What is it about Mt Asama? On a fine day in October 1903, while climbing the volcano's lower slopes, the two Englishmen had seen “a cyclopean pillar of writhing smoke and vapour pouring up into the vault of heaven”. This should have reinforced the warnings they'd already heard and dismissed. Yet still they pressed on – something drew them – until they stood on the very lip of the fuming crater.
SHOOTING THE VOLCANO IN OLD JAPAN -- Photographer and Coolie Living Dangerously, a photo by Okinawa Soba on Flickr.
The noise of the place was truly infernal. There is no other sound on earth that can be likened to the sticky, sputtering buzz of a volcano. It is fearful to listen to — this vibrating, throbbing, pulsating din of ceaseless, steady boiling. The thing seemed to be fermenting with suppressed rage, and one half expected that any moment it would burst open and loose the furies it could scarce restrain …
Whilst absorbed in the contemplation of these beautiful surroundings, and the wondrous red and purple colouring of an ancient broken crater on the mountain's western side, the time sped swiftly on, and it was not until 3 o'clock that we prepared to leave. Our coolies went on ahead, but Hurley and I stopped a few moments for a last look at the crater, from which we found it hard to tear ourselves away. As we stood on the brink of the diabolical abyss there was a crash like a thunder-clap, and the earth seemed to split before us as the bed of the crater parted asunder and burst upwards, throwing thousands of tons of rock against the walls. For a moment or two the noise was like the din of battle. Masses of rock were hurled against the cliffs and shivered to fragments with reports like exploding shells, and showers of stones, whistling past us, shot many hundreds of feet into the air.
And then the stones came clattering down — sticking, with sharp thuds, deep into the ash. By good luck the main force of the explosion was directed slightly to the east, and on that side of the crater most of them fell. We were on the southern rim, and in our vicinity only a sprinkling dropped compared with the hail of rock that must have fallen a little farther off.
No sooner, however, were we safely delivered from Scylla than the perils of Charybdis were upon us. The smoke that was belching from the crater's mouth now enveloped us, and in a moment we were choking and almost asphyxiated with the sulphurous fumes. It was impossible to breathe, as, with hands tightly pressed over our mouths and nostrils, we blindly ran through the smoke for air. Fortune again was with us. In less than twenty paces we emerged suddenly from the chaos into brilliant sunlight, and staggered well out into safety before we fell upon the ground, gasping and filling our lungs to their fullest extent with great draughts of sweet pure air. It was a happy thing for us that the strong breeze which was now blowing was coming from the south ; thus the smoke was blown away from our side across the crater. Had it been blowing from the north we should have been unable to escape from the suffocating fumes.
This column of smoke was a thing of most awesome beauty, and held us fairly spell-bound. It belched up into the air in great, black rolls, which were emitted with such force and quantity that they were pushed far back into the teeth of the wind, and several times we had to retire still farther off as they bellied out towards us. It rose to the heavens in immense, writhing convolutions, and from the centre of the mass huge billows of snow-white steam puffed out, and bulged against the smoke, seeming to fight with it for mastery. But as white and black rose higher and higher in turn they mingled with each other, and soared up to the skies in a gradually diffusing pillar of grey which was tilted northwards by the wind and borne off rapidly into the clouds above.
Herbert Ponting, In Lotus-Land Japan (1910)
Many thanks to Okinawa Soba for posting Ponting’s dramatic photo on flickr, whence it is linked here. And to Tom Bouquet, volcanologist and educator, for originally posting this photo on his own (alas, dormant) Japan volcano blog. I hope he won’t mind me duplicating his efforts.