Friday, August 25, 2006

Why go to Medical School: La Soufriere

I am five years old and running, my arms out by my sides like a banking airplane, around the lip of La Soufriere, St. Vincent's volcano. We're 3,800 ft above sea level and too close to the edge. I have to throw three stones before one goes far enough to hit the bottom of the crater. 10 seconds. That's how long you'd fall and tumble it you made a wrong move. It's easier than you'd think since I'm inside a cloud right now and can't see in any direction.

I wanted to be first. The hike is in three stages with 40ft bamboo reeds bending overhead and hundred-foot drops on either side. We walk into and out of clouds, past rivers of bubble-rock from the previous lava flows, and up loose stones and ash as the summit comes in sight and the pitch increases. We've kept together for the most part, but with the end so close it's each man to his ability. I'm in the middle of the pack and decide to start running. My legs are burning and I'm blowing off huge volumes of CO2. I know I'm among my people when Alexander asks, "Where'd you get the extra ATP?" I start using my hands; it's that steep. I've passed 60 yards at 20 degrees and have the lead by a yard or two. No one else wants to pass me as much as I want to be in front, so it's just a matter of pacing now. But screw it: I start to run again. My legs are shaking and burning and I would feel miserable if it didn't feel great. I summit and it's flat and I start sprinting to the lip.

As a kid I remember being awed by heights. Standing at an edge where a fall meant death, I would let me toes hang over just to know that I could. I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn't afraid. Still am. I sat on the lip with my bag and swung my legs over to lean forward and look straight down. It's never stopped being exhilirating.

Over the lip you can see a massive mound in the crater. It looks like someone tried to plug the volcano. 20 years ago, it wasn't there, but the constant pressure of gas underneath has caused it to bubble out and displace the lake that used to be. Along the side, even 100 meters up, you can smell the sulfur and feel the heat from the center. I'm told that there's a rope that leads down from the lip. I'm too tired today, but next week I'll give it a try.

I am so glad that I go to school in the Caribbean.


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