“It is said that in the volcano wanders Diego, a peasant with hat and machete, who, according to the villagers, is the guardian spirit of animals, and appears to people trying to hurt them.” (From a kiosk on the slopes of Acatenango)
Sometimes we get lost, forget the reasons why we do things. Sometimes we need a reminder, a whisper that points us toward our true nature.
While I might try to deceive myself that I wanted to climb Acatenango to check another mountain off my to-do list, or to enjoy the view of erupting Fuego Volcano nearby, I realized that it’s the joy of pitting myself against nature, the feel of my heart pounding in my chest and temples throbbing during the ascent, the acid building up in my tired legs, the heaving of my gasping lungs, the perspiration flowing from my body in sheets, feet struggling for purchase in dirt and rock, fingers grasping for a steadying handhold, the exhilaration of climbing above the clouds, and ultimately the thrill of reaching that single spot on the mountain where every next step begins the descent that really inspires me.
And I thank Acatenango Volcano for reminding me of it.
Most climbers of Acatenango travel with a tour company at a cost of 175 Quetzals (or USD $22), leaving the trailhead at 11:00 am to climb to an overnight tenting area on Acatenago’s south-west flank. From here, hikers can see nearby Fuego erupting in the night, which is the only time one can actually see the red of the lava flow. At 4:00 am, the hikers are awakened to climb the remaining 300 meters to the summit in time to watch the sun rise. Guatemalan tour companies love excursions that include the sunrise.
But my friend, Dave D., and I had a different plan. We decided we wanted to climb Acatenango during the daylight, up and down before 3:00 pm, before heading to the ocean at Monterrico to weekend with Dave’s Antiguan friends. Dave thought we could summit in four hours. I was secretly hoping for the fitness to do it in five.
So it was that we found ourselves at 7:00 am at the trailhead in the village of La Soledad, patiently waiting for the attendant to arrive so that we could pay our 50 Quetzals (USD $6.50) to enter the park. The attendant is late, explained one of the locals, who was also waiting. Perhaps he is still sleeping. He eluded that there had been a party the night before. So he ran down a watershed toward a group of houses and reappeared 45 minutes later with the attendant in tow, both gasping from the quick climb up the slope. Apologies made, we paid our fees, signed the log book, and started up the trail by 8:00 am.
What surprised me most is that neither the attendant nor any other official questioned us about our climb. No one asked any questions, nothing even as simple as, “Do you have water with you?” Now this absence of questions might not seem strange, except for one fact. Only 11 days prior to our climbing Acatenango, six people died from exposure on this volcano, four others were hospitalized, and I’ve heard that two of those who were hospitalized didn’t make it after all. On the day of the event, a cold front came in, dropping temperatures to -15 C, with winds powerful enough to tear pegged tents from the ground. Because of this, I expected further safety measures to be taken for climbers, at a minimum officials asking questions, perhaps even inspecting backpacks. But there was nothing. No extra safety measures were implemented.
My scrambling partner, Dave D. is an old high school friend. I hadn’t seen him for over 30 years before I came to Guatemala. We were competitive athletes when we were younger, he as a runner and me as a soccer player, and both of us have somewhat kept up our conditioning into our 50s. Truth be told, Dave is the better athlete. He has twice held the record for most distance on a treadmill in 24 hours. Most of us couldn’t even imagine running non-stop for 24 hours, let alone at the pace Dave maintained.
Our goal was simply to get to the top of Acatenango as quickly as we could, spend an hour or so on top, enjoy the views, and then descend quickly through volcanic ash to the trailhead.
I anticipated that Dave would set a blistering pace that would challenge me. And he didn’t disappoint. It’s a wonder I kept my breakfast down.
Acatenango is a volcano with two peaks. The northern summit, Yepocapa, stands at 3830 metres, and the southern and highest summit, Pico Mayer, stands at 3976 metres. Our original plan was to follow the tourist route, which curves around clockwise to the south-west, with full views of Fuego. Dave had climbed this volcano twice before and it was the only route he knew. But some local cooks, who were preparing their stoves for the noontime rush of tour participants, told us of a more direct route that led straight up the north-east slope toward the saddle between the two peaks. We were glad we took this route, because it helped us avoid the exhausting loose soil that was the bane of climbers on the tourist side.
During our climb, we passed through three distinct life zones – Oak Forest at the base of the volcano, up through the Cloud Forest, which has the greatest diversity of flora and fauna in the country, and into Pine and Subalpine Forests below tree line.
It was at about 3800 meters that I started feeling numbness in my thumbs and fingers. It wasn’t the cold, so I knew it had to be the altitude. My previous experience in climbing has shown me that if I am not acclimatized, I’ll feel the altitude at 3800 meters. Thus I found the last two-hundred meter ascent as exhausting as the previous 1,400 meters.
When we finally reached the summit, I checked my watch. 2 hours 30 minutes. Crazy pace. No wonder it felt like I was chewing on my lungs. I was exhausted, but very grateful to Dave for bringing out the best in me. I definitely would not have climbed this volcano as quickly alone, even had I been determined to do so. It took someone a little fitter than me to bring out my best.
We spent a half-hour on the summit, walking around the crater’s rim, taking pictures of erupting Fuego nearby, when I suddenly felt a pang of hunger. So with a growl in my stomach, I sat on the rim of the crater, looking down at the clouds below, and wolfed down a sandwich. Within seconds, I felt that familiar nausea that only altitude and bad food can create. It was time to descend.
I felt considerably better once we reduced our altitude by a few hundred meters. The sandwich still hung heavy in my stomach, but the dizziness and nauseousness had dissipated. Dave seemed to be in good spirits, but he was finding the stress on his knees bothersome. Climbing was easier for him than descending.
Soon, we reached the wonderful cooks who had provided us with the route advice. They were feeding about thirty people from two separate hiking groups. We chatted with a few hikers and then during the final third of the descent, we ran into some fellow travellers that I had met in San Pedro, on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
After a wonderful reunion, Dave and I ascended quickly through loose soil to the trailhead, headed back to his car, and drove to Monterrico before sunset.
Despite that my lungs nearly burst from my chest from exertion, it was a splendid climb up Acatenango, thanks to my buddy, Dave. And call me vindictive if you like, but I was secretly pleased that Dave’s legs were aching the next morning, while mine felt wonderful. Hehe.