Hiking Active Volcanoes
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Active Volcanoes in Guatemala — A Videographer’s Struggle
Seeing lava with your own eyes for the first time is hard to describe. You might think it is not that spectacular anymore because you have seen it before on videos and photos. However, the real deal is quite magical. First, you feel the shock wave of the eruption in your body and a few seconds later you see the volcano shooting jets of lava into the air. It surely beats any artificial fireworks and serves as a humbling reminder of how small we are.
Shooting a video on an active volcano isn’t as easy as some folks might imagine. Ideally, you hike to the summit, take the shots, go down again and be happy about the tons of great footage you shot. In reality though, we had to go on seven overnight hiking tours — including a two-night tour — just to gather enough satisfying footage to put the video for OX Expeditions together. Many aspects have to align in order to make this possible, let alone to shoot footage at all.
An endeavor like this needs careful planning. In various meetings with OX we established a common understanding about the whole video design and the shots needed. This included which part of the volcanoes at what time of the day we ought to film. And yes, the plural in volcanoes is not a typo here because we actually shot on three different ones in total. Two of them are active. Furthermore, the logistics behind the expeditions needed to be taken into account. How much gear would we be able to carry? How many batteries should we take with us? How can we take enough water and food supplies for 3 days at the same time? Those and many other questions had to be answered before we could go on the first hike.
In extreme environments and high altitude the weather plays a crucial role. Two out of the three volcanoes which can be seen in the video are almost 4000m high. Up there, conditions can change rapidly, for example a wall of clouds can form quickly out of thin air (literally!) and block the view at the crater. Or even worse, like a scenario with fog so dense that you can’t see further than five meters. That’s when things can get dangerous because a situation like this makes orientation very difficult and the humidity crawling into clothes surely doesn’t help to keep a clear head. This is when Hyperthermia can get the best of you. There is a reported number of people who died on these volcanoes because of this. Once you reach the summit, strong and icy winds dominate the game and make the handling of equipment extremely difficult, let alone flying a drone. Nevertheless, it’s a very good experience to see what your devices are actually capable of.
In order to shoot great footage of an active volcano, well … the volcano must be active during the limited time you are there. Imagine the effort and logistics you put into reaching the perfect spot and find yourself waiting in the freezing wind with nothing happening — no explosion, no lava flow, nothing. Yes, we’ve been there. But even if it is active, it is best to capture it during the evening, night or dawn. With the sun up, the lava can barely be seen. All you see is a black cloud of dust during an explosion.
Due to moving in a group of up to ten people, the team spirit is important, too. This might not sound like a big deal but it really is. As videographers, we do not only want the volcano in the frame, but also the people who share this experience! In a best case scenario, we get both at the same time. The groups and the guides who were with us on the expeditions were generally very supportive. They didn’t mind waiting for the camera operator to adjust his equipment or even carry a little bit more of the camping gear – awesome! Without people willing to support each other on a trip like this, everything becomes exponentially harder. And the harder it is to deal with the circumstances the less focus can be on the shooting part. In result, these aspects contribute greatly to the quality of a production.
To be more precise: the personal physical and mental condition. For some people altitude sickness is a major issue. Some of the symptoms include diarrhea, headache, reduced appetite and having to puke. If you are lucky, like we were, you only have to deal with a runny nose as one of the mildest symptoms of altitude sickness. And yes, we also got very lightheaded during our two-night tour. To be honest, it felt like the IQ level dropped by at least 50 points after 24 hours at base camp and above. But not only altitude sickness is a factor. A good level of fitness is definitely required to keep up. And if you are filming, well, you simply have to put in even more and sometimes hike up and down in certain areas to find the right angle. This aspect really took us to our personal limits — no doubt about that!
Let the magic happen
At last, comes the fun part. If the trip is planned out well, with the weather on your side, the activity of the volcano in your favor, the spirit of the group high and the physical conditions good, well, in this case nothing can stop you and the magic will unfold! And you can really FEEL the moments when every step, every sleepless hour and every bit of planning pay off. It is a priceless sensation.
Since it is so hard to achieve the shots seen in the video we are really proud and thankful for this project. It did not only push our limits as filmmakers to a new level but also tested us as travelers who are willing to walk (as in: hike) the extra mile to feel and see something that not too many people have had the privilege to see. We are lucky because this was not only rewarding in the very moment of the experience but it always will be with such amazing footage put together in a neat edit. We hope you enjoy.