Last year, Sam Cossman quit his job working for a tech company in Silicon Valley. He decided life was too short not to pursue his passion for adventure. Now, the San Francisco resident makes a living as an explorer and filmmaker, known for venturing into inhospitable, uncharted territory. He’s been to the Marum Crater, an active volcano located in the Ring of Fire in the Vanuatu Archipelago in the South Pacific—twice. After his first trip there, he captured imagery inside the volcano, edited a short video on his 12-hour flight home, and uploaded it to YouTube. By the next morning, he had over a million views and a call from Good Morning America.
“I have always had a passion for exploration and it’s pretty much what I would save every dime to do, even when I had a normal job,” says Cossman. “I have long been on the lookout to merge my professional interests with my passion for exploration.”
Cossman returned to the Vanuatu volcano earlier this year with GoPro cameras, a drone camera pilot, and a scientist with the goal of capturing footage and data—essentially making a 3-D map of the inside of the crater—to advance our scientific understanding of volcanoes. We spoke to the 34-year-old about what drives him to the center of the Earth.
ON THE EDGE
“Here I’m standing at the shore of the lava lake—it required a 1,200-foot descent down to this point, a three-hour journey on a vertical cliff, says Cossman. “You’re standing there with this extreme apparel that protects you from the falling lava bombs and toxic gases. It’s a surreal place to be. My toes were hanging over the edge. That’s as close as you can get to the edge without falling in.”
Welcome to the crew’s base camp, an illuminated tent city perched near the edge of a 1,200-foot cliff. On their most recent expedition to Vanuatu, in January 2015, the crew spent three weeks camped in this inhospitable spot, with 60 mile-per-hour winds ripping through the tents and acid rain falling from the sky. “Depending on how much gas is coming out of the volcano, the sky just illuminates with this bright orange hue,” says Cossman. “It’s like what you’d imagine Mars to look like. It’s a very other-worldly place.”
ALL LIT UP
This is the crew’s descent into the volcano, a multi-hour journey through extremely dangerous conditions. “The journey is difficult. It takes tremendous effort to reach this geologic treasure,” says Cossman. “It’s close to nightfall when you finally start to ascend. You’re completely exhausted and by the time you get back to camp, you pretty much collapse. But your exhaustion is eclipsed by the incredibly rare opportunity to witness a force of nature so powerful and the knowledge that you’ve likely returned with information that may advance scientific understanding of volcanic process.”
OUT OF SIGHT
Climber and photographer Brad Ambrose sets a rope on the way into the volcano, silhouetted against the lava. “The lava lake is so dynamic,” says Cossman. “It gives you a sense of the amount of energy that’s constantly churning beneath the Earth’s surface. It’s really unique to see something that’s usually hidden from plain view.”
Drone pilot Simon Jardine, an internationally recognised pioneer in the drone industry, led the drone flights inside the volcano. The crew took the imagery captured by the drone and later turned it into a 3-D model that could be experienced via virtual reality. “This lets people digitally and virtually explore a place to which they would otherwise not have access,” says Cossman. “I’ve since led guided missions into this place using virtual reality. It’s a game-changing visceral educational and scientific tool.”
SUIT OF ARMOUR
The suit Cossman wears into the volcano is made from aluminized metal, built for firefighters and steel mill workers. Underneath the suit, he’s wearing a fire retardant layer. But even then, he says, “It’s still extremely hot.” As for what it’s like standing so close to churning lava? “It sounds like an ocean wave crashing. But it’s liquid rock. It’s an out-of-body experience, one that you can only stand for a couple of seconds,” says Cossman.
RING OF TECH
Dropping into a volcano, it turns out, is a gear-intensive task. Cossman wears a harness loaded with carabiners, ascenders, and other climbing gear. He wears a respirator and a radio and carries several cameras, including a GoPro and a Canon 5D Mark III. In this photo, he’s holding a tablet that’s connected via Bluetooth to a sensor device on his wrist. “People often ask, ‘Are you a filmmaker? Or an explorer?’” Cossman says. “The way I like to describe it is my first love is exploration, but my background is in technology. I’ve blended those worlds to leverage technology as a tool to drive exploration and innovation.”
THE WHOLE GOAL
The goal of Cossman’s volcanic expedition was more than just a grand adventure. “Our objective was more than that,” Cossman says. “The primary objective was to map the entire crater and take precise measurements of one of the rarest geologic formations on Earth so we could learn about how it formed and how it’s changing over time. Both of those things can advance our understanding of volcanoes and get us one step closer to more effectively predicting volcanic eruptions in the future.”
THE VIEW FROM HERE
Cossman knows that what he’s doing is dangerous. “There are so many things that can go wrong and have gone wrong,” he says. “But I’m drawn to the extreme places that few have gone to. I like to peel back the layers to see the world through an interesting and new lens. I never want to go to a place just to say I’ve been there. It’s always been with some kind of purpose, with the goal of driving some positive change, be it scientific or philanthropic.”
Next up for Cossman? He’s not sharing details yet, but he has ideas for ambitious projects that range from exploring deep oceans to outer space.