The Best of Both Worlds

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Though many of the world's volcanoes lie in tropical climes, their summits are anything but sultry. Snow and frigid temperatures are the rule, even on peaks that rise from the steamiest jungles. That is, of course, until these restless giants start belching molten lava, yielding temperatures higher than any you'll ever find on the ground. For adventurers looking for a little climactic diversity on their next winter getaway, try these behemoths on for size.

Hawaii's Big Island
Hawaii's Big Island will make a climatic dilettante feel like a kid in a candy store. There are, within a short radius of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park's main visitor center, an improbable variety of climes: cracked, barren lava flows, buffeted by blisteringly hot winds that feel like the breath of Hell; damp, humid rainforest rich with unique bird, plant, and insect life; expansive, cool plateaus a mile above sea level; and frigid, weatherbeaten alpine summits. In Mauna Loa, the Big Island has the world's most massive volcano; in Kilauea, the world's most active volcano. Parts of both are within the confines of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which protects relatively intact remnants of the Hawaiian Islands' uniquely rich and varied ecosystems.

Kilauea, the residence of the fire goddess Pele in Hawaiian myth, has erupted nearly continuously for hundreds of years; you can watch the spectacularly violent confluence of molten lava and the Pacific from lookouts at the end of the Chain of Craters drive, or meander along the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive, where the land is slightly more settled but still raw. The climb to its 13,677-foot summit is a doable but demanding expedition for a fit, experienced backpacker; trailhead is at 6,662 feet, vegetation and cover peter out at about 7,500 feet, and the higher reaches of the mountain are subject to the same sort of erratic, violent weather conditions (including snow at any time of year) found at altitude everywhere.—Ian Wilker

Chimborazo, Ecuador
Thanks to earth's equatorial bulge, Ecuador's extinct volcano, Chimborazo, is the highest peak from the center of the earth. And at 6,310 meters right on the equator, its temperatures are a natural Jekyll and Hyde. The warm equatorial sun will blanket your body in moderate temperatures at base camp but as you make tracks up the glacier you will become victim to freezing temperatures and lots of snow. The climb via the normal route has changed in the last few years. The route is accessed via the Thielman Glacier where you start off steep, traversing toward a prominent strip of rock known as El Castillo. Despite the fact that you are on ice and the risk of avalanche is imminent, your body will feel like it just got out of the sauna thanks to the sweat from all the exertion and adrenaline pumping through your body. From avalanche crashes overheard and the threat of unpredictable blizzards to the strong glacier-melting sun causing shifting and more dangerous crevasses, the mountain's many moods and temperatures are something to be reckoned with. The lodges along the climbing route serve up piping hot cups of cocoa, coffee and tea to get any frosty body feeling toasty again. Although you can climb Chimborazo year-round, July and August bring the best, most predictable weather.—Michelle Fama

Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
From the lunar-looking landscape of the "saddle" to the bizarre flora affectionately called "Flintstone Q-Tips," from Zebra Rock to the universal trekker greeting on the way—"Did you make it?"—Kilimanjaro or Kili offers one of the most diverse treks of the seven summits. Follow the pole pole mantra (little by little in Kiswahili) and you'll most certainly experience the climatic diversity as well.

You begin the ascent in the warm dry plains, ascending slowly to the wide belt of wet tropical forest where temperatures of 85 degrees will have you shedding layers. Not long after, however, you'll be wishing you had brought those toe warming pads you naively tossed away, thinking they had no place in the tropics of sub-Saharan Africa. Along with the engulfing mist that can cover you and your hiking party in no time come freezing temperatures and the threat of a blinding blizzard. It is a glacier after all! But rest easy, all you thin-blooded climbers. Once you summit you will descend at a rapid pace and feel the warmth of the rich sun more commonly associated with Africa.—Michelle Fama

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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