National Geographic : 1950 Jan
El Sangay, Fire-breathing Giant of the Andes BY G. EI)WAR) LEWIS United States Geological Survey With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author HALF AN hour out of Quito our plane still climbed through solid cloud. We seemed to hang motionless in the murky shroud. Suddenly the gray scud thinned. We leaped out of the "soup" into the blazing glare of the rising sun. The earth had passed from our ken. As far as the eye could see, wind-tossed billows of alto-cumulus at an altitude of 17,000 feet floored our empty world. The fluffy blanket below shut off from view the rugged, mysterious land approaches we had hoped to spy out leading toward mighty El Sangay, most active of Andean volcanoes (map, page 121). The cloud cover was a disappointment not our first. For days we had been trying to trace from the air possible trails to the great peak. Foul weather and mechanical trouble so far had foiled each attempt. Whether this trip failed or succeeded, we had decided that today's effort would ring down the curtain on survey flights. Tomorrow, willy-nilly, we would set out to penetrate El Sangay's stronghold by ground attack. Our goal, after all, was to set foot on the slopes of the little-known eruptive giant. Now our spirits soared as we spotted seven volcano cones frosted with snow and ice. Pok ing through the clouds, they looked like scoops of ice cream dotting an endless sea of meringue. Along "Volcano Row" These confectionery landmarks stretched from the Colombian border to El Sangay it self, target of our flight. El Cotopaxi loomed before us. Moments later we stared down into its half-mile-wide smoldering maw (pages 124 and 125). Cam eras clicked and pencils scrawled busily in notebooks. El Altar slid beneath us, and El Chimborazo's eternal snows glistened in the high heavens 30 miles away, rearing 20,577 feet into the sky. At closer view, these towering volcanoes, thrown up from the earth's hot interior, shat tered any fancied resemblance to ice cream! With cold-numbed fingers we changed films, loading up for the "flaming terror of the Andes." That was the name given El Sangay by G. M. Dyott, first explorer to reach its slopes.* Though we were flying higher than El Chim borazo's gleaming peak, we used no oxygen. Our scant supply had to be hoarded against possible emergencies. Ports were open to allow picture taking. Bitter cold air poured into the cabin. We had had no breakfast, so didn't feel too chipper. Ten minutes more and we were circling over Pluto's postern gate, the summit of El Sangay (pages 119 and 127). Judging from what we saw coming out, the powers of the nether world were having a hot time down below! A howling easterly gale with heavy clouds in its teeth swept up off the Amazonian jun gles. Glittering and glowering above the racing scud rose a thousand feet of lava-belching cone, swathed in ash and lava, snow and ice. El Sangay Throws Up House-size Rocks We were awestruck at the violent spectacle below. Steam, ashes, and huge lumps of volcanic rock, some as big as a small hut, surged up in a jet from the summit vent. The wind seized the noxious vapors and ash and whipped them away westward. Ash fell on the western slopes and mantled them in sooty black. The snowy east slopes were rent here and there by flows of dark erupted material from which hot gases issued to join steam from the melted snow and ice. This veiling smoke screen hid much of the surface detail. Everyone felt a wholesome respect for the roaring monster as we soared above his evil throat. Jets and blocks of lava spewed up to sail through the air like high-hit flies over a ball park, only to fall back and sizzle in the snows below. Had any one of these natural projectiles hit us, our journey would have ended then and there. Some have been reported to shoot up to a height of some 45,000 feet above sea level. They are said to attain a velocity of more than 1,000 miles an hour-six times the speed of our C-47 and faster than the speed of sound. Most modern jet planes would have a scant half the speed necessary to escape one of * See "Volcanoes of Ecuador, Guideposts in Cross ing South America," by G. M . Dyott, NATIONAL GEo GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1929.