This story appears in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
T MINUS SIX MONTHS
A volcanic dream: I’ve been wanting to document how people live and work in extreme environments, because that may teach us how to adapt to a changing planet. Mount Ijen in East Java, Indonesia, is an active volcano that contains an acidic lake and a sulfur mine. Deep in the crater, in air heavy with toxic gases, miners extract chunks of sulfur. They carry 150- to 200-pound loads to the rim and then down the mountain to sell to factories, which use sulfur in the manufacture of things like cosmetics and sugar.
T MINUS THREE DAYS
Essential packing list: We landed in Java and drove for three days to reach Mount Ijen. While preparing for the trip, I learned that the sulfurous gas is unpredictable. Sometimes it’s so thick you can’t see or breathe. If that happens, I was advised, don’t panic—just wait for the wind to move it along.
- Water and energy bars
- Heavy jacket for nighttime temperatures
T MINUS ONE HOUR
Ready for launch: At the foot of the volcano, I rented a gas mask. From there we climbed to the mountain edge, where tourists flock after dark to see blue flames from the combustion of gases. But if you just take a beautiful picture of the flames, you miss the human story. The miners choose nighttime to descend into the crater and do their backbreaking labor because it’s cooler. I wanted to go into the mine. At 2 a.m. I followed them into the crater to spend the night.
When you’re in the mine, the sky is covered by gases. Day and night are confused. You feel suspended in time.
BY THE NUMBERS
Elevation of sulfur mine, in feet
Temperature of sulfuric gases released from the cracks
Mount Ijen’s last known eruption