trading route said to date from the Bronze Age.

A Boston Globe travel feature in 1999 quoted Twain's observations that parts of the pass were "flower-strewn," but much of it was also a "stormswept and smileless desolation. All about us rose gigantic masses, crags and ramparts of bare and dreary rock, with not a vestige or semblance of plant or tree or flower anywhere, or glimpse of creature that had life. The frosts and the tempests of unnumbered ages had battered and hacked at these cliffs, with a deathless energy, destroying them piecemeal; so all the region about their bases was a tumbled chaos. . . . The ghastly desolation of the place was as tremendously complete." ("A Tramp Abroad," 1880.)

This is where Twain ceases to be the ghostwriter. First, the volcano.

Twain viewed the Kilauea crater fires from a lookout house a half mile from Volcano House, a hotel established in 1846. In the 21st century, getting out onto the lava wastes itself is to be on another planet.

Most visitors view activity coming down Chain of Craters Road during the day, when usually the most you see is white plumes of steam. One night, friends, a guide, and I set out on the less traveled far northeastern edge of the park. We came armed with the most important weapon of self-defense against the assault of bitterly jagged lava: a flashlight. Despite the Milky Way blazing above, the hardened lava at our feet so outblacked the darkest black that without light there is no way to humanly navigate without tumbling into one of many pits, some 5 and 6 feet deep. It was so black at the parking lot that the guide left a flashing light on top of his car so we could find our way back to it.

We were excited as we left. Way up on the crater, perhaps two or three miles off, we saw thin pink-orange ribbons of hot lava dribbling down toward the coast from the Pu'u 'O'o vent. No matter what, we could say we saw lava as it emerged from the depths of the earth. But that quickly was subsumed by the task of picking our path over the relentlessly rolling lava. If you have walked on the undulations of sand dunes and found them to be disorienting in broad daylight, you have seen nothing yet. Seeing nothing is the problem. Even the flashlight's beam seemed to be sucked right into the lava.

One hour passed. Then two. Up and down, over and around the lava we went, tipping and toeing into tedium. I tripped once, luckily getting no cuts. The pink-orange ribbons appeared and disappeared in our sights, but seemed to get no closer.

Then the lava rose before us like a wall. As we ascended, a milky white film started to fog the lower part of the sky. We got to the high point and, without warning, were on the precipitous edge of a lava cliff. We were suddenly 10 stories above a bay of lava. On the opposite side, lava was pouring into the ocean. Those little ribbons from before were now a big river, blazing in a blinding yellow-orange march to its final glow. As the lava hit the ocean, it hissed and crackled into hundreds of little explosions. Some were so violent, the last throes of lava shot straight up out of the water and split like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

We watched open-mouthed for a half hour. Then we saw a glowing hole about 100 yards away. We neared it, stood opposite the wisps of sulphur, and looked down to see lava flowing at our feet. For this moment we were on top of something that has been 70 million years in the making, with its elements oozing up from 60 and 70 miles deep in the earth. Twain, from the safety of his vantage point, said the glow hit the people watching with him to create "the reddest-faced men I almost ever saw . . . half-cooled devils just come up on a furlough." All of us were red and orange from head to toe, fully heated devils just hoping we didn't fall below.

At the Gemmi Pass, Twain there too only saw half the story. It was summer, and winter is a separate, glorious chapter. Yes, there are the crags and frosts, but desolation? On Scout-related trips the last two winters (the International Scout Centre is 2,600 feet below, at the Kandersteg end), we experienced a wilderness enjoyed by masses of people in myriad ways - all in one stretch.

At home, Americans may find a downhill mountain dedicated to speed demons. Across the road may be a dedicated cross-country ski center with some snowshoe trails weaving in and out of the woods. In Kandersteg, waiting for the gondola to head up to the start of the pass you are huddled with people holding downhill skis, cross-country skis, snowshoes, sleds, and hiking poles. It felt like we were all participants in a leisure Olympics.

Did I say hiking poles? And normal hiking boots. For me that was the real magic. In the first mile of the Gemmi Pass, you leave behind the downhillers. By the second mile, you leave behind most of the cross-country skiers who were content with the groomed tracks that began right off the gondola and the hearty potato, cheese, and sausage fare at the Sunnbüel gondola station restaurant.

Then the pass truly unfolds. Above are glaciers lapping down from 12,000-foot peaks. The scale was made particularly dramatic by the sight of the occasional tiny telemark skier who had hiked way above to dare the steep descents. Then we reached a sobering spot that gave terrible meaning to Twain's reference to "deathless energy." Seventeen years after his visit, a 25-foot-thick section of glacier and rock fell off the 11,900-foot Altels peak.

In its 4,700-foot plunge, the rubble reached such speeds that huge fragments kept going up and over the 7,500-foot peaks on the other side of the pass and down into the next valley. Several summering shepherds and their livestock were killed. According to the 1903 book "True Tales of Mountain Adventure for Non-Climbers Young and Old" by Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond, the falling debris "would have sufficed to bury the City of London to the depth of six feet."

The halfway point of the pass is marked by one of the most memorable inns you will ever visit, the beautiful stone Berghotel Schwarenbach. Built in 1742 as a customs house, it lies at 6,800 feet with Altels looming on the left, a steep plunge right out front, and a sweeping view up the right side of the valley. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw it as mysterious enough for a Sherlock Holmes scene and Twain, Pablo Picasso, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas all stayed here - and with good reason if today's stick-to-the-ribs Swiss fare, Valais regional wines, and fresh baked fruit pies descend from that era. By the time you reach here, the high-altitude sun has usually warmed things up enough that most people are eating outside.

The highlight of the second half of the trail, before the grand finale, is an ascent that comes out to a point where you overlook a winter tableau. Below is the huge bowl of a frozen-over, mile-long lake, the Daubensee. We were back in civilization, but in a beautiful way. Dozens of cross-country skiers were circling a groomed trail. Dozens more hikers were either ambling down at lake level, or taking a more challenging ascent, becoming more tiny dots up along the mountain walls. In the middle of the lake, men and women were gliding across, being pulled by winds in their parasails. In the final ascent out of the lake to the pass, dozens more families with small children were zooming down the slopes and trails on skis, old-fashioned sleds, or stand-up bike-like sleds.

Then there is the end. Nothing prepares you for it. You cannot see it until you come over the lip. You stand over the steepest of drop-offs. Three thousand feet below is the town of Leukerbad. Behind the town, with no break from left to right, is the 14,000-foot-high southern wall of the Swiss Alps. One can compare it only to one's first view of Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon. As if that immensity was not enough, an eagle swooped by and soared around the peaks. Better still, the Wildstrubel restaurant there had a terrace with panoramic views where our party downed fine sausages, Rösti (glorified hash browns with locally-butchered bacon and ham), raclette, and fondue.

With such a view of the walls, we felt that there were no walls.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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