With a week’s worth of rest and relaxation under our loosened belts, the physical and emotional reserves were as stockpiled as they were ever going be for the two-day volcano trek. Having recently scaled Cerro Negro for an hour, a modest volcano in Nicaragua; climbed Tongariro for two hours in New Zealand six years back and motorcycled up another one in Chile—you could argue that we were anything but prepared to get our ‘volcano’ on…
Dormant but not quite as far-reaching next to the fury of Fuego, Acatenango had been staring down at us in Antigua for some time. And taking the full measure of our resolve; whether we’d tackle her ‘boot’ on or wuss out and pootle up volcano Pacaya instead—the two-hour elementary ramble nearby. While we procrastinated about the decision; umming at the seven hours of tramping up steep switchbacks and arrhing at the prospect of plodding 9 kilometres back down, the rumours of lava continued to grow. The pressure started to build.
Biting the fiery bullet, the ascent started at 1,500 metres through flourishing farmland. In optimal walking weather, a merry band of 17, two Ox Expeditions leaders and a couple of porters with their packhorses trooped along in happy retinue. The birds erupted in chatter and fluttered about the whispering trees. Birdsong carried on the clear air; the land was coming alive ready to greet all that passed by. Farmland stretched into lush cloud forest where scrappy patches of outcropping rock dotted the volcano where the trees didn’t obscure them. Passing the stratovolcano’s first peak, Yepocapa, dense green eventually retreated and gave way to dry, dusty earth—the volcanic zone.
The steep stony climb made it a tough first day but we all reaped a tremendous sense of wellbeing atop of the world by late afternoon. Above the clouds, the soft rhythms of a happy-fatigued if not subdued camp soothed me. As did the ash billowing in plumes of pulverized rock, before expanding into dense mushroom clouds from Fuego—Acatenango’s simmering amiga—joined together to make the volcano complex known as La Horqueta. Fuego’s ash-coloured clouds meandered across and tarnished an amber sky. The fires of sunset reflected off the landscape in a play of colours; an iridescent mosaic of lavender, indigo and fallow gold. Although, the temperature dropped dramatically after sunset. The night had a bitter bite.
Forewarned, we all donned insulating layers and set ourselves to comfortable to see what the night might bring. Philip, one of the guides told us of a recent group that had scaled Acatenango to base camp—the location of where our bums were perched—and sent straight back down. Without a moment to spare, gather one’s wits or even stare. Unpredictably, Fuego had decided to erupt more than a little lava; she blew her top enraged in a white hot state—enough to affect the safety of everyone on Acatenango about two miles away. I tried not to underestimate any magma from within the Earth’s upper mantle potentially making its way to the surface, but prayed for the perfect quantity not preponderantly angry amounts.
Incredibly, good fortune had something different in store for us. Forming a ‘U’ shape curling around the campfire, flames clawed at the black belly of the night. Tongues of fire crackled around the stones as I watched the crowd, my new climbing comrades. Flames illuminated their faces as they sat chatting, hands clasped before them. Optimistic features puckered as they concentrated on the topic of conversation—lava. And then it happened. An explosive eruption of lava fountaining from Fuego—spitting out rocks and spilling lava flows, oozing over her vent. Flickers of firelight caught momentary glimpses of animated expressions. Black eyes sparkled, and wonderment could be seen in the set of mouths and eyebrows.
The molten hot display from Fuego became more striking as the night wore on; the pressure continued to build and the lava flows lit up the sky—elevating each upsurge to seem like the ‘Mother’ of all eruptions from the previous one. Through a hazy sky stuffed with clouds, a few stars dusted the heavens above the surrounding towns and cities, twinkling in the distance. While white flashes of lightning zigzagged across the ragged clouds, thunderous blasts stirred the ground and rolled off the forested volcanoes—I don’t think it could’ve got much better.
The leaders started stirring camp at 3.30am for the summit climb. Having slept soundly as a corpse in a coffin until that point, I awoke our tent of four and started singing a quiet rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jason. “Relaax, it’s practically downhill from this point, Jase. Not that I’m saying you’ve ‘peaked’ in anyway…Happy Birthday hun, lava you!” “Cheers Lisa,” was the sleep-deprived response I got. Sorry sweetie, a handmade card and a chocolate biscuit is as good as it gets this year!
In pitch black, I braced my shoulders against the bitter cold. Bizarrely, I was feeling fit and doggedly determined post a five-hour slumber after the heavyweight hike. Jason and some others turned around early on, wise old wizards. Admittedly, visibility was limited to one’s head torch beam, a misty rain drizzled from a tormented sky and morale plummeted from the outset. So be it, that left an intimate group of four and Miguel, the other leader. Like the altitude, my spirits were high; may be I was delirious from the altitude.
A shame that the rain showed no signs of abating, or even relenting long enough to allow me a quick gauge of our progress. It was a case of ‘head down’ and staying huddled in on oneself, vaguely discerning the steep, stern face of Acatenango. Implausibly, I started enjoying the hardest part; not skidding or sliding, I pushed my toes firmly into the volcanic scree with a hungry gusto. I wanted this badly, and couldn’t for the life of me work out why.
Jason had summited Mount Kinabalu at 4,095 metres seven years earlier. I was forced to turn around from sickness and diarrhea at 4,000 metres so probably a part of me still had something left to prove. It was sawing at my soul, whatever it was. For goodness sake, you’re supposed to have dispensed with all those ridiculous antics by the end of your twenties, not still harbouring some God forsaken mission to attest one’s stamina. Perhaps there was too much pride tied up in the bee of my bonnet.
A demanding climb to the crater took us to just shy of 4,000 metres. Outrageously cold, my fingers gave out an agonising pain. The wind had picked up, lashing us in an absolute hooley. Raging rain in a gusting gale blew us around like dandelion seeds. We were forced to stay pinned to the edges of the crater, rather than reach the summit. Neither forgiveness nor understanding plays any part in volcano culture.
Fuego wasn’t the only one capable of spewing spectacularly. Although I’d managed to get to the top without my body unravelling with altitude sickness, I did leave a thank you gift and emptied my insides. I replenished the lost fluid and kept on pushing. Perhaps I turned a paler shade of white because Miguel took the back of his hand and commenced a regular check-up of my cheek’s temperature. It had been dropping as I’d been ascending. Mayhaps it was time to make a quick exit and lose some height.
Cold, so cold. The cold probed my clothing with such icy fingers, my shoulders couldn’t help shivering. “Miguel,” I said, trying for all the world to sound calm. “I’m c-o-l-d.” My throat worked in a way like I was having trouble finding either words or saliva. The cold leached into my soul, I started shivering so violently that my teeth clattered like gourd rattles. Without hesitating, he unzipped and layered me up in his heavy-duty jacket. He also offered his thick gloves over those I was wearing but my hands might have been made of wood, and just as clumsy. He eased the gloves on and ensured a proper fit for each useless finger. I’d donned plenty of thin layers and a waterproof jacket but was wearing a sodden pair of denim jeans. Damn that time I ditched my waterproof trousers to shed weight and create pannier space! Less is not always more.
Ditching his clothing to protect me from the exposure and the onset of hypothermia, I gave Miguel a sober appraisal. I’ve always wondered if a man’s face mirrors his soul. If so, Miguel’s soul was strong, gentle and heart-warmingly considerate. I’d found only compassion and thoughtfulness in his words and actions. I tried to stay focused by paying attention to Miguel walking in front of me, no move wasted. Everything about him bespoke control and grace.
Thrilled at having ‘earned it’ to the crater with two guys and a Scottish lassie—Melanie, we shared in a mind-numbing moment of pure elation. Despite it persisting it doon. And for the second time in my life, I was able to ascertain clear parameters around my limits at 4,000 metres. No drama, no pounding headaches, just violent shivering and vomiting.
Overhead the sky painstakingly faded from pitch black and transitioned into the full spectrum of grey. Howling wind continued to snap around us, vying for my attention as much as the attacks of driving rain. I spun on an unwieldy heel and staggered off erringly for the ride back to base. Stay there and heave, or ‘Get doon!’ and feel human once more. It was a no brainer to ski and carve one’s way down on my heels back to base camp. Too loose to do anything else, and the quickest way back to feeling a semblance of me again.
Recovering relatively quickly from a stomach-churning nausea, I scrambled on foot and buttocks to the group, all clustered around a blazing campfire. Jason met me on the outskirts of camp with a grave look of concern plastered over his face, “You look grey, Lisa. You alright?” I took a breath, held it for a moment to swallow back the tears, then let it out filled with words. Shuddering with a bone-deep cold, I spoke as though my mouth wouldn’t work quite right. “No. That was horrific. Barely saw anything but we looked inside the crater briefly. I’m freezing cold and wet.” Another lesson learned, Lisa.
Smoke and whirling sparks clouded my vision. I slowly warmed the cockles by drying off around a cosy fire, which left big red blotches on the top of my thighs. I put up my arm to ward away the heat and coughed in the smoky air, my watering eyes narrowed to slits. I was too cold to the core to care. Emptying my boots of sand, rocks and stones, I focused on pushing food into my face. Sustenance would help my body heat itself so I gorged on a giant jam sandwich until my stomach cramped.
Adios Acatenango, time to end our Fandango. Two thirds of the way down, Jason and I started suffering. A two-day build up of lactic acid began to take its toll on our endurance and we each started hobbling in a precarious fashion. The muscles in my legs twitched like termites in a half-eaten log. In an exhausted and spent state, the trail down felt treacherous, the terrain not icy but slippery all the same. Every limping step took concentration as we descended into the thickening forest. It was eerily quiet, pockets of people stayed in their ‘no go’ zone. The only sounds I could hear were the crunch of steps and laboured breathing.
My motor skills had as much traction on my limbs as a duck landing on a frozen pond. Arms flailing wildly in vain in the hopes of somehow maintaining balance, I found myself occasionally staggering towards a tree, eager to embrace me. Clearly under-acclimatised to that sheer distance up never-ending inclines at serious levels of altitude. I was anything but a mountain goat on the way down.
Like an ancient bag of bones, I trudged sluggishly beneath slate skies over loose pewter sand. I took umbrage with the fact that my fitness level was outweighing my stamina. Breathing loudly through my mouth, I struggled to regain any self-discipline. Now dormant, the land was profoundly scarred; this thing might not blow its top but I might and I began to rue the impulse of the whole trip.
Relying heavily on our walking sticks as brakes, they partially impeded the skidding if not the sliding. I rehitched my backpack and gave the low, dark clouds an inspection filled with misery. In no direction could I see the incipient shine of clearing skies, only the constant threat of more rain as we inched towards the bottom. Acatenango was taking no prisoners so we paused to take stock, before my wits completely fled. Eventually back in Antigua, we shared stories over lunch having experienced as a unit what it was like to love and loathe the experience.
Volcanoes such as Acatenango have a feel of age, of old power lying in wait. Something quite mysteriously arcane lies within but beware of the trade. If you want it, it’s yours. It doesn’t come free, of course. At times, it could be lonely. You may spend hours wet, hungry, with your muscles aching and body disturbingly chilly—nothing burns like the cold. You may fight a constant battle against dehydration and entertain anxiety for just a second, goodness knows what else you could will on.
But then there are those wondrous moments—like the lure of a sunset on the summit of Fuego, beneath the sky that lights up in every colour. Where the city-lit scapes sparkle below you and stars glitter the heavens above you. Or others that gift you with Fuego exploding in the most intense nighttime display of lava, savagely spewing from the planet’s core. At those moments bestowed on you, you can feel the very heartbeat of Pacha Mama, Mother Earth.
For an eternal instant, my eyes saw the world through heartrending beauty, an awe that will forever smolder within the soul. Was it worth it? Hell yes. It’s worth every moment of discomfort.