The second volcano on my list of exotic volcanoes that I hope to ski is Alaska’s Cleveland Volcano. Named in 1894 after the sitting president of the US, Grover Cleveland, this beautiful volcano is active, and about as remote as any location on earth can possibly get in our modern age.
When I used to work at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, my boss would occasionally come back from field missions to Aleutian volcanoes with pictures of snowcapped, perfectly conical volcanoes that shot up 5, 6, and even 8,000 feet straight from the ocean. He would fly around these volcanoes in a helicopter taking pictures to identify signs of activity that had occurred since the previous year’s field season, and even occasionally land on the volcanoes to hop out briefly and grab rock samples. Nice job huh? He also got to carry a .44 in case he came across any of these.
In 2001, he visited Cleveland and returned with tales of a perfect conical, snowcovered, five thousand foot volcano rising from a shimmering blue ocean, with not a person in sight for hundreds of miles. Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and ski nearly perfect 35 degree snow for more than 5,000 vertical feet?
Geography and Geologic History
Cleveland Volcano is the highest volcano of the islands in the “Four Mountains Group” of Aleutian Islands, with a summit at 1,730 meters or 5,675 feet above sea level. Alaska accounts for 80% of the volcanoes in the United States, and 8% of the volcanoes on Earth. The majority of the volcanoes in Alaska are in the 1,600 mile-long Aleutian volcanic arc, which extends from Alaska west below the Bering Sea to Russia and Kamchatka. Cleveland forms the western half of Chuginadak Island, about 150 miles west-southwest of Dutch Harbor, the nearest significant settlement.
The allure of Cleveland as a ski destination lies in the volcano’s almost perfect symmetry. Many people in Japan think incorrectly that Mt. Fuji is perhaps the most “perfect” volcano in the world, but Cleveland is much more symmetrical. The mountain is 8 miles around at the base, and has a nearly consistently sloping pitch lying near the angle of repose from the ocean all the way to the summit.
Like Mt. Fuji, Cleveland is a stratovolcano, comprised of interleaved deposits of lava and ash from numerous and frequent past eruptions. Cleveland has erupted more than 20 times in the last 200 years, and took the life of a solider stationed there towards the end of World War II – the volcano’s only known human fatality.
The most significant volcanic hazard posed by Cleveland is the threat to high-elevation aircraft transiting the Aleutians on the cross-polar routes. According to studies done at the Alaskan Volcano Observatory (AVO), almost 30,000 people on average are in the skies in any given day above the volcanoes of Alaska.
Ash avoidance by airplanes is no joke. On December 15th, 1989, KLM Airlines flight 867 en route to Tokyo from Amsterdam unknowingly flew through thorugh a tick cloud of ash from Mount Redoubt. All four engines failed, and the jet plummetted nearly 14,000 feet before the pilots could restart the engines and make an emergency landing.
In 2006, the international space station just happened to be passing over the vicinity of Cleveland when astronaut Jeff Williams looked out the window and saw an ash plume erupting from the mountain. He snapped this picture out the window…far above the dangers of the ash plume:
Cleveland erupted just last month, and also earlier this year July. Satellites and circumstantial remote observations make up the bulk of monitoring on Cleveland. The nearest oupost, Nikolski, is about 50 miles away and has 18 permanent residents.
Going solely on pictures, Cleveland would be an epic ski descent. It is unclear whether the volcano has been skied ever before, but it has been climbed and filmed by explorers supported by National Geographic. And expedition to kayak around and climb the volcanoes of the Four Mountains group was led by Jon Bowermaster in 1999. Along with photographer Barry Tessman, attorney Steve Farrell, and outdoor rep Scott McGuire, Bowermaster made a film about his experience called “Birthplace of the Winds.” The film was released in 2006, and can be purchased here.
I have not yet seen the film, but I can say that the Bowermaster expedition did not include ski gear, so it is likely that Cleveland was not skied by their team at that time. If anyone out there has any information to the contrary, please post it in the comments section at the end of this article.
Just setting foot on the shores of Cleveland Volcano would be an epic adventure in and of itself. The departure point for an expedition to Cleveland would be Dutch Harbor. A quick check on round-trip fares to Dutch Harbor (DUT) came back with ~$2,000 – $2,400 on Alaska Airlines. Once in Dutch Harbor, one would have to charter a fishing boat or fly Pen Air to the tiny outpost of Nikolski, and then convince one of the 18 residents to take you to Kagamil Island, one of the Four Mountains adjacent to Cleveland.
There are no inhabited towns, or anything of the sort on Chuginadak Island, which means that you would be completely on your own on the volcanic island. You would almost certainly need to bring expedition staples such as satellite phone, solid foul weather gear, and a large gun.
If you managed to get to Cleveland, climbing the volcano would be seemingly straightforward once you got past the tangled wild vegetation and voracious clouds of bugs on the lower slopes of the mountain. Looking at maps, the isthmus between Cleveland and the edifice of the Tana group volcanoes that comprise the eastern half of Chuginadak Island would be the obvious place to beach your zodiacs and head out onto the slopes of the volcano to look for a place to establish base camp and plan your assault on the summit.
Where to Check in with the Local Scientists
Cleveland volcano is one of the most, if not the most active volcanoes in the Aleutian Islands, and it is almost completely unmonitored. AVO does not maintain any remotely-telemetered instrumentation on Cleveland, in fact the nearest instruments are in Nikolski. This means that any resurgence in activity at Cleveland would go unforecast and thus would be exceedingly hazardous to anyone on the volcano. Given the fact that the volcano has erupted at least twice in just the last six months, it would be borderline suicidal to try planning an expedition there any time soon. If you did though, putting in a call to AVO to check on activity in the region would be a necessary first step. Start by visiting their Cleveland Activity page here.
Cleveland is definitely one to keep your eye on. I know I see myself making 5,000 feet of 35 degree corn turns down it one day.
Coming up in the following weeks:
Mt. Erebus, Antarctica
Yotei Volcano, Japan
Kluchevskoy Volcano, Kamchatka
Mt. Ngaruhoe, Aotearoa, New Zealand