On our rafting trip's final layover, day 15, a few of us had already decided on hiking up to the rim and then to Vulcan’s Throne. In fact, our whole schedule revolved around our layovers corresponding with great hikes as described in 100 Day Hikes From the River, by Tom Martin. Our arrival to Lava Falls Rapid was quite a moment. Past Vulcan’s anvil (lava pinnacle on the USGS maps), a basalt block jutting from the river, we followed a straight run and could hear the whitewater roar. It took a while until we rounded the point and "saw" the rapid. The mist above the foaming hole was barely visible in the distance, over the horizon line: It is a 15' drop on a 100m run and an overall drop of maybe 30' to the camp below the second minor rapid. The flotilla moored on river right and we followed the trails to scout the rapid.
Even if Lava Falls looks daunting, the safe line on the right was easy to grab, the only real obstacle being the basaltic Cheese Grater rock at bottom right. I was in the first boat down and after Arron caught the eddy behind Cheese Grater rock to hold security for the rest of the group, he dropped me off on the shore and I ran upstream to overlook the rapid where I took position to film the small boats' runs. Two kayakers, Phil and Max, got a bouncy ride through the wave train. Laurent and François, on their small Shredder cataraft, weren’t as lucky and even though they lined up right in the middle of the downstream V, they got slammed hard by a lateral, ejecting them in the drink. I had a first row seat to that epic swim. Check it all happen in the video to the right!
After that action, we got past Lower Lava Rapid and beached the boats on river right, at Below Lower Lava Camp. We would spend two days there, which was a good idea; the built up pressure of the most anticipated rapid on the river released in the trip's biggest party that night. The next morning, Jean-Daniel, Laurent, Éric, and I woke up with difficulty, slightly hungover, around 07:30 and prepared for our hike. We went to check out François’ tent but he was still sound asleep.
Setting off upstream, we followed a herd path on the sand bar before heading into the basaltic boulder field along Lava Falls rapid. We went all the way past where we had landed for our scout the day before. In the area where the trail was supposed to start, it was difficult to find cairns or a herd path. As we blindly climbed through the boulders and finally found what looked like a trail, we heard shouts from below. Another group was headed for the rapid and we watched them go past.
From there, we followed a faint trail and hard to spot cairns up the very steep scree slope. The footing was terrible and we looked for bigger rocks as often as we could. The sun was already over the rim behind us and the temperature was rising quickly. Éric was a bit slower and it paced us at a reasonable speed. We went across a rocky spine and above that emerged on a wide and regular scree field. The slope was upwards of 30° and this field seemed to go on for quite some time. It was a miserable slog, releasing rocks downhill constantly even while being extra careful.
Not far ahead, the trail crested into a gully where we took a much needed break in the shadows. We weren’t sure where we were headed from that point on. The walls of that gully were quite high and mostly vertical. We followed the cairns and found out the trick. The trail went all the way into the gully and then climbed along its opposite edge where, after going across a narrow ledge with overhanging walls, we faced a simple but exposed class 3 move up a 10 to 12 feet wall. Past this obstacle, the trail resumed its gradual climb through a seemingly endless scree field.
I was definitely cooking now, which was surprising for late november. I would never have guessed the desert was this hot even in the winter. This went on for ages until I could see the rim on my right. We were definitely not far below. It took a little while more but we climbed up a last steeper gully and then reached a signpost. It said the trail to the river started here and that it was extremely dangerous. It didn’t seem that way to me but I agree that for inexperienced hikers it would probably not be a good idea to venture down there.
We kept going until we reached a wide gully. We took a break in the shadow of a steep wall on our right before trying to find the trail up a talus of redwall scree. We basically went cross-country until we crested and saw the road ahead along with Vulcan’s Throne. There was no discernable trail so after heading east a bit, we aimed directly uphill. The entire mountain was composed of loose scree but the low shrubs made it somewhat stable.
On the way up we spotted a hare that scampered away, the only animal sighting of the day outside of birds. I was the first up on the summit ridge and admired the amazing view as I waited for the others. I eventually kept going along the eroded caldera towards the summit and reached it after a few minutes. While I waited for the group, I read and signed the summit register, took a few pictures, and got snacks out. Everybody was there a few minutes later, eating lunch.
We stayed maybe 15-20 minutes at the summit. The light wind made the temperature comfortable and cooling down felt so good. As we headed back to camp, we decided to cut in a more direct line to the road. Off the ridge, we skied in the scree and ran almost the whole way down. It was a fun leg before the real slog started. We found the trail through the redwall gully that we had missed on the ascent, much further west than we thought. It led to the signpost and past this point, we were back in the slippery oven.
There isn’t much to say about the descent. Downclimbing the class 3 move was interesting. I can see why someone going downhill would miss it or get intimidated by it. The trail abruptly ends at a vertical dropoff and you really need to lean over and to the right to even see the ledge below. It looks way gnarlier from above. It's still quite easy to downclimb when you've gone up before. Past this point it was only a matter of making it down without sending loose rocks on the guys below. When we came in view of Lava Falls Rapid, we saw Jan and Arron walking upstream on river left to run it in their kayaks.
We tried to get as close as we could to see them run it but I got lost and ended up scrambling on boulders directly above the river; I made it to the overhead rocks too late. From there we covered the last few hundred meters back to camp where we settled for a much needed rest after washing off in the river.
This climb would be a folly in the summer, but the views are really worth it. Although it is cairned, the trail is hard to follow in some spots; there are often multiple herd paths. Some creativity and steadfastness is required along with basic route-finding skills.