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‘Volcano hunter’: I stood 30 yards from lake of boiling lava

A month ago, adventurer Geoff Mackley stood where no human had ever been before: only 30 yards above a roiling lake of lava in an active volcano on a South Pacific island. “No one else has ever achieved getting that close,” he said Friday.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

A month ago, adventurer Geoff Mackley stood in a place no human had ever been before: only 30 yards above a roiling lake of lava in an active volcano on a South Pacific island.

The stunning photos and video that the volcanologist from New Zealand took after a 15-year quest produced awe — and a simple question: Why get so close to disaster?

“In this day and age, there are very few places you can go and things you can do where you can truly say ‘Wow,’’’ Mackley told Willie Geist on TODAY Friday. “There’s very few places on earth that you can actually truly go and stand and say, ‘I am the only human to have ever stood here,’ and such was the case with this place. It’s just a thirst for adventure to do something no one else has done.’’

It also is a thirst that could have some questioning his sanity.

“No, (I’m) not a little bit crazy,’’ he said. “I take calculated risks. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. It’s been a 15-year quest to get to the bottom of that pit. No one else has ever achieved getting that close. I’m amazed no one has, but the pictures were exactly what I had in my mind all along. I knew that’s what I’d come away with, and I’m just totally blown away.

“It is like a drug. You just keep coming back because to be standing there looking at molten rock boiling like water that close, it’s indescribable.’’

A dangerous journey
Located on the island of Ambrym in the archipelago of Vanuatu, 1,500 miles off the northwestern coast of Australia, the volcano is so remote that the journey to reach its edge is nearly as daunting as standing right by the lake of lava.

“Getting to the drop site is quite incredibly dangerous,’’ Mackley said. “You’re talking about 1,200 feet vertical, so pretty much if you stacked two Chrysler Buildings on top of each other, that was the commute to work each morning. You had to dodge rocks big enough to kill you that are moving at terminal velocity past you every few minutes. Standing on top of the edge of that lava pit was not actually that dangerous; getting to that point was just incredibly dangerous.’’

Mackley used a special fire suit and breathing apparatus commonly used by firefighters in New Zealand to be able to get near the 1,150-degree lava without being immolated. The first day they reached the site, he walked toward the edge of the volcano without the suit and had to cover his face and run back after only six seconds.

“If you took one gulp of the superheated air coming off that lava, it would kill you instantly,’’ he said. “I was able to stand there breathing cool, fresh air from the breathing tanks, and in that heat suit, you still felt like you were in an oven. It was kind of a surreal experience. You could feel the waves of heat blasting at you, and you just felt totally protected.’’

Mackley stood next to the lava for 40 minutes and was so entranced with the incredible scene that he let the air on his breathing apparatus run out.

“They’re screaming at me, and I just stayed there until it ran completely out of air, such was the amazing sight I was looking at,’’ Mackley said. “Then I just ran clear of the lava and took the breathing mask off. Unforgettable.’’