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GUEST BLOG: Seth Isenberg, Filson on the Volcano

February 1, 2012
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Seth Isenberg, a long-time owner of Filson gear for hunting and fishing, brings us a story from the island of Hawai’i.

I didn’t consider packing Filson gear for a family trip to Hawai’i over Thanksgiving 2011.  After all, my wife, Amber, and kids, Fisher and Beryl, were exploring the Big Island in a rented VW Westy.  We were up for adventures—like swimming with spinner dolphins, chasing endemic birds, and flyfishing for bonefish and trevally—but our exploits were of the swimsuit and flip-flop variety.

However, I rethought my packing plan after we spent the day hiking on Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  We explored lava tubes and steam vents and took in the awe-inspiring view of the caldera as tropic birds sailed over the cliffs.  Finally, we zipped into the Jaggar Museum operated in conjunction with the US Geological Survey.  The survival story of vulcanologist, George Ulrich, left us gaping in amazement.

 

In 1985, George Ulrich and his Italian colleague, Dario Tedesco planned to take measurements and samples in the latest eruption of Pu’u’O’o, the still-active eruptive vent on Kilauhea.  Ulrich geared up in jeans, leather boots, and a fire-retardant flight suit.  He also grabbed his Filson hunting vest, which he’d rigged to care a vapor collection system and the other unusual paraphernalia of a vulcanologist.

A helicopter dropped them near the vent, and they moved quickly to one of the many pahoehoe flows.  Using a thermocouple, they measured the temperature of the fast-flowing lava: 1,137 degrees C (2,078 degrees F).  Ulrich’s next task was to collect a sample of lava for chemical analysis.

Here’s how Ulrich described what happened next:

“I walked quickly across the crusted surface, assuming I would easily recognize the newly cooled lava flow.  Dario stayed with the equipment and watched from the edge.  I approached what I thought was the new pahoehoe, but didn’t notice [that] the surface I was standing on was essentially flat.  It had no clear-cut boundary between the thicker, older crust and the thin new crust beyond.  The surface shone with a uniformly bright, silvery reflection.  If there were any thin, glowing cracks in the new crust, I never saw them.

 

I reached what I thought  was the place where we had extracted the thermocouple moments before.  I averted my face toward the right, intending to scoop up the molten lavea sample on the pick in my left hand.  I bent over to pierce the new crust.  As I looked down, I saw the crust open up and felt it give way beneath me.  The molten lava engulfed my legs…..”

We stared at the museum display of Ulrich’s lava-coated pick and charred flight suit.  Not only did he survive but he had no long-term damage after much time in the hospital. How in the world had he managed to keep his legs?

Geologist Wendell Duffield speculates that Ulrich’s legs were likely saved because they were immersed for only a few seconds and because a rapidly-cooled layer of insulating rock may have formed around Ulrich’s leg and then broken off when he pulled his legs free.  Fast medical care didn’t hurt either.

What about Ulrich’s trusty Filson vest?  It survived the misadventure with very little damage.  There’s a tear on the left side, but if you didn’t know its fiery story, you’d think it was merely a long-used Filson vest that tore on a barbed wire fence in some grouse covert or pheasant hedgerow.  As a long-time bird hunter, I’m glad that I own a Filson strap vest and I’ll now think of Ulrich each time I put it on.

 

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