Chapter 9a

Mayon Volcano Icon

April 2, 2022

My Spanish friends enabled me to rent a house in Darága,* a well-to-do town of 20,000 inhabitants at the foot of the Mayon volcano, 1.5 leagues from Legaspi.

Its summit was considered inaccessible until 2 young Scotchmen, Paton and Stewart, demonstrated the contrary. Since then, several natives have ascended the mountain, but no Europeans.

I set out on September 25 and passed the night, by the advice of Señor Muñoz, in a hut 1,000 feet above sea level in order to begin the ascent the next morning with unimpaired vigour. But a number of idlers who insisted on following me, and who kept up a tremendous noise all night, frustrated the purpose of this friendly advice.

I started about 5am little refreshed. The fiery glow I had noticed about the crater disappeared with the dawn. The first few hundred feet of the ascent were covered with a tall grass quite 6 feet high.

Then came a slope of 1,000 feet or so of short grass succeeded by a quantity of moss : but even this soon disappeared, and the whole of the upper part of the mountain proved entirely barren. We reached the summit about one o’clock. It was covered with fissures which gave out sulphurous gases and steam in such profusion that we were obliged to stop our mouths and nostrils with our handkerchiefs to prevent ourselves from being suffocated.

  • Officially called Cagsáua. The old town of Cagsáua, which was built higher up the bill and was destroyed by the eruption of 1814, was rebuilt on the spot where formerly stood a small hamlet of the name of Darága.
  • I learnt from Mr. Paton that the undertaking had also been represented as impracticable in Albáy. “No Spaniard nor native had ever reached the summit. They would certainly be swallowed up in the sand.”

However, one morning about 5am they set off, and soon reached the foot of the cone of the crater. Accompanied by a couple of natives, who soon left them, they began to make the ascent.

Resting half way up, they noticed frequent masses of shining lava, thrown from the mouth of the crater, gliding down the mountain. With the greatest exertions they succeeded, between two and three o’clock, in reaching the summit; where, however, they were prevented by the noxious gas from remaining more than 2-3 minutes.

During their descent, they restored their strength with some refreshments Señor Muñoz had sent to meet them and they reached Albáy towards evening, where during their short stay they were treated as heroes, and presented with an official certificate of their achievement which they happily paid for with several dollars.

We came to a halt at the edge of a broad and deep chasm, from which issued a particularly dense vapour.

Apparently we were on the brink of a crater, but the thick fumes of the disagreeable vapour made it impossible for us to guess at the breadth of the fissure. The absolute top of the volcano consisted of a ridge, nearly ten feet thick, of solid masses of stone covered with a crust of lava bleached by the action of the escaping gas.

Several irregular blocks of stone lying about us showed that the peak had once been a little higher. When, now and again, the gusts of wind made rifts in the vapour, we perceived on the northern corner of the plateau several rocky columns at least a hundred feet high, which had hitherto withstood both storm and eruption.

I afterwards had an opportunity of observing the summit from Darága with a capital telescope on a very clear day, when I noticed that the northern side of the crater was considerably higher than its southern edge.

Our descent took some time.

We had still two-thirds of it beneath us when night overtook us. In the hope of reaching the hut where we had left our provisions, we wandered about till 11pm, hungry and weary, and at last were obliged to wait for daylight.

This misfortune was not because of lack of proper precaution, but to the unreliability of the natives.

Two of them who were carrying water and refreshments had disappeared at the very first. A third, “a very trustworthy man,” whom we had left to take care of our things at the hut, and who had been ordered to meet us at dusk with torches, had bolted back to Darága before noon.

My servant suddenly vanished in the darkness as soon as it began to rain. I repeatedly called him, but he never turned up again until the next morning.

We passed the wet night upon the bare rocks, where, as our very thin clothes were perfectly wet through, we froze till our teeth chattered.

As soon, however, as the sun rose we got so warm that we soon recovered our tempers. Towards 9am, we reached the hut and got something to eat after 29 hours’ fast.

The “ Trabajos y Hechos Notables de la Soc. Econom. de los Amigos del Pais,” for September 4 1823 says: “Don Antonio Siguenza visited the volcano of Albáy on March 11. The Society ordered a medal to be struck in commemoration of the event, and in honour of Siguenza and his companions.”

Everybody in Albáy, however, assured me that the two Scotchmen were the first to reach the top of the mountain. It is true that in the above notice the ascent of the volcano is not directly mentioned; but the fact of the medal naturally leads us to suppose that nothing less can be referred to.

Arenas, in his memoir, says: “The Máyon was surveyed by Captain Siguenza. From the crater to the base, which is nearly at the level of the sea, he found that it measured 1,682 Spanish feet (468,66 metres).”

A little further on he adds that he had read in the records of the Society that they had had a gold medal struck in honour of Siguenza, who had made some investigations about the volcano’s crater in 1823. He, therefore, appears to have had some doubt about Siguenza’s actual ascent.

According to the Franciscan records, 2 monks attempted the ascent in 1592, in order to cure the natives of their superstitious belief about the mountain.

One of them never returned. The other did not reach the summit as he was stopped by 3 deep abysses, He made 100 converts to Christianity by his mere adventures.

He died in the same year because of the many variations of temperature to which he was exposed in his ascent of the volcano.

Some books say that the mountain is of considerable height; but the “ Estado Geografico” of the Franciscans for 1855, where one could scarcely expect to find such a thoughtless repetition of so gross a typographical error, says that the measurements of Siguenza give the mountain a height of 1,682 feet.

According to my own barometrical reading, the height of the summit above the level of the sea was 2,374 metres (8,559 Spanish feet).