While staying in Antigua, one of my goals was to climb Volcan Acatenango. This is a dormant volcano adjacent to Volcan Fuego and one of the, if not the, most famous active volcanoes in Central America.
My friend Harriet, who was volunteering at the hostel had organized a tour with a local guide. Although it is possible to climb Acatenango on your own, it is not advised. It is easy to get lost, and there is also a chance of being robbed. Yes, Guatemala is a beautiful country, but it is also a dangerous country.
Thursday morning came and our shuttle picked us up at the hostel at 7:30am. From there we headed to the village about 5 miles from the trail-head of the volcano. We stopped at the base camp where we met other members of our tour group. This was a BIG tour group of 30 people, an unusual size but there were plenty of guides to support us. Those that needed sleeping bags and mats were outfitted, and the tents were already on the mountain. I had opted to bring my own tent to save 50Q, something I would slightly regret later. Part of the tour fee covered our lunch and dinner and I was already packed full when they handed me my lunch box.
(on the shuttle to base camp)
(Final prep before the hike)
We piled back into the vans and drove the 5 miles to the trail head entrance. This is just off the main road running though the region, and was a bit of a cluster getting organized. As soon as the van doors opened, local women were shoving walking sticks into our faces. For 5Q, you could rent a walking stick. This was something highly recommended from my friend Phil who had been up the volcano a few weeks before. Our final task before heading up the mountain was to pay the park entrance fee, and fill out a form.
(At the trail-head)
(Walking sticks in hand, ready to go)
Finally we were off and hiking. Everyone who I’ve met that has made the climb all returned with the same report. This is a hard climb. For me, as probably for everyone else, they underestimated the reality of how hard it was. We made our way up the steep trail. The first kilometer was a wake up call that this was going to be a long day with loose volcanic pebbles and steep grades. Steep enough that in some places, you could scrape your knees on the ground! The guides were constantly moving up and down the group making sure everyone was okay and able to make the climb.
(Up we go)
Every two to three kilometers, we would stop to take a break. For me, my motivation comes from motivating others. I kept to the back of the formation and encouraged those who were struggling to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When we reached a place to rest, I dropped my pack and went back down with with the guides to help others. Ironically, I was the oldest male in the group, but the only one to really help others. I guess this goes back to my training and embedded philosophy of leaving no one behind.
We continued to climb, and even though my pack was already heavy, somehow on the next few breaks I ended up with other peoples crap. Either because they packed so poorly, or because they were falling back so much that by the time they reached the group again, the break was over.
The further we climbed the more people were falling back from altitude sickness. In the end, our total climb would take us over 3600 meters. (12,000 feet) Clouds were rolling in, and bits of rain and hail started to fall. This is typical for the mountains here, and none of the guides seemed to be worried.
Starting our climb around 9 am, we finally completed it at 3:30 that afternoon. After about 9 kilometers, Volcan Fuego was now at a parallel view to our camp.
Exhausted and thirsty, I needed to setup my tent, but no sooner that we got there did an ominous black cloud come rolling on top of our camp. Harriet helped me set up the tent as small balls of hail started to accumulate on the ground with increasing volume. By the time we laid out the ground cloth it was completely covered in hail. Getting the tent up quickly was becoming critical. I only had moments to put on my rain gear before nature started to unleash it’s fury. Volcan Fuego, which was only 6 kilometers away, direct line, was no longer visible. The hail started falling harder and harder as we climbed into the tent. I felt like Indian Jones diving under a closing passageway.
(two hours after our arrival)
Lighting and thunder were at our door step, and the hail became stronger. My tent was giving all she had to keep us dry and safe. Pushing on the roof to relief the weight of the accumulating hail was necessary as I did not have time to properly guy out the tent lines. Harriet and I were in awe by the violence of the storm passing through. The only thing to take our minds off of what was happening was the tenacious gas that I was passing inside the tent. It hit Harriet like a Mike Tyson punch. She contemplated throwing herself down the mountain and risking her life in the elements rather than to succumb to another vicious flatus attack.
The storm finally passed, and movement slowly started to return around the camp. The tour organizer had written to us with a packing list. Thermal layers, winter hats, gloves, rain jacket and trousers, scarfs, etc. All these things, none of the guides had. They were wet, cold and slowly slipping into hypothermia. Our group gave them every stitch of extra clothing we had, but it wasn’t going to be enough. Looking onto the horizon, we could see the sky was clearing, and the temperatures were going to fall rapidly along with the waning daylight.
(What I came for, but never saw. PHOTO courtesy of Philip Berini, https://www.motophil.ch/
Two months prior six people had died climbing the same volcano that we on under less stressful conditions. This left the guides and some of the group feeling very worried. Although we had all the equipment to survive the night, it would most likely be just that, survive. Some of the members were becoming critical in their concerns to the point of panic. The guides were scrambling to make phone calls, but lacked the incentive to make a decision. I spoke to one of the group members who spoke good Spanish, and used him to communicate with the lead guide. I was now in full “get shit done” mode.
I discussed the situation with the guide leader, and explained to him how we had the equipment to survive the night. I also explained the option of hiking down the mountain in the dark on ice laden trails, and the risk involved. I had to push him to make a decision. As portions of the group were not accepting the fact that we could survive the night, I recommend that he make the decision to take us back down. But, it would have to be his decision. Minutes later the guide returned, and told us we were leaving. Again, I made my recommendations to leave all unnecessary items. Tents. Most of the food, and anything else not critical. Every other person would carry a sleeping bag, and anyone without a headlamp would pair up with someone who did.
Daylight was now a thing of the past as we lined up for movement down the volcano. Taking lead once again for the guide to follow, I suggested a head count before moving out. This would be repeated at every break. We trudged down the mountain carefully. The narrow winding path that we climbed up in day-light was unforgiving then, and certainly would not yield to us in the night. Step by step we moved, hour by hour. Slowly the snow-laden trail gave way to firmer, more level ground. The group was in high spirits considering the level of exhaustion we were all feeling. Some members were falling behind and needed to be handheld in order to maintain their footing. Three kilometers from the bottom we were received by the Guatemalan National Guard and other local guides. Seeing they lost six people only months before, they were not taking any more chances.
(Harriet in high spirits)
(Antigua in the distance)
Finally reaching the bottom,
safe, the level of relief and triumph was shared among the group. The awaiting vans took us back to the base camp where hot food and transportation back to the hostels were waiting. Because many members of the group did not have a bed waiting for them in their normal hostel, Harriet and I checked to see how many beds we had in ours. In the end we able to find everyone a bed for the night.
Those that joined us became a bit closer, sharing stories of our adventures.
Two days later I would be reunited with my tent. Even though I didn’t get to see or take photos of Fuego erupting in it’s glory, I got something much more. I continue to count the people I meet, not the kilometers I hike, or the volcanoes I see.